By Kimberly Miller
In understanding the 1930’s/40’s Soviet Union, it’s essential to historicize the political climate.
Firstly, let’s conceptualize rising fascism in Europe. In addition to Nazi Germany sadistically targeting Jewish people and many other vulnerable groups deemed ‘undesirable,’ for eradication, Nazis targeted political enemies such as communists. Due to anti-Semitism, communists were perceived as a collective Jewish political identity. So there was ethnic identities being targeted, political identities targeted, and politicized ethnic identities targeted.
The Nazis blamed communists for many societal problems in Germany and Slavs were also considered subhuman. This sets a framework for grasping the multilayered horrors of fascism.
The USSR had global liberation from capitalist imperialism of oppressed nations, and the future of socialism on the line. Moreover, this emphasizes the political (and human) betrayal that accompanied collaborationist Nazi sympathizers within socialist cadres. It had greater historical precedence than is often propagated of wartime USSR by Western historians.
Furthermore, Peter Whitewood critiques the ‘Great Man Theory’ of history often projected onto Stalin in ‘Red Army and the Great Terror’. When describing the oldest and most effective propaganda tool, White asserts that fixating on one individual can now obscure the complexities of a political movement to eventually discredit the entire enterprise. Today, many Marxists face this dilemma in defending historical socialism in praxis.
Great Terror Revisited
Ultimately, this piece seeks to contextualize some of Stalin’s persecution of opposition groups and purges of the Red Army. Opposition groups that were complicit in Nazi collaboration even agreed to cede Ukrainian territory to fascists, while White Army exiles who were not brought up through the party were particularly susceptible to subversion and sabotage.
Many deaths certainly occurred and innocent people were killed. That is an undeniable reality. However, anti-communist western historians routinely exaggerate deaths in scale and present Stalin as an irrational actor, a power hungry all-controlling tyrannical despot, as opposed to strategic, methodical, and operating under legitimate paranoia. The paranoia was that the Soviet Union faced imminent invasion and external sabotage. Given the USSR was invaded three years later by Nazi Germany, Stalin’s paranoia was not unfounded.
How Propaganda Works
Moreover, there are clear limitations to western interpreted (Soviet) Russian translations, which has led to misguided analysis. “Terror” and “spy” are two words in particular that have different contexts and correlations depending on the source. “Terror” has a specific meaning in the United States, one of usually individual actors committing violence for a political end, while “terror” in a Soviet context might mean actors who are part of greater networks of subversion. So western historians focus on individuals instead of the wider anti-Soviet geopolitical agenda at hand. Those nuances get dismissed as semantically trivial, but it is another way propaganda works to simplify and distort.
There were definitely structural level abuse, corruption, and pervasive opportunism in the party. However, when it comes to the USSR of the 1930’s/1940’s, a central question remains: Can you argue with results? Do the overreaches or abuses discredit world-changing levels of transformation?
Collectivism in Context
Additionally, it is myopic to frame USSR’s collectivism as a “failure” when the drive for rapid industrialization was out of practicality, not ideology. Despite what some think, kulaks were NOT an ethnicity, they were wealthy landowners who hoarded grain production during times of mass starvation. A lot of critiques against the USSR believe Russia pre-1917 was analogous to the roaring 1920s in the United States, and not violently feudalistic. So it is less about whether Stalin was “good” or morally infallible, but the improvement on a mass scale of living conditions after Soviet industrialization.
While “Stalinist” gets coined as a pejorative for ‘sate capitalist bureaucracy’ and ‘heavy handed authoritarianism,’ this is not a school of leftist thought. While Stalin is associated with a diversion of Marxist orthodoxy and mass repression, it is important to contextualize the material conditions and sociopolitical climate the Soviet Union found themselves in. While Stalin attempted to make early tactical military alliances with Britain and France, to quell the spread of Nazism, he was rebuffed. That’s right, socialism was perceived by the West as a greater obstacle than fascism, and socialism is the only force that can stop the rising neo-fascist movements of today.
Kimberly Miller is a Marxist-Leninist researcher studying black aesthetic consumer choices, and the impact on global political economy and geopolitics.
Whitewood Peter, The Red Army and the Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Soviet Military, University Press of Kansas, 2015.
Martens, Ledo, Another View of Stalin, EPO Publishing, 1996.
“Stalin planned to send a million troops to stop Hitler if Britain and France Agreed”