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Interview: Aleksandr Cherkasov On The 75th Anniversary Of 'The Great Terror'

Communist supporters stand in front of portraits of Josef Stalin as they mark Victory Day in Moscow in May 2012.
Communist supporters stand in front of portraits of Josef Stalin as they mark Victory Day in Moscow in May 2012.
Russian historians and human-rights activists mark a grim anniversary this week with the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Terror under Soviet leader Josef Stalin. On July 2, 1937, the Soviet Politburo sent telegrams authorizing regional party organizations and branches of the secret police, the NKVD, to compile lists of potential enemies of the Soviet regime so they could be rounded up and executed. Aleksandr Gostev of RFE/RL's Russian Service spoke to Aleksandr Cherkasov, chairman of the human rights organization Memorial, about the Great Terror and its meaning for Russian society today.

RFE/RL: After decades of research, including Memorial's work, is there anything about Stalin's Great Terror of the late 1930s that remains unknown, untold to Russian society?

Aleksandr Cherkasov: Plenty is known about the mechanics and ideology of the great terror, but unfortunately [this information] has not become widely known. Every regional branch of the Interior Ministry received coded telegrams with an order to rearrange the personal files [of future targets for arrests] so that each of them could be located easily. Each regional branch reported back the number of so-called kulaks and members of other listed categories. Regional security chiefs were then summoned to Moscow where [Soviet security chief Nikolai] Yezhov and his first deputy talked to each of them individually. During those meetings regional security chiefs were handed arrest quotas that already exceeded the number of reported kulaks and other 'formers.'
Aleksandr Cherkasov, chairman of human rights organization Memorial (file photo)
Aleksandr Cherkasov, chairman of human rights organization Memorial (file photo)

Nobody ordered any falsification directly, but if you had 500 kulaks in your region and you were required to arrest and execute 1,000, then in effect it meant that [regional authorities] were required to falsify cases, even though formally speaking each case had to be investigated according to the law. Therefore, from the very beginning the Great Terror was grounded in lawlessness. There are statistics, but they have not been made public properly. No correspondence has been published between the central secret police apparatus and regional branches where local officials competed to meet requirements and asked for new quotas for executions because they knew that if they failed this competition, they would be considered enemies of the people too. All of this information is available, but it hasn't yet become widely known.

RFE/RL: We all remember the great interest and great concern with which society discussed this theme at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s. Later, society became less interested. What happened?

Cherkasov: At the end of the 1980s, our history became a substitute for politics. Political activity was not allowed. And as politics was substituted by literature, discussion of our recent past became a surrogate. Later, when it became possible to hold elections and form political parties, interest [in looking at history] faded. Moreover, after August 1991, many thought the problem was simply solved: "It's over. We have replaced October 24, 1917 with August 22, 1991 and now we'll live happily ever after." But this was not so. We've seen how those in power are returning us to this past. The post-Soviet masses are psychologically under the spell of the Soviet past. We need to resume the discussion of these issues. But, regrettably, history is used by the state. And they use it to justify their not-so-legal practices and their not-so-legal laws.

RFE/RL: The terror that started in 1937, of course, didn't begin on one day or one month. The machinery of repression was built up over time. It wasn't that people were living fine one day and the next day they woke up in the gulag. Does that transition period have any resemblance to the present? Can the Great Terror ever be repeated in Russia?

Cherkasov: They say that generals always prepare for the last war and politicians are always ready for the past to repeat itself. The legal proceedings against those who participated in the demonstrations on May 6 somewhat recall those leading up to 1937. The mechanism played a role in the Great Terror. It made it possible to condemn a massive amount of people in a very specific and nonjudicial manner. Mass case files were compiled because this was easier than looking at each case individually. A mechanism was established that made the terror easier to carry out later. After the departure of [Soviet security chief Nikolai] Yezhov this practice stopped. But the machine's wheels were already moving quickly. Now, to speak about a return to the past we need to speak not only of those in state structures, but also at institutional and social habits. When a person ends up on some kind of list, he can become the subject of judicial repression later. By forming such categories in the past, the authorities made anybody who was suspect in the 1920s and 1930s vulnerable to repression after 1937-38.

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