Purging the Wartime USSR

A review of L’ épuration de guerre en URSS, à partir de l’exemple de la région de Kalinine, 1941-1953 (Purging the Wartime USSR: A Study of the Kalinin Region, 1941-1953), by Vanessa Voisin.

This is by far the most impressive doctoral thesis I have read in recent years. Based on meticulous research in central and local Russian archives as well as in the large amount of now published primary sources and engaged with secondary literature in French, English, German, and Russian this is a weighty tome of 668 pages of text alone, not counting the very useful appendix of 289 pages of bibliography, maps, statistical tables, and reproductions of key sources (in both French and Russian). Broad in scope and bold in design, this is academic history at its best and should not be missed by anybody interested in the social, cultural, and political history of the wartime and post-war Soviet Union.
The thesis focuses on Kalinin (today: Tver) region during the years 1941-1953. Located in central Russia between Moscow, Smolensk, and Leningrad (today: St. Petersburg), bordering in the west on Latvia and Belorussia, the region was partially occupied in 1941 and can serve as something of a miniature model of the Soviet Union in its entirety. As the author notes, “the chronology of its invasion and its liberation coincides nearly perfectly with the equivalents in the country as a whole” (p. 25 – see also the useful chronology in the appendix volume, p. 287-88). Vanessa Voisin chose as the organizing problematic the notion of épuration, a term not easily translated into English. “Purification,” “purge”, “expurgation”, and “cleaning up” are all possible meanings, and “chistka” and “ochishchenie” are Russian equivalents which come close to the French meaning (p. 18). What is meant here is the “cleansing” of the nation (or the body politic) from “traitors” and “collaborators” with the enemy. Such épuration took place in all societies occupied by the Germans, but in the Soviet Union it also reached back into earlier instances of “purging.” As Voisin writes, the “notion of collusion with the foreign adversary … existed well before the experience of occupation” (p. 20). Moreover, there was not one type of “purging” going on in the war and postwar years. Taking her cues from Amir Weiner, Voisin sets out to interrogate whether or not there was one “logic” of épuration: “The object of the present study consists precisely in interrogating whether or not there was a wartime cleansing [of the nation] … in the Soviet Union. Is it possible to identify a global logic linking the extra-legal purges by the partisans in the occupied zone, the judicial cleansing put in place in the liberated territories, and the purges of administration and [Communist] Party?” (p. 17). Voisin comes down on the side of specificity: the purging of the war and postwar Soviet space was more Stalinist than European, and it is impossible to distill one singular “logic” to the complex processes of coming to terms with collaboration and treason: Soviet épuration “cannot be reduced to one single logic” (p. 610).
Overall, Voisin finds that wartime and postwar épuration was less categorical, less dichotomous, and less all-encompassing than the purging which had gone on before the war, in particular in 1937-38. Instead, the longer the war went on, and the more potential or actual collaborators were processed by the authorities, the more discriminate became the response. Voisin charts a process where Great Purge style excision of entire categories was replaced with the principle of “filtration” establishing guilt and punishing on a sliding scale of relative participation on the side of the enemy. It was only in the Communist Party, where even minor infractions (such as the destruction of the sacred Party Card) was punished severely. Everywhere else, a remarkable pragmatism ruled from 1942-43. One could even be excluded from the Party, but not purged from one’s position in the economic leadership of the region. The war and postwar years, then, saw in many ways a professionalization and de-escalation of punitive practice rather than a further escalation of “excisionary violence” as is sometimes claimed.
The argument evolves in three parts and eleven chapters. Part one includes four chapters. The first two establish the historical context for what is to follow: chapter 1 charts the history of political violence, repression, and purging in the Soviet Union from 1917-1941, while chapter 2 sketches the German occupation policies as well as the reasons and forms of collaboration. Using Dietr Pohl’s estimates, Voisin gives the number of “enemy accomplices” as one to two million, or 1.5 to 3 percent of the occupied population (p. 9). Active resisters, however, were in a similar minority and Voisin, following Alfred Rieber, Hiroaki Kuromiya, and Karel Berkhoff, notes that the majority of Soviet citizens in occupied territories chose neither of these extremes. She adds that there was no clear line from pre-war opposition for the Soviet system to wartime collaboration with the enemy, or from support to resistance. True, many collaborators were former victims of Stalin. But former members of the Communist Party were in fact over-represented among the “traitors” as well. Moreover, collaboration was “rarely an enthusiastic choice.” The Nazi New Order did not leave much space for true collaboration and most work with and for the occupiers is best understood as accommodation: a survival strategy. There were, of course, true volunteers, in particular early in the war. These were usually motivated by their opposition to Stalinism, rather than a commitment to Nazi ideas. But this was a minority even among the, in relative terms, quite small number of collaborators. Most aided the occupiers for personal, pragmatic, or material reasons, but if they did so they faced the wrath of the Soviet partisans. And often enough, they eventually went over to the Soviets: Rather than clearly distinguishable identities of “traitors” and “patriots”, Voisin found a vast grey zone of people who changed sides according to the military situation, serving the Germans when they seemed to have the whip hand, switching to the partisans once Soviet victory seemed more likely.
Chapter 3 turns from the extra-legal (and often illegal) épuration by the partisans on occupied territory to the legal purging of traitors after 1942, once Soviet territory had been recovered. Now, the main actors were state prosecutors following a judicial logic within the constraints of wartime mobilization, rather than irregulars following the logic of vengeance and terror-warfare. Soon after liberation traitors became only one category the judicial and police apparatus was busy repressing, getting drowned out by “the immense masse of deserters, offenders against work discipline or civil defense, bandits, etc.” (p. 178). Voisin shows how the technically legal repression on liberated territories in 1941-1942 were (a) part of wartime mobilization and (b) rather chaotic, due to over-charged, under-trained tribunals working within an infrastructure over-stretched to the extreme.
Chapter 4, then, asks the logical follow-up question: Was the war-time repression a “continuation of the Great Terror?” On one level, the answer is “yes”: In the context of the disaster of 1941, extremely radical orders were passed about how to deal with traitors. They were implemented by a security and judicial apparatus which had evolved little since the Great Terror. As before, the major criterion for career advancement was Party loyalty, not competence or qualifications. The ethos of judges, prosecutors, and Chekists had not changed fundamentally and their methods remained brutal, with often very short and incomplete investigations. As a result, extremely severe verdicts were passed in 1941 and 1942. During the first phase of the war, then, some sense of continuity with the penal regime of the 1930s, something like a Great Terror redux, can be established. At the same time, however, this repression was subordinated to the necessities of military mobilization in an actual life-and-death struggle with an uncompromising enemy: while the approach to political crimes hardened, those detained for minor infractions could be liberated to serve at the front lines. Moscow did not, indeed, opt for Great-Terror-style mass operations; Stalin did not set quotas to be fulfilled by a largely administrative process. Instead, a semblance of a judicial process was kept, however chaotic and unprofessional in practice. The main goal of the brutal policies towards traitors was not an all-out purge of the nation, but to dissuade as many as possible from making common cause with the enemy and to affirm the continued existence of the Soviet state and its system of justice.
Chapter 5 then systematically compares the Soviet case with its European siblings, concluding that, while certainly different in logic from the Great Terror, this the wartime épuration was more Soviet than European. While some similarities exist, the two most glaring differences are (a) the monopoly and control, from early on, of the state’s security organs over the process of purification, and (b) the practice of extending responsibility for treason beyond the person of the traitor to his family, and sometimes even his entire ethnic group. Here, again, continuities to the practice of the 1930s are more evident than similarities with other liberated societies.
Thus far, then this thesis tells a relatively standard story of a Soviet special path: Soviet practice was extremely severe, not because of the war, but because the Soviet polity’s essential difference to other European societies. However, this statement is only the first step of the argument. In chapters six and seven, indeed, the story changes dramatically: the further course of events de-escalated rather than further escalated the Soviet purification drive. In the years 1942 and 1943, domestic and international considerations led to a de-escalation of repressive practice which now allowed for much more nuanced judgments of the ways in which Soviet citizens behaved under German occupation. In particular, the principle of “filtration” was extended to more and more categories of liberated citizens. First developed for recovered POWs to separate those who could be re-used as cannon fodder from those who truly had committed treason, this approach was eventually widened to all repatriated Soviets. Internally, this shift to a more nuanced treatment of liberated populations was driven by the demands of both the army and of industry for manpower, but also by the propagandistic use of the brutalities of German occupation; externally, the Soviet push for war crimes tribunals implied that greater care needed to be taken to collect and verify evidence which would hold up in an international court after war’s end. The result of this convergence of internal and external pressures was an entirely new punitive regime, which was characterized by much greater professionalism and much more nuance than its pre-war predecessor. This shift is explored in two chapters: Chapter 6 focuses on the reasons for this moderation, Chapter 7 charts it course.
While part one of the thesis (chapters one through four) focuses on state practice until the end of 1941 and part two (chapters five through seven) examines its evolution until 1947, part three broadens the picture: it examines the social and symbolic processes of épuration in Soviet society. Chapter 8 looks at the purge of the cadres in party and administration, demonstrating the remarkable duality of leniency and relative tolerance towards minor infractions committed by non-Party administrators, and an absolute intolerance towards Communists. At the root of the latter lay not so much an ideological impulse but the consternation about the extent to which Soviet cadres had collaborated with the enemies. The ranks of the Communist Party, after all, should have been devoid of bad apples, given the extensive purification efforts of the 1930s. While the Party needed to remain pure, the shortage of competent cadres meant that merit could beat wartime misconduct, as long as no outright war crimes had been committed. As in the case of liberated populations, then, the war introduced nuance and the ability to see shades of grey rather than simply black and white. Voisin agrees here with the conclusions of Tanja Pentner and Jeffrey Jones about the “degree of tolerance” shown towards specialists tainted by work for the Germans (p. 459).
Chapter 9 further widens the view from the power structure to the population at large, showing the ambiguous role rank-and-file Soviets played in the process of postwar purging. The Soviet government, from the very start of liberation, was intent at controlling épuration from above. However, it proved impossible to completely ignore popular input, not least because the security forces were dependent on denunciations to find collaborators. On a symbolic level, too, interaction with popular moods was necessary, as the purging was also meant to send a message to the liberated populations: the image of the union of people and government fighting against the enemy served both to confirm the returned power and to assert that civilians who had not collaborated had nothing go fear. The social reality, of course, was much more complex. The reactions to liberation were highly diverse: some greeted their liberators and recounted the horrors of occupation; others feared what was to come; many expected that the Germans might return and hedged their bets while keeping their heads down; others resisted re-collectivization on the grounds that the Germans had exploited them and their men were in the Red Army, hence the Soviets should leave them in peace. Faced with this situation, the Soviet authorities tried to counter what they saw as results of enemy propaganda with their own public relations blitz, efforts hampered by a severe shortage of all kinds of resources – from people to paper, which made closing the gap between the regime and the people hard. However, the fault-lines did not just run between the state and the population. Groups with different war experiences found it hard to understand each other: former partisans faced former collaborators; those who had encountered the enemy either on occupied territory or at the frontline competed with those who had been evacuated to the rear and now returned; and so on. Such conflicts were further fuelled by competition over housing space now even more scarce than before the war. Such tensions, grafted onto the social contradictions of pre-war society, could release themselves in denunciations to the authorities. However, they rarely led to explosions of popular anger – a major difference to western Europe. In the Soviet Union, such spontaneous épuration was rare, and the process state-led from the outset. Signals from below were carefully analyzed and popular emotions channeled to bolster the state’s monopoly of force. Victims of the occupation often applauded the arrest (and at times public trial) of their former tormentors, in the process affirming the legitimacy of the returning state. The re-establishment of a “hierarchy of poverty” (Elena Osokina) further helped in aligning some with the state, while excluding others from the Soviet community. Heroes and victims became “natural beneficiaries of social aid” (pp. 540ff), while traitors and collaborators were excluded from state support, arrested, tried and their property confiscated. Their families were deprived of pensions or welfare payments while the families of soldiers and partisans, war invalids, war widows and orphans received a complex array of benefits. Property, which had often changed hands during the occupation, was also re-distributed, reaffirming the state’s role as final arbiter of material disputes among its subjects. In one word: “The restauration of Soviet power in the liberated territories was a complex and multi-faceted enterprise” (p. 558).
The exploration of the socio-cultural aspect of épuration is continued in Chapter 10, which extends the process into the post-war years. At the forefront of the attention of the security organs stood now the fight against crime rather than the hunt for traitors. The latter was now concentrated on regions recovered in 1944-45, that is, on the acquisitions of 1939-40. In the liberated pre-1939 territories, by contrast criminal law took over. In particular, the mass arrests following the 1947 anti-theft legislation eclipsed the arrest of collaborators. At the same time, wartime conduct was not forgotten and a range of formal and informal discriminations continued against those presumed to have helped the enemy. As far as the administrative and Party hierarchies were concerned, the duality of wartime continued: while the Party was purged systematically, administrators were treated more leniently, as long as they were good at their job. This moderation is particularly remarkable, because now it would have been possible to replace those who had worked for the Germans with returned soldiers, as demobilization ended the severe shortage of personnel which had originally motivated restraint. Nevertheless, administrative posts continued to be appointed according to competence rather than wartime conduct. Pragmatism also remained the order of the day with respect to repatriated citizens who returned home: hence, the majority managed to return to a more or less normal life, once and if they had passed filtration.
Chapter 11 then switches from the process of purification to those excluded by it. Moving from the liberated territories to the GULAG, it explores their lives between social isolation, re-education, and economic exploitation. Voisin estimates that those arrested as enemy accomplices made up no more than 10 percent of the GULAG population by 1953 (p. 614). Hence, just as they had been swept up in the larger fight against all kinds of deviants, wartime traitors were no more than “a significant minority of those detained in the GULAG” – in their majority victims of the 1940 labor laws or the 1947 theft decrees (p. 614).
Overall, then, this very ambitious thesis interrogates empirically what others have only asserted before: the question of the fate of the Soviet purification drive during and after World War II, both in comparative European and in medium-term Soviet perspective. It makes a major contribution not only to the history of the Soviet Second World War and post-war history, but also to the question of the longer-term trajectories of this the Soviet political formation. Let us hope that the results will soon be accessible also to an English reading audience.

Mark Edele
Discipline of History, School of Humanities
The University of Western Australia

Primary Sources

Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Rosiiskoi Federatsii (GARF – Russian State Archive)
Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Sotsial’no-Politicheskoi Istorii (RGASPI – Central archive of the Communist Party)
Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Voennyi Arkhiv (RGVA – Military Archive, Moscow)
Tverskoi Tsentr Khraneniia Dokumantatsii Nveishoi Istorii (TTsKhDNI – Tver Party Archive)
Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Tverskoi Oblasti (GATO – Tver State Archive)
Rossiiski Gos. Arkhiv Kinofotodokumentov (RGAKFD — State Film and Photo Archive)

Dissertation Information

University of Paris I: Panthéon-Sorbonne. 2011. 675 pp. (main volume) & 292 pp. (appendices). Dissertation originally written in French. Primary Advisor (directrice de thèse): Marie-Pierre Rey.

Image: RGAKFD, n°10975: screenshot from “Traitors’ Punishment in Melitopol” (1944). A Red Army soldier reads the verdict before an execution, February 9th, 1944.

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