Aleksandr Cherkasov: No one could have imagined ‘37 coming in the guise of ‘41
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20 October 2022

Aleksandr Cherkasov, human rights activist, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Radio Svoboda]

For a long time and at great length, whether apropos or not, people in Russia have been talking about a “new ‘37.” But no one could have imagined ‘37 coming in the guise of ‘41. The idea of this similarity between the present-day “partial mobilization” (naturally, in the course of a holy war against everlasting, perfidious foes persecuting our brothers and encroaching on our sacred land, on our borders) and the Great Terror is obvious, and has already been voiced, but what’s important here are the details.

First (it’s obvious, but I’ll write them point by point), this is a doubly criminal plan. Throw the “cannon fodder” of the mobilized into the furnace of a war of aggression, on the fields of which the “second best army in the world” has lost its battlereadiness. Here, criminal methods should not distract from what is essentially a criminal goal.

“’37” and the “Great Terror” were more or less the same—a combination of state terror methods and insane, criminal goal-setting.

Second, “partial mobilization” is a typical “mass operation” in the style of the 1930s, with significant “quotas” set by “category.” This is actually how they conducted the “ethnic” operations (the Polish being the most massive), or the “kulak” operation, which befell half of all those executed in 1937-1938.

Third, the scope of “partial mobilization” is categoric, not individual. In practice, they were not mobilizing people who really were registered under some military specialty but everyone to whom they handed a draft notice. This is exactly how not just those who were registered under some category or another landed in the slaughterhouse of “mass operations.” Let me add another qualification: in speaking about criminal methods, we must not forget the criminal essence of the process itself, be it Stalin’s terror or Putin’s war.

Fourth, here is one more important detail: the objectives set in the course of this (let me repeat, certainly criminal) “mass operation” for “partial mobilization” are obviously unrealistic. As is now clear, the system of military registration did not include mobilizing “those who should not be.” Therefore, they started snatching everyone they could lay their hands on. Before the start of the “kulak operation” in ‘37, encoded telegrams arrived at all the regional NKVDs and provincial and republic administrations: “Bring up a card-file for these criteria,” that is, prepare a selection in the operative registration system for the desired categories and report the total number subject to registration. And when the NKVD administration bosses converged on Moscow, then after the general meeting each of them was called in by the “iron people’s commissar” Nikolai Ezhov and his first deputy Mikhail Frinovsky. And they had an individual chat, issuing among other things “quotas” by “category.” And if, say, someone had previously reported that he had 973 men “subject to registration,” then he’d be given a quota “for the first category” (execution) of, say, 1200. No one gave explicit instructions to falsify cases. But at the same time, everyone understood that without falsification the assignment would not be completed.

Fifth, as a result, a campaign began in which the regional leadership tried to fill and overfill the plans set. In our case—on mobilization. Otherwise, you see, it’s curtains for that regional leadership. In 1937, a competition also started up between the regions, between the regional bosses. The result was horrific. According to operative order 00447 (“kulak operation”), it was presumed that 79,500 people would be assigned to the “first category.” As a result, five times that many were executed.

Despite the general insanity of what was going on, despite the overall arbitrary choice of victims, the Great Terror’s implementers were much more precise in the sense of procedure. Rather than take up posts at Moscow Metro stations (although the Metro was already operating then), NKVD officers went after the specific person indicated in their documents, to his address, and took away specifically him. It was this rationality of a state machine gone mad that sometimes left people the possibility of seeking ways to save themselves.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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