Monday, December 19, 2016

Agents of Terror: Ordinary Men and Extraordinary Violence in Stalin's Secret Police by Alexander Vatlin

We are coming up on the 80th anniversary of the start of Stalin's Great Purges.  While much has been written on Stalinist repressions, there are still answers to prominent questions that continue to elude historians and regularly invite debate within the historical community.  "Agents of Terror," although a slim volume, is certainly not an easy read.  The author, Alexander Vatlin, takes the reader into the inner-workings of the NKVD on a district level.  Looking at the Moscow district of Kuntsevo, the author discusses the composition of Kuntsevo, the make up of the local NKVD, and chronicles the lead up to the Great Purges and the purges themselves, including the many victims, with as much documentation as he could find.

The story Vatlin uncovers is both familiar and revealing at the same time.  NKVD workers fabricated case after case in order to fulfill and overfill quotas assigned for the week/month.  Those arrested and accused of the most fantastical tales were beaten, tortured, threatened and lied to in order to get their confessions and signatures on paper.  At times blank documents were offered to them with promises of what would be written after they had attached their signature.  While initial arrests, when the Great Purges were just beginning (after order 00447 was issued), were often a result of NKVD agents consulting previously prepared lists for known suspects, after running out of known victims they moved on to anyone whom they could assign any type of blame to, no matter how outlandish.  In some ways family units were sought after as connections could easily be made and entire underground or spy "groups" could be claimed to have been found.

In detailing all of the above, Vatlin continually tries to figure out the mentality of NKVD workers who continued to enforce orders that some, at the very least, disagreed with.  There is no one satisfactory answer we can come to after reading about these events, but some reasons stand out more so than others.  Ideology seemed to play a limited role, at least when it came to Kuntsevo NKVD operatives, economic motives were a bigger draw for at least one leading NKVD figure who threatened victims with arrest and worse if they did not move out of apartments he coveted.  Some, who perhaps could no longer handle the stress of the job, committed suicide.  Often times it appears that "ideology" was more important to those under arrest than those doing the arresting, as they were often told their sacrifice in signing falsified confessions would help Stalin, the state, and the cause, and sign they did (at least if their own accounts of these events are to be believed).

Unfortunately, due to the limitations associated with the archival information the author was working with we are still left with many questions that will forever remain unanswered and some that might find their answers when additional archival material is unclassified.  Additionally, we, both reader and researcher, are left to rely on documents and accounts written by perpetrators and victims.  How much truth each inserted into their versions of events is impossible to tell.  However, in general, because both perpetrators and victims often enough recounted similar ideas, events and accusations that at least points to some type of "truth" that we can use as a foundation to continue searching for additional information to help us understand why the Great Purges were initiated and how they were sustained.

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