William Heisey

Document Type

Book Review


In February of 1938 in Chernigov, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, a concerned regional official approached Nikolai Ivanovich Ezhov, the People’s Commissar of the Soviet Union’s fearsome Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (NKVD). In a recent roundup of local “potential enemies” of Soviet power, the man was unsure of what to do with the “invalids” and elderly peoples who happened to fall among the arrested. Seemingly irritated by this inquiry, Ezhov shot back at him blithely: “Ekh, you are a Chekist! Take them all to the woods and shoot them.” This haunting exchange provides a real glimpse at some of the callous indifference driving the infamous Great Terror—the widespread Soviet imprisonment and execution of perceived “Fifth Columnists”—across the Soviet Union between 1936–38, and is one of many illustrated in Lynne Viola’s Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine. This work studies in detail an under-explored dimension of the Great Terror: the secret trials and purges of the very NKVD operatives that carried out the Great Terror, who found themselves, in a stunning reverse of fortune in late 1938, on the other side of the interrogation table. This reversal turned out to be a successful tactical ploy by Stalin, enabling the leader to both celebrate and take credit for the successes of the Terror while scapegoating the NKVD for the increasingly public atrocities that were committed under his direction. Because of the secrecy of this “purge of the purgers,” the real stories behind the perpetrators of the Great Terror remained shrouded in mystery for much of the twentieth century.

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