The Magazine

The Paranoid State

Suspicion and betrayal and the Soviet way of life.

Apr 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 30 • By JAMES C. BANKS
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Soviet history has crystallized in Western memory as a conflict between apparatchiks and heroes. The apparatchiks were ideologically rigid autocrats and pandering toadies, while the heroes—such as Solzhenitsyn, Havel, and Sharansky—were the voices of humanity, reverberating until they eventually penetrated the Iron Curtain. Both sides, however, existed among a vast multitude of average human beings who had the opportunity to become saints and chose to remain sinners. Soviet history is replete with anecdotes of betrayal; many gave up close associates for as little as material gain and as much as self-preservation. The result was a society of moral as well as physical death.

Photo of Stalin

Creating a detailed narrative of Soviet crimes is a tortuous endeavor and becoming more difficult as the Russian government—controlled by a former KGB agent—is reluctant to revisit a history from which its people and neighbors have never recovered. Nonetheless, devoted researchers continue to produce histories that shed light on new dimensions of the commissars’ atrocities, and, to the extent that the Soviet archives have been opened to these researchers, they have uncovered more than enough to develop a narrative which is as detailed as it is horrifying.

As an account of the Great Terror from the perspective of people on the factory floor, Inventing the Enemy is an important contribution to this research. Wendy Z. Goldman, who teaches at Carnegie Mellon and has written comprehensive accounts of the Soviet workforce in the early years of Stalinism, sets out to answer why people more concerned with making a living than fighting a revolution cooperated with authorities and betrayed coworkers, friends, and family. In answering this question, she invites the reader into a microcosm of Russian factories in which everyone is a prisoner faced with the same dilemma: to denounce or be denounced.

Like World War I exactly 20 years before, the Great Terror began in response to a disruptive event: Late in 1934, the head of Leningrad’s Communist party, Sergei M. Kirov, was killed by an assassin. The trials that followed were short and the executions almost immediate. But the fear of terrorism not only refused to die with the assassins; it grew and infected all levels of the system. The state began actively hunting victims. Workers did not resist the commissars or shield their supervisors. Instead, many took advantage of the party’s zealotry. Denunciations (or zaiavleniia) became the means by which workers would “redress safety hazards, challenge bosses, and pursue personal vendettas.” The smallest technical error or production shortage became evidence of treason:

Once the workers had been given this virtual carte blanche, the factories erupted into a cacophony of accusations and counteraccusations. Rational technical explanations proved a poor counterweight to allegations of wrecking, which soon offered a handy excuse for any breakdown, shortage, accident, or failure.

Nonideological individuals soon supported the state’s witch hunt as actively as the system’s true believers. Once the state accepted that its enemies were everywhere, they set a standard for loyalty that could be used to incriminate anyone: “Party members were warned that the enemy might appear in the guise of a better, more responsible version of themselves.” Ideology incentivized workers to betray their comrades. Even so, inconspicuous shopworkers proved more than willing to oblige the Communist inquisitors, especially when the Terror grew worse in 1937 after the Dinamo, an electrical equipment factory in Moscow, was damaged by a fire. In an atmosphere of paranoia, this event had no chance of being attributed to happenstance. Factory newspapers called for aggressive prosecution and workers began accusing their managers at the first sign of suspicion. Production and efficiency slowed as prosecutors cleared the factory of its management, a fact which was interpreted only as further evidence of malfeasance:

The prosecution .  .  . deprived the factory of its technical director, its deputy director, and three shop heads. Shock waves would reverberate through the factory for months. Not only did the arrests leave important posts vacant, but they also goaded party members into zealously going after one another in an effort to expose anyone who had worked with or defended the arrested men.