[Extract. Appeared in New Left Review I/238, November-December 1999]
Finally, in the deluge of the conservative-liberal ‘Black Books’ on Stalinist ‘totalitarianism’, a work which not only meets the highest standards of historical research, but also enables us to grasp the unique social dynamics that culminated in the great purges of the 1930s: J. Arch Getty’s and Oleg V. Naumov’s The Road to Terror.1 Based on the archives of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, which were only recently made available to historians, this book is an extraordinary achievement even at the level of narrative presentation: historical documents (the minutes of the CC sessions, party decrees, private and official letters) are introduced and accompanied by a substantial commentary which displays a theoretical stringency rarely met amongst historians (for example, references to Foucault, Bourdieu, and modern linguistics in order to explain the functioning of the ritual of self-accusation in the show trials). Furthermore, the picture that emerges of this period from the late 1920s—the failure of the collectivization of agriculture—to the late 1930s—the sudden halt to the ‘irrational’ terror—is much more complex than the image of Stalin ruthlessly realizing his demonic project of total domination: the great purges are put in their context, rendered visible as the result of the way the top nomenklatura(mis)perceived their situation. In the eyes of Stalin and his immediate entourage, Bolshevik rule was unstable, out of control, permanently threatened by centrifugal forces—far more than a gratuitous sadistic display of power, Stalinist terror was an implicit admission of the inability to run a country through the ‘normal’ chains of administrative command. In order to properly measure the impact ofThe Road to Terror, one should start with the paradox of the revolutionary sacrifice.