The Practice of Stalin's Great Terror: A Documentary History of Soviet Perpetrators

The Great Terror (1937-38) occupies a central role in the history of twentieth-century mass violence. During a sixteen-month period, the Stalin regime arrested and convicted 1.5 million of its own citizens, mostly on trumped-up charges of “counterrevolutionary” and “anti-Soviet” activity. Half of those convicted were summarily executed; the rest were dispatched to the Gulag, where they became victims of forced labor, abuse, and premature death. While we know a great deal about the experience of victims, we know almost nothing about the perpetrators – viz., NKVD (security police) officers. One explanation for this lacuna is that there were no public trials – no equivalent of the postwar prosecution of Nazi war criminals – of Soviet perpetrators. Despite limitations as a historical source, public trials governed by norms of due process generate a documentary foundation for analysis of perpetrator mentality and behavior. Indeed, the historiography of the Holocaust draws heavily from the record generated by trials of Nazi perpetrators in Nuremberg, Jerusalem, and Frankfurt.

Although there were no public trials of Soviet perpetrators, there were two waves of secret trials of NKVD men. During a three-year period following the Great Terror and an eight-year period following the death of Stalin, over 2,000 security police officers were prosecuted by Soviet military courts for violations of Soviet criminal procedure (“socialist legality”) – e.g., fabrication of evidence, falsification of interrogation protocols, the use of torture to secure “confessions,” and the unintentional murder during pre-trial detention of “suspects.” As a rule, these trials were held in strict observance of the norms of Soviet criminal procedure and resulted in conviction. Sentences ranged from light (administrative reprimand) to severe (execution). 

The documentation generated by these trials--including reproductions of paperwork signed by perpetrators in 1937-38; testimony by defendants, victims, witnesses, and experts; and verbatim transcripts of court sessions--constitutes an invaluable source for the study of the Soviet perpetrator. The documentation is not without limitations.  Soviet criminal procedure offered protections to defendants, but the trials obviously fell short in terms of due process. Moreover, the trials served a self-evident scapegoating function, displacing blame for “excesses” onto certain factions within the NKVD so as to protect the legitimacy of the Communist Party, whose leadership was ultimately responsible for the terror.3 Nonetheless, analysis of the trial records will illuminate one of the darkest corners of Soviet history – viz., the mentality and behavior of the interrogators, torturers, executioners, and “paper pushers” (i.e., bureaucrats) who populated the apparatus of state repression.  

This objective of the project is to publish four volumes of documents from the former KGB archives of Ukraine in their original language (Russian). This work will be based on the joint efforts of an international team of specialists as well as our apprentices in graduate training. We have already published an anthology of articles that cast into relief some of the most prolific perpetrators of Soviet mass violence and situate the secret military trials in historical, political, and legal context. The first volume of the document collection has been published; book 1 of vol. 2 and vol. 3 are in press. The document collections will put these important records in the public domain, thereby ensuring that they remain permanently accessible to scholars of Soviet history and, more broadly, twentieth-century mass violence.

Principal Investigator: Lynne Viola