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Category: Non-fiction

Jörg Baberowski

Verbrannte Erde. Stalins Herrschaft der Gewalt
[Scorched earth. Stalin's rule of terror]



​A district conference of the CPSU in a Russian province in 1937: a letter to Stalin in Moscow is unanimously approved. A standing ovation begins. Six, seven, eight minutes; it seems the frenetic applause, the feigned collective ecstasy, will never end. Whoever stops clapping first and fails to show the ‘father of the nation’ sufficient deference will arouse the ubiquitous NKWD agents’ suspicion. In the eleventh minute the director of a paper factory plucks up the courage and lowers himself onto his chair, gasping for breath. Relieved, everyone else follows him. “Acts such as this were enough to identify free-thinking individuals. Once identified they were seized: the director was arrested that same night.”

This incident from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipeligo opens Berlin historian Jörg Baberowski’s monumental study Scorched Earth – Stalin’s Rule of Terror. He could hardly have chosen a better incident, as it illustrates his central thesis in miniature: Josef Stalin remained architect and executor of the Bolshevik horrors throughout – an absolute dictator who succeeded in choreographing the terror even in effigy.
It may initially sound obvious that the architect of Stalinism was Stalin. But it is not. At least not according to recent historical wisdom, which ascribes the millions of deaths instead to Soviet turbo-modernisation and the effects of a ‘Stalinism from below’ – a murderous, escalating dynamic of social and ideological struggles within the huge empire of diverse peoples.

In Scorched Earth Jörg Baberowski now sets about refuting these arguments, and this is surprising not least because for many years he propounded them himself. In his 2003 book The Red Terror he too still subscribed to the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Baumann’s thesis which explained Stalin’s rule of terror via the notion of the “modern ‘gardening state’ with its drive to achieve clarity and overcome ambivalence, its obsession with order.”
With detailed use of source material and a gripping narrative style Baberowski has now succeeded in demonstrating that the murderous frenzy of the Stalin era was not dictated by ideological or socio-structural forces but above all by the will of the dictator. While Stalin consistently justified the terror as history’s tool for refining world communism, here Baberowski shows that the dream of the ‘new human’ served only as a salvation-history cloak for a power strategy of mass murder, its aim the unscrupulous maintenance of a pre-modern personality-dictatorship.

But how did the former bank robber Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili Stalin succeed in concentrating so much power on himself? Baberowski begins with a detailed analysis of Stalin’s rapid ascent to the status of apparatchik after the death of Lenin. In contrast to his competitors Trotsky and Bukharin, Stalin had always used mafia-like methods in politics and knew how to operate effectively within the client system of the nomenklatura. Having reached the summit of the Kremlin, his first step towards consolidating power was naturally to install a tightly woven system of personal relationships based on trust. This meant surrounding himself mainly with ambitious proletarians who would repay him for their career breaks with unquestioning loyalty. The second step was even more critical however. Through arrests and executions Stalin created an atmosphere of paranoia. Not even his confidantes felt any sense of security.

Stalin’s strategies for managing power included not only the ritualised humiliation of his Camarilla; he was fully prepared to have his closest companions executed: Nikolai Yezhov, for instance, once his most obedient bloodhound. Head of the NKWD for many years, the Great Purge, or Yezhovshchina, was named after him, but in the end he too was executed, his image even erased posthumously from official photographs. Many other loyal aides escaped this fate only by first committing suicide. “There was no way to escape Stalin’s orbit. You were either a victim or a perpetrator or you opted to end your own life.”

In his foreword Baberowski confesses that the monstrous violence he was forced to confront while writing the book pursued him into his dreams. Some readers may undergo a similar experience. As the reader is taken deeper and deeper into the precisely documented hell of the Soviet bloodlands, at some point the scale and extent of the killing become hard to deal with. Scorched Earth does however present a precise picture of the Stalin era which, by the time of the Great Purge in 1937-8 at the latest, had reached excesses previously unimaginable. As keeper of the Soviet human zoo, Stalin ensured that the senseless terror knew no boundaries. In late January 1938 for instance he gave orders that 57 200 ‘enemies of the people’ were to be arrested by mid March, 48 000 of them to be shot. “The violence,” Baberowski claims, “became such a matter of course that no-one was required to provide statements justifying their actions.” As a result the figures for the two years of the Great Purge are beyond comprehension: 1 575 259 people were arrested, of which 1 344 923 were convicted, 681 692 of these to death.

Stalin’s main technique for maintaining control thus consisted of a ‘shock and awe’ strategy, which nipped any resistance in the bud. Paradoxically, his personal grip on power remained so strong because it relied on the permanent destabilisation of the system. By sending shock waves through the empire at the touch of a button, the dictator was able to stage-manage a chronic state of emergency which allowed him to rule pretty much as he pleased. Stalin had thoroughly internalised Carl Schmitt’s famous dictum: sovereign is he who decides over the state of emergency.

Clearly this required many thousands of compliant helpers. But Baberowski convincingly illustrates that they often acted less out of ideological conviction than as part of the unavoidable cycle of fear and denunciation. The party cadres and NKWD officers were so concerned about their own survival that they sought to remain in favour with Stalin at any cost. And this could only be ensured if they paid a high blood tax. Stalin’s henchmen resorted to pre-emptive obedience, continually offering to raise the death quotas, to dispose of even more ‘human detritus’. Stalin directed the functionaries like a puppeteer and retained control of the terror at all times; all the significant murder commands were issued by him, or at least approved. On the other hand any highhandedness on the part of provincial leaders met with draconian punishment. Stalin had the head of the Kazakh communist party shot solely because his image on a local demonstration poster overlapped the dictator’s own.

Scorched Earth gives a genuinely shocking insight into Stalin’s regime of terror and shows clearly that there could have been no Stalinism without Stalin – at least not in this form. It was only after he died in 1953 that Khrushchev could end the despotic terror. Some may still take issue with Baberowski’s study; not because it contains one or two theoretical inconsistencies but because it challenges the accepted view of Stalinism. But this demonstrates the point emphasised by the jury at the Leipzig Book Fair when they awarded Scorched Earth the 2012 prize for the best non-fiction book: in the future anyone who wishes to study Stalin will not be able to ignore this book.

Translated by Steph Morris

Book cover Scorched earth. Stalin's rule of terror

By Nils Markwardt

​Nils Markwardt is a freelance writer contributing to publications such as Literaturen and der Freitag.