Did the ‘Great Terror’ reflect the ‘Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks’, as J. Arch Getty has asserted?

J. Arch Getty is one of the leading historians of the Great Terror. In The Road to Terror, published in 1999, one of his fundamental arguments is that the Terror was a part of the the Bolshevik Party’s own self-destruction. This is tied into Getty’s overarching ‘revisionist’ argument, in which he argues that the Soviet Union was a weak state, and there was a distinct lack of central control over the Terror. Furthermore, he argues that Stalin, although ‘creator, product, and symbol’ of the dominant bureaucracy––the nomenklatura––that drove the terror, could not be individually culpable. Getty’s discussion in The Road to Terror is accompanied by 199 translated documents of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from the 1930s, almost all of which had not been previously published.

Using primary sources provided within The Road to Terror, as well as other primary and secondary material, this essay will argue that Getty’s ‘self-destruction’ thesis fails to adequately account for the complex political reasons behind the confessions and accusations made by party members. Instead it will be suggested that the Terror can only be understood historically by looking at the course of the development of the USSR over the preceding decade. Most importantly, it will be argued that the Terror can only be understood as a political phenomenon, rather than an issue of Soviet culture or psychology.

Understanding ‘self-destruction’

It is important first to establish Getty’s argument and its implications. When Getty talks about self-destruction of the party, he is arguing that the party was responsible for a ‘series of policies that disorganized the regime, fractured society, and destroyed the party itself.’ He explains not only how elites were doubtful of the stability of their privileged position in Soviet society, but that the various strata of the nomenklatura had fractured and their often competing interests created divisions which could further undermine the stability of the ruling elite.

Central to this self-destruction were the so-called ‘rituals’ of accusation and confession, or criticism and self-criticism, or kritika i samokritika. Under Stalinism, writes Alexei Kojevnikov, Kritika i samokritika formed a vital part of training of new party members and officials. ‘Subordinating one’s personal views to those of the collective, accepting criticism and delivering self-criticism in the proper way, were proof of successfully internalized cultural values and of one’s status as an insider.’

What began ostensibly as a tool of education would become a tool to purge enemies. Its purpose was ‘to eradicate the personality of the cadre, and often preceded his physical destruction’. The process was complete ‘when the prisoner was coerced into adopting a new biography, a new Party identity: that of an agent, a saboteur or a Trotskyist, whose “Party countenance” was now the hideous visage of the “enemy.” Echoing Getty, Kojevnikov argues that the ‘cultural force’ of kritika i samokritika was so potent

that even Communist oppositionists who faced the death penalty were still proving their insider status by admitting imaginary crimes and accusing themselves in the public performance of Moscow trials, while denying their guilt in last private letters to Stalin or to the party.’

‘To disagree, or even to defend oneself against an accusation,’ writes Getty, ‘was tantamount to insubordination, to “taking up arms against the party” in wartime, to counterrevolution.’ It was in this regard that I. N. Smirnov, for example, provided an unacceptable account in his 1933 speech at the Central Committee plenum, whereby he defended himself against accusations: ‘I would like to resolutely and categorically disavow the vile, counterrevolutionary words … ascribed to me …. [O]nly someone drunk out of his mind or insane could ever say such a thing.’

But mere self-criticism and subordination to the Party line was insufficient. It was deemed as ‘too passive’ since it did not contribute sufficiently to the ‘active struggle with antiparty elements [and] for the general line of the party.’ It became necessary for ‘former dissidents’ to accuse others; to ‘inform on those still in opposition, and work visibly to affirm the Stalinist version of reality.’ Karl Radek, argues Getty, understood this, and as such implicated Smirnov in order to demonstrate his loyalty to the Party:

After reading Comrade A. P. Smimov’s statement, in which he rejects with great indignation the very possibility of being held in suspicion in right-wing factional work, I am hereby informing you of the following:

In 1927 sometime during the summer. G. A. Zinoviev notified those who were then the leaders of the Trotskyist opposition of a proposal made … by A. P. Smirnov for the formation of a bloc against Comrade Stalin.

It is in this regard that Getty argues that the party was imprisoned by ‘the symbolic construction––the ideology––that they created’, and formed a process which led to its self-destruction.

However, Getty’s analysis is based on the assumption that the Bolshevik Party of the mid-1930s continued the ideology and practices that had been constructed under Lenin’s leadership of the party. Yet the party underwent tremendous changes during the period between the death of Lenin and the onset of the Terror, in terms of politics, personalities and society. To use the term ‘Bolshevik’ to refer to the party in both of these deeply contrasting periods does not allow us to delineate the different phases of the development of the party and fails to appreciate the great dissimilarities between the party in the early 1920s and the mid-1930s.

Getty himself is unclear throughout The Road to Terror on his position on this matter. At some points he seems to draw a distinction between the ideology of the Bolshevik party in the 1920s and the Stalinist party of the 1930s:

The Bolshevik party was a product of idealistic, egalitarian, and socially progressive strands in the Russia intelligentsia and working class. By the 1930s much of the original idealism had been lost or transformed, as Bolshevik revolutionaries became state officials.

He also asserts in his conclusion that ‘Stalinism (or the terror) was not foreordained by Leninism.’

However, the underlying logic of Getty’s argument is that it was Leninist ideology which significantly contributed to the self-destructing rituals:

Bolsheviks, more or less united around a conception of socialism and more or less bound by party discipline, followed the Leninist tradition of presenting a single party face to the outside. … Party unity was always seen as the key to Bolshevik survival, and when the chips were down party members of all ranks were enjoined to close ranks against the “class enemy.”

Getty also adds that it was ‘[d]iscipline and Leninist traditions of democratic centralism’ which constrained Bukharin to either ‘obey or to be considered an enemy.’ In other words, he suggests that the Party self-destructed as a consequence of inherent issues of Bolshevik ideology. And yet, we only need to compare the treatment of Bukharin by Lenin himself in 1918––when Bukharin opposed the Brest-Litovsk Treaty and organised a faction, the Left Communists, to campaign against Lenin on the issue––with the treatment of Bukharin by Stalin in the 1930s. Under the ‘Leninist’ regime, no disciplinary sanctions were taken against Bukharin. Under Stalin, he was shot.

Indeed, the term ‘self-destruct’ is also fraught with difficulties. As Getty demonstrates, the ‘destruction’ of the party – in terms of the persecution, imprisonment and murder of party members and supporters – was carried out by the group of party members who looked to Stalin for leadership. Despite having differing political platforms, neither the supporters of the Bukharin or Zinoviev and Kamenev factions attempted to physically destroy their rivals when they were in the leadership of the party in the 1920s. Only the Stalin faction followed this policy. ‘Self-destruction’ implies that all factions in the party were equally committed to the violent suppression of their enemies, yet it was only Stalin and his followers who articulated and pursued such a strategy. It would therefore be more historically accurate to suggest that it was Stalin and his followers who destroyed the party, rather than use the vague and all-encompassing term ‘self-destruction’.

Much is made by Getty and other historians of the USSR in the 1930s about the importance of confessions by those falsely accused under the Terror. For example, the sociologist Klaus‐Georg Riegel draws links between the ‘rituals of confession’ in the 1930s with Lenin’s apparent ‘dogmas of party unity, unquestioning obedience and ‘iron’ discipline as a blueprint for a revolutionary community of believers’, as well as the ‘hidden religious dimensions in [his] catechism for professional revolutionaries’. Yet, there is no evidence that Stalin’s method of dealing with political opposition could be traced back to Lenin and his leadership of the party in the early 1920s. This form of confession and self-incrimination didn’t exist under Lenin; it was a specifically Stalinist invention.

As we have already seen was the case with Bukharin, opposition had existed under Lenin, even during the more explicitly perilous time of Civil War. For example, during the Tenth Party Congress in which the banning of factions in the party was announced, Alexandra Kollontai and Alexander Shlyapnikov, who were leaders of the main anti-Lenin faction, the ‘Workers’ Opposition’, were elected to the Central Committee. Lenin had even appealed to the oppositionists to ‘come and help us, come closer and help us in the fight’. 250,000 copies of Kollontai’s famous oppositional pamphlet The Workers’ Opposition were printed and distributed to members of the party by the party itself; Lenin even encouraged party members to read it, albeit to show its failings.

This is not comparable to the treatment of even imagined opponents under Stalinism. Even Molotov recalled in 1982 ‘that before the events of the thirties, we lived all the time with oppositionists, with oppositionist groups. After the war, there were no opposition groups; it was such a relief that it made it easier to give a correct, better direction’. As Marcel Liebman wrote, ‘nothing was less like the dictatorial autocracy of Stalinism than the kind of authority that Lenin exercised in the Bolshevik Party and the Soviet state.’

It is argued, therefore, that to suggest as Getty does that the policies and practices of the Bolshevik Party under Stalin represents the continuation of the party culture and practices established by Lenin, is not only historically inaccurate, but that it also undermines our ability to understand the Terror. If the Terror was the continuation of the policies of the Bolshevik Party under Lenin, why was it not implemented by Lenin or by those seeking to succeed him in the 1920s?

Victims and Politics

Getty’s view that party members’ response to the Terror was conditioned by a Bolshevik culture of automatic submission to authority that had been supposedly established under Lenin also implies that members saw no alternative but to confess when accused of crimes by the party leadership. But in fact, the response of party members prosecuted or suspected under the Terror was primarily based on political calculation rather than an unthinking compulsion to confess. They sought to respond or react the the Terror in a way that reflected their particular political positions within the party. Many of those who eventually confessed had already made a political decision to align with Stalin and the regime by the 1930s. As Leon Sedov, Leon Trotsky’s son and a leader of the Left Opposition, wrote in 1936,

Among the defendants at the Moscow trial, there was not one true Bolshevik-Leninist. The Left Opposition had broken with the Zinovievists in January 1928, when they capitulated before the Stalinist bureaucracy. Smirnov … had split from the opposition … at the end of 1929. And that is understandable. The path of the Left Opposition, standing for an implacable struggle against Stalinism, and the paths of groups capitulating before Stalinism parted sharply.

Those who confessed or incriminated themselves had already accepted the political basis for Stalin’s rule. Even among some of those who did not support Stalin, their attitude towards the regime was based on political calculation. For example, in a chance meeting with Sedov in Berlin in 1931, Smirnov confirmed that he viewed opposition to Stalin at that time to be fruitless:

‘He, Smirnov, did not share Trotsky’s point of view about the necessity of conducting political work in the USSR. … Smirnov thought that the present conditions in the USSR did not allow any oppositional work to be carried out and that, in any case, it was necessary to wait until these conditions changed.’

Furthermore, Stalin and his supporters encouraged the belief that political compromise was possible. In February 1936, a decree by the Central Executive Committee granted amnesty to defendants on the condition of ‘full repentance … with regard to their earlier crimes against the Soviet regime’. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, many of Stalin’s opponents on the left and the right of the party had abandoned their previous oppositional politics and been accepted back into leading positions in the party. The 1936 decree implied that the same would happen again, underlining the fact that for those accused during the Terror, it could be said that confessing was politically and materially logical.

The fact that the accused responded according to their political viewpoint is highlighted by Roy Medvedev, who describes the discussions amongst prisoners trying to calculate the most beneficial way of handling their accusations. Some, Medvedev explains, argued that if they were to confess

to any and every imaginary crime, and name hundreds of innocent people as our “confederates,” more and more innocent people will be arrested, until the Party wakes up to the the monstrous stupidity of the whole process and restrains the NKVD.

Anecdotes included a prisoner who ‘denounced more than three hundred innocent people’, one who ‘denounced all the Party officials and even all the ordinary Communists he knew in his raion’, believing that this would expose the absurdity of the arrests and allegations. As Ia. I. Drobinskii noted in his memoirs, ‘The repressions are a provocation, a festering boil; the faster it grows, the sooner it will burst. To make it grow, drag in more people. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.’ These examples indicate that victims were not fulfilling any ritual or entrenched ideology, but responding according to their political views in impossibly constrained circumstances.

In contrast, others demonstrated a different attitude to the Terror. As Dobrinskii wrote, their approach

was to fight, to make no compromises. Do not bear false witness against yourself or against others. Endure all tortures, torment, hunger; if you have not endured, if you have slipped, rise again, tear into them, even if they rip your skin off; to your last ounce of strength, fight, fight, fight.

And here marks a key point ignored by Getty and almost all other historians of the Terror: a significant section of left opposition didn’t give themselves or their comrades up. This resistance, however, would not stop the terror’s momentum. For example, in ‘Memoirs of a Bolshevik-Leninist’, a supporter of Trotsky recalling his own experience in jail describes meeting a communist called Altman. Accused of secret links with Trotskyists, he was arrested and suffered terrible torture. But he refused to capitulate:

Altman would not name any names. … His teeth chattered and the hair stood up on his head from the terrible pain. … But he never told them anything. Behind bars he turned gray and went totally blind. … About the “ties with Trotskyists” of which he had been accused, he never said anything; either there had been no such thing, or else he kept silent about that around us, fearing the “gag in the mouth.”

The memoirist adds that ‘[a]mong the Old Bolsheviks there were quite a few like Altman.’ But, as Medvedev wrote, ‘even without such voluntary “testimony,” the NKVD often arrested many colleagues, friends, even chance acquaintances of the “enemies of the people,” for “prophylactic” purposes.’ This on its own meant that one arrest inevitably led to a series of new arrests, ‘and the chain reaction was hard to stop.’

Purpose of the Purges

Finally, Getty’s notion of self-destruction also implies a lack of purpose to the Terror, or at least a failure to properly fulfil its purpose. As we observed earlier in his recollection of the Terror, Molotov credits the purges as being key to strengthening the power of the leadership; ‘it made it easier to give a correct, better direction’:

if a majority of these people had remained alive, I don’t know if we would be standing solidly on our feet. Here Stalin took upon himself chiefly all this difficult business, but we helped properly. … Especially in the period of the war. All around––one against another, what good is that?

This was anything but ‘self-destruction’ from the point of view of the leadership. Its position had been cemented. Furthermore, if, as Getty described, the party that had lost all central control and ‘self-destructed’, how did it remain functional enough after the Terror to direct the USSR to victory in the Second World War, even despite the execution of the Soviet Union’s most brilliant Generals. The party remained; it emerged from the Terror functional and with its grip on the state secured.


Getty’s Road to Terror successfully highlights the role of the Stalinist bureaucracy in enabling the Terror. But the implications of his theory of self-destruction veer away from historical analysis and towards relying on a vague cultural analysis of the Soviet system that fails to account for the tremendous differences between the Bolshevik Party under Lenin and under Stalin. Far from self-destructing due to Bolshevik cultural practices established by Lenin, the party was destroyed by a section of the party led by Stalin that had abandoned the party’s original practices and policies and sought to impose its authority by destroying all other sections of the party.


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Getty, J. A. ‘Samokritika Rituals in the Stalinist Central Committee, 1933-38,’ The Russian Review, Vol. 58, No. 1, (1999) pp. 49-70

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Medvedev, R. A. On Stalin and Stalinism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979)

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Rees, E. A. ‘Review Essay: The Great Terror: Suicide or Murder?’, The Russian Review, Vol. 59, No. 3 (2000) pp. 446-450.

Riegel, K. G. ‘Rituals of Confession within Communities of virtuosi: An Interpretation of the Stalinist Criticism and Self-criticism in the Perspective of Max Weber’s Sociology of Religion’, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, Vol. 1, No. 3 (2000) pp. 16-42

Saunders, G. (ed.) Samizdat: Voices of the Soviet Opposition (London: Pathfinder Press, 2002)


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