Nikolai Yezhov was apparently quite the man at parties, and a hit with the ladies, despite being something of a dwarf. He was also a homicidal maniac, and rose quickly through the ranks in the early Soviet Union until he became head of the NKVD.
The story of Yezhov tells us a lot about the mentality behind Stalin’s Great Terror, and that’s why I listened to the author of a book about him being interviewed on the New Books Network.
What I hadn’t expected was an insight into the processes that underpinned Stalinism – in particular the admiration for and rewarding of competence and hard work. There were, it seems, more good jobs than good people (although putting somebody hard working and competent in charge of the NKVD surely only exacerbated this…).
Yezhov was also favoured because he wasn’t one of the self important Old Bolsheviks, sporting a large retinue of fawning admirers, and therefore also a potential threat. He was loyal – until drink and a loose tongue led to his downfall (and consequently that of every member of his family other than an adopted daughter who now lives in Magadan).
Why does this matter? Well I’m coming to the end of Vassily Grossman’s mammoth Tolstoyan novel, Life and Fate, which deals with the period shortly after the Great Terror. The vast range of characters work their way through life (and well over 800 pages) before the German 6th Army surrenders in Stalingrad. The ghosts of the Stalinist system haunt the book – the memories of 1937, the constant threat of denunciation, and the ever present fear of the knock at the door. In memory of Bernard Black from Black Books, the book has everything short of a lens grinder from Omsk.
(Beware of spoiler…) Towards the end of the book, a fanatical Old Bolshevik finds himself in the Lubyanka, with all of his fancy theorising about Marxism, and his impecable record in The Party and At The Front, torn up and tortured away. A nuclear physicist who is a bit of a shit as well as something short of a pukka communist gets away with his misdemeanors thanks to an intervention from the Big Man himself. NB I still have a few dozen pages to go and this might all be baloney…
Again, why does this matter? For me it’s a reminder that behind every piece of history, common sense and practical measures count for a lot. Namby Pamby theorising and the deification of the self important gits at the top of most systems actually counts for far less.
Again, Why Does This Matter?
Mainly because it allows me to mention Stalin’s Great Terror and Black Books in one blog post. That’s enough reason for me, and I hope it is for you too.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: china, francis spufford, ft, gideon rachman, red plenty, ussr
Francis Spufford spoke about his book on the economic contradictions of the Soviet Union, Red Plenty, on the Today Programme this morning.
One aspect that he spoke about with the FT’s Gideon Rachman was the parallel with China of today. Many media observers are slightly too keen on extrapolating towards ever greater and more astounding triumphs. This is dangerous, but an inevitable problem given the number of English literature graduates in journalism.
Put simply, in the 1950s the Soviet Union was on a terrific trajectory (cheap Ballet was mentioned in the interview), powered by the heavy lifting of central planning and the memory of victory in the Great Patriotic War. But of course it didn’t work out like that. Similarly, China is currently on a terrific trajectory, and the straight lines drawn from the present into some future future show that China will soon dominate the world. But of course it’s unlikely to be like that.
It’s often said that journalists need to understand numbers a little bit more. That’s enormously important, but the understanding of numbers also needs to work alongside an understanding of history, of rises and falls and hubris and nemesis.
I listened to a podcast yesterday that dealt with an example of this: one of the world’s great religions, alongside Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Well, it was, at least for century upon century. The religion was Zoroastrianism. It barely exists today – but today is a fairly arbitrary point from which to judge it.