December 2012        


Stalin’s purges

Dear editor,
      Yuri Emelianov’s series on “Stalin’s purges” (Communist Review, nos. 63 and 64) was a welcome read. His attempt to bring to a non-Russian readership the results of new research is to be commended.
      The facts and figures given in the articles provide communists with the necessary material to substantiate an argument when confronted either by clear enemies of socialism or by ignorant fools parroting the Cold War narrative about the arrests and executions of the late 1930s. The reprisals of 1937 and 38 have for too long been used as a stick to metaphorically beat communists with by opponents of the progress made in Russia under the government of the USSR.
      At present, with capitalism in the biggest crisis since the Great Depression, there is naturally growth in interest among working people in alternative economic systems. People will turn inevitably to assess arguments for economic planning and democratic control of the means of production. There is an onus on socialists to arm themselves with articulate, assertive responses about any negative aspects of the greatest example of socialism that actually existed.
      One of the simplistic tirades levelled at socialists is about the “cult of personality.” Critics of Stalin fail—either deliberately or not—to take into account the sheer level of popularity the man had. In the Russian language the term for what is called negatively in English the “cult of personality” is “kul’t lichnosti.” This is more accurately translated as “cult of the great man.”
      In response to Khrushchev’s criticisms, a saying started in the USSR: “Byl kul’t, no byl i lichnost,” translating as “Yes, there was a cult—but there was also a great man.” Stalin was a great man; his efforts contributed to the great achievements made by the USSR.
      An attempt to reassert the democratic essence of the USSR was seen in the 1936 constitution, which provided economic rights not included in constitutions in the US or Britain. One of the characteristics of the “free world” was the (hard fought for) extension of the right to vote to all adult citizens. At this time no other state enshrined in its constitution the right to work. The 1936 constitution recognised collective social and economic rights, including the rights to rest and leisure, health protection, care in old age and sickness, housing, education, and cultural benefits. This constitution also provided for the direct election of all government bodies.
      Contrary to the Cold War version of Soviet history that portrayed the USSR as forcing people to abandon their religious beliefs, Article 124 of the 1936 constitution guaranteed freedom of religion. The inclusion of this right was opposed by large segments of the Communist Party. One result of this article was clergy in the Russian Orthodox Church petitioning to reopen closed churches, gain access to jobs that had been closed to them as religious figures, and even to run religious candidates in the 1937 elections to the Supreme Soviet.
      There was also an insistence by Stalin that many Soviet citizens who had been hitherto deprived of the franchise have it restored. These included class enemies like former landlords and kulaks, as well as belligerents from the Civil War.
      Gary Boyne

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