• Why are so many Americans unaware that Joseph Stalin was as brutal, systematic and effective a killer as Adolf Hitler? One reason is because so much of the Old Left looked the other way at Stalin’s nefarious activities, and was unwilling later on to admit that it had done so. Another is that the Soviet Union remained a closed society long after the killing stopped, making it vastly more difficult for interested Westerners to study the Great Terror in the way that the Holocaust became a subject of detailed historical inquiry. As a result, we know far more about the individual innocents who died in the Holocaust than about those who were murdered at Stalin’s command.
Will this situation continue? Now that the Old Left is dying out, it has become somewhat more acceptable for American academics to study the Great Terror and report on it in a straightforward way, which doubtless explains the publication of The Voices of the Dead: Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s (Yale, 295 pp., $30), a new book by Hiroaki Kuromiya, a professor of history at Indiana University. For the past several years, Kuromiya has been examining the files of the secret police in Kiev, which in the 30’s was the Soviet Union’s third-largest city. (Now it is part of the independent state of Ukraine, whose rulers are more willing than their opposite numbers in Moscow to let outsiders study what Stalin wrought.) Like all bureaucrats, the killers of Kiev kept detailed records of their activities, right down to the late-night death warrants that were signed minutes before their prisoners were hustled out of their cells, shot in the nape of the neck and dumped into mass graves. In order to write The Voices of the Dead, Kuromiya examined the surviving dossiers of several dozen victims of the Great Terror, paying special attention to the handwritten notes in which official interrogators recorded the results of their attempts to extract confessions out of their prisoners prior to having them executed. The result is a book whose deliberate flatness of tone does not make it any less sickening.
Kuromiya’s own description of The Voices of the Dead is no less eloquent in its plainness:
The present book is a modest attempt to allow some of those executed in 1937-38 a voice. The focus is on individuals, in particular those whose lives meant absolutely nothing to Stalin: innocent people who were swept up in the maelstrom of political terror he unleashed. Most of the people discussed here are “unremarkable”: they left no conspicuous imprint on history. . . . Stalin was certain that no one would remember them. The “all-conquering power of Bolshevism” condemned them to oblivion, but it could not suppress their voices completely. Ironically, Stalin’s efforts to extinguish their voices helped preserve them, in the depths of their case files.
The people we meet in The Voices of the Dead are indeed “utterly unknown, ‘ordinary’ Soviet citizens: workers, peasants, homemakers, teachers, priests, musicians, soldiers, pensioners, ballerinas, beggars.” All they had in common was that they ran afoul of Stalin’s killing machine. Many appear to have been tortured before being sent to the execution chamber. Some confessed to crimes that they may or may not have committed, while others went to their graves swearing that they had done nothing wrong. To read about them is a jolting experience, no matter how much you may already know about the regime that sentenced them to die.
The Voices of the Dead is illustrated with reproductions of some of the documents examined by Kuromiya, including two harrowing “mug shots” of a pair of victims that appear to have been taken not long before they were executed. The book also contains contemporary photographs taken at the site of the mass graves on the outskirts of Kiev where tens of thousands of Stalin’s victims are buried. It is now a memorial park dotted with crosses, though few go there: “Except on commemorative occasions…the graves are deserted—dark, serene and eerie. History weighs on visitors here.” The main grave is marked with a monument inscribed with just two words: Vechnaya pamyat—eternal memory. It is a devastatingly simple reminder of the evil that men do in the name of ideas. So is this disturbing, invaluable book.