The Great Terror’s long shadow

Magadan monument.jpg

During the perestroika years there was much talk in Russia of the need for an act of repentance to assist people to come to terms with the Stalinist purges of 1936-7 and the ensuing years. There was no such act and a recent poll has revealed shifting perceptions of that period. But the victims are as much those left behind, marked for ever, as those who lost their lives, says Alexei Levinson

Alexei Levinson
13 June 2011

One of the most traumatic episodes in the history of the Soviet Union and Russia goes under the name ‘1937’. Historians are still unclear whether the purges of that year were the most wide-ranging or horrific in the story of the USSR, but for various reasons ‘37’ has for many Russians become the symbol of all political repression. More than half of all Russians (52%) believe that, of all the countries where the 20th century was marked by mass repression, the Soviet Union under Stalin produced the largest number of victims in terms of percentage of population, and that of all the catastrophes of that era it was the wave of repression at the end of the 1930s that cost the most lives. These figures come out of a poll first carried out in 2007, eighty years after the events of 1937-38, and repeated this year.


In 1991 "The Mask of Sorrow" was built on a hill in Magadan in tribute to those who perished in the camps of Kolyma during the years of terror.

This research, however, found that Russians were, and still are, far from unanimous about the events of those fateful years. In 2007, 9% of the population considered the purges of 1937 a ‘historically justified’ ’political necessity’, and in 2011 this number rose to 11%. Who are these Russians of today? Are they perhaps ignorant old people whose minds are befogged by Stalinist propaganda? Not in the least. Only 9% of pensioners took the line of historical justification, as opposed to 15% of people of working age. Most of these were not the barely literate poor, but members of the best-educated and affluent sectors of the population. And the highest proportion (23%) was recorded among students, the country’s future elite. We shall try to explain this phenomenon, although it is of course important to stress that we are talking about a minority in each population group. Another (17%) could not or would not either approve of or condemn the repressions, and were recorded as ‘don’t knows’. This category includes a quarter of young adults and almost a third of certain population groups, such as housewives and members of the armed forces. 

Condemnation of the purges

So much for the minorities. The majority hold a different view. The belief that the repressions of the end of the 1930s in the Soviet Union were ‘a political crime without any justification’ dominated in all groups polled, accounting on average for almost 70% of responses. Among those who exercise authority by virtue of their position, such as senior managers, 78% saw the purges as a political crime, and among those whose authority stems from age or education the figure was 73-74%.

“The absence of an historically and ethically based approach to this area in the appropriate circles - among historians, scholars, people active in culture and the arts, even politicians, in other words today’s elite - leaves society as a whole in a state of uncertainty about its attitude to its past.”

In other words, the prevailing, default position is an unambiguous condemnation of the purges. But there are elements of society who would like to deny the historical responsibility implied by this attitude to the past. This can be seen from the fact that the proportion of respondents categorically condemning the purges fell from 74% in the oldest population group to 69% in the youngest. This is only partially explicable by difference in historical distance from these events. It is less a question of the historical distance from the events themselves, than from the period when condemnation of Stalinist terror was official government policy. More recent years have seen a retreat from this policy, under the heading of ‘no more guilt about the past‘, a change reinforced by the education system and the mass media. Among older people, the generation whose youth coincided with the Khrushchev thaw and their adulthood with Gorbachev’s ‘glasnost’, 29% are recorded as ‘having detailed knowledge about the repressions’ and 50% as ‘having some general knowledge’ – a total of more than three quarters. In later generations this figure falls to two thirds. And of the youngest group, the children of Putin’s Russia, less than 4% have ‘detailed knowledge about the repressions’, and less than 30% ‘some general knowledge’ – in total, less than one third. And this is despite almost universal internet access among this group, which should theoretically allow them to know as much about the events of the 30s as their fathers and grandfathers. But today’s young people are less and less inclined to bother. It’s not their style. The absence of an historically and ethically based approach to this area in the appropriate circles - among historians, scholars, people active in culture and the arts, even politicians, in other words today’s elite - leaves society as a whole in a state of uncertainty about its attitude to its past.

It is acknowledged that during the 1930s the state submitted its own citizens to a reign of terror, and in general this is recognised as a crime. Not many would wish to deny the facts. What is more widespread, as we shall see, is an unwillingness to talk about it, to spoil the mood. Among poorer sections of the community, only 10% consider the repressions justified; 74% regard them as ‘a political crime without any justification’. But with increasing income, this proportion shifts: 16% of the wealthiest members of the population are prepared to justify the purges, and 66% regard them as a crime. Estimates of the number of victims of Stalin’s terror follow a similar pattern. Researchers gave respondents a choice of answers from ‘hundreds’ to ‘tens of millions’. Everyone in Russia concurs that this was ‘mass repression’, but the size of the masses affected by it appeared to be a question of opinion rather than knowledge. In the glasnost’ years there was a cliché: ‘millions of victims’. So it is no surprise that 46% of respondents answered ‘more than one million’ and 39%, ‘less than one million’.  But the cliché had the strongest effect on older population groups. Among younger people, including students, and also among the affluent and people in senior positions, a majority believed there had been less than one million victims. The elites of today and tomorrow prefer a more positive past, in respect of both the country as a whole and their own family.

"It is no surprise that about a quarter of all Russians (16% of young people, twice as many among pensioners) believe that a similar wave of repressions could happen again."

About 28% of the Russian population as a whole declared that there are/were ‘people who suffered from Stalin’s repressions’ among their family members, but among young people the figure is four times lower than in the oldest population group. This could of course be put down to ‘natural loss of memory’.  But this explanation is undermined by the fact that only 14% of the most affluent stated that someone in their family had suffered, as opposed to 37% of the poor. One could work from the hypothesis that the purges of the 30s, by impoverishing many formerly prosperous families, had a negative effect that can be seen to this day. But this hypothesis would require more data if it were to be proved or disproved. 

Terror as a means of intimidation

The question of Stalin’s repressions in terms of not only national but also family history brings us to the subject of terror. The events of 1937-38 in the USSR are also known as the Great Terror. It is important to distinguish between these terms. When we talk about repression we have in mind measures taken by a regime against individuals or groups of individuals who are considered enemies or opponents of that regime; that is the reason for their repression. Whereas the targets, and therefore chief victims of terror, are not those who lose their lives to it, but those who remain alive. The word ‘Terror’ implies ‘horror’, ‘dread’, ‘intimidation’. The repression of individuals or groups was not an end, but a means to an end – a dire warning to those who were ‘not touched’, i.e. everyone else. It was the population as a whole that was, as it were, the target group for those who instigated the terror and carried it out. In theory it did not matter whether those who perished were enemies or not. That is what Russians were acknowledging when the most frequent answer to the survey question ‘Who were the main casualties of the repressions?’ was, ‘Everyone,  indiscriminately ‘. And what this means is that the effects of the state of dread induced then by the mass arrests and executions of those years have not worn off even today. It is no surprise that about a quarter of all Russians (16% of young people, twice as many among pensioners) believe that a similar wave of repressions could happen again.


The older generation — more likely to condemn the Great Terror — lived through both the Khrushchev thaw and Gorbachev's "glasnost”

One of the consequences of terror as a means of intimidation was that people tried to hide the fact that someone in their family had been executed or imprisoned. This was partly due to a very rational fear that they might meet the same fate, but underneath this lay the deeper fear that they would encounter discrimination in education and employment and be shunned by the people around them. There was also an irrational but understandable feeling that it was better not to talk, or perhaps even think ‘about that’.

We can find traces of this mindset in the responses of people belonging to the lower echelons of the elite. This group produced the lowest number of respondents claiming that their families were unaffected by the repressions (40% against an average of 54% across all groups), and 31% had memories of tragedies affecting members of their family (against an average of 28%). But the largest divergences from the norm were in the number of respondents who ‘didn’t know’ whether members of their families had been victims of repression: 28% in the case of people in senior positions against an average of 18%. Representatives of today’s Russian elite, in so far as they are reflected in our poll, are the most likely to believe that it was people like them who were the chief objects of repression in the Soviet period: the proposition that ‘the most able and reputable members of society’ were the most frequent victims drew approval from 34% of the most affluent and 27% of people in senior positions, but from only 20% of ordinary workers. Among the elite there is slightly lower than average (52%) confidence that such events will not reoccur in the foreseeable future, as well as a significantly higher proportion of ‘don’t knows’ (29% against 18% across all groups).

Shadow of the past

Very few survivors of the 1937 purges are still alive today. But many of our contemporaries could be considered victims of this terror that is still casting its long shadow over our country. What can be done about it?  A majority of the population (53%) believe that all archive materials relating to the subject should be made public, but only in the older generation is there a majority in favour of ‘an active discussion of the events of those years’. Young people, on the contrary, mostly feel that we should ‘talk less about these repressions, not rake over the past’.

"Very few survivors of the 1937 purges are still alive today. But many of our contemporaries could be considered victims of this terror that is still casting its long shadow over our country."

No one needs our blah blah. A mere 6% of respondents would pardon those who instigated and carried out the repressions, but on the other hand only 35% would wish to ‘condemn’ them. The largest number (46%) would prefer to ‘leave them in peace after so many years’. Back in the years of perestroika there was a widespread belief that what was needed was not a trial of the instigators of repression, nor a national purification: what was needed was an act of national repentance – theirs, ours, everyone’s. By 2007, only 7% of the population believed that such an act of repentance should be made by our present government, and 8% - by the present leaders of the Russian Federation Communist Party. Less than a tenth of Russians expected repentance from their political leaders or from their fellow citizens – in other words, from themselves. 20-25% of those polled demand repentance from those ‘surviving commanders who gave orders to shoot prisoners’ and also those ‘who carried out the orders’. But the largest group (30%) gave the answer: ‘no repentance is necessary’.

In other words, the terror of the past is still alive.

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