Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin directed the largest and most destructive campaign of political repression and terrorism ever mounted by any regime. Millions perished as the result of executions, systematic starvation, and from the numerous acts of wanton violence carried out by Stalin’s subordinates. Millions more were detained in forced labor camps, where many died of exposure or at the hands of their guards. Those who survived were embittered by the ordeal they had suffered, and by the loss of many of those close to them in the wholesale carnage of this period. While Stalin dealt in the most severe and ruthless manner even with those whom he could only suspect of possible opposition, he and his aides devised a ubiquitous propaganda cult in which the Soviet leader was depicted as the wise and benevolent standard-bearer of Soviet Marxist ideals. In Stalin’s lifetime, history was rewritten to portray him as the defender of the revolution and the master architect of the socialist state. Even though after his death some of his actions were repudiated, Soviet officials have never permitted an open investigation or assessment of the Stalin era.
Both Western historians and Soviet dissidents have attempted to provide more complete and searching accounts of the bloodshed and havoc wrought by the Soviet Dictator. Anton Antonov-Ovseenko’s work is neither the most extensive nor the best of works of this genre; it does stand, however, as testimony to his own experiences and to those around him who perished. Moreover, as the son of an Old Bolshevik he has been in a unique position to gather materials on the administration of the terror at the highest levels. Thus he has been able to furnish some new insights on the operations of Soviet secret police and the planning of the terror by Stalin and his associates.
The author’s father, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, joined the Bolsheviks during the revolution and commanded troops that captured the Winter Palace in Petrograd during the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917. He also held several important positions in the Soviet government and distinguished himself as commander of Red Army forces on several fronts during the Russian Civil War. During subsequent struggles for power within the Party, however, he did not side with Stalin, and, though still widely respected, he was sent away from the capital on diplomatic assignments. After service as Ambassador to Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, and Poland, in 1936 he was made Proconsul to the Spanish Republic. As Stalin began to eliminate the Old Bolsheviks, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko was recalled to Moscow and accused of heinous crimes against the Soviet state; formally arrested late in 1937, he was not permitted to answer the charges brought against him, and when he refused to sign the confession prepared by Soviet interrogators, he was put to death at some time during the following year. His wife, the mother of the author, committed suicide after she was imprisoned by Stalin’s police. Anton Antonov-Ovseenko was arrested three times, and from 1941 to 1953 was detained in several forced labor camps. Though for quite some time after his release he was not involved with other dissidents, he resolved eventually to set forth the record of crimes of the Stalin era, as a duty to his dead father and to those who had suffered with him. His work is a chronicle of the Stalin period intermingled with personal reminiscences and reflections on the character of the Soviet Dictator and his henchmen.
Perhaps as a reflection of his father’s role in the events of 1917, the author is somewhat ambivalent on the outcome and significance of the Russian Revolution. He suggests at times that some repression would have been practiced by any Soviet regime; in other places he seems to feel that only Stalin could have carried out large-scale terrorism. He does note that shortly after Stalin joined the Bolshevik Party he took part in the expropriation of a steamship, and associated with other criminals during his underground political work. Stalin did not contribute significantly to the Bolsheviks’ victory in 1917, and indeed during the Civil War he mismanaged several important campaigns. His criminal instincts and background, however, served him well later on when he began to scheme against his rivals.
Repeatedly the author mentions warnings and premonitions of Lenin and other Soviet officials who feared that Stalin might abuse power or turn on his comrades. Nevertheless,...
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