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Internal Assessment in History: Leon Trotsky

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This investigation will explore the question: “To what extent did “Great purge” contribute to the Stalin’s establishment of Stalin’s dictatorship in USSR?” and analyze the degree to which the great purges influenced to Stalin’s absolute power in the Soviet Union. Thus, An interview with Leon Trotsky on recent Moscow trial, in socialist appeal in Sep. 1936, and The origin of the Great purges, the book written by revisionist historian J. Archy Getty in 1985, are two main sources for investigation, because they provide two different perspectives about Great purges, totalitarian and revisionist view, which were widespread during the cold war and after the collapse of Soviet UUnion respectively, helping our understanding of Stalin’s role in purges as a tool for the dictatorship.

The first source to be evaluated in detail is an interview about recent Moscow trial with Leon Trotsky, the leader within the communist party who was the major figure in the victory of Bolshevik’s revolution, written in September 1936. The origin of the source is valuable since Trotsky was the main target of Moscow show trial due to constant power struggles between Trotsky and Stalin as rivalry for a leader in USSR, it can offer profound insight about purges as a tool for absolute power of Stalin in totalitarians view. However, as this source was originally written in RussianRussian and then translated to English, during translation, contents could be misinterpreted due to, for example, differences in nuances of words. 

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The purpose and the contents of the source are to argue that “charges of indictment for Zinoviev and Kamenev—assassination of Kirov and defeat of socialism in USSR—is just a conspiracy of Stalin to make an excuse and justify his action of removing possible opponent elements and set a stage for gaining absolute power.”. In this aspect, the content is valuable as it reveals the implicit purpose of Great purge and demonstrates Moscow trial as a tool for Stalin’s dictatorship by labeling it as ‘crude frame-up.’. However, the purpose of the source could lessen the objectivity due to political reasons since it contains Trotsky’s clear intention of defending his followers who are charged with crimes.

The Second source, Origin of the Great purges, is the book written by revisionist historian J. Archy Getty in 1985. The origin of source is significant because the author is modern historian, meaning that he has the benefit of hindsight and the book is written based on a range of different archival and sources, which were not available to access during Soviet regime. However, the origin is also limited since the source contains only particular perspective, revisionist view, it does not offer balancing viewpoints about purges and inevitably be considered as one-sided. The purpose of the source is to challenge the pre-existing viewpoint perspective about Great purges.

The purpose couldan be the the limitation since the author’s intention to justify his argument could lower the reliability of the source due to possibilities of distortion. The contents provide significance to source, since it suggests a new paradigm to the view toward great purges arguing that purges occurred not as the final product of a Stalin’s deliberate plan for dictatorship, but rather as the result of chaotic communist’s party structure which attempted to centralize the power. 

The another valuable aspect of content is as the book focuses on the inner-workings of the Bolshevik party in the years leading up to the 1930s and complicated web of political relationships, it provides context for tumultuous moment of Soviet union which ultimately led to great purges without Stalin’s intention. However, convincing evidences that indicate Stalin’s direct intervention into great purges, such as Stalin’s private letters, are ignored or underestimated in contents, making historians difficult to create accurate multi-dimensional picture about the event. 

Having come to power in 1917 by October revolution, Bolsheviks struggled to stabilize the country and maintain their authority against wide spread opposition. After the October revolution, Stalin became the post of commissar for nationalities, and throughout the following civil war, he ascended the ranks of the government by extensive bureaucratic maneuvering, and and in 1922, he received the majority vote to be elected as the General Secretary of the party in 1922. He was a rising power in the USSR, even Lenin called for his removal, arguing that Stalin had abused too much power, what was to become known as Lenin’s last statement.

Following Lenin’s death in 1924, there had been consistent power struggles between Stalin and his rivalries. As a result, leftwing communists, including Trotsky, were deported on a large scale from government. During the second half of the 1920s, the action of repression against opposition by means of “purges” was initiated not only within the government, but throughout the country. 

There has been a vigorous debate among historians over the explanation of the great purges. Two views are popular which offer different interpretations about whether Stalin was a “master planner” of great purges or they were products of chaotic state of contemporary communist party: Totalitarian view and Revisionist view.

The totalitarian view has been popular in the west since World War 2 due to anti-Soviet atmosphere. It is often called as the ‘top down’ view of the terror, as it contends that instructions of purges were given by those at the top, Stalin. Robert Conquest is the prime exponent of this view. His book, the Great terror: A reassessment, argues that Stalin used the purges as a tool to eliminate potential opponents and as a mechanism to control the population. 

Furthermore, liberal historians who were dissidents dissenters ofin the Soviet Stalin’s regime like Roy Medvedev, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Trotsky shared the same view, arguing that Stalin was the architect and the central planner of the terror for his absolute power. Totalitarianists argue that even Stalin superficially declared that the goal of the purge was to stabilize the country by eliminating reactionary elements, but he must have very pressing reasons to carry out these assassinations.

The first victims of great purges were Politburo members: Leon Trotsky, Grigori Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev, who were expelled from the party in late 1927. The murder of Sergei Kirov on December 1, 1934, set off a chain of events which culminated in the Great Terror of the 1930s. Stalin considered Kirov as ‘potential opponent’ which could become obstacles for Stalin’s consolidation of power. Totalitarians argue that Stalin planned this crime, in need of a pretext for initiating a broad purge.

Stalin then used this murder as an excuse for enacting draconian laws against political crimes which became foundation for his dictatorship and for conducting purges in the names of elimination of reactionary elements. He spotted his opponents including Leon Trotsky, Grigori Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev as culprits of the crime. Over the next four years, several millions of innocent party members were expelled. Stalin then turned against Nikolai Bukharin. Stalin denounced him as a ‘right opposition,’ for objecting his policy of forced collectivization and rapid industrialization at the expense of the peasantry. 

Stalin had eliminated all likely potential oppositions by means of ‘purges’ in late 1934 and became the unchallenged leader of both party and state. Moreover, he proceeded to purge in a large scale to terrorize the entire country with countless arrests and executions, and millions of blameless Soviet citizens were sent off to labor camps or killed in prisons. As a result, the small, elite group of Stalinists formed the core of the newly established Communist Party dictatorship enforced with the terror. 

By the time the terror moderated in 1939, Stalin successfully managed to bring both the public and the party to a state of complete submission to his power. Soviet society became so atomized and people were so fearful of resistances under Stalin’s purge system. Consequently, Stalin maintained his absolute dictatorship in the Soviet Union throughout World War II and until his death in March 1953.

However, the totalitarian view has been challenged by revisionist historians from the 1970s onwards, who are not extremely anti-Soviet. It is often called ‘decisionism’ since it views the great terror as the decisions made by the whole party in reaction to chaotic state of Soviet Union in 1930s. J. Arch Getty, the renowned revisionist historian, wrote in his book: The Origin of the Great purges (1985) that Western accounts relied too much on sources as memoirs and accounts by people who fled the USSR and bound to criticize Stalin. 

Revisionists argue that these sources inevitably contain political bias that makes them unreliable. Revisionists put more emphasis on archival records and official documents, contending that Stalin did not ‘plan’ the purges since many people were selected at random, mainly denounced or implicated by their colleagues or other people, meaning that the machinery of terror was not well organized. Revisionists argue that units within the organization that conducted purge often acted on their own initiative, and Stalin did not exercise the personal control of the process to gain some benefits, and he himself had little idea about overall process of the purge. 

Even Stalin could be responsible for the set ‘great purges’ in process, considering it as mere tool for his dictatorship is not sufficient explanation for this scale and form. Furthermore, the terror was generated from below as well as above, taking the direct relation with the purges away from Stalin. Given that complicated linkages of political relationships within party members and inner-workings of the Bolshevik’s party, it is difficult to conclude that Stalin planned the whole purge for his dictatorship in solitude.

The great purges resulted not only in elimination of potential political enemies for Stalin personally, but also in building strict party-control state, which eventually consolidated single party authority. The tradition of tight centralization, with decision-making concentrated at the highest party levels, reached new dimensions after the great purges. 

The goals of states and the plans of achieving them were solely determined by party members in complete isolation from the peopleparty elite determined the goals of the state and the means of achieving them in almost complete isolation from the people. They believed that the interests of the individual were tomust be sacrificed to those of the state, which wereas advancing a sacred social tasks.

The purge system maintained forceful atmosphere in overall society that eventually prevented further oppositions from people. It was the beginning of a new period marking the even greater reinforcement of one-party’s dictatorship and the end of the political freedoms. Conclusively, Great purge could be interpreted as Stalin’s cunning political actions which used as tools for eliminating political rivalries, but also as the result of chaotic state of power-struggle and instability within the communist party, which ultimately re-built all aspects of Soviet society to strict party-state control. 

Whether Stalin played a key role in the process of great purges or not, it is undisputable fact that the great purge was not mere political disputes, but it opened the new era of totalitarian state in Soviet regime. This investigation has allowed me to acquire an insight of works of historians – reconstructing the past. From choosing the topic to formulate conclusions, the investigation enabled me to access various sources such as bibliographies, official documents, and books of renowned historians. Furthermore, it also improved my skills in handling different sources critically, which fostered me to experience laborious but interesting works of ‘real’ historians.

Through my research, I concluded that the significant challenge facing historians is that there is no direct access to the past since it is impossible to reproduce the same event as it happened in past. What they can use are traces or fragments of information in sources. The nature of the historical past in itself makes objectivity difficult since the past events cannot be verified as the way that scientists do with experiments. Furthermore, same as I deliberately chose sources for investigation among options, the selection of materials by historians already constitutes the subjectivity in itself. 

These characteristics of history clearly show that absolute objectivity in history is impossible. However, in spite of these challenges, it is possible and desirable to construct the historical researches in an unbiased way. As the quality of a study is mostly depended on how sources are selected and used, the process of collecting reliable sources and examining was an important part of my research. First of all, I must ‘analyze’ the sources, since sources contain different values and limitations on different aspects. 

For example, eyewitness accounts of the Moscow trial are valuable source in the aspect of providing vivid testimony of the events, but the frailty of human memory leads to distortion of the facts and eventually lowers the reliability. Besides collecting reliable information available in the sources, historians work goes beyond to it. Interpretation in history not only refers to analyzing sources, but it also includes evaluating process such as finding connections between events, exploring underlying causes, and judging the significance of events. 

When I am engaged in interpretation, different perspectives, totalitarianism and revisionism, are addressed to balance the viewpoints. Interpreting the event with different paradigms enabled me to make more credible and insightful claims to my investigation by enlarging my sight. Concerning the historical objectivity, complete objectivity is illusory due to human nature. Though, I personally agree that historians could substantially reduce bias in their works by being analytical and selective as humanly as possible in their approaches.

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