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Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial

Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine

by (author) Lynne Viola

Oxford University Press
Initial publish date
Oct 2017
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2017
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2019
    List Price

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Between the summer of 1937 and November 1938, the Stalinist regime arrested over 1.5 million people for "counterrevolutionary" and "anti-Soviet" activity and either summarily executed or exiled them to the Gulag. While we now know a great deal about the experience of victims of the Great Terror, we know almost nothing about the lower- and middle-level Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (NKVD), or secret police, cadres who carried out Stalin's murderous policies. Unlike the postwar, public trials of Nazi war criminals, NKVD operatives were tried secretly. And what exactly happened in those courtrooms was unknown until now.

In what has been dubbed "the purge of the purgers," almost one thousand NKVD officers were prosecuted by Soviet military courts. Scapegoated for violating Soviet law, they were charged with multiple counts of fabrication of evidence, falsification of interrogation protocols, use of torture to secure "confessions," and murder during pre-trial detention of "suspects" - and many were sentenced to execution themselves. The documentation generated by these trials, including verbatim interrogation records and written confessions signed by perpetrators; testimony by victims, witnesses, and experts; and transcripts of court sessions, provides a glimpse behind the curtains of the terror. It depicts how the terror was implemented, what happened, and who was responsible, demonstrating that orders from above worked in conjunction with a series of situational factors to shape the contours of state violence.

Based on chilling and revelatory new archival documents from the Ukrainian secret police archives, Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial illuminates the darkest recesses of Soviet repression - the interrogation room, the prison cell, and the place of execution - and sheds new light on those who carried out the Great Terror.

About the author

Lynne Viola is Professor of History at the University of Toronto. She is the author of The Best Sons of the Fatherland and Peasant Rebels Under Stalin and coeditor of The War against the Peasantry.

Lynne Viola's profile page

Editorial Reviews

"Stalinist Perpetrators draws back the curtain on how the Stalinist Terror actually operated--not just how the state ordered it, but how it happened in provincial offices and prison cells. Her subject is the 'purge of the purgers,' the trial and often execution of the men responsible for the Terror. The nature of her source material--voluminous case files on these accused individuals--allows her to reconstruct the process and practices of the Stalinist Terror, including the beatings and torture, at the level of individuals, both in Kyiv and in more mundane provincial cities."

--Peter Holquist, author of Making War, Forging Revolution: Russia's Continuum of Crisis, 1914-1921

"This book is exceptional among the voluminous scholarship on Stalin's terror. Lynne Viola has written a fascinating and valuable work. The voices of those hangmen who ultimately became victims of the terror, as well as those they arrested, provide a stark picture of the Great Terror. The author explores the banality of evil in the Stalinist context: from the daily routine of torture and murder emerges the familiar figure of the self-righteous criminal."

--Oleg V. Khlevniuk, author of Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator

"A research tour de force from one of the leading historians of Stalinism, shedding remarkable new light on what happened at the end of the Great Purges. A 'must read' for scholars and students of the Soviet period."

--Sheila Fitzpatrick, author of Everyday Stalinism

"The Stalinist purges of the late 1930s stand as one of the most horrific episodes of state terror in the twentieth century. Yet the perpetrators of those crimes have remained anonymous for many decades, protected mainly by the rules of historical access in Russia. Now, Lynne Viola, working in Ukrainian archives, provides the first remarkable study of the perpetrators. In this groundbreaking book, we see for the first time who these individuals were, their backgrounds, what brought them to their position of life and death decisions, what life was like for them and their families during such a time. Most important, Viola examines with keen and dispassionate acumen how Stalin's murderers justified the torture and killing of hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens. This is a disturbing book, and one that needs to be read."

--David Shearer, author of Stalin and the Lubianka: A Documentary History of the Political Police and Security Organs in the Soviet Union, 1922-1953

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