Wendy Z. Goldman


On her book Inventing the Enemy: Denunciation and Terror in Stalin’s Russia

Cover Interview of October 18, 2011

In a nutshell

Inventing the Enemy is about the period known as the “Great Terror” in the Soviet Union.  At the height of the terror in 1937–38, the Soviet secret police under the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD), arrested approximately 1.6 million people for political crimes.  More than 1.3 million were convicted, and about 683,000 executed.

The book, however, does not focus only on numbers.  I use a unique body of sources to reconstruct how ordinary people reacted to the terror and how they were affected by it.

Inventing the Enemy is structured around human relationships in five Moscow factories.  The first chapter provides a political background to the terror, explaining the events that set it in motion and the poisonous climate of fear and denunciation that soon enveloped the country.  The next three chapters, the heart of the book, are built around ties among people at work and at home.  Separate chapters focus on relations among coworkers, family, friends, and lovers.  The final chapter describes how the terror came to an end as the most ardent proponents of terror were arrested and sent to the camps as “bawlers,” or denouncers of the innocent.  An epilogue, “A History without Heroes,” analyzes the range of human behavior possible during the terror, and shows how ordinary citizens collaborated, participated in, and resisted the denunciations, mass meetings, and arrests of the time.

The book is based on a unique body of sources: stenographic reports of meetings of local communist party committees in Moscow’s factories.  I never could have done this research without access to previously secret archival materials contained in the Central Archive of Social- Political History of Moscow (TsAOPIM).

I paired the reports, which were verbatim transcripts of what people said at meetings at the time, with daily factory newspapers.  These two sources together allowed me to reconstruct almost a day-by-day account of what occurred during the terror.

This is not a history of famous party leaders or celebrated intellectuals.  It is about the recovered experiences, behavior, and responses of ordinary people and their families.

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 people personally through their behavior at the meetings.  I learned their names, jobs, and followed their behavior over time.  Gradually, I was able to piece together their relationships to one another, their family backgrounds, and their personal secrets.

I listened to how people responded to attacks, how they attacked others, and how they participated in the political events that gradually engulfed them.  It was possible both to read people’s behavior as it unfolded at the time as well as with hindsight.  With patient, painstaking reconstruction, I was able to reread certain actions with my subsequent knowledge of what was to come.  For example, in several cases I learned later that ardent denouncers of others were concealing their own secrets regarding the arrest of family members.  Interestingly, a person’s own private experiences with victimization often made them more rabid in their public denunciations of others.