Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Stalin's Children

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Stalin's Children

Three Generations of Love, War, and Survival

by Owen Matthews

Stalin's Children by Owen Matthews
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2008, 320 pages
    Sep 2009, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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The History of Russia & The Soviet Union during the first half of the 20th Century

The history of Russia and the Soviet Union during the first half of the 20th century is complex to say the least, characterized by near-constant turmoil. The autocratic reign of the Tsars came to an end in 1917, sparked by economic hardship instigated by Russia's involvement in World War I, rapid urban growth, and the rise of the middle class. Various political parties emerged to vie for leadership in the ensuing vacuum, with the Bolshevik Party led by Vladimir Lenin ultimately prevailing. Lenin's death in 1924 led to a power struggle which left party leadership in the hands of Joseph Stalin.

Stalin's policy of aggressive industrialization led to workers leaving the farms for employment at the new factories. The result was fewer agricultural workers producing food, and more industrial workers who needed to be fed. In addition, the peasants resisted collectivization, destroying assets and hiding food stores to keep them from being appropriated. Food shortages resulted. Although scholars attribute the ensuing famine to Stalin's policies, Stalin blamed the "kulaks" (rich peasant landowners), accusing them of hoarding grain. He began a campaign of retribution with the goal of eliminating the kulaks as a class. Anyone accused of being a kulak, kulak helper or, later, even an ex-kulak, was to be shot, sent to a gulag (labor camp), or deported to remote and inhospitable parts of the country. Thousands of deaths were reported, with over a million peasants sentenced to hard labor at the gulags.

The political situation remained unstable throughout the early 1930s, partly due to the chronic food shortages. Party loyalties became split between Stalin and Sergei Kirov, a popular party leader in Leningrad. When Kirov was assassinated in 1934, Stalin declared the shooting part of a larger conspiracy led by Leon Trotsky (another rival for power). He instituted a series of purges, beginning with the arrest and execution of sixteen high-ranking party officials accused of being conspirators. The purge spread to include anyone who had supported Trotsky, and then to anyone considered an "enemy of the state." Many military leaders were convicted of treason. No segment of society was left untouched.

Nikolai Yezhov, a Stalin loyalist, was made the head of the NKVD (Soviet secret police and precursor to the KGB) and put in charge of the continuing purge of anyone who did not support Stalin's policies. Under Yezhov, the process became increasingly arbitrary. People were arrested and tortured for merely being suspected of anti-revolutionary thinking. Neighbors would inform on each other in the hopes of appearing to be a good citizens and thereby avoiding arrest themselves. An accusation of being an "enemy of the people" would start a cycle of public persecution and abuse, often ending in interrogation, torture and execution. Relatives of the accused were assumed guilty of the same offenses and summarily deported. Historians estimate that about 700,000 people were shot in 1937-1938, most of them ordinary peasants and workers. An estimated five million people were deported to the gulags, thousands of whom died there of starvation, disease, exposure and overwork.

By late 1938 the purge had achieved its purpose: Stalin's unchallenged rule of the USSR. 90% of the army's senior leadership had been killed, and 130 members of the 139-member Central Committee had been arrested.

Of the NKVD's 809 high officials - the people responsible for carrying out the purge - only 43 (5%) lived through it, falling victim to an ever increasing paranoia they themselves instigated. The mass arrests ceased, and Stalin had Yezhov arrested for "overzealousness" in an attempt to deflect blame from himself. Yezhov was later among the executed.

Article by Kim Kovacs

This article was originally published in October 2008, and has been updated for the September 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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