The Paranoid State
Suspicion and betrayal and the Soviet way of life.
Apr 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 30 • By JAMES C. BANKS
Soviet history has crystallized in Western memory as a conflict between apparatchiks and heroes. The apparatchiks were ideologically rigid autocrats and pandering toadies, while the heroes—such as Solzhenitsyn, Havel, and Sharansky—were the voices of humanity, reverberating until they eventually penetrated the Iron Curtain. Both sides, however, existed among a vast multitude of average human beings who had the opportunity to become saints and chose to remain sinners. Soviet history is replete with anecdotes of betrayal; many gave up close associates for as little as material gain and as much as self-preservation. The result was a society of moral as well as physical death.
Creating a detailed narrative of Soviet crimes is a tortuous endeavor and becoming more difficult as the Russian government—controlled by a former KGB agent—is reluctant to revisit a history from which its people and neighbors have never recovered. Nonetheless, devoted researchers continue to produce histories that shed light on new dimensions of the commissars’ atrocities, and, to the extent that the Soviet archives have been opened to these researchers, they have uncovered more than enough to develop a narrative which is as detailed as it is horrifying.
As an account of the Great Terror from the perspective of people on the factory floor, Inventing the Enemy is an important contribution to this research. Wendy Z. Goldman, who teaches at Carnegie Mellon and has written comprehensive accounts of the Soviet workforce in the early years of Stalinism, sets out to answer why people more concerned with making a living than fighting a revolution cooperated with authorities and betrayed coworkers, friends, and family. In answering this question, she invites the reader into a microcosm of Russian factories in which everyone is a prisoner faced with the same dilemma: to denounce or be denounced.
Like World War I exactly 20 years before, the Great Terror began in response to a disruptive event: Late in 1934, the head of Leningrad’s Communist party, Sergei M. Kirov, was killed by an assassin. The trials that followed were short and the executions almost immediate. But the fear of terrorism not only refused to die with the assassins; it grew and infected all levels of the system. The state began actively hunting victims. Workers did not resist the commissars or shield their supervisors. Instead, many took advantage of the party’s zealotry. Denunciations (or zaiavleniia) became the means by which workers would “redress safety hazards, challenge bosses, and pursue personal vendettas.” The smallest technical error or production shortage became evidence of treason:
Nonideological individuals soon supported the state’s witch hunt as actively as the system’s true believers. Once the state accepted that its enemies were everywhere, they set a standard for loyalty that could be used to incriminate anyone: “Party members were warned that the enemy might appear in the guise of a better, more responsible version of themselves.” Ideology incentivized workers to betray their comrades. Even so, inconspicuous shopworkers proved more than willing to oblige the Communist inquisitors, especially when the Terror grew worse in 1937 after the Dinamo, an electrical equipment factory in Moscow, was damaged by a fire. In an atmosphere of paranoia, this event had no chance of being attributed to happenstance. Factory newspapers called for aggressive prosecution and workers began accusing their managers at the first sign of suspicion. Production and efficiency slowed as prosecutors cleared the factory of its management, a fact which was interpreted only as further evidence of malfeasance:
The paranoia spread deeper and broke stronger bonds than those between managers and workers. Family ties, friendships, and romantic relations were all severed. The court records allow Goldman to give detailed case studies of interrogations and trials: S. Mironov denounces his friend and supervisor after the shop head is tied, perhaps falsely, to “rightists”; Gringauz, a party member, is expelled for helping his accused brother-in-law find work (but only after attempting to save himself by endorsing the party’s view that his brother-in-law was a spy); Aleksandr Somov, head of a steel plant’s party committee, loses his membership for allegedly having an affair with a Polish woman who had been arrested as a “spy.”
The concluding chapter—“A History without Heroes”—is aptly titled:
Not until Stalin’s death did the party admit any culpability for encouraging a culture of suspicion.
The onetime Eastern Bloc still has a long way to go to develop the sustainable institutions of democracy, but the Soviet Union is more than dead: It is beyond resurrection. Vladimir Putin may lament the loss of empire, but few believe that the Soviet Union was a model of statecraft. The totalitarian mind is still a force to be reckoned with, but its ideologies tend to be primitive and inchoate: Sayyid Qutb was no Marx, and Osama bin Laden was no Lenin.
But this is an important book because it reminds readers that many of totalitarianism’s enablers are not ideologues. Instead, the men and women Wendy Goldman depicts call to mind the psychological profiles outlined in Czeslaw Milosz’s Captive Mind. Writing just after being granted asylum in the West in 1951, Milosz described the people of the Eastern Bloc as a company of perpetual actors:
James C. Banks is a contributor to the American Interest.