The Great Fear (1937–8)


Julia Piatnitskaia did not know what to think when her husband was arrested on the night of 7 July 1937. Osip Piatnitsky was a veteran Bolshevik, a member of the Party from its foundation and one of Lenin’s most trusted comrades. In an article in Pravda to mark Piatnitsky’s fiftieth birthday, in January 1932, Lenin’s widow Krupskaia had described him as a ‘typical revolutionary-professional who gave himself entirely to the Party, and lived only for its interests’. It was hard for Julia to understand how Osip could have become an ‘enemy of the people’. She was a committed Bolshevik, but she did not know whether to believe the Soviet press, which had named Piatnitsky as a ‘traitor’ and a ‘spy’, or the man she had loved for nearly twenty years. Osip was the father of her two children, but after his arrest she was no longer certain if she really knew her husband. ‘Who is Piatnitsky?’ Julia wrote in her diary. ‘A true revolutionary or a scoundrel?… Either could be true. I do not know. That is the most agonizing thing.’1

Julia had met Osip in 1920, when she was twenty-one and he was thirty-nine. Julia was born into a Russian-Polish family in Vladimir. Her mother was a Polish noblewoman who had broken all the customs of her caste and religion by marrying a Russian Orthodox priest without her parents’ permission. Julia, who was six when her mother died, inherited her romantic and rebellious temperament. Passionate and beautiful, at the age of just sixteen Julia ran away from her father’s home to enrol as an nurse in the Russian army during the First World War. She married a young general, who disappeared in action in 1917. During the Civil War, Julia joined the Bolsheviks. She worked for the Red Army as a spy, infiltrating the military headquarters of Admiral Kolchak, the White Army leader on the Eastern Front. Eventually, her cover was blown. Narrowly escaping with her life, she fled to Moscow, had a nervous breakdown, and while recovering in a hospital met Osip, who was visiting a friend. Julia was highly strung and volatile, emotional and poetic. She had a strong sense of justice, rooted in her strict religious upbringing, which profoundly influenced her politics. She was kind and warm, adored by everyone who met her, according to the daughter of one of Osip’s comrades. ‘We children were always calm in her presence. When she was there, we forgot our worries… She was always full of life.’2

Osip, by contrast, was stern and taciturn. A stocky man, with soft, attractive features, he was a model of the professional revolutionary. Modest to the point of selflessness, he rarely talked about his private life (many of his oldest Party comrades had no idea he had a family). Osip had been one of the most important activists in the Marxist underground before 1917. He was in charge of smuggling illegal literature between Russia and Europe. He spent a great deal of time abroad, especially in Germany, where he was known by the pseudonym ‘Freitag’ (Friday), or ‘Piatnitsa’ in Russian, from which the name Piatnitsky was derived (his real Jewish surname was Tarshis). When he married Julia, Osip was the Secretary of the Moscow Party’s Central Committee. But he was soon transferred to the Comintern, the international organization of the Communist Party, where he ran the crucial Organization Department and effectively became the leader of the entire Comintern. Piatnitsky oversaw a huge expansion in the Comintern’s activities, as it tried to spread the Revolution to all corners of the world. His Memoirs of a Bolshevik (1926), a handbook of the Party’s organizational and ethical principles, was translated into more than twenty languages. Piatnitsky was exhausted by his work. ‘I was in the Comintern from morning until night,’ he recalled.3 In the middle of the 1920s – when he was still in his early forties – his hair went white and then fell out.

Osip’s work also placed a heavy burden on his family life. The Piatnitsky apartment in the House on the Embankment was always full of foreign visitors. Osip missed out on the childhood of his two young sons, Igor (born in 1921) and Vladimir (in 1925). His constant absence was a source of many arguments with Julia, who also became increasingly disillusioned with the bourgeoisification of the Party and Stalin’s dictatorship during the 1930s. Igor recalls an argument between his parents – it must have been in 1934 – when she began to recite in a loud and angry voice the seditious verses of the early nineteenth-century poet Dmitry Venivitinov:

The dirt, the stench, the cockroach and the flea

And everywhere the presence of his lordly hand

And all those Russians who babble constantly –

All this we must call our holy fatherland.

Osip and Julia (seated on the right of the front step) with their sons Igor (next to Osip) and Vladimir Piatnitsky (on Julia’s knee) and neighbours’ children at their dacha near Moscow, late 1920s

Terrified of their neighbours overhearing, Osip pleaded with his wife: ‘Keep your voice down, Julia!’4

By 1935, Piatnitsky’s standing in the Comintern had made him known to Communists throughout the world (Harry Pollitt, the British Communist, said that Piatnitsky was the Comintern). At this time, Stalin’s foreign policy was geared towards the containment of Nazi Germany by strengthening relations with the Western democratic states (‘collective security’). In 1934, the Soviet Union had even joined the League of Nations, which it had denounced only two years previously as an ‘imperialist conspiracy’. The Comintern was subordinated to this foreign policy. Led by its new General Secretary, the Bulgarian Communist Georgi Dimitrov, the Comintern’s task was now to build alliances with the European socialists and steer them into coalition governments (‘Popular Fronts’) with the centre parties to counteract the Fascist threat. The policy had some success in France and Spain, where Popular Front governments were elected in 1936. But there were critics of this strategy within the Comintern, among them Piatnitsky. Many Communists, including former members of the Left Opposition led by Trotsky in the 1920s, saw it as a betrayal of the international revolutionary cause, which in their view could only be advanced by ‘United Fronts’ of Communists and socialists, excluding the centre parties of the bourgeoisie; they found common cause with former members of the more moderate Right Opposition, led by Rykov and Bukharin, who were increasingly opposed to Stalin’s abuse of power. Both these groups regarded Stalin as a ‘counter-revolutionary’.By 1936, the Comintern was full of whispered discontent with Stalin’s foreign policies. Leftists linked the Stalinist rapprochement with the Western powers to the bourgeoisification of the Soviet elite. Deeply committed to the ideal of world revolution, they were afraid that the Soviet Union, under Stalin’s leadership, was becoming not an inspiration to the proletarians of the West, but a guardian of order and security. They were particularly disillusioned by Stalin’s failure to give adequate support to the various left-wing defenders of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War, when, in the autumn of 1936, General Franco’s Nationalists – with massive aid from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany – advanced to the outskirts of Madrid. Even some of Stalin’s loyal supporters sometimes found it hard to go along with what they saw as the betrayal of their ideological commitment to revolutionary internationalism. As one Old Bolshevik explained to William Bullitt, the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, in 1935: ‘You must understand that world revolution is our religion and there is not one of us who would not in the final analysis oppose even Stalin himself if we should feel that he was abandoning the cause of world revolution.’5

Stalin grew increasingly mistrustful of the Comintern, which he feared was slipping out of his control. At its Seventh Congress, in August 1935, he engineered a radical reshuffle of its leadership. Piatnitsky was dismissed from the executive and placed in charge of a new department in the Central Committee to supervise the work of the Party bureaucracy. The show trial of the former oppositionists, Kamenev and Zinoviev, in August 1936, was a clear warning from Stalin to his critics that all policies would be decided at the top. Nowhere was this more the case than in the Comintern, where the opposition was identified by Stalin with the work of ‘foreign spies’. ‘All of you there in the Comintern are playing right into the enemy’s hands,’ Stalin wrote to Dimitrov in February 1937. Several thousand Comintern officials and foreign Communists were arrested in 1937–8. The German, Polish, Yugoslav and Baltic Communist parties were practically wiped out. At Comintern headquarters and the Hotel Lux in Moscow, where many of the Comintern’s officials lived, there was so much panic that, in the words of one official, ‘many are half mad and incapable of working as a result of constant fear’.6

Piatnitsky was denounced by Stalin as a Trotskyist. He was later implicated in a ‘Fascist Spy Organization of Trotskyists and Rightists in the Comintern’. But according to the version of events related by his sons, the real cause of his arrest was a brave speech they believe he made at the Plenum of the Central Committee in June 1937.* Apparently, Piatnitsky had been shocked by what he had discovered in his work at the Central Committee. He was particularly troubled by the enormous personal power of Stalin and his unbridled use of the NKVD to eliminate his enemies. At the June plenum, it is believed, Piatnitsky accused the NKVD of fabricating evidence against ‘enemies of the people’ and called for the establishment of a special Party commission to oversee the work of the NKVD. It was a suicidal speech, as Piatnitsky must have realized. When he finished speaking there was silence in the hall. The tension was palpable. A recess was called. On instructions from Stalin, several Party leaders, including Kaganovich, Molotov and Voroshilov, attempted to persuade Piatnitsky to withdraw his statement and thus save his life. Molotov begged him to think about the consequences for his wife and children. But Piatnitsky would not back down; he claimed that he knew what his destiny would be, but that his ‘conscience as a Communist’ would not allow him to retract his words. According to Kaganovich, Piatnitsky told him that his protest had been a conscious and premeditated act. ‘He said that for the unity and moral purity of the Party he was ready to sacrifice his life and, if necessary, to trample on the corpses of his children and his wife.’ When this was reported to Stalin, the leadership resolved to adjourn the plenum for the day. The next morning the plenum opened with a speech by Nikolai Yezhov, the NKVD chief, denouncing Piatnitsky as a tsarist spy who had been sent by the capitalist powers to infiltrate the Comintern. Yezhov called for a vote of censure against Piatnitsky. It was passed with three abstentions, one of them by Krupskaia, who refused to believe the NKVD charges against Piatnitsky (‘He is the most honest of men. Lenin greatly loved and respected him’) right up until his arrest.7 Piatnitsky returned from the plenum ‘exhausted and depressed’, Julia noted in her diary. When she asked him what was wrong, Piatnitsky ‘talked of all the children, of all the innocents, who were forced to live under constant psychological stress’.8

Osip Piatnitsky at the Seventh Congress of the Comintern, Moscow, 1935

For the next two weeks, Piatnitsky stayed at home, locked away in his office. He ate very little, and spent all day on the telephone trying to make contact with Yezhov. Julia could not bear the tension and went off to the dacha for a few days – a decision which she later regretted. ‘I should have been by his side,’ she wrote in her diary in March 1938. ‘I did not understand what he was going through. I was not intelligent enough, or strong enough. To be the wife of such a person means to serve him, to be always at one’s post.’9 During this fortnight, Osip prepared for his arrest. He transferred his savings book and valuables to Julia and destroyed his private notebooks and letters. A seasoned revolutionary, who had been arrested many times before, he knew how to prepare. On 5 July he was expelled from the Party. He felt so despondent, Julia noted on her return from the dacha, that he thought of suicide. He could not imagine living without the Party. But the next day, when they paid a visit to old friends, Osip told them he had changed his mind. He said that he would submit to his punishment for the sake of Party unity: ‘If a sacrifice has to be made for the Party, then however burdensome that sacrifice might be, I will bear it joyously.’ Osip warned his sons to expect his arrest. He explained to them that he had argued with his comrades in the Party leadership and that they had denounced him; he denied his guilt and said that he would fight to prove his innocence as long as that was possible, but that, if he was arrested, they should not expect to see their father again. ‘He warned me not to fight against Stalin. That was the main thing he told me,’ remembered Igor.10

The NKVD came for Osip shortly after 11 p.m. on 7 July. Yezhov made the arrest in person. Bursting into the apartment, the NKVD men threw a dressing gown at Julia and told her to put it on. She began to shout and swear at them, whereupon Yezhov told her that ‘Soviet citizens do not talk that way to representatives of the authorities’. Osip apologized for his wife’s behaviour. He left with the NKVD men, carrying a small suitcase which contained his dressing gown and a toothbrush. Julia fainted as they left. When she came to, they had gone. ‘I had just one thought,’ she noted in her diary – ‘the overwhelming thought that I will never see him again – that and a feeling of terrible powerlessness.’ The next day, while Julia was at work, the NKVD broke into the apartment. They searched through Osip’s papers and took away the family’s valuables: cash and savings books, a radio, a bicycle, coats, sheets, linen, even little things like teacups disappeared. The door to Osip’s office was then sealed with wax. No one dared to break the seal, but if they had, they would have found a library which the Piatnitskys could have sold to help them through the next few months, when, like all the families of ‘enemies of the people’, they were suddenly reduced to poverty.11

Osip’s fate was probably decided long before his protest to the June plenum. In the Great Terror of 1937 – 8 – when at least 1.3 million people were arrested for crimes against the state – the Comintern was one of Stalin’s main targets. The reasons for this are worth examining, because they are a key to the riddle of the Terror’s origins.

Extraordinary even by the standards of the Stalinist regime, the Great Terror was not a routine wave of mass arrests, such as those that swept across the country throughout Stalin’s reign, but a calculated policy of mass murder. No longer satisfied with imprisoning his real or imagined ‘political enemies’, Stalin now ordered the police to take people out of the prisons and labour camps and murder them. In the two years of 1937 and 1938, according to incomplete statistics, a staggering total of at least 681,692 people, and probably far more, were shot for ‘crimes against the state’ (91 per cent of all death sentences for political crimes between 1921 and 1940, if NKVD figures are to be believed). The population of the Gulag labour camps and colonies grew in these same years from 1,196,369 to 1,881,570 people (a figure which excludes at least 140,000 deaths within the camps themselves and an unknown number of deaths during transport to the camps). Other periods of Soviet history had also seen mass arrests of ‘enemies’, but never had so many of the victims been killed. More than half the people arrested during the Great Terror were later shot, compared to less than 10 per cent of arrests in 1930, the second highest peak of executions in the Stalin period, when 20,201 death sentences were carried out. During the ‘anti-kulak operation’ of 1929–32, the number of arrests was also very high (586,904), but of these victims only 6 per cent (35,689 people) were subsequently shot.12

The origins of the Great Terror are not easy to explain. Nor is it immediately clear why it was so concentrated in these two years. To begin to understand it, we must look at the Great Terror not as an uncontrolled or accidental happening, a product of the chaos of the Stalinist regime that could have erupted at almost any time – a view occasionally put forward13 – but as an operation masterminded and controlled by Stalin in response to the specific circumstances he perceived in 1937.

Some historians have traced the origins of the Great Terror to the assassination of the Leningrad Party boss Sergei Kirov in December 1934 – an act, it is said, that set the regime on its murderous hunt for hidden enemies. But this theory raises the question of why the mass arrests and killings did not start in 1934–5. Why was there a two-year lull before the storm of 1937–8? After Kirov’s murder there were mass arrests in Leningrad, but otherwise the years of 1935 and 1936 were relatively terror-free for the political classes in the rest of the Soviet Union. In fact, under the direction of Aleksandr Vyshinsky, the Procurator of the USSR, the regime made a conscious effort to return to a more stable and traditional legal order following the chaos of 1928–34.14 Other historians have connected the Great Terror to Stalin’s fears of an internal threat, particularly in the countryside, where, they argue, mass discontent could have turned political, if Soviet elections had been allowed to go ahead, as they had been promised by the ‘Stalin Constitution’ of 1936.15 But the NKVD reports of domestic discontent were unreliable (‘anti-Soviet sentiment’ and ‘threats of unrest’ were often fabricated by the NKVD to justify increases in its budget and its staff) and it is far from clear whether Stalin or anybody else in the ruling circle took them at all seriously. In any case, these reports contain no suggestion that the internal threat was any greater in 1937 than it had been at any other time. There were just as many reports of discontent and opposition during 1928–32, but nothing in those years to match the intensity of state killing in 1937–8.

Yet other historians have suggested that the Great Terror is best understood ‘as a number of related but discrete phenomena’, each one capable of being explained on its own but not as part of a single event.16 And indeed the Great Terror was a complex amalgam of different elements: the great ‘show trials’ against the Old Bolsheviks; the purging of the political elites; the mass arrests in the cities; the ‘kulak operation’; and ‘national operations’ against minorities. But while it may be helpful to analyse the various components of the Terror separately, the fact remains that they all began and ended simultaneously, which does suggest that they were part of a unified campaign that needs to be explained.

The key to understanding the Great Terror as a whole lies perhaps in Stalin’s fear of an approaching war and his perception of an international threat to the Soviet Union.17 The military aggression of Hitler’s Germany, signalled by its occupation of the Rhineland in 1936, and the occupation of Manchuria by the Japanese, convinced Stalin that the USSR was endangered by the Axis powers on two fronts. Stalin’s fears were reinforced in November 1936, when Berlin and Tokyo united in a pact (later joined by Fascist Italy) against the Comintern. Despite his continuing support of ‘collective security’, Stalin did not place much hope in the Soviet alliance with the Western powers to contain the Axis threat: the Western states had failed to intervene in Spain; they appeared committed to the appeasement of Nazi Germany; and they reportedly gave Stalin the impression that it was their hidden aim to divert Hitler’s forces to the East and engage them in a war with the USSR rather than confront them in the West. By 1937, Stalin was convinced that the Soviet Union was on the brink of war with the Fascist states in Europe and with Japan in the East. The Soviet press typically portrayed the country as threatened on all sides and undermined by Fascist infiltrators – ‘spies’ and ‘hidden enemies’ – in every corner of society.

‘Our enemies from the capitalist circles are tireless. They infiltrate everywhere,’ Stalin told the writer Romain Rolland in 1935. Stalin’s view of politics – like many Bolsheviks’ – had been profoundly shaped by the lessons of the First World War, when the tsarist regime was brought down by social revolution in the rear. He feared a similar reaction against the Soviet regime in the event of war with Nazi Germany. The Spanish Civil War reinforced his fears on this account. Stalin took a close interest in the Spanish conflict, seeing it (as did most of his advisers) as a ‘valid scenario for a future European war’ between Communism and Fascism.18 Stalin put the military defeats of the Republicans in 1936 down to the factional infighting between the Spanish Communists, the Trotskyists, the Anarchists and other left-wing groups. It led him to conclude that in the Soviet Union political repression was urgently required to crush not just a ‘fifth column’ of ‘Fascist spies and enemies’ but all potential opposition before the outbreak of a war with the Fascists.

A paranoic fear of ‘enemies’ was, it seems, in Stalin’s character. It had been reinforced by the suicide of his wife Nadezhda in 1932 and by the murder of Kirov, a man Stalin claimed to love like a brother. ‘Maybe Stalin never trusted people very much,’ wrote his daughter Svetlana, ‘but after their deaths he stopped trusting them at all.’* Stalin blamed the Kirov assassination on the ‘Zinovievites’ (the ‘Leningrad Opposition’) and issued orders for the supporters of Zinoviev, the former boss of Leningrad, to be arrested, even though there was no evidence to connect them with the murder. Many of them were ultimately convicted of ‘moral complicity’ in Kirov’s killing on the grounds that they had created a climate of opposition which encouraged the assassination of Soviet leaders. In the two and a half months following the murder, when Stalin took charge of the investigation in Leningrad, nearly a thousand ‘Zinovievites’ were arrested. Most of them were exiled to remote settlements. Zinoviev and Kamenev, allies with Trotsky in the United Opposition against Stalin in the 1920s, were arrested: Zinoviev was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment, Kamenev to five. When the NKVD officials proved reluctant to arrest so many Party loyalists, Stalin called in Iagoda, the NKVD boss, and warned him to be more vigilant, or else ‘we will slap you down’. Iagoda’s position was further undermined in 1935, when Yezhov, who was placed in charge of the Party purge, claimed to have uncovered a large network of ‘foreign spies’ and ‘terrorists’ organized by Trotsky and Zinoviev and undetected by the NKVD in the heart of the Kremlin. Stalin finally lost patience with Iagoda and replaced him with Yezhov, a brutal executioner without any moral conscience who was prepared to indulge Stalin’s paranoic fantasies by fabricating evidence of ‘counter-revolutionary conspiracies’ and ‘spy rings’ everywhere. For several years, Yezhov had promoted the theory that Kamenev and Zinoviev had been plotting on Trotsky’s orders from abroad to murder Kirov, Stalin and other members of the Party leadership. On this basis, Stalin now reopened the Kirov investigation. In August 1936, Zinoviev, Kamenev and fourteen other Party leaders were put on trial for treason. All of them were sentenced to death, along with 160 other people arrested in connection with the trial.19

This was the first of several ‘show trials’ in Moscow. Their aim was to reveal and root out a coordinated ring of ‘spies’ and ‘terrorists’ organized by former oppositionists. A second show trial, in January 1937, witnessed the conviction of Georgii Piatakov, Deputy Commissar of Heavy Industry, Karl Radek and fifteen other former supporters of Trotsky for industrial sabotage and espionage. In April–May 1937, eight of the country’s senior military commanders, including Marshal Tukhachevsky (Deputy Commissar of Defence), General Uborevich (Commander of the Belorussian Military District) and General Iakir (Commander of the Kiev Military District), were arrested, tortured brutally and tried in camera for treason and espionage. It was said that they were financed by the Germans and the Japanese. All of them were shot on the same day. In the last and biggest of the show trials, in March 1938, Bukharin, Iagoda and Rykov, along with thirteen other senior officials, were sentenced to be shot for conspiring with the Zinovievites and Trotskyists to assassinate the Soviet leaders, sabotage the economy and spy at the behest of the Fascist powers. Iagoda’s involvement in the plot supposedly explained why it had taken so long to uncover it.

When a Party leader was arrested, everybody in his social orbit came under suspicion. The typical provincial town was ruled by a clique of senior officials – the district Party boss, the police chief, the heads of the local factories, collective farms and prisons, the local Soviet leader – who each had their own patron–client networks in the town’s institutions. These officials protected one another as long as their power circle was maintained. But the arrest of one would inevitably lead to the arrest of all the other members of his circle, as well as their hangers-on, once the NKVD got to work revealing the connections between them. In 1937, for example, the NKVD arrested the Party Secretary of Nikopol, in the eastern Ukraine. It also arrested his

assistants, his friends, the men and women he had put into jobs anywhere in Nikopol. The Commandant of the Nikopol garrison went into the hunters’ bag, then the local Prosecutor and all his legal staff, finally the Chairman of the Nikopol Soviet… the local bank, the newspaper, all commercial institutions were ‘cleansed’… the manager of the Communal Administration, the Chief of the Fire Brigades, the head of the Savings Institution…20

The terror in the leadership thus spread down through the Party ranks, Soviet institutions and society. According to one estimate, 116,885 Party members were executed or imprisoned in 1937–8. The more senior a Party member was, the more likely he was to be arrested, for juniors in the ranks were always ready to denounce their superiors in order to replace them in their posts. Of the 139 Central Committee members elected at the Seventeenth Party Congress in 1934, 102 were arrested and shot, and five more killed themselves in 1937–8; in addition, 56 per cent of the congress delegates were imprisoned in these years. The decimation of the Red Army was even more complete: of the 767 members of the high command (brigade commanders and above), 412 were executed, 29 died in prison, 3 committed suicide, and 59 remained in jail.21

Stalin must have known that the vast majority of these victims were entirely innocent. But since it only took a small handful of ‘hidden enemies’ to make a Revolution while the country was at war, it was fully justified, in his view, to arrest millions to root these out. As Stalin said in June 1937, if just 5 per cent of the people who had been arrested turned out to be actual enemies, ‘that would be a good result’. Evidence was a minor consideration. According to Nikita Khrushchev, then the head of the Moscow Party Committee, Stalin ‘used to say that if a report [denunciation] was ten per cent true, we should regard the entire report as fact’. Everybody in the NKVD knew that Stalin was prepared to arrest thousands to catch just one spy. They knew that holding back from their quota of arrests would only get them into trouble for lack of vigilance. ‘Better too much than not enough,’ Yezhov warned his NKVD operatives. If ‘an extra thousand people are shot [in an operation], that is not such a big deal’.22

For Stalin and his supporters, the Great Terror was a preparation for the coming war. Molotov and Kaganovich continued to defend this rationale until their deaths. ‘Stalin played it safe’ (perestrakhoval), explained Molotov in 1986. The ‘great purge’ was an ‘insurance policy’ – a necessary means for the leadership to ferret out the ‘waverers’, ‘careerists’ and ‘hidden enemies’ in the Party who might have proved troublesome in time of war. There were mistakes, Molotov admitted, many people were arrested unjustly, but ‘we would have suffered greater losses in the war – and perhaps defeat – if the leadership had flinched and allowed internal strife’.

We were obligated to ensure that in time of war there would be no fifth column. It is doubtful that all of these people were spies, but… the main thing is that in the decisive moment there was no relying on them… If Tukhachevsky and Iakir and Rykov and Zinoviev joined the opposition during war, there would have been a cruel struggle and colossal losses… Everyone would have been destroyed!

In the 1980s, Kaganovich similarly justified the Great Terror: the leadership had realized that a war was approaching, and that the country needed to protect itself by ‘draining the swamp (boloto)’ – that is by ‘destroying unreliables and waverers’. This was not just a post facto rationalization by Kaganovich. In June 1938, he had told the Donbass Party that the mass repressions were necessitated by the threat of war and that the country ‘would be at war already’, if its ‘internal enemies and spies’ had not been destroyed in the ‘great purge’.23

Coordinated in the Kremlin and carried out by the NKVD in the localities, the Great Terror spread throughout society as a series of mass campaigns to purge the country of ‘anti-social’ and potentially ‘anti-Soviet’ elements in the event of war. By far the biggest of these mass campaigns was the ‘kulak operation’ instituted by the infamous Directive 00447: it accounted for half of all arrests (669,929) and more than half the executions (376,202) in 1937–8. Nearly all the victims were former ‘kulaks’ and their families who had recently returned from ‘special settlements’ and Gulag labour camps after completing the standard eight-year sentence for ‘counter-revolutionary agitation and propaganda’ imposed during the collectivization campaign in 1929–30. Stalin was afraid that the country would be swamped by disgruntled and embittered ‘kulaks’ who might pose a threat in time of war. He was particularly concerned by NKVD reports about a White monarchist organization, the Russian General Military Union (ROVS), which was said to be preparing a ‘kulak uprising’ to coincide with a Japanese invasion of Siberia. Tens of thousands of alleged ROVS members were shot in the course of the ‘kulak operation’, although they were seldom counted in official statistics (the Altai NKVD, for example, made a separate report on the 22,108 ROVS members it had shot in 1937). The ‘kulak operation’ was connected to a wholesale purge of the local Soviets. It was particularly brutal in border areas, like the western provinces, and in regions, like the Donbass and western Siberia, where the regime feared the population most.24

There were also large-scale ‘national operations’, wholesale deportations and executions of Soviet minorities who were deemed potential ‘spies’ in the event of war: Germans, Poles, Finns and Latvians, Armenians and Greeks, Koreans, Chinese, even Kharbin Russians, who had returned to the Soviet Union from Manchuria following the 1935 sale of the Eastern China Railway to Manchukuo, the puppet Manchurian state set up by the Japanese in 1932. Stalin’s distrust of the Poles in the western Soviet regions was particularly strong. It dated from the Russian Civil War, when Poland had invaded the Ukraine and then defeated the Red Army when it counter-attacked against Warsaw – a military defeat in which Stalin had been personally humiliated because of his tactical mistakes as a front-line commissar. Stalin saw the Soviet Poles (and many Belorussians and Ukrainians, whom he considered to be really ‘Poles’) as a fifth column of the ‘semi-Fascist’ Polish state of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, which the Soviet leader feared would unite with Nazi Germany to attack the Soviet Union again. As a result of the ‘national operation’ against the Poles, launched by Directive 00485 in August 1937, almost 140,000 people were shot or sent to labour camps by November 1938.25

So many people disappeared in 1937–8, particularly in the Party and intelligentsia circles of the major capitals, that the arrests appeared random, as if anyone could be picked up by the Black Marias that roamed the streets at night. The prison population was a broad cross-section of the population. Most prisoners had no idea for what crime they were in jail. By the autumn of 1938, virtually every family had lost a relative, or knew of someone with imprisoned relatives. People lived in fearful expectation of the knock on the door in the middle of the night. They slept badly and awoke when they heard a car pull up outside. They would lie there waiting for the sound of footsteps to pass by on the staircase or in the corridor, before going back to sleep, relieved that the visitors were not for them. Liubov Shaporina, the founder of the Puppet Theatre in Leningrad, wrote in her diary on 22 November 1937:

The joys of everyday life. I wake up in the morning and automatically think: thank God I was not arrested last night, they don’t arrest people during the day, but what will happen tonight, no one knows. It’s like Lafontaine’s lamb – every single person has enough against him to justify arrest and exile to parts unknown. I’m lucky, I am completely calm; I simply don’t care. But the majority of people are living in complete terror.26

Vladimir Piatnitsky, Osip’s son, recalls the atmosphere in the House on the Embankment before the arrest of his father:

There were more than 500 flats for elite Party workers in that gloomy building, and arrests were a regular occurence. Because I was always playing in the yard and corridors, I saw several arrests. In the evenings, as it grew dark, the house became deserted and silent. It was as if the inhabitants had gone into hiding in the expectation of catastrophe. Suddenly, several cars would drive into the yard, men in uniform and plain clothes would jump out and walk towards staircase entrances – each one knew the way to ‘his’ address. Then one saw the lights go on in several apartments. Since I knew where everybody lived, I could work out who was being arrested. If all the lights in the apartment went on, it meant there was a search. In those days many people expected to be arrested, but they did not know when their turn would come.27

People waited for their turn. Many packed a bag and kept it by their bed in order to be ready when the NKVD knocked on the door. This passivity is one of the most striking features of the Great Terror. There were many ways to avoid arrest – moving out of town and taking on a new identity by buying papers on the black market being the most simple and effective, for the NKVD was not good at tracking down people on the move.28 The Russian people had a long tradition of fleeing persecution by the state – from the Old Believers to runaways from serfdom – and this tactic was adopted by millions of peasants who ran away from the collective farms and ‘special settlements’. But the urban population by and large remained in place, without any sign of resistance, and waited for the Terror to take them.

Looking back, the film writer Valerii Frid (1922–98), who was arrested in 1943, thought that most people were paralysed by fear. They were so hypnotized by the power of the NKVD, which they believed was everywhere, that they could not contemplate resistance or escape.

I can think of no analogy in human history. So I’ll have to make do with an example from zoology: the rabbit hypnotized by the boa constrictor… We were all like rabbits who recognized the right of the boa constrictor to swallow us; whoever fell under the power of its gaze would walk quite calmly and with a sense of doom into its mouth.29

Viacheslav Kolobkov recalls the panic of his father, a factory worker in Leningrad, when a car stopped outside their house at night.

Every night he would stay awake – waiting for the sound of a car engine. When it came he would sit up rigid in his bed. He was terrified. I could smell his fear, his nervous sweating, and feel his body shaking, though I could barely see him in the dark. ‘They have come for me!’ he would always say when he heard a car. He was convinced that he would be arrested for something he had said – sometimes, at home, he used to curse the Bolsheviks. When he heard an engine stop and the car door slam, he would get up and start fumbling in panic for the things he thought he would need most. He always kept these items near his bed in order to be ready when ‘they’ came for him. I remember the husks of bread lying there – his biggest fear was going without bread. There were many nights when my father barely slept – waiting for a car that never came.30

Faced with arrest, the Bolshevik elite were particularly passive. Most of them were so indoctrinated by their Party’s ideology that any thought of trying to resist was easily outweighed by a deeper need to prove their innocence before the Party. Yevgeniia Ginzburg was the wife of a senior Party leader in Kazan and herself a Party activist. After her husband was taken, she lost her job and feared that her own arrest was imminent. Her mother-in-law was ‘a simple, illiterate peasant woman born in the days of serfdom’, recalls Ginzburg; she ‘was of a deeply philosophical cast of mind and had a remarkable power of hitting the nail on the head when she talked about the problems of life’. This old peasant woman advised her to run away:

‘ “Out of sight, out of mind,” they say. The farther away you are the better. Why not go to our old village, to Pokrovskoye?’…

‘But how can I, Grandmother? How can I leave everything, the children, my work?’ [Ginzburg replied].

‘Well, they’ve taken your job away anyhow. And the children won’t come to any harm with us.’

‘But I must prove my innocence to the Party. How can I, a Communist, hide from the Party?’31

The belief in their own innocence disabled many Bolsheviks. Somehow they managed to convince themselves that only the guilty were arrested, and that they would be protected by their innocence. Elena Bonner recalls overhearing a late-night conversation between her parents, lifelong Party loyalists, following the arrest of a close friend. Elena had woken up in the middle of the night, anxious because this arrest had made her realize ‘that our turn was coming, inexorably and soon’.

It was dark in the dining room, but there were voices in my parents’ room. I went to the door. And I could hear my mother blow her nose. Then she spoke, crying. I had never seen her cry. She kept repeating ‘all my life’ and sobbing… Papa replied softly, but I couldn’t make out his words. Suddenly she shouted, ‘I’ve known Styopa all my life. Do you know what that means? I’ve known him three times longer than you. Understand? Do you understand?’ Then only sobs. And a creak and slippers shuffling on the floor – Papa had gotten out of bed. I jumped away from the door, afraid he was coming out. But he began pacing the room – five steps to the window, five to the bed, like a pendulum. He struck a match. Mama began speaking again, ‘Tell me do you believe it? Do you believe this nightmare?’ She had stopped crying. ‘Do you believe that Agasi… Do you believe that Pavel, that Shurka… Do you believe that they…?’ She didn’t complete her sentences, but it was clear. Then she spoke calmly and softly and said, ‘I know that you can’t believe it.’ Papa replied in a strange, pleading voice, ‘But Rufa-djan [his name for Elena’s mother Ruth], how can I not believe?’ After a pause he went on. ‘They’re not arresting you and me, after all.’32

There were other Bolsheviks, among them Piatnitsky, who were so committed to their Communist beliefs that they were ready to confess to the charges against them, even if they knew that they were innocent, if that was what the Party demanded.* According to Communist morality, a Bolshevik accused of crimes against the Party was expected to repent, to go down on his knees before the Party and accept its judgement against him. This is what Piatnitsky must have meant when he said on the eve of his arrest that if a sacrifice was needed for the Party he would ‘bear it joyously’.

Many Bolsheviks attempted to prepare their family for the likelihood of their arrest and, as best they could, to protect them. Pyotr Potapov, a transport official on the Kama River, sent his family to visit relatives in Nizhny Novgorod a few days before his arrest in August 1937. ‘We had not been on holiday for more than five years,’ recalls his daughter. ‘He sensed what lay ahead and was afraid for us. He wanted us to be out of the way when the NKVD came for him.’ Lev Ilin, a senior official on the Murmansk railway, moved his family out of their spacious flat in Leningrad and put them in a small cooperative apartment, so that they would not be forced to share their living space with another family in the event of his arrest. He made sure that his wife, who had never worked, took a job in a textile factory, so that someone in the family would be able to support their daughter. He begged his wife to divorce him, in the hope that she would be protected from arrest herself, but she refused, on the grounds that it would be a ‘shameful act of betrayal’. There were bitter arguments between the couple on this point, right up to the day of Lev’s arrest.33

Stanislav and Varvara Budkevich, who were both arrested in 1937, tried to prepare their fourteen-year-old daughter Maria to cope on her own. They trained her to go shopping by herself, taught her not to say a word about her parents if they were arrested and forced her to read about the show trials in the newspapers, so that she might understand the nature of the threat that might take them both away. ‘I understood everything,’ recalls Maria. ‘My father was close to Tukhachevsky, he worked with him in the General Staff, and our house was full of military personnel, so I understood what was happening when people were arrested, one by one.’ Maria’s father was arrested on 8 July; her mother on 14 July.

Mama sensed that they would come for her that night. For a long time that evening we sat together on our own, without Andrei [Maria’s younger brother], although Mama knew that I had exams the next morning. It was midnight when at last she said to me, ‘It is getting late, off you go to bed.’

The next morning Maria awoke to find her mother gone – she had been arrested during the night – and the NKVD men searching through her room. By her bed her mother had left Maria a goodbye note with some money.34

The jurist Ilia Slavin was arrested on the night of 5 November 1937. He had not written the book commissioned by the NKVD about the reforging of Gulag labourers on the White Sea Canal. On the day of his arrest, Ilia was called into the Party’s offices in Leningrad and offered the position of Director of the Institute of Law; the previous director had just been arrested. Slavin was relieved. He had been expecting the worst, but now it seemed he had been saved. He returned home in a cheerful mood. That evening the Slavin family was celebrating Ida’s sixteenth birthday. As Ida recalls:

Mama laid out a delicious spread. My brother made a special ‘birthday edition’ of our wall-newspaper ‘Hallelujah’ [an agitational billboard maintained at home by the Slavin family] and became the pianist for the evening. I put on a smart new dress to receive my schoolfriends… Papa was in his best form: he played with us, fooled around just like a child, danced with all the girls, drank a lot and even sang his favourite song, ‘The Nightingale’.

When the guests had gone, Ilia began to talk about his plans for the next summer holiday. ‘He wanted us to spend it all together as a family and spoke of going to the Caucasus and the Black Sea.’

The NKVD came at 1 a.m. Ida remembers:

I was suddenly awoken by a bright light and a strange voice, telling me to get dressed quickly. An NKVD officer was standing at the door. He made half an effort to look away as I struggled to get dressed and then led me into Papa’s office. There was Papa, sitting on a stool in the middle of the room, looking suddenly much older. Mama, my brother and his pregnant wife sat with me on the divan. The yardman stood in the doorway while the NKVD officer made himself at home…

I remember only certain moments from that night:

Looking around my father’s office, the NKVD officer (I shall always remember his name: Beigel) would sigh from time to time: ‘What a lot of books you have. I am a student, and I don’t have this many books.’ Leafing through the books, he would stop whenever he found one with an inscription to my father, pound his fist on the table and demand in a loud voice, ‘Who is this author?’

Then in an almost tragi-comic scene Beigel told me to bring my German textbook. Theatrically (he had evidently played this scene in many households with children of my age) he turned to an article by Karl Radek at the end of the textbook. At that time Karl Radek had been arrested but had not yet been sentenced or listed in the press as an ‘enemy of the people’. With a grand gesture Beigel tore the pages out of the textbook, lit them with a match, and said, as if he was a noble hero: ‘Be thankful that this thing has been destroyed and that I won’t have to take you away with your daddy.’ I was too frightened to say anything. But then my father broke the silence, and said ‘Thank you.’…

Aside from this officious Beigel the main thing engraved in my memory is the motionless figure of my father. I had never seen him like that before – so totally dejected, his spirit somehow gone, almost indifferent to the humiliation he was suffering. He was unlike himself… When I looked at him, there was no expression on his face, he did not see or feel my gaze. He just sat there in the middle of the room – motionless and silent. It was him – and yet not him.

The house-search went on all night. From the office they went into the dining room and then into my brother’s room. The floor was covered with pages ripped from books and manuscripts which had been pulled out of the cupboards and glass-fronted cabinets, photographs from family albums, which had been carefully stored in a special trunk. Many of these things they took away. They also took a camera, a pair of binoculars (evidence of ‘espionage’) and a typewriter – our old Underwood on which my father had typed all his articles…

What was he thinking during that long night, as they leafed through the pages of his life? Did it destroy his faith? What terror did he feel when Beigel (that insignificant worm!) recorded the details of his Party membership as evidence of his crime?

It was morning when the search came to an end; everything was registered for confiscation, and father was led into the corridor. We followed him. The door to my parents’ room was sealed. They told Papa to get dressed. Mama had his things all ready in a little case [it contained a pair of spectacles, toiletries, a handkerchief and 100 roubles cash].

Then my father broke his silence and said: ‘Goodbye.’ Mama clung to him and cried, while he stroked her head, saying over and over, ‘Don’t worry, it will be sorted out.’

That night destroyed something inside me. It shattered my belief in harmony and meaning in the world. In our family there had been a cult of our father. He stood on such a pedestal for us that, when he fell, it felt as if the whole world was ending. I was terrified to look him in the eye, in case he saw my fear. The NKVD men led Papa towards the door. I followed him. Suddenly he turned around to look at me once more. He could see the chaos of emotions inside me. Choked by tears, I threw myself at him. He whispered in my ear: ‘Little one, my beloved daughter, there are mistakes in history, but remember – we started something great. Be a good Young Communist.’

‘Quiet!’ shouted Beigel. Then someone pulled me away from Papa.

‘Farewell, my loved ones. Believe in justice…’ – he wanted to say something else but they took him out and down the stairs.35

The idea that Ida might be arrested was not an idle threat by the NKVD officer. At sixteen years of age, she could be arrested and imprisoned, and even executed, for the same crimes as any adult. In 1935, the Soviet government had lowered the age of criminal responsibility to just twelve – partly with the aim of threatening those in prison with the arrest of their children if they refused to confess to their crimes (a second decree that year allowed the arrest and imprisonment of relatives of anyone who was in prison for crimes against the state). In effect a hostage system was declared. Many Bolsheviks were threatened with the arrest of their relatives during the interrogations that preceded the show trials. Kamenev, for example, was threatened with the execution of his son: he agreed to sign his confession on Stalin’s personal assurances that his family would not be touched. Zinoviev did the same. Ivan Smirnov gave in during his interrogation when he saw his daughter being roughly treated by the guards. Stanislav Kosior withstood brutal tortures but cracked when his sixteen-year-old daughter was brought into the room and raped in front of him.36

Ida Slavina (left) and her parents, 1937

Whatever Stalin promised these Bolsheviks before their trial, once they had been shot, he ordered the arrest of many of their relatives. Kamenev’s son was shot in 1939 (a younger son was sent to an orphanage and had his name changed to Glebov). Kamenev’s wife, who had been sent into penal exile in 1935, was retried in 1938 and shot in 1941. Zinoviev’s son was shot in 1937. His sister was sent to the Vorkuta camps and later shot. Three other sisters, two nephews, a niece, a cousin and a brother-in-law were sent to labour camps. Three of Zinoviev’s brothers and a nephew were also shot. Smirnov’s daughter was imprisoned. His wife was shot in one of the Kotlas labour camps in 1938. Virtually all the Trotsky clan was murdered by the NKVD between 1936 and 1938: Trotsky’s brother Aleksandr; his sister Olga; his first wife Aleksandra Sokolovskaia; his sons Lev and Sergei; and both husbands of his daughter Zinaida (who had committed suicide in 1933).37

Stalin’s obsession with punishing the kin of his enemies was perhaps something he had picked up from Georgia: vendettas between clans were part of politics in the Caucasus. In the Bolshevik elite, family and clans intersected with political allegiances; alliances were made through marriages; careers were broken through ties of blood to oppositionists and enemies. As Stalin saw it, the family was collectively responsible for the behaviour of its individual members. If a man had been arrested as an ‘enemy of the people’, his wife was guilty automatically, because unless she had denounced him, it was assumed that she had shared her husband’s views or had tried to protect him. At the very least she was guilty of lack of vigilance. Stalin considered the repression of these relatives as a necessary measure to remove disgruntled people from society. Asked why the families of Stalin’s ‘enemies’ had been repressed, Molotov explained in 1986: ‘They had to be isolated. Otherwise, they would have spread all kinds of complaints, and society would have been infected by a certain amount of demoralization.’38

Julia Piatnitskaia lived in expectation of her own arrest. She confessed her worries to the diary she started keeping in the days leading up to the arrest of Osip on 7 July. Her fears floated on a sea of daily problems and anxieties. Vladimir, her younger son, had to be brought back from the Crimea, where he had been at the Artek camp for Pioneers since the start of June. Julia was afraid that he might be taken to an orphanage by the NKVD, if she was arrested before she could arrange for relatives and friends to take him in. Her older son Igor had just turned sixteen. Before the arrest of his father he had been eager to make a name for himself in the Komsomol, but everything was different now, and he too was in danger of arrest. Julia tried to deal with Igor’s mixed emotions – anger at his father, grief at his loss, despondency and shame – while struggling to contain her own, equally confused feelings. ‘Igor spends the whole day reading on his bed,’ Julia noted in her diary on 11 July.

He says nothing about Papa, nor about the actions of his former ‘comrades’. Sometimes I express my foul and poisonous thoughts, but he, like the Young Communist he is, forbids me to speak like that. Sometimes he says: ‘Mama, I can’t stand you when you’re like this, I could murder you.’39

Julia’s immediate concern was to make ends meet. Like many wives deprived of their husbands in the Great Terror, she was so preoccupied by the daily struggle to survive, so traumatized by her sudden fall in status, that she barely stopped to think about the danger she was in.40 During the house search Julia lost her savings book and any valuables she might have been able to sell. All she had was a tiny salary from her office job, which hardly sufficed to feed the five dependants who were living in her flat (her sons, her aged father and stepmother and their daughter Liudmila, who did not have a job). They also had a boxer dog. The family lived on soup and kasha. Accustomed to a life of privilege as the wife of a senior Bolshevik, Julia found it hard to adapt to her poverty. She felt bitter and sorry for herself. She even went to the Party offices and complained to an official, who told her to toughen up and get used to the lifestyle of the proletariat. She spent much of her spare time wandering round the city in a fruitless search for a better job. The steel construction trust (TsKMash) had no room for ‘specialists’ (‘We are not Fascist Germany,’ the official said to Julia). Even the factory at the Butyrki prison had no need for workers of ‘her sort’ (i.e. wives of ‘enemies’). ‘The factory official didn’t even look at my papers,’ Julia wrote in her diary, ‘he didn’t want to ask me anything: he just looked at me and said “no”.’ Work colleagues refused to help. ‘Everyone avoids me,’ Julia wrote. ‘Yet I so much need support, even just the slightest attention or advice.’ At home, meanwhile, tensions grew as the situation steadily worsened. Julia’s half-sister and stepmother frequently complained about the lack of food and blamed Osip for their troubles. They even tried to get Julia evicted from the apartment. After a few weeks, Liudmila got a job and moved out with her parents to another flat rather than ‘be dragged down’ with the Piatnitskys. ‘If all of us can’t be saved,’ Liudmila said, ‘then let those who are able save themselves.’ Julia wondered if Liudmila and her parents felt ashamed of their behaviour. She doubted it:

It is only shameful that for seven years they were fed by Piatnitsky, Liuba [Liudmila] got to go to a good school, and they lived in a good apartment. As soon as we get into trouble, they think only about how to run as fast as possible from me and my children – from the unfortunates.41

Not long after they moved out, Julia and her sons were evicted from their home and placed in a smaller apartment on a lower floor of the House on the Embankment. They shared the apartment with the family of an Armenian Bolshevik who had been arrested in the spring. Julia was desperate, she felt as if her life was collapsing and she thought of suicide. In her desperation she went to see a neighbour, the only person in the House on the Embankment who was not afraid to speak to her, and talked about her woes. The old lady told her not to feel so sorry for herself: there were many officials who lived in smaller rooms. Besides, the woman said, Julia was better off without Piatnitsky, because, she explained, ‘you were not getting along so well’. Now she only had to think about herself and her two sons, not about her husband any more. Reflecting on the conversation, Julia wrote in her diary that night: ‘It is true that he did not spend much time with us. He was always working. And it was obvious to everyone who came to scrounge from us – that is almost everyone – that we were not getting along.’42 It was not the only doubt that Julia would have about her husband over the next year.


The diary of the writer Mikhail Prishvin, 29 November 1937:

Our Russian people, like snow-covered trees, are so overburdened with the problems of survival, and want so much to talk to one another about it, that they simply lack the strength to hold out any more. But as soon as someone gives in, he is overheard by someone else – and he disappears! People know they can get into trouble for a single conversation; and so they enter into a conspiracy of silence with their friends. My dear friend N… was delighted to spot me in a crowded [train] compartment, and when at last a seat was free, he sat down next to me. He wanted to say something but was unable to say it in such a crowd. He became so tense that every time he prepared himself to speak he looked around at the people on one side of us, and then at the people on the other side, and all he could bring himself to say was: ‘Yes…’ And I said the same in return to him, and in this way, for two hours, we travelled together from Moscow to Zagorsk:

‘Yes, Mikhail Mikhailovich.’

‘Yes, Georgii Eduardovich.’43

Talking could be dangerous at the best of Soviet times, but during the Great Terror a few careless words were all it took for somebody to vanish for ever. Informers were everywhere. ‘Today a man talks freely only with his wife – at night, with the blankets pulled over his head,’ the writer Isaak Babel once remarked. Prishvin wrote in his diary that among his friends there were ‘only two or three old men’ to whom he could talk freely, without fear of giving rise to malicious rumours or denunciations.44

The Great Terror effectively silenced the Soviet people. ‘We were brought up to keep our mouths shut,’ recalls Rezeda Taisina, whose father was arrested in 1936.

‘You’ll get into trouble for your tongue’ – that’s what people said to us children all the time. We went through life afraid to talk. Mama used to say that every other person was an informer. We were afraid of our neighbours, and especially of the police. I am still afraid to talk. I cannot stand up for myself, or speak out in public, I always give in without saying a word. That’s in my character, because of the way I was brought up when I was a child. Even today, if I see a policeman, I begin to shake with fear.45

Maria Drozdova grew up in a strictly religious peasant family in Tver province. In 1930, the Drozdovs fled the countryside to escape the collectivization of their village. With false documents they moved to Krasnoe Selo near Leningrad, where Maria’s father worked in a furniture factory and her mother Anna in a hospital. Anna was an illiterate peasant woman. Convinced that the Bolsheviks were the Antichrist, whose agents heard and saw everything she did, she was afraid to go out in public or to talk outside the family’s room in the communal apartment where they lived. When her father, a church warden, was arrested in 1937, Anna became paralysed with fear. She would not leave the house. She became afraid of talking in the room, in case the neighbours overheard. In the evenings she was terrified of switching on the lamp, in case it drew the attention of the police. She was even afraid to go to the toilet, in case she wiped herself with a piece of newspaper which contained an article with Stalin’s name.46

Among acquaintances there was a tacit agreement not to talk about political events. Anyone could be arrested and forced by the police to incriminate his friends by reporting such conversations as evidence of their ‘counter-revolutionary’ activities. In this climate, to initiate political discussions with anyone except one’s closest friends was to invite suspicion of being an informer or provocateur.

Vera Turkina recalls the silence with which her friends and neighbours responded to the arrest of her father, the chairman of the provincial court in Perm:

There were three girls in the house opposite ours whose father had also been arrested… We all tried to avoid the subject. ‘He is not here, he has gone away, somewhere’, is all that we would say… My father was a victim of his ‘loose tongue’ – that’s what we understood in our family – he was too direct and outspoken, and somewhere he had said more than he should have done. The belief that talk had been the cause of his arrest reinforced our own silence.47

Silent stoicism was a common reaction to the loss of friends and relatives. As Emma Gershtein wrote about the poet Mandelshtam in 1937: ‘He did not speak of departed and now dead friends. No-one then did… Anything but tears! Such was the character of those years.’48

Silence reigned in many families. People did not talk about arrested relatives. They destroyed their letters, or hid them from their children, hoping it would protect them. Even in the home it was dangerous to talk about such relatives, because, as it was said, ‘the walls have ears’. After the arrest of her husband, Sergei Kruglov, in 1937, Anastasia and her two children were moved into a communal apartment, where a thin partition wall separated them from the family of an NKVD operative in the neighbouring room. ‘Everything was audible, they could hear us sneeze, even hear us talk in the quietest whisper. Mama was always telling us to be silent,’ recalls Tatiana Kruglova. For thirty years, they lived in fear of talking, because they were convinced that their NKVD neighbour was reporting what they said (in fact he kept them in this state of fear because he wanted quiet and obedient neighbours).49

After the arrest of her father, Natalia Danilova was taken by her mother to live with her family, the Osorgins, where all talk about her father was prohibited. The Osorgins were a noble family, and several of its members had been arrested by the Bolsheviks, including the husband of Natalia’s aunt Mania, who ruled the household with her forceful personality. ‘She was hostile to my father, perhaps because he was a peasant and a socialist,’ Natalia recalls. ‘She seemed to think he was guilty, that he had merited his own arrest, and that through his actions he had brought trouble to the family. She forced this version of events upon the rest of us. She alone had the right to speak about such things; the rest of us could only whisper in dissent.’50

Families developed special rules of conversation. They learned to speak elliptically, to allude to ideas and opinions in a manner that concealed their meaning from strangers, neighbours and servants. Emma Gershtein recalls a cousin’s wife, Margarita Gershtein, a veteran oppositionist, who was living with her family in Moscow for a while. One day Margarita was talking about the pointlessness of opposing Stalin and was in the middle of a sentence (‘Of course, we could rub out Stalin, but…’) when

the door opened and into the dining-room came Polya, our housemaid. I shuddered and was terrified, but Margarita, without altering her lazy pose, rounded off the phrase in exactly the same intonation, in the same clear voice: ‘so, Emmochka, go ahead and buy the silk, don’t hesitate. You deserve a new dress after all you’ve done.’ When the housemaid had left, Margarita explained that one should never give the impression of having been caught unawares. ‘And don’t creep about furtively or look uneasily around you.’51

Children, talkative by nature, were particularly dangerous. Many parents took the view that the less their children knew the safer everyone would be. Antonina Moiseyeva was born in 1927 to a peasant family in Saratov province. The Moiseyevs were categorized as ‘kulaks’ and exiled to a ‘special settlement’ in the Urals in 1929. After their return to Chusovoe, a town near Perm, in 1936, Antonina’s mother made a point of telling her children:

‘You must not judge anything, or you will be arrested,’ she always said. We would stand all night in a queue for bread, and she would say to us, ‘You must not judge! It’s none of your business if the government doesn’t have bread.’ Mama told us that it was a sin to pass judgement. ‘Hold your tongue!’ she would always say when we left the house.52

Vilgelm Tell grew up in a Hungarian family in Moscow. His father was arrested in one of the ‘national operations’ in 1938, when Vilgelm was nine years old. As far as he recalls, there were no specific warnings or instructions from his mother or his grandparents about how he should behave, but he sensed the atmosphere of fear:

I knew subconsciously that I had to keep quiet, that I could not speak, or say what I thought. For example, when we travelled in a crowded tram, I knew I had to remain silent, that I could not mention anything, not even things I saw out the window… I also sensed that everybody felt the same way. It was always quiet in public places like a tram. If people spoke, it was only about something trivial, like where they had been shopping. They never spoke about their work or serious things.53

Oksana Golovnia remembers travelling on a crowded Moscow bus with her father, Anatoly, the film-maker, and mentioning her ‘uncle Lodia’ (the film director Pudovkin):

Papa whispered in my ear: ‘Never say anybody’s name when you are in a public place.’ To my inquiring and frightened look, he then said aloud: ‘Don’t those little dumplings look just like little ears!’ I knew what he meant to say – that someone sitting near by was listening. Papa’s lesson stood me in good stead for life.54

In his diary of 1937 Prishvin wrote that people were becoming so adept at concealing meaning in their speech that they were in danger of losing the capacity to speak the truth altogether.

10 July:

Behaviour in Moscow: one cannot speak of anything or with anyone. The whole secret of behaviour is to sense what something means, and who means it, without saying anything. You have to eliminate completely in yourself any remnant of the need to ‘speak from the heart’.55

Arkadii Mankov noted a similar phenomenon in his diary:

It is pointless to talk about the public mood. There is silence, as if nothing has happened. People talk only in secret, behind the scenes and privately. The only people who express their views in public are the drunks.56

As people drew into themselves, the social realm inevitably diminished. ‘People have completely ceased to confide in each other,’ Prishvin wrote in his diary on 9 October. It was becoming a society of whisperers:

The huge mass of the lower class simply goes about its work and whispers quietly. Some have nothing to whisper about: for them ‘everything is as it ought to be’. Others whisper to themselves in solitude, retreating quietly into their work. Many have learned to keep completely silent… – as if lying in a grave.57

With the end of genuine communication, mistrust spread throughout society. People concealed their true selves behind public masks. Outwardly they conformed to the public modes of correct Soviet behaviour; inwardly they lived in a realm of private thought, inscrutable to public view. In this atmosphere fear and terror grew. Since no one knew what was concealed behind the mask, it was assumed that people who seemed to be normal Soviet citizens could in fact be spies or enemies. On the basis of this assumption denunciations and reports of ‘hidden enemies’ became credible, not just to the general public but to colleagues, neighbours and friends.

People sought refuge in a private world of truth. Some people took to diary-writing during the Great Terror. In spite of all the risks, keeping a diary was a way to carve out a private realm free of dissembling, to voice one’s doubts and fears at a time when it was dangerous to speak.58 The writer Prishvin confessed his greatest fears to his diary. In 1936, he had been attacked by literary bureaucrats in the Writers’ Union for a bitter comment he had made at a New Year’s party, a comment he now feared would cost him his freedom. ‘I am very frightened,’ he wrote, ‘that these words will drop into the file of an informer reporting on the characteristics of Prishvin the writer.’ Prishvin withdrew from the public sphere and retreated to his diary. He filled its pages with a microscopic scrawl, barely legible with a magnifying glass, to conceal his thoughts from the police in the event of his arrest and the seizure of the diary. For Prishvin, his diary was an ‘affirmation of individuality’ – a place to exercise his inner freedom and speak in his own true voice. ‘One either writes a diary for oneself,’ Prishvin mused, ‘to dig down to one’s inner self and converse with oneself, or one writes to become involved in society and secretly express one’s views on it.’59 For Prishvin, it was both. He filled his diaries with dissident reflections on Stalin, on the destructive influence of Soviet mass culture, and on the indestructibility of the individual human spirit.

The playwright Aleksandr Afinogenov began keeping a diary in 1926. He filled it with self-criticisms and thoughts on how he could improve himself as a Communist. Then, in the middle of the 1930s, he ran foul of the regime: the psychological perspective of his proletarian plays fell out of favour with the literary authorities, now committed to the doctrines of Socialist Realism. His play The Lie (1933) was attacked by Stalin, who said it lacked a positive Communist hero dedicated to the workers’ cause. The literary group he belonged to – led by the former head of RAPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers) Leopold Averbakh – was said to be a ‘Trotskyist agency in literature’ plotting the downfall of the Soviet regime. In the spring of 1937, Afinogenov was expelled from the Party and evicted from his Moscow apartment by the NKVD. He moved to his dacha in Peredelkino, where he lived with his wife and daughter in almost total seclusion, not speaking to anyone. Old friends turned their back on him. One day, on a train, he overheard a conversation between two army officers who expressed their satisfaction that ‘the Japanese spy Averbakh’ had finally been caught and that his ‘henchman Afinogenov’ was in jail awaiting trial. As Afinogenov retreated to his inner world, his diary changed in character. There were still moments when he criticized himself, when he accepted the charges against him and tried to purge himself as a Communist, but there was more introspection, more pyschological immediacy, and more use of the ‘I’ rather than the ‘he’ which he had used before to refer to himself. The diary became a secret refuge for his private thoughts and reflections:

2 November 1937

Coming home, I sit down with my diary and think only of my private corner of the world, which remains untouched by politics, and I write about that. Now that I have been excluded from the general flow of life, I suddenly feel the need to talk with people about everything that’s going on… but now that yearning for communication can only be fulfilled in these pages, because nobody will speak with me.60

Yevgeniia (Zhenia) Yevangulova started keeping a diary in December 1937, the year both her parents were arrested. The diary became a place for her to pour her emotions and keep up what she called an ‘internal conversation’ with her parents, who had disappeared in the Gulag. ‘The burning hope will not leave me that one day my loved ones will read this diary, so I must try to make it true,’ she wrote in the opening entry. For Yevangulova, a student at the Leningrad Institute of Technology, the diary was increasingly important as a connection to her individual self, which she feared was being submerged in the institute’s collective way of life. She wrote on 8 March 1938: ‘Maybe I have not expressed this correctly: my inner self has not gone away – whatever is inside a personality can never disappear – but it is deeply hidden, and I no longer feel its presence within me.’ She felt that her personality could only be expressed through genuine connection with others – but there was no one. Her fellow students mistrusted her as the daughter of ‘enemies of the people’; all she had was her diary. As she wrote in December 1939: ‘Sometimes I feel a desperate yearning to find a true friend, someone who could understand me, somebody with whom I could share all my agonizing thoughts, apart from this silent diary.’61

Arkadii Mankov, like Yevangulova, yearned for human connection. He decided to show his diaries to a fellow student on the course he attended at the Public Library in Leningrad. Mankov’s diary was filled with anti-Soviet thoughts, so it was an act of immense trust, even foolishness, to reveal it to a man he hardly knew, but as he confessed to his diary, he had acted out of ‘loneliness, the daily, endless loneliness in which I lead my aimless life’.62

Prishvin too succumbed to the temptation for human connection. In December 1938, he asked a friend to help him find a secretary who could assist him with editing his diaries. He realized how dangerous it could be to let a ‘stranger into my laboratory and understand the whole of me’. That night he had a nightmare. He was crossing a big open square and lost his hat. He felt that he had been laid bare. Asking a policeman where his hat had gone, he suddenly recalled, as he analysed it in his diary, that he had ‘asked a stranger to get involved in the most intimate details of my life. The loss of my hat of secrecy had exposed me.’ The woman who arrived at Prishvin’s house a few days later for an interview was also apprehensive about the idea of working on the diaries of a man she did not know. She suggested that the two of them should get to know each other before they started on the work. They talked without a break for eight hours. They fell in love and within a year they were married.63


Informers were everywhere – in factories and schools and offices, in public places and communal apartments. By any estimate, at the height of the Great Terror millions of people were reporting on their colleagues, friends and neighbours, although it is hard to be precise because there are only scattered data and anecdotal evidence. According to one senior police official, every fifth Soviet office worker was an informer for the NKVD. Another claimed that regular informers numbered 5 per cent of the adult population in the major urban areas (in popular belief the number was higher still). The level of surveillance varied widely between cities. In Moscow, which was heavily policed, there was at least one informer for every six or seven families, according to a former NKVD official. In Kharkov, by contrast, there were only fifty informers in a city of 840,000 people (that is one informer for every 16,800 people), according to a former NKVD man, who claimed to have controlled all the city’s informers. Between these two extremes the city of Kuibyshev may be more representative of the Soviet Union as a whole: in 1938, the police claimed to have about a thousand informers in a population of 400,000 people.64 These figures represent only the registered informers, regularly used by the police and usually rewarded in some form (with money, jobs, housing, special rations, or protection from arrest). They do not include the millions of paid ‘reliables’ (factory and office workers, student activists, watchmen, janitors, etc.) who acted as the eyes and ears of the police in every nook and cranny of society.65 Nor do they count the everyday reporting and denunciation – unsolicited by the NKVD – which made the police state so powerful. Everybody knew that ‘loyal Soviet citizens’ were expected to report suspicious conversations they had overheard: fear of punishment for ‘lack of vigilance’ compelled many people to collaborate.

There were two broad categories: voluntary informers, who were usually motivated by material rewards, political beliefs or malice towards their victims; and involuntary informers, who were entrapped by police threats or promises to help arrested relatives. It is difficult to condemn the informers in the second category: many found themselves in almost impossible situations where anybody might have given in to pressure from the NKVD.

In 1943, the writer Simonov was visited by ‘X’, a former classmate at the Literary Institute. After the arrest of his father, ‘X’ had been threatened with expulsion from the institute, unless he agreed to write reports about the conversations he overheard among his fellow students. From 1937 on, ‘X’ had worked as an informer for the NKVD. Moved by guilt and feelings of remorse, he sought out Simonov to warn him that he had reported their conversations. ‘X’ was ‘overcome with shame,’ he said. He was perhaps a little frightened too, for by 1943 Simonov had become a famous writer, with good connections to the Kremlin; it was even possible that he already knew about the reports of his former friend. ‘X’ told Simonov that he would kill himself if he discovered that anyone had suffered as a consequence of his informing. He explained that he had tried to keep his reports free of incriminating evidence, but he still felt that by his actions ‘he had made his life unbearable’.66

Wolfgang Leonhard recalls an encounter with a fellow student in 1939, a girl with whom he had always felt that he could speak quite openly. They would go for walks in the parks of Moscow and discuss the grand political issues of the moment. One day she confessed that she had given in to pressure from the NKVD to write reports on what her fellow students were saying. Sad and burdened by her conscience, she wanted to warn Leonhard that, although she had not yet been required to report on him, they should not meet and have their conversations any more.67

Valerii Frid recalls how he was recruited as an informer in 1941. He was in the Komsomol and studying at the All-Union State Film Institute (VGIK), which had been evacuated from Moscow to Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan. The food situation was desperate. Frid was involved in a petty scam involving forged ration cards. One day he was called in to the offices of the NKVD. His interrogators knew all about the ration cards and warned that he would be expelled from the Komsomol and the institute unless he agreed to their demands and proved himself to be a ‘Soviet person’ by reporting on his fellow students. Interrogated through the night, he was threatened with violence and told that he would be put on trial. Frid gave in and signed an agreement to write the reports. As soon as he had signed, his interrogators shook his hand and became kind and friendly towards him. They said that he would not get into trouble with his ration cards – in fact he was free to continue dealing – and gave him a special number to call should he have any problems with the police. On his return to the hostel Frid broke down in tears. For three days he could not sleep or eat. In the end he wrote reports on only three students. He made sure the reports were very general and contained no incriminating facts. The NKVD officer, a small man with a complete set of gold teeth, to whom Frid gave these reports, was not pleased. But Frid was saved from any punishment by VGIK’s return to Moscow in 1943.68

Sofia Ozemblovskaia became an informer when she was just seventeen. She was born into a Polish noble family in Osipovichi near Minsk in Belarus. After the Revolution of 1917, her parents turned themselves into peasant farmers, but during the collectivization of agriculture they were exiled as ‘kulaks’ to the Komi region of the North. In 1937, the family returned to Osipovichi, but they were later rearrested in one of the ‘national operations’ against the Poles and sent to a ‘special settlement’ near Perm. Sofia decided to escape. ‘I had to get away to give myself a chance in life,’ she explains. Sofia enrolled at a factory school – the quickest means of getting some ‘proletarian origins’ – and then entered the medical college in Kudymkar, a town near Perm in the Urals. No one asked her any questions about her ‘kulak’ origins. They did not even ask for her passport, which she did not have. Six months later, she was called in to the offices of the NKVD. ‘I thought they were going to put me into jail because I had run away,’ recalls Sofia. Indeed she was told that she would have to work for the NKVD if she did not want to be expelled from the college for hiding her social origins. Her task was to start up conversations with her fellow students about political events and write reports on everything they said. Sofia was given a passport. With the protection of the NKVD, she graduated from medical college and had a successful career in the ambulance service in Perm. Looking back, she feels no remorse for her actions, even though she knows that many students were arrested as a direct consequence of her reports. She believes that her actions were the necessary price of survival for a ‘kulak’ daughter in the Stalin years. Sofia married the son of a senior NKVD officer. When her children were growing up, she told them nothing about her police activities. But in the 1990s, ‘when there was freedom and nothing left to fear’, she decided to come clean:

I decided to tell my children and grandchildren everything. They were very glad. My grandson said: ‘Oh, Granny, you are very clever to remember everything. We will remember this all our lives – how you were repressed, how our parents were repressed.’69

In her memoirs Olga Adamova-Sliuzberg tells the story of a young informer, the son of a Bolshevik executed in the Great Terror, whose task was to become acquainted with other children whose parents had been arrested. He reported every word of dissatisfaction they said, every doubt and question they raised. Many of his friends were arrested as a result of his reports. Olga met some of them in the Butyrki prison after her own arrest in 1949. She asked them what they thought about the boy. They were strangely understanding. The general opinion was that he was a ‘good boy, but naive, who believed every slogan he heard and every word he read in the newspapers’. The boy’s mother, ‘a wonderful and honest woman’, insisted to Olga that her son had not acted out of any malice but from the highest convictions. ‘She talked a lot about his exceptional kindness, his brilliance and honesty.’ Perhaps the boy felt he was acting patriotically by denouncing his own friends for the cause of Soviet power – just as the boy hero Pavlik Morozov had done in denouncing his father.70

Undoubtedly, during the Great Terror, many people wrote denunciations in the sincere conviction that they were performing their patriotic duty as Soviet citizens. They believed the propaganda about ‘spies’ and ‘enemies’ and set out to expose them, even among their friends. But above all, they were afraid of getting into trouble if somebody they knew was arrested and they had failed to denounce them: it was a crime to conceal one’s contacts with the enemy and ‘lack of vigilance’ was itself the cause of thousands of arrests. In the climate of universal fear people rushed to denounce others before they were denounced by them. This mad scramble of denunciations may not explain the enormous numbers of arrests in the Great Terror – most of the NKVD’s victims were arrested en masse in the ‘national’ and ‘kulak operations’ which did not depend on denunciations but on a prepared list of names – but it does explain why so many people were sucked into the police system as informers. Hysterical citizens would appear at the NKVD and Party offices with the names of relatives and friends who might be ‘enemies of the people’. They would write with details about their colleagues and acquaintances, listing even a single meeting with people who had been connected with these ‘enemies’. One old woman wrote to the Party office of her factory to inform them that her sister had once worked as a temporary cleaner in the Kremlin and had cleaned the office of a man who was later arrested.71

Fear drove people to try to purge themselves – to put themselves on the side of the pure – by removing the stain of contact with potential ‘enemies’. Many of the most fanatical informers were people with a ‘spoilt biography’ (the children of ‘kulaks’ and ‘class enemies’ or former oppositionists) who had more reason than most to fear arrest. Informing on their friends became a way to prove their worthiness as ‘Soviet citizens’. The NKVD had a deliberate policy of recruiting informers from vulnerable groups. They often picked on the relatives of the arrested who feared arrest themselves. Aleksandr Karpetnin, a former NKVD operative who was himself arrested in 1938, recalls his training in the recruitment of informers:

You would look for people who had something suspicious in their background. Let’s say a woman whose husband had been arrested. The conversation would go like this:

‘Are you a true Soviet citizen?’

‘Yes, I am.’

‘Are you ready to prove it? Everyone says they’re good citizens.’

‘Yes of course I’m ready.’

‘Then help us. We won’t ask much. If you notice any anti-Soviet acts or conversations, let us know. We can meet once a week. Beforehand you should write down what you noticed, who said what, who was present when they spoke. That’s all. Then we’ll know that you really are a good Soviet citizen. We’ll help you if you have any problems at work. If you’re sacked or demoted, we’ll help you.’

That was it. After that the person would agree.72

Olga Adamova-Sliuzberg tells the story of a young woman named Zina, a mathematics teacher from Gorkii, whom she met in the Lubianka jail. Zina had been arrested for failing to denounce one of her teachers, a lecturer in dialectical materialism who came to Gorkii from Moscow once a week. In conversations with Zina the lecturer had openly expressed his criticisms of the Stalinist regime. Because he stayed in Gorkii in a dormitory, he had used Zina’s apartment to entertain his friends and had kept a trunk of his books there. When the NKVD carried out their search, it turned out the books were Trotskyist. Zina acknowledged her guilt. She decided to expiate her sin and ‘clean all the stains from [her] conscience’ by informing on other ‘enemies’ to the NKVD. She told her interrogators about a certain professor who had given lectures at her institute. One day there had been a power cut while the professor was performing an experiment. There were no candles, so, as she explained, Zina

split a ruler and lit a splinter from it, as the peasants do, to provide light. The professor finished his experiment by the light of the splinter and at the end remarked [poking fun at Stalin’s famous phrase], ‘Life has become better, life has become more joyous. God be praised, we have reached the age of the splinter!’

The professor was arrested. Zina did not feel that she had acted wrongly in denouncing him – just a little awkward when she had to confront him during his interrogation. Asked by Olga what she thought about having ‘ruined someone’s life’ for such a petty thing, Zina replied: ‘There are no petty things in politics. Like you, I failed to understand at first the criminal significance of his remark, but later I realized.’73

Many denunciations were motivated by malice. The quickest way to remove a rival was to denounce him as an ‘enemy’. Lower-class resentments of the Bolshevik elite fuelled the Great Terror. Workers denounced bosses, peasants denounced kolkhoz chairmen, if they were too strict in their demands. Servants were frequently employed by the NKVD to inform against their employers. Markoosha Fischer, the Russian wife of an American journalist, employed a nanny who believed in ‘enemies’. She ‘truly represented the mentality of the woman and man on the street’, Markoosha wrote. ‘She was not bothered by political doubts and accepted every official utterance as gospel.’74 There were families that lived in constant fear of their servants.

In 1935, the NKVD placed new servants in the homes of many Party workers in Leningrad, as part of the campaign to increase surveillance following the assassination of Kirov. Anna Karpitskaia and Pyotr Nizovtsev, senior Party officials in Leningrad, were forced to sack their old housekeeper Masha, the devout Old Believer who had made herbal remedies. The new housekeeper, Grusha, was a ‘stern, unpleasant woman’, recalls Anna’s daughter Marksena, who was then aged twelve. ‘She had been sent to us by the police so that she could keep an eye on us.’ Marksena and her younger half-brothers realized instinctively that they were not to talk in Grusha’s presence. ‘We barely ever said a word to her,’ Marksena recalls. Grusha slept in the kitchen, apart from the family rooms, where Milia, the nanny who had been with the family for many years, was allowed to live. Grusha was also treated as a servant, unlike Milia or their old housekeeper, who had been considered part of the family. Anna and Pyotr were hostile to Stalin. Marksena remembers whispered conversations in which her parents shared their suspicions that Stalin was responsible for Kirov’s death. They could have spoken openly in the presence of Masha – her religious background as an Old Believer had been a guarantee of her silence – but it was dangerous to voice such sentiments when Grusha was around. In July 1937, Marksena’s parents were arrested (they were both shot in the autumn of that year). Her younger brothers were taken to an orphanage. Marksena moved to a communal apartment with her nanny Milia. Grusha disappeared.75

In this atmosphere of mistrust, hatred and malice it did not take a lot for petty arguments and jealousies to turn into denunciations. In 1937, Boris Molotkov, a country doctor from the Gorkii region, was approached by the district NKVD officer, an old friend of the family, who asked him to perform an abortion for his mistress. When Molotkov refused (abortions were illegal at that time), the NKVD officer arranged a series of informers to denounce the doctor as a ‘counter-revolutionary’. Boris was arrested and imprisoned in the district jail. His wife was also arrested on trumped-up charges for the murder of a worker in the local hospital.76

Sexual and romantic interests often played a part in these deadly arguments. Unwanted lovers, wives and husbands – they were all denounced in large numbers in the Great Terror. Nikolai Sakharov was an engineer. His father was a priest who had been executed in 1937, but Nikolai was valued for his expertise in industry, and thought this would protect him from arrest. But then one day someone took an interest in his wife and denounced him as an ‘enemy of the people’. Lipa Kaplan got into trouble with her factory boss when she refused his sexual demands. The boss arranged for an informer to denounce Lipa on the basis of some comment she had made after Kirov’s murder three years earlier. At that time she had not been arrested (the denunciation was considered too absurd) but in 1937 it was sufficient to send her to Kolyma for ten years.77

Career motives and material rewards provided incentives for nearly all informers, although these motives were often mixed with political beliefs and fears in complex ways. Thousands of lower-ranking officials made their way up the Soviet hierarchy by reporting on their bosses (as the regime had encouraged them to do). One man, Ivan Miachin, promoted his career by denouncing no less than fourteen Party and Soviet leaders in Azerbaijan between February and November 1937. Justifying his activities, Miachin later said, ‘We thought this was what we had to do… Everybody was writing.’ Perhaps Miachin thought that he was displaying vigilance. Perhaps he derived malicious pleasure from ruining the lives of his superiors, or pride from helping the police. There were informers of that type: busy-body letter-writers who carefully numbered their reports and signed them ‘One of us’ (svoi) or ‘Partisan’ to demonstrate their loyalty. But personal promotion, better pay and rations, or the promise of more living space, certainly played their part. When an apartment was vacated by the arrest of its inhabitants, it was often taken over by the NKVD officers, or divided up and occupied by other servitors of the Stalinist regime, such as office workers and chauffeurs, some of whom had no doubt been rewarded for giving information on the previous occupants.78

Ivan Malygin was an engineer in Sestroretsk, north of Leningrad. He was highly skilled and respected by the workers in his factory, who called him the ‘tsar-engineer’ and even helped his family when he was arrested by the NKVD. Malygin was something of a local celebrity. He wrote textbooks, popular pamphlets, and articles for the Soviet press. He lived with his wife and their two children on the outskirts of the town in a large wooden house, which he had built himself. But, as often happens, his wealth and fame attracted jealousy. Malygin was arrested on the basis of a denunciation by a colleague at the factory, who was envious of his success. He claimed that Malygin used his house to maintain secret contacts with the Finns. It turned out that the denunciation had been organized by a small group of NKVD officers, who forced Malygin to sell them his house for 7,000 roubles (it had recently been valued at nearly half a million). The officers threatened to arrest his wife if he refused to sell. Malygin was shot. His wife and children were evicted from the house, which was taken over by the NKVD officers and their families.79 Their descendants live there to this day.

The Malygin house in Sestroretsk, 1930s

To make a career in the years of the Great Terror necessarily involved moral compromise, if not by outright informing, then by silent collusion with the Stalinist regime. Simonov, whose own career took off in these years, wrote with extraordinary candour and remorse about what he saw as the collaboration of the silent Soviet majority in the Great Terror. In his memoirs, dictated on his death-bed in 1979, Simonov accused himself:

To be honest about those times, it is not only Stalin that you cannot forgive, but you yourself. It is not that you did something bad – maybe you did nothing wrong, at least on the face of it – but that you became accustomed to evil. The events that took place in 1937–8 now appear extraordinary, diabolical, but to you, then a young man of 22 or 24, they became a kind of norm, almost ordinary. You lived in the midst of these events, blind and deaf to everything, you saw and heard nothing when people all around you were shot and killed, when people all around you disappeared.

Seeking to explain this detachment, Simonov recalled his own reaction to the arrest in 1939 of Mikhail Koltsov, a hugely influential writer, whose reports from the Spanish Civil War were an inspiration to the young literary circles in which Simonov moved. Deep down Simonov had never believed that Koltsov was a spy (as he confessed to the writer Fadeyev in 1949), yet somehow at the time he had managed to suppress his doubts. Whether out of fear and cowardice, or the desire to believe the state, or simply from an instinct to avoid subversive thoughts, he had made a small interior accommodation in order to conform to the necessities of the Stalinist regime. He had realigned his moral compass so as to navigate his way through the moral morass of the Great Terror with his own career and beliefs intact.80

Simonov was not an informer, but he was pressured by the Soviet authorities, which perhaps wanted him to become one. In the spring of 1937, Simonov was invited by Vladimir Stavsky, the Secretary of the Writers’ Union, to join three other young prose writers from the Literary Institute on a working holiday in the Caucasus. They were to write about the life of Sergo Ordzhonikidze, the former Commissar for Heavy Industry, a famous Georgian and comrade of Stalin in the Civil War, who had just committed suicide. Shortly before they were due to leave, Simonov was summoned to Stavsky’s office. Stavsky demanded that Simonov tell him ‘all about the anti-Soviet conversations [he had been conducting] at the institute’. He wanted him to confess and repent, to put him in a position where it would be difficult to refuse the demands of the authorities. When Simonov denied that he had held such conversations, Stavsky claimed to ‘have information’ about him. He told him it was ‘best to tell the truth’. Stavsky ‘was clearly irritated by my apparent inability to be sincere and speak the truth’, recalled Simonov. After several rounds of accusations by Stavsky and denials by Simonov, there was a stalemate, with Simonov refusing to cooperate. Stavsky accused him of spreading ‘counter-revolutionary poetry’ and banned him from the trip. Gradually it dawned on Simonov where Stavsky’s ‘information’ had come from. Among the students at the institute there was a craze for Kipling’s poetry. One day Simonov was drawn into a conversation about Kipling with a young teacher who then asked him what he thought about the poetry of Nikolai Gumilyov (who had been shot as a ‘counterrevolutionary’ in 1921). Simonov replied that he liked some of Gumilyov’s poetry, though not as much as Kipling’s. Encouraged by the teacher, he recited some of Gumilyov’s verse. As he recalled the scene, Simonov felt terrified for the first time in his life. He knew he was in danger of arrest, not just for his views on Gumilyov, but also on account of his noble origins, which were, it seems, connected by the teacher to Simonov’s indulgence of Gumilyov in his report to Stavsky. For the rest of the academic term Simonov avoided the teacher, who was himself arrested later that year (he had turned informer in a last desperate effort to save himself and had tried to entrap Simonov).81

By the spring of 1937, the Literary Institute was in a state of high anxiety. Like other Soviet institutions, the institute had been caught unawares by the sudden launching of the Great Terror; and inside it there was a sense of panic that this surprise attested to a ‘lack of vigilance’. At a series of purge meetings, students and teachers called hysterically for greater ‘Bolshevik vigilance and real self-criticism’ to rid the institute of all ‘formalists’ and ‘Averbakhians [Trotskyists]’. Several students were arrested, some for liberal or religious motifs in their poetry, others for defending Boris Pasternak (who had been criticized in the Soviet press for his individualistic style). About a dozen students were ‘worked over’ by the Komsomol (i.e. forced to recant their work at a student meeting where they were severely criticized). One of these students was expelled from the institute and handed over to the NKVD after she refused to renounce her father, a poet then out of favour, and bravely told her massed accusers: ‘My father is the most honourable person in the Soviet Union.’ For this she did ten years in Kolyma.82

Two of Simonov’s good friends at the institute suffered persecution in the Great Terror: the poet Valentin Portugalov was arrested in February 1937, after a fellow student reported to the police something he had said; and in April of that year, Vladimir Lugovskoi, the charismatic teacher, was denounced by the Presidium of the Writers’ Union for having allowed the republication (in 1935) of some poems from the 1920s (romantic verses about Russian nature), which had since come to be considered ‘politically harmful’. Forced to recant his poems, Lugovskoi wrote ‘On My Mistakes’, a ten-page exercise in self-abasement, in which he pledged to purge himself of ‘all the outmoded thoughts’ that had prevented him from ‘keeping up with the march of history’.83 Lugovskoi was terrified. For the next few years he published no poetry, except for a ‘Song About Stalin’, which was set to music in 1939.84 A soft-spoken and mild-mannered man, Lugovskoi also made a series of rabid political speeches in which he called for the blood of enemies. ‘It is time,’ he told a group of Moscow writers in October, ‘to purge our country of all those bastard-enemies, the Trotskyists, to sweep away with an iron broom all those people who betrayed our Motherland, and to purge those elements within ourselves.’85

Simonov, too, reacted out of fear. Until the incident in Stavsky’s office, he had been regarded as a model student and Soviet loyalist, but now this reputation was in doubt. Looking back at the Stavsky incident, Simonov recalled that he was ‘stunned and shocked, not so much by a sense of sudden danger… but more by the realization that they no longer believed or trusted me’. He set out to prove his worth in a series of attacks against the ‘formalists’ and other ‘enemies’ at the purge meetings in the institute.86 The most extraordinary of these speeches, which he gave at an open meeting of the institute on 16 May, included a vitriolic condemnation of his friend Yevgeny Dolmatovsky:

Often there are conversations [in the institute] where people only speak about themselves. In particular, I recall having to listen to a disgusting speech by Comrade Dolmatovsky at a meeting of the fourth class. He did not say, ‘the institute’ and ‘we’, but rather, ‘I and my institute.’ His position was: ‘The institute does not pay enough attention to individuals like me. The institute was founded to educate two or three talents, like me, Dolmatovsky, and only that justifies its existence. For talents like me – Dolmatovsky – the institute should lay on the best of everything, even at the expense of the rest of the students.’87

Perhaps Simonov had spoken in the spirit of self-criticism (which included criticism of one’s closest friends) that had always been a part of the Komsomol ethos. Students were expected to demonstrate that they were loyal and vigilant. Perhaps he had meant no harm to his friend, although he was clearly jealous of the high regard for Dolmatovsky’s talent, which was frequently expressed by the institute’s Director (who placed Simonov in a lower category that was ‘only good enough for teaching, journalism, or editorial work’).88 In the event, Simonov’s denunciation had relatively minor consequences for Dolmatovsky. After graduating from the institute in 1938, he was sent to work as a journalist in the Far East – a posting well below his literary worth and one which he described as the hardest in his life. It could have been much worse. The two men remained on amicable terms and often wrote in praise of each other, but among Simonov’s friends there was always the suspicion that Dolmatovsky harboured a grudge against him.89

As for Simonov, the years of the Great Terror, which were so catastrophic for many of his friends, catapulted him to prominence as a poet favoured by the Stalinist regime. In 1937, he contributed several poems to the cult of Stalin, including one, ‘Parade’, which was written for an orchestra and chorus:

This is a song about Him,

About his true friends,

His true friends and comrades.

The whole people

Are His friends:

You cannot count them,

They are like drops of water in the sea.90

In ‘Ice Battle’ (1938) Simonov counterposed the nationalistic story of the thirteenth-century Russian prince Aleksandr Nevsky and his military defeat of the Teutonic Knights with the Soviet struggle against foreign and domestic enemies (a theme also handled in the epic film by Sergei Eisenstein, Aleksandr Nevsky, which was made in the same year). The poem, which was part of the propaganda effort to prepare the country for the likelihood of war with Germany, was the first real literary success for Simonov. It brought him ‘fame and popularity’, in the words of Lugovskoi, who cited it in recommending him for membership to the Writers’ Union in September 1938.91 Whatever damage had been done to Simonov’s career by his refusal to become an informer was rectified, it seems, by the patriotic verses he had written since, for he was accepted as the youngest member of the Union with the full approval of Stavsky.

Simonov’s betrayal of Dolmatovsky was not unusual in the frenzied atmosphere of the Great Terror. One informer recalled how he struggled with his conscience when approached by the NKVD to report on his friends (who had turned their back on him after the arrest of his father). He asked himself: ‘Who are my friends? I have no friends. I owe loyalty to no one but those who can extract it from me – and to myself.’92 Fear tore apart the bonds of friendship, love and trust. It tore apart the moral ties that hold together a society, as people turned against each other in the chaotic scramble to survive.

After her arrest, in 1937, Yevgeniia Ginzburg was betrayed by many of her friends. They were forced to denounce her to her face during her interrogation in the Kazan jail (such ‘confrontations’ were frequently arranged by the NKVD). One of them was Volodia Diakonov, a writer on the editorial staff at the newspaper where she had worked. ‘We were old friends,’ Ginzburg recalls.

Our fathers had been schoolmates, I had helped him to get his job, and had gladly, almost lovingly, taught him his trade as a journalist. He was five years my junior. He had often said he was as fond of me as of a sister.

During their confrontation the interrogating officer (who spoke Russian poorly) read out the statement that Diakonov had made, denouncing Ginzburg as a member of a ‘counter-revolutionary terrorist group’ at the newspaper. Diakonov attempted to deny this, claiming he had only said that she had held an important post on the editorial staff, but the officer insisted that he sign a statement confirming the existence of such a group.

‘Volodya,’ I said mildly, ‘you know it’s a trick. You never said anything of the kind. By signing this you’ll be causing the death of hundreds of your comrades, people who have always been decent to you.’

[The interrogator’s] eyes nearly popped out of his head.

‘How dare you exert pressure on witness! I send you straight away to the lowest punishment cell. And you, Dyakonov, you signed all this yesterday when you were alone here. Now you refuse! I have you arrested at once for giving false evidence.’

He made a show of reaching for the bell – and Volodya, looking like a rabbit in front of a boa constrictor, slowly wrote his name in a hand as shaky as though he had had a stroke and quite unlike the bold sweep of the pen with which he signed his articles on the moral code of the new age. Then he whispered almost inaudibly:

‘Forgive me, Zhenya. We’ve just had a daughter. I have to stay alive.’93


How did people respond to the sudden disappearance of colleagues, friends and neighbours in the Great Terror? Did they believe that they were really ‘spies’ and ‘enemies’, as claimed by the Soviet press? Surely they could not think that of people they had known for many years?

For true Communists there could be no doubting what they were told by the Party leadership. It was not a matter of whether they believed that Tukhachevsky or Bukharin was a spy, but whether they accepted the judgement of the Party in which they placed their faith. There were all sorts of ways to resolve the questions which arose when a trusted friend and comrade suddenly became an ‘enemy’. Anatoly Gorbatov, a Red Army officer in Kiev, recalls the adjustment which he, like many in the army, had to make when Tukhachevsky and other senior military leaders were denounced as spies.

How can it be that men who took such a part in routing foreign interventionists and internal reactionaries… have suddenly become enemies of the people?… Finally, after mulling over a host of possible explanations, I accepted the answer most common in those days… ‘Obviously,’ many people said at the time… ‘they fell into the nets of foreign intelligence organizations while abroad…’

When General Iakir was arrested it was a ‘terrible blow’.

I knew Yakir well and respected him. Deep down, I nursed a hope that it was only a mistake – ‘It will be sorted out and he will go free’ – but this was the sort of thing that only the closest friends risked saying among themselves.94

Apparently, Iakir himself was prepared to accept the Party’s decision, judging from his final words before the firing squad: ‘Long live the Party! Long live Stalin!’95

Stalin’s jails were full of Bolsheviks who continued to believe in the Party as the source of all justice. Some confessed to the charges against them just in order to preserve that faith. Although torture was frequently employed to extract confessions from the Bolsheviks, the ‘decisive factor’ in their surrender was not violence, according to a former prisoner (who was not a Communist), but the fact that the majority of convinced Communists had to at all costs preserve their faith in the Soviet Union. To renounce it would have been beyond their powers. Great moral strength is required in certain circumstances to renounce one’s long-standing, deep-rooted convictions, even when these turn out to be untenable.96

Nadezhda Grankina encountered many Party members in the Kazan prison in 1938. They all continued to believe in the Party line. When she told them of the famine in 1932, they said ‘it was a lie, that I was exaggerating so that I could slander our Soviet way of life’. When she told them how she had been kicked out of her home for no reason, or how the passport system had destroyed families, they would say, ‘True, but that was the best way to deal with people like you.’

They thought I had got what I deserved because I was critical of the excesses. Yet when the same happened to them, they thought it was a mistake that would be fixed – because they had never had any doubts whatsoever, and whatever instructions had come down from the top, they had always cheered and carried them out… And when they were being expelled from the Party, none of them stood up for each other; they all kept quiet or raised their hands in support of the expulsion. It was some kind of universal psychosis.97

For the mass of the population there were always two realities: Party Truth and truth based on experience. But in the years of the Great Terror, when the Soviet press was full of the show trials and the nefarious deeds of ‘spies’ and ‘enemies’, few were able to see through the propaganda version of the world. It took extraordinary will-power, usually connected to a different value-system, for a person to discount the press reports and question the basic assumptions of the Terror. For some people it was religion or their nationality that allowed them to take a critical view; for others a different Party creed or ideology; and for others still it was perhaps a function of their age (they had seen too much in Russia ever to believe that innocence protected anybody from arrest). But for anyone below the age of thirty, who had only ever known the Soviet world, or had inherited no other values from his family, it was almost impossible to step outside the propaganda system and question its political principles.

The young were particularly credulous – they had been indoctrinated in this propaganda through Soviet schools. Riab Bindel remembers:

At school they said: ‘Look how they won’t let us live under Communism – look how they blow up factories, derail trams, and kill people – all this is done by enemies of the people.’ They beat this into our heads so often that we stopped thinking for ourselves. We saw ‘enemies’ everywhere. We were told that if we saw a suspicious character on the street, we should follow and report him – he might be a spy. The authorities, the Party, our teachers – everybody said the same thing. What else could we think?

After leaving school, in 1937, Bindel found a job in a factory, where the workers regularly cursed the ‘enemies of the people’.

When the factory had a breakdown, they would say: ‘Comrades, there is sabotage and treachery!’ They would look for someone who had a blemish on his record and call him an enemy. They would put him in prison, beat him up until he confessed that he had done it. At his trial they would say: ‘Look at the bastard who was working secretly among us!’98

Many workers believed in the existence of ‘enemies of the people’ and called for their arrest because they associated them with the ‘bosses’ (Party leaders, managers and specialists) whom they already blamed for their economic difficulties. Indeed, this mistrust of the elites helps to explain the broad appeal of the purges among certain sections of the population, which perceived the Great Terror as a ‘quarrel among the masters’ that did not affect them. This perception is neatly illustrated by a joke that circulated widely in the years of the Terror. The NKVD bangs on the door of an apartment in the middle of the night. ‘Who’s there?’ the man inside asks. ‘The NKVD, open up!’ The man is relieved: ‘No, no,’ he tells them, ‘you’ve got the wrong apartment – the Communists live upstairs!’99

The arrest of a close relative was not enough to shake most people from their belief in ‘enemies’. Indeed, in many cases it reinforced it. Ida Slavina, whose father was arrested in 1937, held firm to her Komsomol convictions until 1953:

I didn’t believe that my father was an enemy of the people. Of course I thought that he was innocent. Yet at the same time I believed that there were undoubtedly enemies of the people. I was utterly convinced that it was through their sabotage that good people like my father were being wrongly put in jail. The existence of these enemies was obvious to me… I read about them in the press and hated them as much as anyone. With the Komsomol I went on demonstrations to protest against the enemies of the people. We cried: ‘Death to the enemies of the people!’ The newspapers gave us these slogans. They filled our heads with the show trials. We read the terrible confessions by Bukharin and other Party leaders. We were horrified. If such people were spies, then the enemies were everywhere.100

Roza Novoseltseva, whose parents were arrested in 1937, never thought that they were really ‘enemies’, but she was prepared to believe that senior Party leaders like Bukharin might be, because, as she put it at the time, ‘someone has to be responsible for the tragic circumstances of our family’. Vladimir Ianin, who grew up in a family of Soviet diplomats, believed all the charges against the ‘enemies of the people’ – he thought that Yezhov was a ‘great man’ – even though his father, his older sister, six of his uncles and an aunt were all arrested in the Great Terror. It was only after the arrest of his mother, in 1944, that he began to question his belief. He wrote to Stalin to tell him that his mother was entirely innocent and to warn him that her arrest had proved that the NKVD had been taken over by the ‘enemies of the people’.101

Even Stalin’s victims continued to believe in the existence of ‘enemies of the people’. They blamed them for their own arrest (which they put down to ‘counter-revolutionary sabotage’) or presumed that they themselves had been mistaken for real ‘enemies of the people’. Dmitry Streletsky was the son of a ‘kulak’ family exiled as ‘enemies of the people’. He continued to believe in all the propaganda of the Stalinist regime, becoming an ardent Stalinist until 1953. Looking back on his life, Streletsky believes that ‘it was easier for us [the repressed] to survive our punishments if we continued to believe in Stalin, to think that Stalin was deceived by enemies of the people, rather than to give up hope in him.’

We never thought that Stalin was to blame for our suffering. We only wondered how it was that he did not know that he was being duped… My father himself said: ‘Stalin does not know, which means that sooner or later we are bound to be released [from exile]’… Perhaps it was a form of self-deception, but psychologically it made life much easier to bear, believing in the justice of Stalin. It took away our fear.102

Pavel Vittenburg, the geologist who spent many years in labour camps, supported the Great Terror against ‘enemies of the people’. As he explained in a letter to his wife from an expedition to Severnaia Zemlia in February 1937:

You asked if I heard about the trial of Piatakov on the radio. I heard it all – and now I understand that my own downfall is entirely due to those scoundrels the Trotskyists – they tried to destroy our [Soviet] Union. So many innocent non-party people have been sent into exile as a consequence of their dark ways.103

For those who were less certain about the existence of all these ‘enemies of the people’, it was not so much the show trials that gave rise to doubts (few people questioned the veracity of the prosecution case) as the sudden disappearance of colleagues, friends and neighbours, whose guilt did not seem plausible.

A common way to deal with such troubling thoughts was not to think – to shun all politics and withdraw entirely into private life. Many people managed to live through the Great Terror oblivious to political events, even the political elite, who must have shut their eyes to the disappearances in their circle. Mikhail Isaev was a leading Soviet jurist, a member of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union, who lived in Moscow in some style with his wife and their four children. Throughout the years of the Great Terror there was never any talk of politics at home, judging from the recollections of his wife Maria, even though the mass arrests affected many friends. Isaev seemed astonishingly unaware of what was going on, even in his own house. In a letter to his daughter, written in December 1937, he complained about the disappearance of the housekeeper, an elderly spinster, who had not come to work for several days. The house was in disorder, and Isaev was obviously annoyed that she had ‘gone away without any warning whatsoever’. He had ‘no idea’ why the housekeeper had disappeared and wondered whether he should fire her. It never crossed his mind that the housekeeper had been arrested – as indeed she had – and that she had nobody to pass a message to her employers.104

Many of the children of these elite families were sheltered from political events. Nina Kaminskaia, the daughter of a lawyer and former Kadet (liberal) activist, never thought about politics – the subject was avoided in her parents’ home. Even when her father lost his job in a Soviet bank, Nina went on living her ‘carefree student life’ at the law school where she had enrolled in 1937. Years later, she discussed this with a friend. Both of them agreed that they had lived quite happily through the Great Terror, without fear or even much awareness of what was going on: ‘We had simply failed to perceive the horror and despair that gripped our parents’ generation.’ Nina’s friend recalled an incident from 1937. She had come home from a party late at night and had lost her key:

There was nothing for it but to ring the bell and wake up her parents. For a long time there was no response, so she rang a second time. Soon she heard footsteps and the door was opened. There stood her father, dressed as though he had not been to bed at all but had just come in or was on the point of going out again. He was wearing a dark suit, a clean shirt, a neatly tied necktie. On seeing his daughter he stared at her in silence and then, still without a word, slapped her across the face.

Nina knew her friend’s father. He was a cultivated man, without any violence in him. His reaction to the late-night knock was obviously sparked by his fear that ‘they’ had come for him. At first her friend was shocked by the assault:

Overcome by self-pity, she burst into tears and reproached her father, but after a while she completely forgot about the incident. Years passed before she recalled her father’s pale face, his silence, and that blow – no doubt the only time in his life he ever hit anyone. She told me this story with great pain, racked by guilt at her own incomprehension and that of our whole generation.105

People dealt with their doubts by suppressing them, or by finding ways to rationalize them so as to preserve the basic structures of their Communist belief. They did not do this consciously and generally only became aware of their behaviour years later. Maia Rodak’s father was denounced as an ‘enemy of the people’ in 1937 because he had inadvertently uttered a phrase once used by Trotsky in a letter to the Soviet authorities. After his arrest, Maia tried, as she now understands, to reconcile her doubts about the Terror with her Communist beliefs.

I was troubled by so many questions. In reaction, I made myself become a conformist. That’s what happened, although I use the word ‘conformist’ only now… It was not a game but a strategy of survival. For example, my friend Alla and I did not like the cult of Stalin, but the idea that it might be wrong was simply inadmissible, even to ourselves. I was aware of the constant need to correct myself, to purge myself of doubts.106

In his memoirs Simonov reflects on his reaction to the arrest of a relative (the brother of his mother’s aunt), a senior army officer, in connection with the trial of Tukhachevsky and other senior military commanders in 1937. Simonov recalls that he had his doubts about the guilt of the accused. As a boy he had worshipped Tukhachevsky (whom he had often seen at his uncle’s Moscow flat). Simonov’s mother was irate about the arrest and certain of their relative’s innocence. Consequently, Simonov weighed up the evidence with special care, but in the end he decided to accept what he had read in the Soviet press. Like most people at that time, Simonov assumed that nobody would dare to execute such senior commanders without conclusive evidence of treason against them:

It was impossible to doubt the existence of a dreadful conspiracy. Any doubts on that score were inconceivable – there was no alternative. I am talking of the spirit of those times: either they were guilty or it was impossible to understand.

By the same reasoning Simonov was ready to accept that his relative was guilty of some crime. Because his relative had been arrested once before (in 1931) and then released for lack of evidence, it seemed to Simonov that his rearrest must mean that firmer proof about his guilt had now come to light (a conclusion reinforced by the fact that his stepfather, who had also been arrested in 1931, was now left untroubled by the police).107 In other words, Simonov interpreted the indicators in a way to reinforce his system of Communist belief, because disbelief was ‘inconceivable’.

Another way for people to reconcile the sudden disappearance of friends and relatives with their belief in Soviet justice was to tell themselves that some good people were arrested ‘by mistake’. According to this rationale, there were bound to be errors in identifying the true ‘enemies of the people’, because there were so many ‘enemies’, and they were so well hidden. In this way of thinking, the real enemy was always someone else – the sons and husbands of all the other women in the queue to hand in parcels at the prison gates – and never one’s own friends and relatives.

Recalling the arrest of her husband in 1936, Olga Adamova-Sliuzberg summarized her reaction:

No, it was impossible; it couldn’t happen to me, to him! Of course there had been rumours (just rumours – it was only the beginning of 1936) that something was going on, that there were arrests. But surely all this happened to other people; surely it couldn’t happen to us.108

Olga’s husband thought that there had been some ‘misunderstanding’ when he was arrested by the NKVD. Like millions of others, he left saying to his wife that it would all soon be sorted out (‘It must be a mistake’). Sure that he would soon return, he took only an overnight bag. Slavin and Piatnitsky did the same.

Convinced that an error had been made, many people wrote to Stalin to appeal for the release of relatives. Anna Semyonova, who was brought up as a Communist, recalls writing to Stalin after the arrest of her father in June 1937. ‘I imagined that after a few days Stalin would receive my letter, read it and say, “What is going on? Why has an honest man been arrested? Release him immediately and apologize to him.”’ Three months later, when Anna’s mother was taken away, she told herself again that ‘it must be a mistake’.109

The downfall of Yezhov, the NKVD chief behind the Great Terror, reinforced this system of belief. Yezhov was brought down amidst a host of scandals (not all of them entirely false) about his private life in the autumn of 1938. There were homosexual affairs, bisexual orgies, bouts of heavy drinking and fantastic stories of his wife as an ‘English spy’. But the real reason for Yezhov’s fall was Stalin’s growing sense that mass arrests were no longer a workable strategy. At the rate the arrests were going, it would not be long before the entire Soviet population was in jail. Stalin made it clear that the NKVD could not carry on incarcerating people, solely on the basis of denunciations, without checking their veracity. He warned against careerists who made denunciations to promote their position in society. After Yezhov’s dismissal in December 1938, his replacement, Lavrenty Beria, immediately announced a full review of the arrests in Yezhov’s reign. By 1940, 1.5 million cases had been reviewed; 450,000 convictions had been quashed, 128,000 cases closed, 30,000 people released from jail, and 327,000 people let out of the Gulag’s labour camps and colonies. These releases restored many people’s faith in Soviet justice. They allowed waverers to put the ‘Yezhov terror’ (Yezhovshchina) down to a temporary aberration rather than to systemic abuse. The mass arrests had all been Yezhov’s doing, it was said, but Stalin had corrected his mistakes and exposed Yezhov as an ‘enemy of the people’ who had been trying to undermine the Soviet government by arresting its officials and spreading discontent. On 2 February 1940, Yezhov was tried by the Military Collegium, convicted of a terrorist conspiracy and of spying for Poland, Germany, Britain and Japan and shot in a special building which he himself had built for shooting ‘enemies’ not far from the Lubianka.110

Beria’s appointment was greeted with relief. ‘We were overjoyed by the appearance of this pure and ideal figure, as Beria appeared to us,’ remembers Mark Laskin, who hoped, like many people, that ‘all the innocents would now be released, leaving only the real spies and enemies in jail’.111Simonov recalls that Beria’s review was enough to restore his belief in Soviet justice and dispel any doubts he may have had over the arrest of relatives. Indeed, its effect on Simonov was to reinforce his conviction that anybody who was not released, or who was arrested subsequently, must be guilty of some crime. Recalling his reaction to the arrest in 1939 of the writer Isaak Babel and the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold, Simonov confessed:

Despite the importance of these men in literature and the theatre, and the huge shockwaves which their sudden disappearance caused – already at that time – the fact that these arrests were so sudden and, in general, in those circles, so unusual, and because they took place under Beria, who was correcting Yezhov’s mistakes – all this made me think: maybe these men are indeed guilty of something. Many of the people arrested during Yezhov’s reign were perhaps innocent, but these people had been left untouched by Yezhov and were suddenly arrested when the old mistakes were being corrected. So it seemed likely that there were good reasons for their arrest.112

One of the people to have serious doubts about the charges against Meyerhold and Babel was Vladimir Stavsky, the former General Secretary of the Writers’ Union, who had attempted to recruit Simonov as an informer. Born into a working-class family in the provincial town of Penza, Stavsky could not have risen to the summit of the Soviet literary establishment without learning how to compromise his moral principles. As Stalin’s ‘executioner of Soviet literature’, he had authorized the arrests of numerous writers and personally wrote the denunciation which led to the arrest of Mandelshtam in the spring of 1938.113 But all this time Stavsky was tormented by doubts and fears. He confessed his despair to his diary, which, like Prishvin, he wrote in a tiny scrawl, barely legible to anybody else. Stavsky was particularly troubled by a story he had heard about a Party official who used his chauffeured car as a brothel. ‘I don’t understand how it happened,’ the chauffeur had said of the official. ‘He was just an ordinary boy, one of us, but then he crossed some dividing line and turned into a pig with his whole mug covered in filth. A regular worker doesn’t get that dirty in a whole lifetime.’114 Perhaps as a response to his loss of faith, Stavsky began drinking heavily, put on weight and became ill, often not appearing at work for days on end, as he recovered from his latest alcoholic binge. He avoided meetings where writers were denounced, or only spoke against them in the mildest terms. For this he himself was finally denounced by the Party Committee of the Writers’ Union in November 1937:

As the leader of the Writers’ Union, comrade Stavsky makes a lot of noise about the need for vigilance in literature, he calls for a campaign for the revelation of enemies. But in reality he has helped to conceal the Averbakhians, he does not really speak out to disarm the enemies of the people and alien elements of the Party and he remains silent about his own mistakes in habouring connections with the enemy.115

Stavsky came under growing pressure from his political masters and was ultimately dismissed from the leadership of the Writers’ Union in the spring of 1938.

There were many people, like Stavsky, who had doubts about the mass arrests, but few who spoke out against them. The possibilities for effective opposition were extremely limited in any case, as Piatnitsky’s protest at the Party plenum clearly showed. Groups and individuals wrote to Party leaders to express their outrage at the mass arrests but nearly always did so anonymously. ‘Hundreds of thousands of innocent people are languishing in jails, and no one knows what for… Everything is based on lies,’ wrote one unnamed group to Molotov in June 1938 (‘Excuse us if we do not sign our names, it is forbidden to complain’).116 There were some protests by Party members in the localities, particularly by the older Bolsheviks, whose political morals had been formed before the rise of Stalin.

Olga Adamova-Sliuzberg tells the story of one Old Bolshevik called Altunin she came across in Kolyma in 1939. He came from somewhere in Voronezh province and had worked as a tanner before joining the Party. A handsome middle-aged man with a reddish beard, he had once been very strong, but working in the mines had weakened him. By the time Olga met him he had been transferred to a women’s construction brigade in Magadan, where he worked as a toolmaker. He told Olga his story:

When it all started in 1937, first this comrade was an enemy, then that one, and we expelled them from the Party, we all raised our hands; and then we killed them all, our own comrades.

At first I pretended to be ill. That way I didn’t have to go to the Party meetings and raise my hand. But then I saw that something needed to be done: we could not go on like this, we were destroying the Party, killing good and honest people. I did not believe that they were all traitors, I knew these people well.

One evening I sat down and wrote a letter. I sent one copy to my local Party organization, one to Stalin, and one to the [Party’s] Central Control Commission. I wrote that we were killing the Revolution… I poured my whole heart into this letter. I showed it to my wife. She said: ‘This is suicide. The day after you send that letter they will put you in prison.’ But I said: ‘Let them put me in prison. Better to be behind bars than to raise my hand and kill a comrade.’

Well, she was right. I sent my letter and three days later I was in jail. They worked me over – and I got ten years in Kolyma.

Asked if he ever regretted what he had done, Altunin replied that there had been one occasion, when he was thrown into an isolation cell after his labour team had failed to clear the tree-roots of a forest in a very heavy frost:

Suddenly I felt really sorry for myself: other people had been sentenced for nothing, but I had put myself away. And what was the point of writing what I wrote? Nothing would change. Maybe Solts [head of the Central Control Commission] felt a bit ashamed, but the old Moustache [Stalin] – what did he care? There was no getting through to him. And right now, I thought, I could be sitting at home with my wife and children around the samovar in a warm room. As soon as I thought that, I began beating my head against the wall to stop such thoughts from entering my mind. All night long I ran around my cell cursing myself for such regrets.117

The only source of opposition capable of having any real influence was within the system of repression itself. Judges in the local courts were often quite effective in softening sentences, sometimes even throwing cases out on the grounds of lack of evidence, though after the summer of 1937, almost all the people swept up in the mass arrests were summarily tried and sentenced by the troikas, the special three-man tribunals (usually made up by the NKVD, the Procuracy and the Party) set up to circumvent the courts.118 Within the NKVD, too, there were some brave officials willing to speak out against the mass arrests, particularly during the ‘kulak operations’, which reminded many local NKVD agents of the bloody chaos in 1928–33. Eduard Salyn, the NKVD chief in Omsk province, spoke out at a conference convened by Stalin and Yezhov to discuss the ‘kulak operation’ in July 1937. Salyn said that in his region there were

insufficient numbers of enemies of the people and Trotskyists to warrant a campaign of repression, and in general I consider it to be completely wrong to decide beforehand how many people to arrest and shoot.

Shortly after the conference Salyn was arrested, tried and shot.119

Mikhail Shreider was another NKVD officer who voiced his opposition to the mass arrests. In his memoirs, written in the 1970s, he describes himself as a ‘pure Chekist’, inspired by the Leninist ideals of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka in 1917. Shreider wrote his memoirs to justify his work in the Cheka and portray himself as a victim of the Great Terror. According to his version of events, he became disillusioned with the Stalinist regime as he observed the corruption of his fellow NKVD officers during the 1930s. Comrades he had known as decent and honest men were now prepared to use any form of torture against ‘enemies of the people’, if it meant advancing their careers. Shreider was also troubled by the scale of the arrests. He could not believe in the existence of so many ‘enemies of the people’. But he was afraid to express his doubts in case he was denounced. He soon discovered that many of his colleagues shared his fear, but no one would break the conspiracy of silence. Even when a trusted colleague disappeared, the most that any of his comrades dared to say was that he might be an ‘honest man’. Nobody suggested that he might be innocent, because this would expose them to the risk of denunciation for questioning the purge. ‘No one understood why all these arrests were happening,’ recalled Shreider, ‘but people were afraid to speak out, because that might raise suspicion that they were aiding or communicating with the “enemies of the people”.’120

For several months, Shreider watched in silence as old friends and colleagues were arrested and sentenced to death. Unable to oppose the Terror, he became a sort of conscientious objector by not attending the executions of NKVD colleagues in the Lubianka yard. Then, in the spring of 1938, Shreider was transferred to Alma-Ata, where he became the second-in-command to Stanislav Redens, the NKVD chief of Kazakhstan (and the brother-in-law of Stalin). Shreider and Redens became close friends. They lived next door to each other, and their families were always in each other’s homes. Shreider noticed Redens’ growing disgust with the torture methods of his operatives. He thought that Redens was a man of humane sensibilities. Redens, for his part, had marked out Shreider as somebody who shared his doubts about the methods used in the Great Terror. Late one night he drove him out of town and stopped the car. The two men got out and began to walk. When they were out of earshot of the chauffeur, Redens said to Shreider. ‘If Feliks Eduardovich [Dzerzhinsky] were still alive, he would have the lot of us shot for the way we’re working now.’ Shreider made out that he did not understand: to show complicity in such a thought was enough to warrant his immediate arrest, and he could not be sure that what his boss had said was not a provocation. Redens continued talking. It became clear to Shreider that he had meant what he had said. Shreider opened up his troubled soul as well. Once this trust had been established, the two men confided in each other. Redens regretted that all the decent Communists had been destroyed, while the likes of Yezhov remained untouched. Yet there were still subjects that were too dangerous for him to talk about. Looking back on these whispered conversations, Shreider thought that Redens knew far more about the Terror than he had let on: ‘His situation and the circumstances of the times obliged him, like all of us, not to call things by their name, and not to talk about such things, even with his friends.’121

Shreider was emboldened by his conversations with Redens. They made him feel remorseful and angry. He wrote to Yezhov to protest against the arrest of an old colleague in the NKVD, and against the arrest of his wife’s cousin, a student in Moscow, vouchsafing the innocence of both these men. A few days later, in June 1938, Redens received a telegram from Yezhov ordering the arrest of Shreider. Presented with this news in Redens’ office, Shreider begged Redens to appeal to Stalin: ‘Stanislav Frantsevich, you know me well, and you, after all, are his brother-in-law. It must be a mistake.’ Redens replied: ‘Mikhail Pavlovich, I shall put in a word for you, but I fear it is hopeless. Today it is you, no doubt tomorrow it will be my turn.’ Shreider was imprisoned in the Butyrki prison in Moscow. In July 1940, he was sentenced to ten years in a labour camp followed by three years in exile. Redens was arrested in November 1938. He was shot in January 1940.122


On the night of her father’s arrest, in May 1937, Elena Bonner was sent by her mother to stay with her aunt Anya and her uncle Lyova so that she would be out of the way during the NKVD search of the Bonner apartment. The fourteen-year-old Elena walked through Leningrad and knocked on the door of her relatives. ‘The door opened immediately, as if they were expecting me,’ recalls Elena, who then explained to her aunt and uncle what had happened. Her uncle was frightened and angry. He started asking questions about her father’s work:

I didn’t understand what he was getting at and tried to enter the apartment. Anya said something. Lyova practically shouted at her, ‘Anya, damn it, you’re always…’ And he barred my way with his right arm across the doorway. Then he spoke in a loud whisper, very fast, ‘We can’t let you in; we can’t. What’s the matter? Don’t you understand that?’ He repeated it several times, spraying me with his spittle. Anya said something. I could see her mouth moving, but I heard nothing except Lyova’s whisper as loud as a shout. I retreated from the door until my back was pressed against the bannister. The door slammed. I stood there, unable to comprehend what had happened to me. Then I wiped my face with my hand and started down the stairs. I hadn’t reached the bottom of the flight when I heard the door opening. When I turned, Lyova was in the doorway. I was afraid he would call me back. But he said nothing and then started to close the door slowly. I shouted, ‘Scoundrel!’ and I saw him turn white.123

There are countless such stories of abandonment by friends and neighbours and even by kin following the arrest of a close relative. People were afraid of making contact with the families of ‘enemies of the people’. They crossed the street to avoid them, did not talk to them in the corridors of communal blocks and forbade their children to play with theirs in the courtyard. People removed the photographs of friends and relatives who had disappeared, sometimes even tearing out or scribbling over faces in family portraits.

According to Solzhenitsyn:

The mildest and at the same time the most widespread form of betrayal was not to do anything bad directly, but just not to notice the doomed person next to one, not to help him, to turn away one’s face, to shrink back. They had arrested a neighbour, your comrade at work, or even your close friend. You kept silence. You acted as if you had not noticed.124

Olga Adamova-Sliuzberg recalls that when her husband was arrested,

People spoke to me in a special tone of voice; they were afraid of me. Some would cross the road when they saw me coming towards them. Others paid me special attention, but this was heroic on their part, and I and they were both aware of it.125

After the arrest of her parents, in June 1937, Inna Gaister and her sister were evicted from their family dacha at Nikolina Gora. On the instructions of their parents they were taken by their nanny to the house of the poet Aleksandr Bezymensky, an old friend of their father, who they hoped would take them in. The poet drove them to the nearest station and put them on the first train to Moscow. ‘He was too afraid to get involved,’ recalls Inna. ‘He often used to stay in my grandmother’s house, but he and his wife had a new baby, and fear must have got the better of his decency.’126

When Stanislav and Varvara Budkevich were arrested, in July 1937, their daughter Maria and her younger brother were evicted from the family’s two rooms in the communal apartment where they had lived in Leningrad. The rooms were then occupied by one of their neighbours, a wife and husband with three small children, who had been on friendly terms with the Budkeviches until 1937, when the wife had denounced them to the NKVD as counter-revolutionaries and spies (Stanislav was of Polish origin). The woman had even claimed that Varvara, a historical researcher, was a prostitute who brought her clients to the apartment. Maria’s brother was taken to an orphanage, but she was left entirely by herself; she was then just fourteen. For the first few days Maria stayed with a schoolfriend. Then she found a room where she lived on her own. An old friend of the family, the wife of a Bolshevik official, advised Maria to ask her former neighbours if they knew anything about the whereabouts of her parents. When Maria went back to the communal apartment, she received a hostile reception:

My God, they were so afraid of me, they would not even let me in. Can you imagine? The woman who had taken over our rooms was annoyed and angry to see me. Whether her husband had already been arrested or was afraid that they would come for him, I don’t recall. Maybe the family was in trouble. Anyway they would not help. The woman simply said: ‘I don’t know anything. Nothing. Understand? And please don’t come here again!’127

Neighbours became strangers overnight. For nearly thirty years the Turkins had lived next to the Nikitins. They shared the ground floor of a three-storeyed wooden house on the corner of Soviet and Sverdlov Streets in Perm – the seven Turkins (Aleksandr, Vera and their two daughters, Vera’s mother and her brother and sister) occupying three rooms on the right side of the house, and the Nikitins, a family of four, occupying three rooms on the left. Aleksandr Turkin was a veteran Bolshevik, one of Sverdlov’s comrades from the revolutionary underground in Perm. Like all his family, Aleksandr was employed at the Motovilikha steelworks. He was also a journalist for the local newspaper and a judge in the regional court. In 1936, he was arrested as a Trotskyist. His guilt was accepted as a ‘proven fact’ by his wife Vera, a factory worker who took no interest in politics. Vera’s mother, a domineering woman who ran the Turkin household, also thought that Aleksandr was guilty. She cut his face out of the family portrait in the living room. ‘If we have an enemy among us, we must clear him out,’ she said. Vera was dismissed from her job at the Motovilikha plant after being injured in an accident (as the wife of an ‘enemy of the people’ she did not qualify for sickness benefit). The only job that she could find was selling newspapers in a street kiosk. Vera’s brother and her sister Valia were also sacked from jobs at the plant. Valia, who was pregnant, was immediately renounced by her husband, who was granted a divorce on political grounds. The family struggled to make ends meet. There was never much to eat. But the hardest thing to bear, according to Vera’s daughter, was their ostracism by friends and neighbours:

Everybody was afraid of us. They were afraid to talk to us, or even come near us, as if we had the plague and would infect them… Our neighbours avoided us, they forbade their children to play with us… In 1936 [when Aleksandr was arrested], nobody said anything about ‘enemies of the people’ – they just remained silent. But by 1937 everybody called us ‘enemies of the people’.

The Nikitins, too, turned their backs on their neighbours. Anatoly Nikitin was a senior accountant at the Motovilikha works. Perhaps it was his fear of being sacked that made him cut all links with the Turkins. The two families used to eat together in a shared kitchen; their children used to play together in the yard outside. But now they kept apart and did not talk. The Nikitins even wrote to the Soviet to renounce their old neighbours and were rewarded with an extra room at the expense of the Turkins. Valia and her young baby were moved out of their room. They joined Valia’s brother and mother in the room next door. Anatoly’s sister then took over Valia’s room, which was joined with the Nikitin side by reopening a connecting door.128

The Nikitin and Turkin apartments, Perm

The Piatnitskys were similarly ostracized after Osip’s arrest in July 1937. Evicted from their apartment, with barely enough money to feed her sons, Julia turned for help to old friends in the Party. First she went to Aron Solts, a close friend of Osip for nearly thirty years. When she knocked on his door, Julia was told by his housekeeper: ‘He is afraid. He will throw me out if he sees you here. He told me to tell you that he does not know you.’ Julia then turned to Tsetsiliia Bobrovskaia, an Old Bolshevik whom she had known since 1917. At first she, too, refused to see Julia, but then she agreed to let her come in ‘for a few minutes’ before she went to work. She did not want to listen to Julia’s story but told her tearfully: ‘Go directly to the authorities, to Yezhov. Don’t ask anything of your comrades. Nobody will help and nobody can help.’ A few days later, Julia was on the Metro when she came across the widow of the Bolshevik leader Viktor Nogin: ‘She looked at me but said nothing… Then Lapev – a railwayman who knew Piatnitsky well – came into the carriage: he saw me and then for the whole journey turned to face the other way.’ Julia’s sons, Igor and Vladimir, were similarly abandoned by their friends. Vladimir’s best friend, Yevgeny Loginov, the son of one of Stalin’s secretaries, stopped coming to visit them. No one called on them any more. Vladimir was the target of a bullying campaign at school. ‘They taunted me, calling me an enemy of the people,’ he recalls, ‘and they stole things from me, books and clothes, just because they knew that I couldn’t defend myself.’ Isolated and betrayed by all her friends, Julia reflected on the tenuous nature of human connection. She wrote in her diary on 20 July:

How awful people are to one another these days! I am convinced that if someone is friendly, or even just acts in a friendly or ‘comradely’ way, it’s not from any human interest or feelings of goodwill, but simply because of some sort of material interest, or other kind of advantage. Everybody knows we’ve lost everything, that we have nothing to live on, that we have nothing to eat, and yet no one lifts a finger to help us. We are dying, and nobody is interested.129

As Elena Bonner discovered, even relatives turned their backs on the families of ‘enemies of the people’. Aleksei Yevseyev and his wife Natalia were active Communists. Aleksei was a doctor, a senior consultant to the Red Army on venereal disease, Natalia an economist in the Far Eastern Timber Trust. They lived with their daughter Angelina in Khabarovsk in the Far East. In 1937, Aleksei and Natalia were both expelled from the Party (Aleksei was connected to Marshal V. K. Bliukher, whose Far Eastern Army was the target of a major purge). Angelina, who was then fifteen, recalls her father coming home after his expulsion from the Party:

He was terror-struck. He came home and said in horror: ‘They’re going to arrest me!’ I was just a stupid girl, fifteen years of age, and I said: ‘If you are arrested, it means it is necessary.’ My father had always said to me, ‘If they are arrested, it means it is necessary.’ All my life I have lived with the echo of my words: ‘It means it is necessary.’ I didn’t understand what it was all about.

Aleksei was arrested on 1 June. He was convicted of participating in a ‘Fascist plot against the Soviet government’ (he was shot in Khabarovsk in March 1938). After his arrest, Natalia and Angelina were evicted from their flat. Fearful of her own arrest, Natalia fled with Angelina to Moscow, where her family lived, hoping to leave her daughter in the care of relatives. At fifteen years of age, there was a danger that Angelina would be taken to an orphanage in the event of Natalia’s arrest. None of Natalia’s relatives, all ardent Communists, would help. Her younger sister, a Komsomol activist, when asked to take in Angelina, replied: ‘Let Soviet power bring her up, we do not need her.’ Natalia’s mother was even more hostile. She told her granddaughter to her face: ‘I hate your father, he is an enemy of the people, and I hate you as well.’ For several days, Natalia and her daughter slept on a bench in the park, until at last they were taken in by Andrei Grigorev and his wife, old friends of Aleksei from his student days at Moscow University’s Faculty of Medicine. At enormous personal risk, the Grigorevs concealed Angelina in the communal apartment where they lived, a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. Angelina had no legal papers allowing her to remain in the Soviet capital, but the Grigorevs’ neighbours in the communal apartment (among them Molotov’s sister-in-law) turned a blind eye to the hideaway: it suited them to keep the doctors in the house. Leaving her daughter in Moscow, Natalia returned to Khabarovsk, where she was arrested a few weeks later.130

Shamsuvali and Gulchira Tagirov were schoolteachers in the Tatar region of Barda, 140 kilometres south-west of Perm. Shamsuvali was a revolutionary activist who had played a leading role in the establishment of the kolkhoz in their village of Akbash. In 1936, Shamsuvali was arrested as a ‘Muslim nationalist’ along with thirty-four other Tatar teachers and religious leaders in the Barda area (he was shot in 1938). Gulchira was left on her own with six children, the eldest aged eleven and the youngest just a few weeks old. As one of the people in the village who could read (in Tatar and in Russian), Gulchira was respected by the villagers, who made sure that she had enough food to feed her family. Even the arresting officer, who was filled with remorse for having to arrest a good man like Tagirov, helped Gulchira and her family. He brought them milk or fed them at his house. Once a week he passed letters between Gulchira and Shamsuvali, who was imprisoned in Barda. ‘Forgive me,’ he wrote to Shamsuvali in a letter of his own, ‘I had no choice. They forced me to arrest you, even though I knew that you were innocent. Now I shall redeem my guilt and help your family.’ Gulchira stayed on as a teacher in the Akbash village school, although her lessons were often monitored by NKVD operatives; they checked for signs of Muslim nationalism in everything she said.

In 1937, Gulchira and her six children were evicted from their house, following a denunciation by the chairman of the village Soviet. With their possessions on a horse and cart, they walked 20 kilometres to the village of Yekshur, where Shamsuvali’s mother lived with her eldest son in a large two-storeyed house with room to spare. Shamsuvali’s mother was an educated and religious woman: her house was full of books. But she refused to take them in. She blamed Gulchira for the arrest of her son. Having heard the rumours of her daughter-in-law’s growing friendship with the arresting officer, perhaps she suspected that Gulchira had played an active part in Shamsuvali’s arrest. Gulchira’s daughter, Rezeda, believes that her father’s relatives were motivated by the fear that Gulchira was an ‘enemy of the people’ who had been responsible for the arrest of her husband and who might endanger them as well. Shamsuvali’s mother told Gulchira that her house was full. She would not let her in, or even give her food for the children after their long walk. That night the family of Shamsuvali’s younger brother moved into the spare rooms on the second floor (he sold his own house in Akbash, where he was a trader, to consolidate the move). Turned away by her husband’s family, Gulchira and her children found a room to rent from a kolkhoz worker on the edge of the village. Shamsuvali’s mother came to visit them on one occasion but complained about the noise made by the children and did not come again. Gulchira and her children lived in Yekshur for fifteen years, but only rarely did they see the Tagirov family, who refused to talk to them. ‘The most painful thing,’ recalls Gulchira, ‘was to see them pass us on the street – surely there was no one to hear them there – but they still wouldn’t speak to us, not even say hello.’ Gulchira’s children grew up in the same village as their cousins but rarely mixed with them. ‘We went to school with them, but we never played with them, or went to their house,’ recalls Rezeda. ‘They were always cold towards us, and we were cold towards them.’131

Gulchira Tagirova and her children (Rezeda centre), 1937. The photograph was taken in a studio in Sarapul and sent to Shamsuvali in prison

Fear brought out the worst in people. Yet there were also acts of extraordinary kindness by colleagues, friends and neighbours, sometimes even strangers, who took enormous risks to help the families of ‘enemies of the people’. They took their children in, gave them food and money or put them up when they were evicted from their homes. There were Bolshevik officials and NKVD men who took pity on their victims’ families and tried their best to assist them by warning them of danger or tracking down arrested relatives.132

In March 1937, the architect Mikhail Stroikov was rearrested in exile in Arkhangelsk. His wife Elena and their ten-year-old daughter Julia were taken in by an old friend of the family, Konstantin Artseulov, who was also living in exile in the town of Mozhaisk, 100 kilometres south-west of Moscow, with his wife Tatiana and their son Oleg, who was Julia’s age. Konstantin was unemployed. An artist by training, he had been dismissed from his job as a pilot in the Soviet air force shortly before his arrest and as an exile could not find work in Mozhaisk. The whole burden of supporting the two families fell on Tatiana, who worked as a teacher in Mozhaisk. ‘They sold everything they could in order to ensure that we were fed,’ recalls Julia. ‘They risked their own necks to take us in.’ Julia remained with the Artseulovs while her mother went in search of work. In November 1937, Konstantin was denounced by a neighbour for harbouring the daughter of an ‘enemy of the people’. He was rearrested, imprisoned and later shot. Still his wife Tatiana continued to shelter Julia, carefully concealing her from their malicious neighbours. Eventually, in 1938, Tatiana smuggled Julia to Moscow, where friends of Konstantin agreed to take her in until her mother found a job. Elena came for her that summer and took her to Pushkino, a small town north of Moscow, where Konstantin’s connections helped her find a job in the Moscow City Committee of Artists, an organization responsible for producing portraits of the Soviet leaders. Elena became one of the leading portraitists of the Soviet leadership – an ironic ending for the wife of an ‘enemy of the people’.133

Oleg Liubchenko’s father, a Ukrainian journalist, was arrested in 1934 and shot in 1937. Exiled from Kiev, Oleg and his mother Vera ended up in Maloiaroslavets, a small town south-west of Moscow. They did not have a passport for Moscow, but they often went to stay there in a communal apartment on the Arbat, where Vera’s family, once well-known landowners in Riazan, had lived for several years in the 1920s. Vera’s sister still lived in the apartment. From 1936 to 1941 Oleg and his mother stayed in the flat illegally. All the inhabitants of the apartment were very welcoming, risking eviction and perhaps arrest for harbouring illegal immigrants. The elder of the apartment, an old Chekist called Klavdiia Kolchina, was particularly supportive. It was she who had originally invited Vera’s family to live in the apartment at the end of the Civil War, when she had come to Moscow from Riazan and had met them on the street. Klavdiia had known of Oleg’s father in Riazan, and was certain that he was innocent of the crimes for which he had been shot. Having been part of the Cheka, and knowing how they worked, she would often say: ‘We have laws but no legality.’ The head of the house committee was also well disposed, even though she was an active Communist. She was well aware that illegals were living in the flat but, recalls Oleg, on the rare occasions when he or his mother ventured into the courtyard, or when the head of the house committee saw them entering through a side door, she would ‘look right past us with a stern expression, as if trying not to notice us’.134 There were lots of illegals in the housing blocks of the Arbat, a prestige area of the capital that was hit hard by the Great Terror.

After Ilia Slavin was arrested in November 1937, his wife Esfir and their daughter Ida were ejected from their three-room apartment in the House of the Leningrad Soviet. They were moved to a tiny room, 8 metres square, in a communal apartment, without running water or electricity, in the distant outskirts of Leningrad. Five months later, Esfir was arrested too. She was imprisoned in the Kresty jail and then sentenced to eight years in the Akmolinsk Labour Camp for the Wives of Traitors to the Motherland (ALZhIR) in Kazakhstan. Suddenly, the sixteen-year-old Ida, who had lived the sheltered life of a professor’s daughter, was left on her own. ‘I was completely unprepared for the daily chores of existence,’ she recalls. ‘I did not even know the price of bread, or how to wash my clothes.’ Without any other relatives in Leningrad, Ida was unable to support herself; she could not even pay the rent on her small room. But she was saved by her classmates and their parents, who took turns to put her up for a few days (if they kept her any longer they would run the risk of being denounced by their neighbours for harbouring the daughter of an ‘enemy of the people’). For many of these families, housing and feeding an extra child was a real burden. For Ida the importance of their help was inestimable: ‘They not only gave me food and shelter, but the spiritual support I needed to survive.’

Ida studied hard at school for the exams she had to pass to graduate to the tenth and final class, from which she could apply to a higher institute. With help from friends, she found a cleaning job, which enabled her to pay the rent for her small room. Every day, she would travel for three hours between home and school, and then another hour to get to her cleaning job. Two nights a week, she would stand in prison queues trying to find out where her parents had been taken, and if they were still alive.

The other person to help Ida was the director of her school, Klavdiia Alekseyeva. An old and respected Party member, Alekseyeva had always been opposed to the Party culture of purging in her school and she had done her best to resist it by quietly protecting those children whose parents had been named as ‘enemies of the people’. She had, for example, organized the lodging system that had rescued not just Ida but many other orphaned children in the school. On one occasion Alekseyeva had bravely overruled the Komsomol when it had tried to expel a fifteen-year-old girl for ‘failing to denounce’ her own mother, who had been arrested as an ‘enemy of the people’. Ida recalls that Klavdiia opted for a relatively simple tactic. She was deliberately ‘naive’ and ‘literal-minded’ in her fulfilment of Stalin’s famous ‘directive’: ‘Sons do not answer for fathers.’*

In our school there were many children whose parents had been arrested. Thanks to Klavdiia, no one was expelled. There were none of those frightful meetings – which took place in other schools – where such children were obliged to renounce their parents… The day after my mother’s arrest, when I appeared at school, Klavdiia called me to her office and told me that until the end of the academic year my school meals would be paid for by the parents’ committee. She suggested that I write a letter asking to be exempted from the school exams on health grounds [thus allowing Ida to advance automatically to the tenth class]. ‘But Klavdiia Aleksandrovna,’ I replied, ‘I am perfectly healthy.’ She shrugged her shoulders, smiled and winked at me.

Ida was exempted from the exams. But life continued to be very hard, and she came close to giving up her studies many times:

When I spoke of leaving school in order to find work, Klavdiia took me to her office and told me: ‘Your parents will return – you must believe that. They will not forgive you, if you fail to finish your studies and make something of yourself.’ That inspired me to continue.135

Ida became a teacher.

Ida Slavina was not the only child to be supported by the director of her school. Elena Bonner, a classmate of Ida’s, was also helped by Klavdiia Alekseyeva. After the arrest of her parents, in the summer of 1937, Elena worked as a cleaner in the evenings, but that was not enough to pay the school fees (introduced in middle-level schools from 1938). She decided to leave school and get a full-time job, continuing her studies at night school, where she would not have to pay. Elena took the application form to Alekseyeva for her approval.

Klavdiia Alexandrovna took the piece of paper from me, read it, got up from her desk, shut the door to her office and said quietly, ‘Do you really think I’d take money from you for your education? Go!’

To get an exemption from the school fees Elena had to apply to a party official, the Komsorg, or Komsomol organizer, who ‘kept an eye on the political and moral state of the students and teachers’ and ‘terrified everyone in the school – as the obvious representative of the NKVD’. Bonner was too frightened to apply. Her school fees ended up being paid by somebody anonymously – she believes by Klavdiia herself. Looking back on these events, Elena recalls that in their class of twenty-four there were eleven children whose parents had been arrested.

We all knew who we were but we did not talk, we did not want to draw attention to ourselves, but just carried on as normal kids… I am almost certain that every one of those eleven children finished the tenth class at the same time as me – they were all saved by the director of our school.136

Of all the professions, teachers feature the most frequently as the protectors and even saviours of children such as Ida Slavina. Many teachers had been schooled in the humanitarian values of the old intelligentsia, especially in elite schools like Slavina’s. ‘Most of our teachers were highly educated, humane and liberal people,’ recalls Ida.

Our physical culture teacher had been an officer in the tsarist army and had fought in the Red Cavalry in the Civil War. He was fluent in three European languages… We had a drama group and a poetry club, both encouraged by our teachers, I now realize, as a way of exposing us to nineteenth-century literature, which had no place in the ‘Soviet classroom’. Our history teacher, Manus Nudelman, was a brilliant story-teller and popularizer of history. He was a nonconformist, both in his ideas and in the way he dressed, which was eccentric and bohemian. In his lessons he carefully avoided the cult of Stalin which was mandatory for all history lessons in those times. He was arrested in 1939.137

Svetlana Cherkesova was only eight when her parents were arrested in 1937. She lived with her uncle and went to school in Leningrad, where her teacher, Vera Yeliseyeva, taught the children to be kind to Svetlana because she was ‘an unfortunate’ (a word from the lexicon of nineteenth-century charity). Svetlana remembers:

In our class there were no enemies of the people – that was what our teacher said. She made a point of taking in the children of people who had disappeared. There were lots of them. There was one boy, for example, who was living on the streets, he was always dirty, without shoes or clothes, for there was nobody to care for him. She bought him a coat out of her own money and took him home to clean him up.138

Vera Yeliseyeva was arrested in 1938.

Dmitry Streletsky was also treated kindly by his schoolteachers in Chermoz, where his family lived in exile from 1933. His physics teacher gave him money for his lunch, which his family could not afford. Dmitry wanted to thank his teacher, but when she put the money in his hand she would put her finger to her mouth to signal that he should not speak. The teacher was afraid of getting into trouble if it became known that she had been helping the son of an ‘enemy of the people’. Dmitry recalls:

There were never any words: I never got the chance to say thank you. She would wait for me outside the dining hall and, as I passed, would slip three roubles in my hand. Perhaps she whispered something as I passed – something to encourage me – but that was all. I never spoke to her, and she did not really speak to me, but I felt enormous gratitude, and she understood.139

Inna Gaister’s school (School No. 19) was in the centre of Moscow, close to the House on the Embankment where many of the Soviet leaders lived, and it had lots of children who had lost their parents in the Great Terror. At the nearby Moscow Experimental School (MOPSh), favoured by many of the Bolshevik elite, such children would have been expelled or forced to renounce their parents after their arrest. But at Gaister’s school the atmosphere was different; the teachers had a liberal and protective attitude towards their students. After the arrest of both her parents, in June 1937, Inna went back to her school at the start of the academic year. For a long time she was frightened to tell her teachers what had happened. ‘We were brought up on the story of Pavlik Morozov,’ explains Inna, who feared that she would be expected to renounce her parents like the boy hero. But when at last she summoned up the courage and told her teacher everything, the teacher merely said: ‘Well, so what? Now let’s go to class.’ Inna’s father was one of the accused in the high-profile Bukharin trial, but none of her teachers drew attention to this fact. When school fees were introduced, her teacher paid them out of her salary (Vladimir Piatnitsky, Osip’s youngest son, a student at the same school, was also supported by a teacher). Through the influence of these courageous teachers, School No. 19 became a place of safety for children of ‘enemies of the people’. The other children were encouraged to feel protective towards them. Inna recalls an occasion involving one of the roughest boys in her class (he had been adopted by his parents from an orphanage and had severe behavioural problems). The boy had compiled a list of twenty-five ‘Trotskyists’ in the class (i.e. children of ‘enemies of the people’) and put it up on the classroom wall. He was attacked by all the other children in the class. Inna also remembers an incident connected with the Tukhachevsky trial, when Soviet schools were instructed to erase the image of this ‘enemy of the people’ from textbooks. At Gaister’s school there was a different policy:

Some of the boys were defacing Tukhachevsky’s picture in their books, adding a moustache or a pair of horns. One of our teachers, Rakhil Grigorevna, said to them: ‘I have already said this to the girls and now I will say it to you: I am going to give each of you a piece of paper, and I want you to paste it neatly into your books to cover Tukhachevsky’s face. But do it carefully, because today he may be a bad person, an enemy of the people, but tomorrow he and the others may return, and we may come to think of them all as good people once again. And then you will be able to take away the piece of paper without disfiguring his face.’140


When Sofia Antonov-Ovseyenko was arrested in the Black Sea resort of Sukhumi, on 14 October 1937, she did not realize that her husband Vladimir had been arrested three days earlier in Moscow. Vladimir was Sofia’s second husband, and Sofia his second wife. The couple had met in Prague in 1927, when Vladimir, a veteran Bolshevik who had led the storming of the Winter Palace in October 1917, was the Soviet ambassador to Czechoslovakia (he was later the ambassador to Poland and to Spain). In 1937, when Vladimir was recalled to Moscow to take up the post of Commissar of Justice, they were still very much in love, but Sofia’s arrest threw all that into doubt. After her arrest she was brought back to Moscow. From her prison cell, she wrote to Vladimir, begging him to believe that she was innocent. Sofia did not know that he would read the letter in another Moscow prison cell.

M[oscow]. 16/X. Prison.

My darling. I do not know if you will receive this, but somehow I sense that I am writing to you for the last time. Do you recall how we always said that if someone in our country was arrested then it must be for good reason, for some crime – that is for something? No doubt there is something in my case as well, but what it is I do not know. Everything I know, you know as well, because our lives have been inseparable and harmonious. Whatever happens to me now, I shall always be thankful for the day we met. I lived in the reflection of your glory and was proud of it. For the past three days I have been thinking through my life, preparing for death. I cannot think of anything (apart from the usual shortcomings that differentiate a human being from an ‘angel’) that could be considered criminal, either in relation to other human beings or in relation to our state and government… I thought exactly as you thought – and is there anybody more dedicated than you are to our Party and country? You know what is in my heart, you know the truth of my actions, of my thoughts and words. But the fact that I am here must mean that I have committed some wrong – what I do not know… I cannot bear the thought that you might not believe me… It has been oppressing me for three days now. It burns inside my brain. I know your intolerance of all dishonesty, but even you can be mistaken. Lenin was mistaken too, it seems. So please believe me when I say that I did nothing wrong.

Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko with his wife Sofia (right) and stepdaughter Valentina (Valichka), 1936

Believe me, my loved one… One more thing: it is time for Valichka [Sofia’s daughter from her first marriage] to join the Komsomol. This will no doubt stand in her way. My heart is full of sorrow at the thought that she will think that her mother is a scoundrel. The full horror of my situation is that people do not believe me, I cannot live like that… I beg forgiveness from everyone I love for bringing them such misfortune… Forgive me, my loved one. If only I knew that you believed me and forgave me! Your Sofia.141

The Great Terror undermined the trust that held together families. Wives doubted husbands; husbands doubted wives. The bond between parent and child was usually the first of these family ties to unravel. The children of the 1930s, brought up on the cult of Pavlik Morozov, had been taught to put their faith in Stalin and the Soviet government, to believe every word they read in the Soviet press, even when it named their parents as ‘enemies of the people’. Children were put under pressure by their schools, by the Pioneers and the Komsomol, to renounce arrested relatives, or suffer the consequences for their education and career.

Lev Tselmerovsky was eighteen years old when his father – a shock-worker and military engineer – was arrested in Leningrad in 1938. Lev had been a member of the Komsomol, a trainee pilot, who dreamed of joining the Red Army, but after the arrest of his father he was exiled without trial as a ‘socially alien element’ to Chimkent in Kazakhstan, where he worked in a factory. His mother and two sisters lived in Kazalinsk, 500 kilometres away. In September 1938, Lev wrote to Kalinin, the Soviet President, to renounce his father and appeal against the principle of being punished for his crimes:

A few words about my father. My mother told me that he was banished to the Northern camps for being a malcontent. I personally never believed it, because I myself heard him tell his sisters how he fought against the Whites in the North. He told us about his exploits. When S. M. Kirov was assassinated, he cried… But maybe this was all a clever disguise. He did tell me a few times that he had been in Warsaw… I think that my father should be allowed to answer for himself, but I do not want to suffer the disgrace that he has caused. I want to serve in the Red Army. I want to be a Soviet citizen with equal rights because I feel that I am worthy of that title. I was educated in a Soviet school in the Soviet spirit and therefore my views are obviously completely different from his. It is heartbreaking for me to carry the papers of an alien person.142

Anna Krivko was eighteen in 1937, when her father and her uncle – both factory workers in Kharkov – were arrested. Anna was expelled from Kharkov University and kicked out of the Komsomol as an ‘alien element’. She went in search of a job to support her mother, her grandmother and her sister, who was then just a baby. She worked for a while on a pig farm but was sacked when they found out about the arrest of her father. She could not find any other employment. In January 1938, Anna wrote to her Soviet deputy, the Politburo member Vlas Chubar. She renounced her father and begged Chubar to help her family. Anna threatened to kill herself and her baby sister, if she couldn’t grow up to live a decent life in the Soviet Union. Anna’s letter of renunciation was extreme; she was desperate to prove that she was worthy of salvation as a loyal Stalinist. But it may also be that she genuinely hated her father for bringing such disaster to her family:

I do not know what my father and his brother are accused of, or how long they have been sentenced for. I feel ashamed and I do not want to know. I believe profoundly that the proletarian court is just, and if they have been sentenced, then it means they deserved it. I have no feelings of a daughter towards my father, only the higher feeling of duty as a Soviet citizen to the Fatherland, the Komsomol, which educated me, and the Communist Party. With all my heart I support the decision of the court, the voice of 170 million proletarians, and rejoice in that judgement. By my father’s own admission, he was mobilized into Denikin’s army, where he served as a White Guard for three months in 1919, and for this he was sentenced to two and a half years [in a labour camp] in 1929; that is all I know about his activities… If I had noticed any other sign of his anti-Soviet views – even though he is my father – I would not have hesitated for a moment to denounce him to the NKVD. Comrade Chubar! Believe me: I feel ashamed to call him my father. An enemy of the people cannot be my father. Only the people, who have taught me to hate all scoundrels, all enemies, without exception or mercy, can have that role. I hold on to the hope that the proletariat, Lenin’s Komsomol and the Party of Lenin and Stalin will take the place of my father, that they will care for me as their true daughter and that they will help me on my path through life.143

Some parents, after their arrest, encouraged their children to renounce them, concerned not to jeopardize their social or career prospects. Olga Adamova-Sliuzberg met a woman called Liza in the Kazan jail in 1937. Liza had grown up in St Petersburg before the Revolution. She had spent her childhood on the streets because her mother was a beggar. After 1917, Liza worked in a factory. She joined the Party and married a Bolshevik official on the factory management committee. They lived well and brought up their two daughters, the eldest Zoia and the younger Lialia, to be model Pioneers. ‘Sometimes we would have a children’s morning at the factory,’ Liza told Olga,

and our little girl Zoia would stand up and sing in her silk dress with her Pioneer’s tie, and my husband would say to me, ‘There’s not a girl in the world who is better than our Zoia. She’s going to be an Artist of the People when she grows up.’ Then I would remember how I had tramped from door to door as a child… and I loved our Soviet government so much that I would have given up my life for it.

Liza’s husband was arrested as a supporter of Zinoviev (‘If I had known that he had betrayed Lenin, I would have throttled him with my own hands,’ Liza said). Then she was arrested too. One day Liza got a letter from Zoia. It arrived late, on a Saturday, the day allotted for the prisoners to write, just as Liza was writing to Zoia:

Dear Mama, I’m fifteen years old now and I’m planning to join the Komsomol. I have to know whether you are guilty or not. I keep thinking, how could you have betrayed our Soviet power? After all, we were doing so well, and you and Papa were both workers. I remember how well we lived. You used to make us silk dresses and buy us sweets. Did you really get money from ‘them’ [‘enemies of the people’]? You’d have done better to let us go around in cotton frocks. But maybe you are not guilty after all? In that case I won’t join the Komsomol and I’ll never forgive them on your account. But if you’re guilty, then I won’t write to you any more, because I love our Soviet government and I hate its enemies and I will hate you if you are one of them. Mama, tell me the truth. I’d rather you weren’t guilty, I wouldn’t join the Komsomol. Your unhappy daughter, Zoia.

Liza had already used up three of the four allotted pages of her letter to Zoia. She thought for a moment and then wrote on the final page in big capital letters:


Liza showed the correspondence to Olga, and then banged her head on the table. Choking on her tears, she said: ‘It is better she hates me. How would she live without the Komsomol – an alien? She would hate Soviet power. It is better she hates me.’ From that day, recalls Olga, Liza ‘never said a word about her daughters and did not receive any more letters’.144

For many children the arrest of a close relative raised all sorts of doubts. All the principles they had believed as ‘Soviet children’ were suddenly in conflict with what they knew of the people they loved.

When her father was arrested as a ‘Trotskyist’, Vera Turkina did not know what to believe. Her mother and grandmother both accepted Aleksandr’s guilt. There were reports in the Soviet press about the criminal activities of her father, who was a well-known Bolshevik in Perm. Wherever Vera went, she heard people whispering about her, the daughter of an ‘enemy of the people’, behind her back. ‘My father became a source of shame,’ Vera remembers.

People said to me that if he had been arrested, then he must be guilty of something. ‘There is no smoke without fire,’ everybody said. When my mother went to ask about my father at the NKVD offices, they told her: ‘Wait and see, he will confess to everything.’ I too assumed that he must be guilty. What else was I to believe?145

Elga Torchinskaia was a model Soviet schoolgirl. She loved Stalin, venerated Pavlik Morozov and believed in the propaganda about ‘spies’ and ‘enemies’. She still thought this way when her father was arrested in October 1937. A veteran Bolshevik increasingly opposed to Stalin’s policies, he had never talked to her about his political opinions. In the Torchinsky household in Leningrad, as in many families, politics was not a subject for discussion in the presence of children. Elga thus had no perspective on the mass arrests beyond the one she had learned in school – she had no other way to understand the reasons for the arrest of her father, no way of her own to question why it had happened. In 1938, two of Elga’s uncles were arrested. One of them returned from the labour camps in 1939 and told Elga awful stories about his torture by the NKVD. Even this could not shake Elga from her conviction that if someone was arrested, it ‘must have been for something he had done’. In 1939, when she turned sixteen, Elga applied to join the Komsomol. In her application she declared that her father was an ‘enemy of the people’, and falsely claimed that he was divorced from her mother. Her declaration was a renunciation of sorts, but, as Elga now admits, she was confused at the time, she was afraid to question anything and it was from ignorance that she rejected him. ‘We were all zombies – that is what I think. My God, we were just young girls. We had been educated by the Komsomol. We believed everything we were told.’146

The silence, the lack of any news or information, exacerbated a family’s uncertainty. Without word from the arrested person or anything to prove his innocence, relatives had nothing to cling to, nothing to oppose the public assumption of guilt.

Nina Kosterina was the daughter of a long-time Bolshevik. She had a model Soviet childhood, joining the Komsomol at the end of 1936, just as the first tremors of the Terror began to register on her political consciousness. When her uncle was arrested, Nina struggled to make sense of the event. She wrote in her diary on 25 March 1937:

Something frightful and incomprehensible has happened. They say that Uncle Misha was involved with some counter-revolutionary organization. What is going on? Uncle Misha – a member of the Party from the very first days of the Revolution – and suddenly an enemy of the people!

When their landlord was arrested, Nina wondered how she would react if the arrests came closer to home:

Something strange is happening. I thought and thought, and came to the conclusion: if my father also turns out to be a Trotskyist and an enemy of his country, I shall not feel sorry for him! I write this, but (I confess) there is a gnawing worm of doubt.

In December 1937, Nina’s father was expelled from the Party and dismissed from his official position. Anticipating his arrest, he wrote to Nina to warn her: ‘you must be sure that your father was never a scoundrel… and has never blemished his name by anything dirty or base’. The letter played a crucial role: although confused and in despair, Nina was able to cling to the belief in her father’s innocence when he was finally arrested, in September 1938. As she noted in her diary:

September 7

What an ominous darkness has shrouded my whole life. Father’s arrest is such a blow… Until now I have always carried my head high and with honour, but now… Now Akhmetev [a classmate] can say to me, ‘We’re comrades in misfortune!’ And just to think how I despised him and despised his father, a Trotskyist. The nightmare thought oppresses me day and night: is my father also an enemy? No, it cannot be, I don’t believe it! It’s all a terrible mistake!

Nina’s father spent two years in prison waiting for his ‘trial’ by a troika, which sentenced him to five years in a labour camp as a ‘socially dangerous element’. In November 1940, he wrote his first letter home. Nina was touched by the beauty of the letter, in which she felt the spirit of her father, his ‘strength and freshness’, despite the hardships of the camp. But her mother was annoyed and merely asked: ‘Is he guilty, or is he not guilty? If he’s innocent, why doesn’t he appeal against the sentence?’ The next letter effectively answered her mother’s question. ‘There is nothing more to be said about my case,’ Nina’s father wrote. ‘There is no case, only a soap bubble in the shape of an elephant. I cannot refute what is not, was not, and could never have been.’147

The disappearance of a father and a husband placed enormous strain on families. Wives renounced husbands who had been arrested, not necessarily because they thought their spouses might be ‘enemies of the people’, although they may have had that thought, but because it made survival easier and gave protection to their families (many husbands for this reason advised wives to renounce them). The state put pressure on the wives of ‘enemies’ to renounce their husbands publicly. Failure to do so could have serious consequences. Some women were arrested as the ‘wives of enemies’ and sent to labour camps, with or without their children. Others were evicted from their homes, dismissed from jobs, deprived of rations and civil rights. Financial pressures were applied as well: salaries were docked, savings frozen and rents raised. To encourage women to renounce their husbands, the cost of a divorce, which normally would set a couple back 500 roubles, was reduced to just 3 roubles (the price of a canteen meal) in cases of divorce from a prisoner.148

It took extraordinary resilience, and not a little bravery, for women to resist these pressures and stand by their husbands. Irina and Vasily Dudarev had been married for nearly fifteen years when Vasily was arrested in 1937. They had met in Smolensk in the early 1920s, when both of them were training to become teachers. A Bolshevik from the Civil War, Vasily became a senior Party figure in Orel. In 1933, he was sent to Azov, a town near Rostov at the mouth of the River Don, where he became the Party boss. Irina worked in a hosiery factory. She was not a political person, but out of love for Vasily she joined the Party and became a ‘Party wife’. When he was arrested, Irina went in search of him – not just at the jails but also at the railway depots of Rostov and Bataisk, 30 kilometres away, where on Sunday evenings the trains containing prisoners were prepared for their departure to the labour camps:

I would walk along the tracks beside the trains in the hope of finding my husband so that I could give him some things for the journey. I saw many convoys. The ice-coated goods wagons were nailed shut; even the windows at the top were blocked with metal strips, leaving just a little crack. From the wagons I could hear the muffled hum of voices. As I passed along the train, I would call out: ‘Is Dudarev there?’ The hum would die away, and sometimes a voice would answer, ‘No.’… But then one day a voice answered, ‘Dudarev? Yes.’ It was the train guard… I took out the clean clothes I had prepared and handed them in a little bag to the guard. He let me write a note, ‘on business affairs’. I was so happy that Vasily would know that I was looking for him, and that I was thinking about him. I had been so afraid that, without news from me, he would think I had renounced him… In my note I wrote a list of the things I had handed to the guard and signed off: ‘All are well. I kiss you.’ A few minutes later the guard returned my bag with the note. On the other side was written in Vasily’s hand: ‘Got all. Thank you.’

Irina never doubted her husband’s innocence. She was summoned repeatedly by the NKVD, presented with the ‘evidence’ of his criminal activities and threatened with arrest if she failed to denounce him, but she refused every time. Irina recalls a Party meeting at her factory where she was called upon to disclose her husband’s crimes against the state. In similar circumstances most wives claimed that they had never known about their husband’s crimes, but Irina courageously denied that hers had committed any crime:

I sat alone at one end of the table, while everybody else sat as close as they could to the committee leaders at the other end. No one would talk to me. One of the Party secretaries informed the meeting that Dudarev had been arrested as an enemy of the people, and that now they had to decide about me. The Party members spoke in turn. They did not have much to say except slogans. About me they said nothing, except that I had deceived the Party. They demanded that I tell them about my husband’s crimes and explain why I had concealed them. No one looked at me. Trying to stay calm, I answered briefly, thinking very carefully about every word. I said that I had lived with my husband for fifteen years, that I knew him to be a good Communist, that through his influence I had joined the Party and that I did not believe for a moment that he had been involved in anything wrong. This gave rise to a lot of muttering. Someone shouted: ‘But he has been arrested!’ As if that were proof of guilt. One by one they tried to convince me that it was my Party duty to disclose Dudarev’s crimes. But no one dared to state the charges against him… Again and again they asked me to denounce Dudarev as an enemy of the people. Each time I refused.

Irina was expelled from the Party. She lost her position on the management committee of her factory and was demoted to a poorly paid job in the accounts department. A few days later, the town Soviet levied a large back-tax on her apartment, explaining that it was to pay for the ‘surplus living space’ she and her husband had occupied for several years. In July 1938, Irina was arrested ‘for failing to denounce the enemy activities of her husband’. She was released the following December and returned to Smolensk.149 Dudarev was shot in 1937.*

Julia Piatnitskaia did not know what to believe about her husband after his arrest. She wanted to think the best of him, but the desperate position in which Osip had left her made it hard not to bear him a grudge – as her sons did – for bringing such misfortune on the family. Sixteen-year-old Igor felt let down by his father, whose arrest had isolated him from his friends in the Komsomol. Twelve-year-old Vladimir blamed his father for ruining his dreams of a career in the Red Army. ‘Vova [Vladimir] hates his father bitterly and feels sorry for Igor,’ Julia wrote in her diary. Bullied by his former friends and frequently in trouble at school, Vladimir was shaken by an incident in the Pioneers: the leader had questioned him about his father, and when Vladimir refused to answer, declared, for everyone to hear: ‘Your father is an enemy of the people. It is now your duty to decide your relation towards him.’

Julia and Vladimir had constant fights. On one occasion, when Vladimir was angry because his mother had refused to write to Yezhov for the return of his toy gun and some military books, which had been confiscated by the NKVD during the house search, he said to her in anger: ‘It is a shame they have not shot Papa, since he is an enemy of the people.’ On another, when he came home with a poor mark from school, Julia lost her temper and swore at Vladimir. She told him, as she put it in her diary, ‘that his bad behaviour showed he was the son of an enemy of the people.’ Bursting into tears, Vladimir replied: ‘Is it my fault that I was born the son of an enemy? I don’t want you as my mother any more, I am going to an orphanage.’ Julia threatened to send him off to bed with just a crust of bread. Vladimir said he would ‘cut her throat’. Then she hit him twice across the face.150

Julia was at the end of her rope. Evicted from their flat and struggling to find a proper job, she began to question her husband even more intensely. ‘There is only one thought in my head – who is Piatnitsky?’ Julia asked herself.

20 July 1937

… Yesterday evening I thought about Piatnitsky and I was full of bitterness: how could he have let us fall into such a shameful mess? How can it be that he worked with those people and knew their methods, and yet could not foresee that they would condemn us to a life of torment and hunger?… One could bear a bitter grudge against Piatnitsky. He let his children be destroyed; he lost all our money, and it wasn’t much to begin with. But who exactly are these men who have stolen all our things? Authority now is nothing but arbitrary terror – and everybody is afraid. I am going mad. What am I thinking? What am I thinking?151

For six months Julia carried on this self-interrogation in her diary, trying to work out who her husband really was. Informed that he had been charged with espionage and counter-revolutionary activities on 7 February 1938, Julia wrote in her diary:

Who is he? If he is a professional revolutionary, as he claimed to be, this man I knew for seventeen years, then he was unfortunate: he was surrounded by spies and enemies, who sabotaged his work, and that of many others, and he just didn’t see it… But evidently Piatnitsky never was a professional revolutionary, but a professional scoundrel and a spy, which explains why he was so closed and severe as a man. Evidently, he was not the man we thought he was… And all of us – I, his wife, the children – had no real significance for him.152

Igor was arrested on 9 February 1938. He was in his classroom at school when two soldiers came for him. Igor was imprisoned in the Butyrki jail. Consumed by worry for her son, Julia fell into complete despair. According to Vladimir, she had a nervous breakdown – she spent whole days in bed and often thought of suicide.153 The only thing that kept her going was the idea of living for her sons, which she repeated like a mantra in her diary. ‘It would be best to die,’ she wrote on 9 March. ‘But that would leave my Vovka and Igor without a human being in the world. I’m all they have, and that means that I must fight to stay alive.’ Yet there were moments when Julia felt so despondent that the only salvation she could imagine was to break all human ties, even with her sons:

17 February 1938

Last night I thought I had found the solution: not death, though that is the easiest and most appealing solution, given my weak will and deep despair… but this idea: the children are not necessary: give Vovka to the state and live just for work – work ceaselessly, take time only for reading, live close to nature… have no feelings for any human being. It seemed such a good solution – to spend oneself in work, and not to have anybody close for them to take away. Why do I have Vovka and what good am I to him? I am buried by a mountain much too big to enjoy the life of a normal human being, to live for Vovka. He just wants to live, to have friends, the sun, a cosy home, a meaningful existence, but I – I am the wife of a counter-revolutionary.154

Julia tried to figure out the reasons for the arrest of Osip and Igor. Unlike Vladimir, she could not bring herself to hate Osip as an ‘enemy of the people’. She noted in her diary: ‘Vovka torments me because I am unable to hate Piatnitsky; at first I thought that I would surely end up hating him, but in the end I have too many doubts.’ She tried to reason with Vladimir, arguing that his father ‘could be innocent and they made a mistake, or maybe he was deceived by the enemies’.155 Julia believed in the existence of ‘enemies of the people’. She often pointed out ‘suspicious’ people in her diary, and she had no doubts about the justice of the Soviet courts. During the Bukharin trial, she was convinced that the ‘evil-doers’ had been rightly sentenced to be shot. Politically, she was naive, slow to understand the reality that engulfed her. She was more than willing to make Bukharin a scapegoat for the catastrophe that had destroyed her family. Commenting on the execution of Bukharin and his co-defendants in March 1938, Julia thought that ‘the spilling of their evil blood’ was ‘too small a price for them to pay for the suffering the Party has endured’.

Today they are going to erase them from this earth, but that won’t do much to reduce my hatred. I would give them an awful death: build a special cage for them in a museum for counter-revolutionaries, and let us come and gawk at them… That would be unbearable for them: citizens coming to stare at them as if they were animals. Our hatred for them would never cease. Let them see how we go on working to build a better life, how we are all united, how we love our leaders, leaders who are not traitors. Let them see how we struggle against Fascism while they do nothing but feed themselves like animals, for they are not worthy to be called people.

Picturing the ‘better life’ of the future, when ‘only honest people will be allowed to live and work’, Julia saw some hope for her own family:

Maybe Igor will return, and Piatnitsky as well – if, that is, he is honest and, of course, innocent of the crimes which were committed by so many enemies, or of failing to detect all these reptiles; if his intentions were honest, then of course he will return. How I’d like to know! Piatnitsky – are you guilty in any way? Did you disagree with the Party line? Were you opposed to even one of our leaders? How much easier my life would be, if I knew the truth. And as far as Igor is concerned, I think of the words of F—. ‘Everything that is well made will withstand the fire. And that which doesn’t, we don’t need.’156

Julia resolved to place her faith in the fire: if Osip was innocent, he too would survive the Terror.

Piatnitsky was imprisoned in the Butyrki jail, the same prison where his son was held. Lev Razgon encountered him in a crowded cell (built for twenty-five but housing sixty-seven) at the start of April 1938. Razgon saw a ‘thin and crooked old man [Piatnitsky was then fifty-six] who bore the marks of battle in his face’.

[Piatnitsky] explained, when he saw me looking at his face, that these were the marks left by the metal buckle of his interrogator’s belt. I had seen Piatnitsky in the early months of 1937… The man who stood before me now was totally unrecognizable as the man I had seen before. Only the eyes were the same bright, lively eyes, though now much more sad. They betrayed an immense spiritual suffering.

Piatnitsky asked about Razgon’s case, about how he had been incriminated, and then Razgon asked him about his:

He went silent. Then he said that he had no illusions about his fate, that his case was moving to a close and he was prepared. He told me how they questioned him without a break, how they tortured him, beating out of him exactly what they needed, and threatening to beat him to death. He hadn’t finished talking when they came for him again.157

On 10 April, Piatnitsky was transferred to the Lefortovo prison, where he was systematically tortured and interrogated every night from 12 April until his trial at the end of July. According to his main interrogator, who denied using physical measures of coercion, Piatnitsky behaved ‘calmly and with restraint, but once, when he was in a state of agitation for some reason, he asked me for permission to have a drink, and going up to the water carafe, struck himself on the head with it’.158 Osip was tried by the Military Tribunal of the Supreme Soviet, along with 137 other prisoners, on 27 July. He was charged with being one of the leaders of a Fascist spy-ring of Trotskyists and Rightists in the Comintern. A list of names of the convicted was sent by Yezhov to Stalin. At the top of the list, preserved in the Presidential Archives in the Kremlin, there is a brief handwritten order: ‘Shoot all 138. I. St[alin]. V. Molotov.’159

None of this was known to Julia. She did not even know that Piatnitsky was being held in the Butyrki when she joined the queues outside its gates to hand in a parcel for her son. The longer she heard nothing from Osip, the harder it became for her to hold on to the hope that he was innocent. Everybody told her to forget Osip, to think about herself and her two sons. On 12 April, the night Osip’s torture recommenced in the Lefortovo prison, Julia had a nightmare. She dreamed that she was being tormented by a cat. She thought the dream was significant and wondered if it meant that her son Igor was being tortured in the Butyrki (she had heard rumours about such things from the women in the prison queues). The thought of Igor’s suffering altered Julia’s feelings towards Osip, as she recorded in her diary:

My life has become an endless downward spiral. I talk with myself, in a whisper, and feel complete despair – for Piatnitsa [Piatnitsky] and Igor, but especially for my poor boy. He is spending his seventeeth spring in a miserable, dark and dirty prison, in a cell with strangers. The main thing is that he is innocent. Piatnitsky has lived his life – he failed to recognize the enemies who surrounded him, or became degenerate, which is not so astonishing, because he gave himself to politics, but Igor…160

The idea that it was too late to do anything for Osip reinforced Julia’s determination to do whatever necessary to help Igor, whose life was still ahead of him. She had accepted the possibility of her husband’s guilt. But she was not prepared to accept that her sixteen-year-old son could have been involved in any crime. Julia decided to renounce her husband in the hope that it would help save her son.

She went to the procurator’s office in Moscow. Informed that Piatnitsky had committed a serious crime against the state, Julia replied: ‘If that is the case, he means nothing to me any more.’ The procurator advised Julia to begin a new life. She told him she would like to work for the NKVD, and he encouraged her to make a formal application, promising to support it. Julia saw the procurator as a sympathetic man:

I shook his hand warmly, though perhaps this was to display too much sentiment, something which I have never been able to control – but I felt close to this man, whose task is difficult but necessary, and I wanted to express my respect for him as a comrade, to show my moral support for those comrades who are rooting out the swine from our Party. Again I emphasize: despite my own suffering, and despite the possibility that innocents are being sacrificed (let one of these not be my Igor!), I must be true to principles, I must stay disciplined and patient, and I must, I absolutely must, find a way to make an active contribution, or else there will be no place for me among people.

Once she had adandoned her husband, Julia was prepared to think the worst of him. She wrote in her diary on 16 April:

Oh, I just can’t understand it! But if it is so, then how I despise him, how I hate his base and cowardly, yet to me incomprehensible, soul!… Oh, what a good act he put on! Now I understand why he surrounded himself with the ‘warm companionship’ of all those spies, provocateurs and bureaucrats. But surely he had no real friends. He was essentially a gloomy man who never opened himself to me… Maybe he never loved the Party, maybe he never had its interests at heart? But what about us, me and the children, what was he thinking?161

Three weeks later, Igor was hauled before a three-man tribunal and charged with organizing a counter-revolutionary student group – a charge so absurd that even the tribunal threw it out, though it sentenced Igor to five years in a labour camp on the lesser and much vaguer charge of anti-Soviet agitation.* Julia was told of her son’s conviction on 27 May. She became hysterical and demanded that the procurator arrest her as well: ‘If he is guilty, so am I.’ Reflecting on events that evening, Julia groped towards an understanding of the Terror:

Perhaps Piatnitsky really was bad, and we must all perish on his account. But it is hard to die when I do not know who Piatnitsky really is, nor what crime Igor committed. He could not have done anything wrong. But then why did they take him? Maybe as someone who might become a criminal, because he is the son of an enemy… Maybe it’s a way of forcefully mobilizing that part of the population which is not trusted by the state but whose labour can be used? I don’t know, but it is logical. Of course if that is the case then Igor, and all the other people like him, will never come back. They serve a useful purpose to the state, but they depart from life. Anyway it is terrifying to have to remain behind – to have to wait and not to know.162

Julia herself was arrested on 27 October 1938. She was thirty-nine years old. Her diary was seized at the time of her arrest and used as evidence to convict her of conspiring with her husband against the government. She was sent to the Kandalaksha labour camp in the far northern region of Murmansk. Vladimir was sent with her, although he was very ill, having just recovered from an operation, and had to be taken from his bed. At Kandalaksha Vladimir was kept in the barracks and fed twice a day by an NKVD guard while Julia went to work on the construction of Niva-GES, a hydro-electric station near the camp. Shortly after their arrival Vladimir escaped and made his way back to Moscow, where he stayed with various schoolfriends, including the family of Yevgeny Loginov, whose father worked in Stalin’s personal secretariat. Earlier the Loginovs had turned their back on the Piatnitskys, but now something made them change their minds. Common decency perhaps. Vladimir stayed with the Loginovs for three months. Then, one evening, he overheard a conversation between the Loginovs: Yevgeny’s father had got into trouble for taking in Piatnitsky’s son. To save them from any more trouble, Vladimir turned himself in to the Moscow Soviet. The official to whom he spoke was an old comrade of Piatnitsky from October 1917. He ordered sandwiches for Vladimir and then called the police. Vladimir was taken to the NKVD detention centre in the old Danilov Monastery, from which the children of ‘enemies of the people’ were sent on to orphanages across the Soviet Union.163

In March 1939, Julia was denounced by three co-workers at Niva-GES. They claimed that she had said that her husband had been wrongly arrested, that he was innocent, and that he had considered Stalin to be unfit as a leader of the proletariat. Convicted of anti-Soviet agitation, Julia was sentenced to five years in the Karaganda labour camp in Kazakhstan. Igor was a prisoner in the industrial section of the camp, and somehow Julia arranged a meeting with him there. ‘We spent a remarkable and very sad day together,’ recalls Igor, ‘and then she went back [to the women’s section of the camp].’ Physically frail and mentally unbalanced, Julia was in no condition to withstand the hardships of camp life. She was still beautiful and attracted the attention of the camp commandant (which may explain why she had been allowed to visit Igor); but she refused his sexual demands, for which he punished her by sending her to work as a manual labourer in the construction of a dam. For sixteen hours every day she stood waist-high in freezing water, digging earth. She became ill and died on an unrecorded date in the winter of 1940.

In 1958, after his release from the labour camps, Igor was visited by an old acquaintance of the family, a woman called Zina, who had seen his mother in the Karaganda camp, where she too was a prisoner. Zina told Igor that Julia had died in the camp hospital and that she was buried in a mass grave. In 1986, Igor received another visit from Zina, by this time a woman of eighty. She told him that on the previous occasion she had lied about his mother, because Julia, before she died, had made her promise to spare Igor the awful details of her death (and because, as Zina now admitted, she had been afraid to speak the truth). But recently Zina had seen Julia in her dreams – Julia had asked her about her son – and she saw this as a sign that she should tell Igor about his mother’s final days. Julia had not died in hospital. In December 1940, Zina had gone to look for Julia in the Karaganda camp. No one wanted to tell her where she was, but then one woman pointed to a sheep-pen on the steppe and said that she could be found there. Zina walked into the pen. Amongst the sheep, lying on the freezing ground, was Julia:

She was dying, her whole body was blown up with fever, she was burning hot and shaking. The sheep stood guard around her but offered no protection from the wind and snow, which lay around in mounds. I crouched beside her, she tried to raise herself but did not have the strength. I took her hand and tried to warm it with my breath.

‘Who are you?’ she asked. I told her my name and said only that I came from you, that you had asked me to find her…

How she stirred: ‘Igor – my boy,’ she whispered from her frozen lips. ‘My little boy, help him, I beseech you, help him to survive.’ I calmed her down and promised to look after you, as if that depended on me. ‘Give me your word,’ Julia whispered. ‘Do not tell him how his mother died. Give me your word…’

She was half-delirious. I crouched down beside her and promised her.

Then from behind me a guard shouted: ‘Where did you come from? How did you get here?’ The guard grabbed me and frog-marched me out of the sheep-pen. ‘Who are you?’

I explained that I had come as the section leader of a tool workshop and had found the woman accidentally. But I was detained. They told me that I should not breathe a word about what I had seen: ‘Shut your mouth, and say nothing!’

Julia died in the sheep-pen. She had been left there when she fell ill, and no one was allowed to visit her. She was buried where she died.164

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