Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Five Questions for Wendy Goldman, Author of Inventing the Enemy

Wendy Goldman is the author of Inventing the Enemy (on sale September 27th), which uses stories of personal relationships to explore the behavior of ordinary people in five Moscow factories during Stalin’s Terror. Beginning in 1936, a rising tide of denunciations swept work places and institutions throughout the Soviet Union, reaching its height over the next two years when approximately 2.5 million people were arrested for political and non-political crimes. What was it like for ordinary citizens to live in such a toxic environment? We sit down with Wendy to get a glimpse of everyday life during the Terror.

You take an unique approach in your book by focusing on stenographic reports of Communist Party meetings during the height of Stalin’s Terror. Why did you decide to do so?

When I first looked at the stenographic reports of the meetings I was amazed. It was quite literally as if I had been transported back to a factory in the Soviet Union at the height of the Terror, and I was sitting in a meeting surrounded by workers, foremen, managers, and other members of the Communist Party. As I read through the stenographic reports over months and years, I felt as if I was getting to know the people personally through their behavior at the meetings. I listened to how they responded to attacks, how they attacked others, and how the group participated in the dark political events that gradually engulfed it. I realized I had stumbled upon a very unique source.  When I paired the stenographic reports with the factory newspapers, which were dailies, I was able to reconstruct what happened in the factories during the terror almost day by day.

Describe the research process. How did you access such never-before-seen documents?

I began working in the Moscow Communist Party archive (TsAOPIM) a number of years ago.  There were many documents there that had never been declassified, and I was refused many requests.  Fortunately, I was able to receive enough material to write the book.

What surprised you most about the stenographic reports?

What surprised me most was how close it was possible to get to the people at the meetings, and how much I could find out about their backgrounds, dilemmas, and even their secrets. With patient, painstaking reconstruction, it was possible both to read their behavior as it unfolded at the time, and also, to go back in time and reread their actions with knowledge I acquired of what was to come.  I’ll give you an example. In one case, I discovered later that a factory manager had written several secret denunciations of his coworkers to the Party and the NKVD.  At the same time, however, his own relatives had been arrested, and he was sending them food and money. Of course, it was a grave violation of Party rules to render aid to people who had been deemed enemies. His double actions, denouncing so called enemies while sending aid to others, made me think hard about belief and behavior in that time.

I also realized that many communists had relatives who had been arrested as kulaks or suspect foreign nationals in the mass and national operations launched in 1937. They had to report these arrests to their party cells, which created an anguished dilemma about whether to declare the arrests or to conceal them.  I realized that the Communist Party was not a group walled off from the rest of the population, but in fact, its members often had family ties to various groups targeted by the state. It is thus impossible to regard the Terror solely as a set of targeted actions by Stalin and the state against specific victim groups. Everyone in those dark times was victimized to one degree or another, and everyone participated in victimization to one degree or another. The line between victims and persecutors was very blurred. This is a very different than the commonly accepted interpretation that Stalin launched the Terror against a helpless citizenry.

In such a perilous environment gripped by fear and suspicion, did you come across any individuals who were willing to stand up to the status quo?

I came across many people who were willing to help family members, friends, and coworkers. Unfortunately, these same people often also denounced others, spoke strongly in favor of the purge and arrests at meetings, and helped create the atmosphere of terror on the local level.  Sadly, my last chapter is entitled, “A History Without Heroes.”

What new insight does Inventing the Enemy shed on the Terror?

The book offers new insights into the behavior of individuals as it unfolded in real time. Unlike a memoir, which is usually written from a victim’s individual perspective, the book shows how people in groups, at the time, participating in and thus helping to create a political culture that supported the terror. It also shows how victimized groups that historians have previously considered separate from one another – former oppositionists, kulaks, recidivist criminals, Latvians, Poles, Finns, and other émigrés – were in fact connected to the most politically reliable group, members of the Communist Party, through the family. Once I shifted my lens of inquiry from state orders to the family, I realized that many loyal Communists had relatives who fell into suspect categories. In fact, Soviet society was crisscrossed by a web of familial, work, and friendship ties that drew everyone into the vortex of the terror. Everyone was vulnerable to victimization through associational ties. Once people realized that they, too, might become victims, despite impeccable political credentials, their understanding of the terror shifted.  What began as anti-Terror measures in the wake of the Kirov murder became a true terror. Inventing the Enemy shows us how an anti-terrorist campaign launched by the state can become a full blown terror in which no one is immune from victimization and one’s fellow citizens become rabid agents of denunciation. This is a history that has much to teach us in the present day.

Latest Comments

Have your say!