Seven books to understand what was the Terror in the Soviet Union

The USSR, although disappeared, continues, by the force of attraction which it represented, to impassion the historians as well as the novelists: seven recently published works come to confirm it.

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“Russia – Revolution and Civil War (1917-1921)”, bloody brought to heel

The former British officer, turned historian, Antony Beevor offers a breathtaking story Russian Revolutions and Civil War between 1917 and 1921, reminiscent of the genre of epic chronicles. For this opus devoted to Russia, he immersed himself in the archives (ex-Soviet, American, etc.) and offers an invigorating synthesis, analyzing with finesse the February revolution, while emphasizing that the exercise of power by Alexandre Kerensky was impossible.

Unsurprisingly, he shows that the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks is accompanied by the implementation of State Terror from the first months of the conquest of power, with the creation of a political police force: the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for the Suppression of Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (or Cheka), which later became the GPUthen the KBG.

According to an implacable logic, Lénine and its companions are persuaded to hold the truth and to promote the advent of a new company, and that all those which are opposed to it must be reduced to nothing. The Bolsheviks use the exactions of the white russians to establish their domination over the whole country and to explain that any force that opposes them joins them inexorably. The violence of the civil war took on protean contours.

Following historian Brendan McGeever, he also recalls that detachments of the Red Army have also committed pogroms, the regime exploiting those of the Ukrainian nationalists and the white armies. Antony Beevor also examines without concession, but with a certain empathy, the role of la Makhnovtchinathe Ukrainian libertarians, recalling, like Alexander Berkman (The Bolshevik Myth), that she saved the Bolshevik power.

Finally, he turns to the conclusion of the Kronstadt uprising in February 1921 and on the attitude of power. The repression of the sailors was the latest rein in of the forces that rejected dictatorship, but it was also part of a wave of bloodshed punishment for any form of insubordination. In Moscow, for example, martial law was introduced on February 23 to prevent any strike action. And in July 1921, Tambov insurgents are assassinated with a lot of asphyxiating gas. These events reflect the will of a government whose objectives were to bring society into line.

“The Moscow Trials”, real death sentences, imaginary crimes

The same desire for influence is found when reading the work of historian Nicolas Werth The Moscow Trialsreissue of a book published more than thirty years ago, before theopening of archives of soviet times. It measures the distance traveled by the search.

During the three major trials held between 1936 and 1938, the people on trial – from the Bolshevik old guard – voluntarily accused of crimes they did not commit. They were sentenced, for almost all of them, to the death penalty for “plotting against the Soviet Union”. The accusers were supported by part of the world press and by the international communist movement, but also by personalities who, however, defended human rights, such as Victor Basch, co-founder and then president of the League for Human Rights.

What Nicolas Werth also emphasizes in the introduction, the conclusion and the appendices are the perks and the mass terror that fell on the Soviet population. In effect, the Yehovshchina has resulted the death of approximately 750,000 Soviet citizens and the condemnation to deportation of 750,000 others. He also recalls that most of the defendants considered, like Nikolai Bukharinthat it was preferable, in order to save communism, to accuse each other of crimes which they had not committed.

“The Last Days of Stalin”, the mechanisms of a purge

On March 5, 1953, Stalin died., resulting in a war for the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The book Stalin’s Last Daystranslated into French for the anniversary of his death, takes up the major stages preceding his death, synthesizing the main achievements of the historiography in which the author, Joshua Rubenstein, himself participated by publishing, in English and in Russian, collections of documents on Stalinist anti-Semitism in recent years.

He dissects the mechanisms of the purge which sought to oust Viatcheslav Molotovthe dictator’s former right-hand man, which was accompanied by the “anti-cosmopolitan” campaign targeting the Jews between 1948 and 1953. Joshua Rubenstein does not forget to link this case to other trials which had the same connotation in the communist world, such as those of Ana Pauker in Romania or of Rudolf Slánský in Prague. These elements led to the so-called “white coats” conspiracy invented from scratch by power. Unlike former members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee who were executedthe doctors accused of poisoning Stalin were saved by the death of the dictator.

Once the shock of his death passed, the war of succession raged in the Kremlin, before Lavrenty Beria takes command. Paradoxically, the reforming zeal of the former Chekist led to his downfall, while his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, pushed through other reforms with and XXe Congress, while being careful not to reveal its own responsibilities in the communist totalitarian system. A useful synthesis, if not innovative.

“The Revolt”, the life of Sergei Solovyov in the camps

The work of Nikolai Kononov, The revoltlooks back on a little-known episode: the uprising of several camps in the Gulag archipelago the day after Stalin’s death in 1953. Few traces of the revolts in the Soviet concentration camps existed before the fall of the USSR – Joseph Scholmer’s book on the Vorkuta strikes published in 1954 is one of them.

The story of Nikolai Kononov teaches us today that other revolts have existed. To write his book, he relied on the testimony and archives of Sergueï Soloviev. Coming from a family of peasants, the latter was born in 1916 and died in 2009. His father, accused of being a counter-revolutionary, was arrested in 1936: his diary recounts the long hours of waiting in front of the headquarters of the local political police to try to find out about him.

The repression organized by the regime shows that if the latter wavered slightly, it never bent.

A topographer in training, he joined the Vlasov armymilitary training of Russian volunteers armed by the Wehrmacht during the Second World War, during the invasion of the USSR by German troops in 1941. First of all Germany’s ally in its war against Poland, the Soviet Union finally turned against her. After the war, Sergei Soloviev managed to leave Russia to take refuge in Belgium, before homesickness pushed him to return to the USSR. He was arrested there and sentenced to ten years of forced labor.

For several decades after his liberation from the camps (Nazi concentration, then from the Gulag), he remained silent about his activity in the concentration camp world, writing notebooks kept in secret. He details the activity of the Democratic Party of Russia to bring together the opponents and organize the revolt in the camps. The repression organized by the regime shows that if the latter wavered slightly, it never bent, maintaining a leaden screed over society.

The revolt

Nikolai Kononov

Black on white

400 pages

24,50 euros

Released March 2, 2023

“The Last of the Soviets”, “Journal of Moldova”, this past that haunts the countries of the former USSR

The Point reporter Marc Nexon proposes, in The Last of the Soviets, a reflection on post-Sovietism nourished by his many trips to Russia. In an isolated area at the bottom of the country, he meets a man, Sergei, who continues his work as in the days of the USSR in a deserted airfield, lost in the depths of Siberia. Arrived in the region in the 1950s, he has not left it.

The atmosphere, like the equipment, does not seem to have changed since the end of the 1950s. He works there surrounded by his friends and his companion, until the day when a plane involuntarily flies over the area and lands there. The author uses this fiction to confront Russian reality with the Soviet past.

This is also the impression that partially emerges from the diary of Marc Crépon, written in two stages. The first part is written at the end of the 1980s, while he is cooperating in the Republic of Moldova. He talks about the generalized surveillance system, the control of the population through fear and Terror, but also about the human warmth that emanated from this society under the yoke.

Thirty-five years later, he returned to the country and took over a newspaper, much more briefly. Things have changed, however the fear of war and the threat of annexation by Russia is implanted in minds and haunts souls, like a strange fear of the return of the Soviet past. An exciting newspaper made of daily impressions.

“Shalamov’s Tears”, the strength of camp literature

In Shalamov’s Tears, the writer Gisèle Bienne looks back on her commitment as a high school student and on her father’s belief in the Soviet regime. The myth is shattered during a stay in the USSR of the young woman in 1978. This is the year of her discovery of Soviet concentration camp literature, in which Varlam Chalamov plays a central role. It offers a rereading of his biography and his itinerary to understand the Soviet drama.

The writer born in 1907, son of a pope, joined the Russian revolution, moved closer to the leftist opposition and was first interned in 1929. Released three years later, he was again arrested and tried in 1937 for the great terror. He was sentenced to twenty years of forced labor. Rehabilitated in 1956, he then began Stories from Kolyma.

The author proposes a re-reading of this major work which she crosses with other accounts of deportation –Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Margarete Buber-Neumann, Ossip Mandelstam, etc.–, to question the nature of the regime, the condition of Zech, the nature of the camp. His book is an invitation to (re)read Varlam Chalamov to better understand the nature of the diet.

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