Wendy Z. Goldman


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

Cover Interview of October 18, 2011

The wide angle

Inventing the Enemy grew out of my previous book, Terror and Democracy in the Age of Stalin, which described the impact of the terror on the unions, workers, and industry.  I used some of the stenographic reports in Terror and Democracy, but I was never able to explore the deeper psychological dimensions of people’s experiences.  In this sense, Inventing the Enemy grew directly out of my desire to analyze these sources more fully in terms of what they told us about personal and collective behavior.

The book makes several controversial arguments.

The first is that ordinary Soviet citizens participated widely and actively in the terror.

This argument is at odds with the popular view that the terror was solely a top down phenomenon directed by Stalin and motivated by his drive for absolute power.  My research at the local level shows that ordinary people also participated in the terror by writing secret denunciations to the NKVD, by speaking against coworkers at meetings, by naming names, and by preemptive attacks on others to demonstrate their own loyalty.  These behaviors were motivated by genuine belief in alleged enemies, by fear of exposure or attack, and in many cases by both.  Faith in and fear of the state operated at the same time, and often, were intertwined in the responses of the same person.  Many of the strategies that people used to protect themselves increased the risk to others and helped to spread the terror.

The second argument of the book is that the line between victims and perpetrators was very blurred.  Unlike memoirs of the terror, which are based on individual recollections and stress the innocence of the victim, the stenographic reports show people acting in real time.  We see people denouncing others, and then becoming victims themselves of the very political culture they initially helped to create and sustain.

This argument, too, is at odds with the dominant view of the terror, which tends to cast Soviet society as the innocent victim of an evil Stalin.  The book explodes this simplistic analysis to reveal far more complex behaviors.  In one case, I discovered that a factory manager had written several secret denunciations of his coworkers to the Party and the NKVD.  At the same time, his own relatives had been arrested and he was sending food and money to them in the camps.  Of course, it was a grave violation of Party rules to render aid to people who had been deemed enemies.  His double actions, denouncing so called enemies while sending aid to others, made me think more carefully about belief and behavior in that time.

The third argument of the book is that Soviet society was crisscrossed by a web of familial, work, and friendship ties that drew everyone into the vortex of the terror.

Historians have previously considered various victim groups separate from one another.  I argue, however, that the family connected former oppositionists, kulaks, recidivist criminals, Latvians, Poles, and other victim groups to workers and communist party members, key supporters of the state.

Once I shifted my lens of inquiry from state orders to the family, I realized that many loyal rank and file Communists and workers had relatives who fell into suspect categories.  In fact, everyone was vulnerable to victimization through associational ties.  According to party rules, party members had to report the arrests of relatives, friends, bosses or employees to their party cells.  Party members agonized about whether to declare these arrests or to conceal them.

The Communist Party was not a group walled off from the rest of the population, but in fact, its members often had family ties to various groups targeted by the state.  Any one family might have a working-class communist father, a former oppositionist uncle, a Polish brother-in-law, or a dispossessed kulak grandfather.

The chapter, “Love, Loyalty and Betrayal,” centers on Aleksandr Somov, the head of the Hammer and Sickle factory’s party committee, who possessed an impeccable proletarian biography.  Yet Somov was thrown out of the Party as a result of his close relationship with a young Polish communist woman who was arrested in the national operations.  The chapter shows that not even the most “perfect biography” could provide immunity to arrest.

It is thus impossible to regard the terror solely as a set of targeted actions by Stalin and the state against specific victim groups.  Everyone in those dark times was victimized to one degree or another, and everyone participated in victimization.  No social or political group was left untouched.