David L. Hoffmann


On his book Cultivating the Masses: Modern State Practices and Soviet Socialism, 1914-1939

Cover Interview of January 13, 2012

A close-up

No discussion of Soviet social intervention would be complete without an examination of state violence. Indeed state violence, and the Gulag in particular, is frequently regarded as emblematic of the Soviet system as a whole. In 1937-1938 alone, according to official figures, the Soviet security police arrested 1,575,000 people, of whom it executed 681,692 and incarcerated another 663,308. By the end of 1940, the Soviet government had imprisoned over 1,930,000 people in Gulag labor camps, and these figures do not even include deportations of over one and a half million “kulaks” (wealthy peasants) to special settlements during the collectivization drive of the early 1930s. Soviet repression during this period amounted to an unprecedented scale of violence perpetrated by a state against its population.

Scholars have focused on Stalin’s motivations for ordering mass arrests and executions.  But how was such violence possible or even conceivable?  How was it implemented?  How are we to characterize Soviet state violence under Stalin?

The primary form of Soviet state violence throughout the interwar period was excisionary violence—the forcible removal of specific segments of the population and the isolation or elimination of these groups. The purpose of excisionary violence, whether in the form of deportations, incarcerations, or executions, was to extract from society those deemed socially harmful or politically dangerous.

Excisionary violence did not originate in Russia, and it was not unique to Marxist regimes. Concentration camps were first developed in a colonial context and then were deployed throughout Europe itself during the First World War. In the Russian Civil War, the Soviet government (as well as the anti-Soviet, White armies) perpetuated the use of deportations and internments, and these practices became institutionalized within the Soviet system in the form of the Gulag.

I do not argue that techniques of social categorization and social excision in themselves caused Soviet state violence. Deportations, incarcerations, and executions carried out by the Soviet government were the result of decisions by Communist Party leaders, who acknowledged no limits on their authority and wielded unchecked, dictatorial power. Social cataloguing, technologies of social excision, and highly centralized bureaucratic and police apparatuses were all conditions of possibility for the forms of state violence enacted by Party leaders.

I thus present techniques of social categorization and excision as conceptual and practical preconditions of Soviet state violence, not as direct causes. These conceptual and practical preconditions occurred in other countries as well but, with certain exceptions such as Nazi Germany, did not result in massive state violence.

The direct cause of Soviet state violence was the Stalinist leadership’s ruthless determination to remove “kulaks” during collectivization and eliminate potential traitors prior to the Second World War. Stalin and his fellow leaders used pre-existing techniques of state violence to pursue their goals of revolutionary transformation and state security.