A cautious look back

ZOiS Spotlight 20/2017 by Nina Frieß (26 July 2017)

A memorial for the victims of the Stalinist repression in Moskau's Fallen Monument Park. Photo: Nina Frieß

On 30 July 1937, Nikolai Yezhov, head of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), signed NKVD Order No. 00447 entitled ‘On the repression of former kulaks, criminals, and other anti-Soviet elements’. The next day, the Soviet Politburo confirmed the order. Unlike previous operations, this one was directed against the general population: with Order No. 00447, every citizen could effectively be declared an ‘enemy of the people’ and be arrested.

The exact number of victims of this order is still controversial. Historians estimate that around 800,000 people were arrested and up to 350,000 lost their lives.[1] That makes 1937 the sad climax of the Great Purge, which lasted from 1936 to 1938 and cost the lives of approximately 700,000 people.[2] This number increases significantly when one takes into account the whole of Joseph Stalin’s rule. Researchers say that around 20 million people were imprisoned in the labour camps of the Gulag between 1929 and 1953.[3]

Shortly before the 80th anniversary of the signing of Order No. 00447, the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VTsIOM), Russia’s leading state opinion poll institute, published a survey on the perceptions of Stalinist repression in Russian society. The representative survey showed once again that Russian society is deeply divided on questions of remembrance, but it also revealed a few surprising outcomes. Ninety per cent of those surveyed said that they had heard about the Stalinist repression. This number is remarkable given the state’s current overemphasis of the positive sides of Russian history and efforts to suppress the dark aspects. However, this figure says nothing about what the respondents knew about repression under Stalin’s rule.

The survey also asked about the sources from which people received their information. Here, there was another interesting result: more than half of the respondents said that they knew about Stalinist repression from documentary literature. One can assume that the respondents were referring to literature written by contemporary witnesses such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Varlam Shalamov, and Yevgenia Ginzburg. Solzhenitsyn’s novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, published in 1962 with the permission of the Soviet leadership, was the first text since Stalin’s death that openly described a Soviet labour camp.

The text was a sensation but had no immediate consequences. The Soviet Union’s so-called Khrushchev Thaw, when repression and censorship were relaxed, ended with the change of power from Nikita Khrushchev to Leonid Brezhnev. Authors like Shalamov and Ginzburg could not legally publish their texts, which were circulated in underground publications known as Samizdat or published outside of the Soviet Union known as Tamizdat. The VTsIOM survey shows that this literature about Stalinist repression is still important for the contemporary remembrance of these events.

The second most frequent source of information about Stalinist repression (48 per cent) consisted of stories from family members and friends. In third place (46 per cent) were news and documentaries on TV and radio. History lessons, as the state-institutionalised form of communicating history, came only in sixth place, with 37 per cent.

The survey also asked whether anybody in the respondents’ families had been repressed. Only 24 per cent answered this question positively, but less than half of them knew about their family members’ fates in more detail. Seventy-one per cent replied negatively, while 5 per cent could not answer.

Depending on what is understood by Stalinist repression and whether this includes only the Great Purge or the whole of Stalin’s rule, this result may be surprising. As French historian Nicolas Werth put it, during this period of more than 20 years, ‘every sixth grown-up was imprisoned’.[4] Accordingly, one would expect a much higher level of family involvement. Bearing in mind that for many years, Stalinist repression was a social taboo that people did not talk about—for their own safety as well as their family’s—it seems likely that many people today just don’t know that their grandparents or great-grandparents were repressed.

The low level of detailed information about Stalinist repression became obvious when the survey asked what kinds of people were subjected to political persecution. The closed question offered seven possible answers, from which respondents could choose two. Most respondents (37 per cent) opted for ‘people dissatisfied by the politics of power’, followed by ‘enemies of the people, traitors, and conspirators’ (24 per cent) and ‘thieves, crooks, and criminals’ (23 per cent). The survey did not allow respondents to choose an answer like ‘innocent people’ that would be true for most of those repressed. Only 16 per cent of those questioned went for ‘honest, open people’. This might be a result of the Russian state’s efforts in recent years to downplay the repression.

The well-known gap in the Russian culture of remembrance showed up in the question on how to interpret the Stalinist repression. On the one hand, 47 per cent of respondents said that the repression was a crime against humanity that could never be justified. On the other hand, 43 per cent saw the repression as a necessary measure through which Stalin ensured order in Soviet society. This answer reflects the high value of system stability, which the current Russian government stresses over and over again.

The last question, about how to deal with Stalinist repression in future, revealed another surprise. Only 22 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that stories about Stalinist repression have a negative impact on Russia’s image and therefore should not be disseminated unnecessarily, something which is often said by Russian political players. Meanwhile, 72 per cent thought that people should talk more about the victims of the repression, so such events would not be repeated. However, this result also shows that there is no wish for a discussion about the perpetrators. When there is a debate at all about Stalinist repression, it still focuses on the victims.


[1] Vgl. Binner, Rolf /Bonwetsch,Bernd /Junge, Marc (2009): Massenmord und Lagerhaft: Die andere Geschichte des Großen Terrors, Berlin, S. 662.

[2] Vgl. Bonwetsch, Bernd: Der „Große Terror“ – 70 Jahre danach. In: Zeitschrift für Weltgeschichte. 9. Jg. 2008, H. 1, S. 123–145, hier S. 128 f.

[3] Siehe z. B. Werth, Nicolas: Der Gulag im Prisma der Archive. Zugänge, Erkenntnisse, Ergebnisse, in: Osteuropa 6/2007, S. 9-30, hier S. 30.

[4] Werth, Nicolas: Der Gulag im Prisma der Archive. Zugänge, Erkenntnisse, Ergebnisse, in: Osteuropa 6/2007, S. 9-30, hier S. 30.


Nina Frieß is Research Associate at ZOiS.