Elec­tions and the great ter­ror

How Soviet ci­ti­zens ended up vot­ing unan­i­mously in elec­tions

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Stanislav Kulchyt­skiy

2018 marks the 80th an­niver­sary of Joseph Stalin’s Great Ter­ror and the 85th an­niver­sary of the Holodomor. Few sur­vivors of those tragedies are alive to­day but Ukraine’s so­ci­ety still suf­fers from its postgeno­ci­dal wounds.

Who­ever wants to part with the hor­ri­ble past must know it. Among other things, this means know­ing the links be­tween events that seemed to un­re­lated. In 1990, I stum­bled upon a re­mark by dis­si­dent his­to­rian Mikhail Gefter in Vek XX i Mir (21st Cen­tury and the World): “I’m a his­to­rian. Still, am I able to un­der­stand why what took place in 1937 hap­pened? I have not found a sin­gle case in the world’s his­tory where a pow­er­ful coun­try at the height of its suc­cess elim­i­nated mil­lions of ab­so­lutely loyal peo­ple! Not as a side ef­fect of elim­i­nat­ing op­po­nents, but just loyal peo­ple! What was this?”

Gefter’s re­mark kept me pon­der­ing for many years. As I re­searched the tragic his­tory of the in­ter­war pe­riod, the goals the bloody dic­ta­tor pur­sued when he launched the Great Ter­ror were the last thing I thought about. They seemed to lie on the sur­face: he was con­duct­ing a mas­sive purge of so­ci­ety. It was un­clear though why the cam­paign peaked in the last year of the se­cond five-year plan when news­pa­pers were full of re­ports cel­e­brat­ing eco­nomic ac­com­plish­ments and com­pleted con­struc­tion of so­cial­ism.


Mean­while, the gap be­tween the form of the gov­ern­ment de­scribed as the gov­ern­ment of work­ers, peas­ants and so­vi­ets — coun­cils, and its essence was deep­en­ing. This ter­ri­fied many func­tionar­ies who had come to that gov­ern­ment from the grass­roots level with il­lu­sions of it as a per­fect gov­ern­ment of the peo­ple. In front of their eyes, the Com­mu­nist Party and soviet ap­pa­ra­tus were turn­ing into a mafia en­tity that man­dated them to ful­fill crim­i­nal or­ders, or to turn into “GU­LAG dust” if they re­fused to.

Their only op­tion for re­mov­ing Joseph Stalin from the post of the All-Union Com­mu­nist Party Cen­tral Com­mit­tee Sec­re­tary Gen­eral was through the pro­ce­dure of the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee elec­tion at a party con­ven­tion. This elec­tion had to be se­cret. By con­trast, the elec­tion of the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee’s po­lit­i­cal bureau at the first plenum fol­low­ing such a con­ven­tion was by show of hands. In or­der to block Stalin from get­ting into the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee’s po­lit­i­cal bureau, he had to be bal­loted out at the stage of the se­cret Cen­tral Com­mit­tee vot­ing.

The All-Union Com­mu­nist Party of Bol­she­viks gath­ered for its 17th con­ven­tion in Jan­uary 1934. Nearly three hun­dred del­e­gates used that safe op­tion of se­cret bal­lot vote to speak against Stalin as Sec­re­tary Gen­eral. Mem­oirs claim that Sergey Kirov got more votes than Stalin. How­ever, Kirov was mur­dered on De­cem­ber 1, 1934. This handed Stalin a con­ve­nient lon­gawaited op­por­tu­nity to jus­tify the launch of his mas­sive ter­ror cam­paign.

On De­cem­ber 5, the news­pa­per Pravda pub­lished a de­cree by the USSR Cen­tral Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee, dated by the day of Kirov’s death that amended the crim­i­nal codes. Ac­cord­ing to the new rules, cases on acts of ter­ror against rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the au­thor­i­ties had to be reviewed in court within ten days. Once trans­ferred to court, they had to be con­sid­ered in ab­sen­tia of the sides while ver­dicts on cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment had to be car­ried out with­out de­lay. These amend­ments pro­vided the for­mal frame­work for the ter­ror cam­paign on a scale un­seen be­fore.

The po­lit­i­cal frame­work for that cam­paign was se­cured by a se­cret let­ter the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of the All-Union Com­mu­nist Party sent to the lo­cal party or­ga­ni­za­tions in Jan­uary 1935. Ti­tled The Lessons of Events Linked to the Treach­er­ous Mur­der of S. Kirov, the let­ter de­clared any­one dis­sent­ing with the course of Com­mu­nist Party’s Cen­tral Com­mit­tee as en­emy of the peo­ple. Lo­cal lead­ers and di­rec­tors who did not re­spond to “an­ti­so­viet acts” prop­erly were branded by the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee as turn­coats sub­ject to ar­rest and iso­la­tion.

This pre­sented the Cheka with an op­por­tu­nity to clean up its records that had been filled up to the brim with files of dis­senters re­vealed by in­form­ers in the pre­vi­ous years. An­other goal was to get rid of dis­loyal staff at the Com­mu­nist Party soviet ap­pa­ra­tus — Lenin’s guard first and fore­most.


Why did the cam­paign to elim­i­nate the “en­e­mies of the peo­ple” from so­cial life take place in 1937? In or­der to un­der­stand this, it’s help­ful to draw a line be­tween the amended codes and the de­vel­op­ments of 1937 that en­sured ac­tive in­volve­ment of the Com­mu­nist Party staff in them, thus mak­ing the repressions eas­ier to im­ple­ment — Stalin needed more than se­cu­rity agen­cies alone to run the coun­try.

I spot­ted a link be­tween the Great Ter­ror and the de­vel­op­ments that pro­ceeded the dec­la­ra­tion of the build­ing of so­cial­ism com­plete. That dec­la­ra­tion could hardly have been based on eco­nomic and cul­tural ac­com­plish­ments alone — peo­ple had to feel pal­pa­ble changes in so­cio-po­lit­i­cal life as well.




In or­der to un­der­stand the se­quence of those de­vel­op­ments, it will be help­ful to de­scribe the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem that had been con­structed by Lenin and sur­vived al­most un­re­formed up un­til the 1988 con­sti­tu­tional re­form. Lenin in­vented a for­mula of power that merged struc­tured com­mu­ni­ties, such as his party, and un­struc­tured ones, such as classes and so­ci­ety. So­vi­ets or coun­cils — the self­gov­ern­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions of the protest­ing pro­le­tariat that first ap­peared in Rus­sia dur­ing the 1906-1907 rev­o­lu­tion — were used as a link be­tween these two el­e­ments. Ac­cord­ing to Lenin, the goal was to con­nect the coun­cils with the party of the Bol­she­viks and to trans­form them from au­ton­o­mous or­ga­ni­za­tions scat­tered across the coun­try into a rep­re­sen­ta­tive body of state author­ity.

On one hand, the so­vi­ets were to be or­ga­ni­za­tion­ally sep­a­rated from the party of the Bol­she­viks. On the other hand, they were to guar­an­tee un­di­vided Bol­she­vik con­trol over the soviet au­thor­i­ties and gov­ern­ment bod­ies on the ground. This meant that the Bol­she­viks had to squeeze ri­val po­lit­i­cal forces out of the so­vi­ets and fill them with the mem­bers of their own party and sym­pa­thetic non-aligned deputies.

Af­ter that, the party of the Bol­she­viks would ex­ist in two forms: as a po­lit­i­cal force ex­er­cis­ing its own dic­ta­tor­ship un­der the mask of “pro­le­tariat dic­ta­tor­ship”, and as the so­vi­ets that would have sig­nif­i­cant ad­min­is­tra­tive func­tions but would not be a sep­a­rate po­lit­i­cal force. Who would run the party, and the com­mune-state — by Lenin’s def­i­ni­tion — with the help of that party? The an­swer was ob­vi­ous: vozhdi, the lead­ers. Un­like other po­lit­i­cal forces, the Bol­she­vik party was built on the prin­ci­ple of “demo­cratic cen­tral­ism”: the party mass had to un­ques­tion­ably obey their vozhdi. Once they turned into a rul­ing party af­ter the Oc­to­ber re­volt, the Bol­she­viks im­me­di­ately purged rep­re­sen­ta­tives of other po­lit­i­cal forces from the so­vi­ets with the help of the newly-es­tab­lished Cheka. By tak­ing over the so­vi­ets and brand­ing its own dic­ta­to­rial author­ity as a soviet gov­ern­ment of work­ers and peas­ants, Lenin’s party man­aged to merge with the grass­roots pub­lic.

The Bol­she­viks party thus sep­a­rated its func­tions: it pre­served po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship but was re­lieved from re­spon­si­bil­ity for daily mat­ters, while the so­vi­ets were stripped of po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence but ended up be­ing fully re­spon­si­ble for ad­min­is­tra­tive func­tions. The term “soviet gov­ern­ment” referred equally to both parts of the power tan­dem. The ti­tle of this gov­ern­ment had no space for the word “party”, nor did that word ap­pear in the first soviet con­sti­tu­tions. The so­vi­ets be­came the om­nipresent force, but that was only be­cause they were merged with the party.

The Com­mu­nist Party com­po­nent of the power tan­dem faced the party mem­bers. Be­cause it was built on the ground of “demo­cratic cen­tral­ism”, its vozhdi did not de­pend on be­ing elected by grass­roots party mem­bers. Mean­while, these grass­roots party mem­bers reg­u­larly elected the party’s ad­min­is­tra­tive bod­ies in line with statu­tory re­quire­ments. There­fore, the soviet com­po­nent of the tan­dem faced the peo­ple. Not only did the soviet pop­u­la­tion elect the staff of soviet bod­ies — it was also given per­fectly real man­age­ment or con­trol func­tions. As a re­sult, it was hard to doubt the “peo­ple’s” na­ture of such gov­ern­ment — also be­cause it took its top man­agers from the grass­roots level.

The de­ci­sions taken by the party com­mit­tees were im­ple­mented ex­actly be­cause the au­tho­rized rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the soviet com­po­nent of gov­ern­ment were party mem­bers and sub­ject to se­vere dis­ci­pline. In other words, the usurpa­tion of the so­vi­ets’ power func­tions was re­peated with ev­ery re­newal of their staff – that re- newal was de­cided by the vot­ers. There­fore, elec­tions of soviet au­thor­i­ties were al­ways a mat­ter of great im­por­tance for the party. It in­tro­duced the re­spec­tive elec­tion pro­ce­dures in or­der to main­tain con­trol over the state.

The build­ing of so­cial­ism was, first and fore­most, the ex­pro­pri­a­tion of pri­vate prop­erty from mem­bers of so­ci­ety by the state of pro­le­tariat dic­ta­tor­ship. This meant that the Bol­she­viks could only gar­ner sup­port from ur­ban and ru­ral pro­le­tariat that did not own any prop­erty. This also meant that there could not be any equal­ity in the elec­tion of so­vi­ets. As a re­sult, rep­re­sen­ta­tion norms for work­ers in Rus­sia were five times higher than the norms for peas­ants. In the 1919 elec­tion cam­paign in Ukraine, both work­ers, and peas­ants had rep­re­sen­ta­tion norms that were ten times lower than those of the Red Army mem­bers. This was be­cause Ukrainian peas­ants and work­ers were lo­cals, while mem­bers of the Red Army were not, for the most part. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of “alien classes”, in­clud­ing small en­trepreneurs and man­u­fac­tur­ers, as well as peas­ants who owned prop­erty were stripped of vot­ing rights al­to­gether.

Fac­to­ries, in­sti­tu­tions, mil­i­tary units and ed­u­ca­tion fa­cil­i­ties qual­i­fied as elec­tion units. Can­di­dates were nom­i­nated by party or trade union or­ga­ni­za­tions. The vot­ing was open. The vot­ers who wanted to choose their rep­re­sen­ta­tives in­de­pen­dently faced dif­fer­ent tools of per­sua­sion, in­clud­ing pres­sure from lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion, a threat of tak­ing away their vot­ing right and more.

Di­rect elec­tions were held for lo­cal so­vi­ets only. All soviet con­ven­tions – from re­gional to all-Union ones – were com­prised of deputies from lo­cal so­vi­ets. The lists of mem­bers in ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tees at all lev­els, in­clud­ing the Cen­tral Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee of the Soviet Union, were metic­u­lously com­piled by party com­mit­tee sec­re­taries.


The tech­nique of elec­tion cam­paigns was no se­cret. A hand­out spread by so­cial­ist rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies among the work­ers of Dnipropetro­vsk in Jan­uary 1929 had the fol­low­ing para­graph: “The Bol­she­viks have im­posed on us open vot­ing in elec­tions of so­vi­ets. But can we ac­tu­ally choose freely even when we vote openly? Who will dare to vote for an hon­est non­aligned can­di­date or lift a hand against a vile com­mu­nist nom­i­nated by the party branch un­der the su­per­vi­sion of the lo­cal party princelings?”

Af­ter over a decade of such elec­tions, the soviet party func­tionar­ies and ci­ti­zens across the coun­try had grown used to the

elec­tion pro­ce­dures that led “vile com­mu­nists” to power. Then sud­denly on May 29, 1934, Avel Yenukidze, Sec­re­tary of the All-Rus­sian Cen­tral Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee, the high­est leg­isla­tive, ad­min­is­tra­tive and re­vis­ing body of the Rus­sian Soviet Fed­er­a­tive So­cial­ist Re­pub­lic, pro­posed to the po­lit­i­cal bureau of the Com­mu­nist Party Cen­tral Com­mit­tee to in­clude a re­port on amend­ing the Soviet Union Con­sti­tu­tion into the agenda of the 7th con­ven­tion of so­vi­ets. The pro­posal was ap­proved and Yenukidze was tasked with draft­ing the amend­ments. He was not the au­thor of this ini­tia­tive as proven by his let­ter to Stalin dated Jan­uary 10, 1935, with a note ex­plain­ing why the then-mul­ti­lay­ered struc­ture of elec­tions had to be elim­i­nated: “Based on Your in­struc­tions on the time­li­ness of switch­ing to di­rect elec­tions for soviet gov­ern­ing bod­ies (from dis­trict ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tees to the Soviet Union Cen­tral Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee), I present the fol­low­ing re­port to be dis­cussed by the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee.”

As Stalin trans­ferred Yenukidze’s re­port to the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee’s po­lit­i­cal bureau, he for­mu­lated more rad­i­cal pro­pos­als for amend­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion. “In my view, the is­sue of the Soviet Union Con­sti­tu­tion is more com­plex than what it seems to be at first sight,” he wrote. “First of all, the sys­tem of elec­tions needs to be changed not in terms of its mul­ti­lay­ered struc­ture alone. It needs to be changed in terms of switch­ing from open to se­cret vot­ing.”

Stalin’s pro­pos­als sig­naled the abo­li­tion of the soviet elec­tion sys­tem and a trans­fer to an­other one ear­lier referred to as “bour­geois”. Ev­ery­one then re­mem­bered the “bour­geois” elec­tion of the Con­stituent Assem­bly that took place af­ter the Oc­to­ber 1917 re­volt: the Bol­she­viks lost that elec­tion bit­terly and dis­banded the newly-elected deputies so that they could stay in power. Now, the Fe­bru­ary 1, 1935 plenum of the Com­mu­nist Party Cen­tral Com­mit­tee in­structed the Soviet Union con­ven­tion of so­vi­ets, based on Stalin’s or­der, to amend the Con­sti­tu­tion in or­der to “fur­ther de­moc­ra­tize the elec­tion sys­tem by re­plac­ing the elec­tions that are not equal with equal elec­tions. This means go­ing from the mul­ti­lay­ered to di­rect elec­tions, and from open to se­cret vot­ing.”

On Fe­bru­ary 5, the 7th con­ven­tion of Soviet Union so­vi­ets sup­ported that for­mula with­out any changes and de­cided to hold the next elec­tion of soviet au­thor­i­ties based on the new elec­tion sys­tem. On Fe­bru­ary 7, the All-Union Cen­tral Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee es­tab­lished the com­mis­sion to draft the new USSR Con­sti­tu­tion. Sec­re­tary Gen­eral Stalin in­tended to make the new Con­sti­tu­tion the most pro­gres­sive one, fol­low­ing the model of Switzer­land, the coun­try with the long­est-stand­ing tra­di­tions of democ­racy.

The new Con­sti­tu­tion of the Soviet Union was drafted and dis­cussed against the back­drop of a cam­paign against the “en­e­mies of the peo­ple”. Soviet party func­tionar­ies found them­selves caught be­tween the rock and the deep blue sea — threat­ened by Stalin-con­trolled state se­cu­rity bod­ies from one side and by elec­tions in which al­ter­na­tive can­di­dates could be nom­i­nated, from an­other.

Stalin ex­plained the prospects such elec­tions brought to the nomen­cla­ture, in­clud­ing in an in­ter­view with Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Roy Howard: “Our new elec­tion sys­tem will push all en­ti­ties and or­ga­ni­za­tions to im­prove their work. Gen­eral, equal, di­rect and se­cret vot­ing in the Soviet Union will be a whip in the hands of the pop­u­la­tion against poorly per­form­ing gov­ern­ment en­ti­ties. The lists of can­di­dates will be nom­i­nated by the Com­mu­nist Party, as well as all kinds of civic or­ga­ni­za­tions. We have hun­dreds of those.” On Au­gust 27, 1939, the po­lit­i­cal bureau of the Com­mu­nist Party Cen­tral Com­mit­tee ap­proved the vot­ing bal­lot with the fol­low­ing in­struc­tion for the vot­ers: “Leave ONE can­di­date you vote for in your elec­tion bal­lot, cross out the oth­ers.”

In or­der to ob­tain sup­port from the soviet com­mu­nist ap­pa­ra­tus, Stalin threat­ened its rep­re­sen­ta­tive with the prospect of los­ing power. He pre­sented him­self as the only per­son who, in con­trol of the state se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus, could di­vert the threat of new peo­ple ap­pear­ing at all lev­els of the soviet ma­chine. Well aware of this, the ap­pa­ratchiks had to unite around Sec­re­tary Gen­eral and stand united against the threat com­ing from the new Con­sti­tu­tion. They all re­al­ized that the only tool the Cheka could use to help them con­duct elec­tions safely was its con­ven­tional ter­ror. As a re­sult, they gave Stalin a green light to repressions of any scale. Those who did not agree to act within the frame­work pro­grammed by the Sec­re­tary Gen­eral were to be swal­lowed by the ter­ror cam­paign.


On De­cem­ber 5, 1936, when the ex­tra­or­di­nary 8th con­ven­tion of the so­vi­ets ap­proved the Con­sti­tu­tion, it an­nounced that the elec­tion of the Soviet Union Supreme Coun­cil would take place “in the near time”. Even­tu­ally, that elec­tion took place on De­cem­ber 12, 1937. The year­long de­lay was used to im­pose fear on the vot­ers through mas­sive ter­ror. The au­thor­i­ties had to make sure that the vot­ers elected only the peo­ple pro­posed and tested by the party com­mit­tees.

Any talk of nom­i­nat­ing al­ter­na­tive can­di­dates was hushed in the run-up to the elec­tion. Elec­tion com­mis­sions were forced to reg­is­ter just one can­di­date for ev­ery deputy seat from the bloc of com­mu­nists and non-aligned can­di­dates. A mere thought of nom­i­nat­ing a can­di­date that was in­de­pen­dent from the party was de­clared anti-soviet.

In a free elec­tion, even when the bal­lot has just one name, the vot­ers can ex­press their opin­ion about the can­di­date in writ­ing by choos­ing “I sup­port” or “I don’t sup­port” the given can­di­date. The or­ga­niz­ers of the 1937 elec­tion sim­pli­fied the bal­lot text by just in­di­cat­ing the can­di­date and the com­mu­nity that nom­i­nated him or her. That meant that the voter did not have to leave any marks on the bal­lot. Only those who in­tended to cross out the name of the can­di­date nom­i­nated by the bloc of com­mu­nists and the non-aligned had to go into the vot­ing booths. Armies of ag­i­ta­tors were re­cruited for ev­ery cat­e­gory of vot­ers from their en­vi­ron­ment. This en­sured spe­cial dis­ci­pline among the ag­i­ta­tors — all of them de­pen­dent on the state eco­nom­i­cally as they worked at fac­to­ries and in­sti­tu­tions. Cor­ralled into soviet farms and na­tion­al­ized col­lec­tive farms, the ru­ral vot­ers had grown de­pen­dent on the state as well. Ag­i­ta­tors were per­son­ally re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing sure that all of their “sub­jects” voted.

Other peo­ple were re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing sure that the sub­jects voted prop­erly: se­cu­rity agen­cies played the key role in cre­at­ing the at­mos­phere of an all-union ap­proval for pro­posed can­di­dates in the elec­tion. To do that, they killed hun­dreds of thou­sands in re­peated ter­ror cam­paigns while tens of mil­lions were de­stroyed morally by forced col­lab­o­ra­tion with the se­cu­rity agen­cies — in pub­lic con­dem­na­tion of “en­e­mies of the peo­ple” or giv­ing false tes­ti­mony against their col­leagues, friends or fam­ily. The pop­u­la­tion re­ceived the vot­ing bal­lots only af­ter it had been driven to a nec­es­sary con­di­tion by the ter­ror cam­paign. As the repressions raged on, they left few dare­dev­ils will­ing to go into that booth and cross out the can­di­dates nom­i­nated by the bloc of com­mu­nists and the non-aligned.


The sacral vic­tim. The mur­der of Sergey Kirov, the main Stalin`s opon­nent, was a pro­logue to great party purge

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