Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas

Im Auftrag des Leibniz-Instituts für Ost- und Südosteuropaforschung Regensburg
herausgegeben von Martin Schulze Wessel und Dietmar Neutatz

Ausgabe: 65 (2017), H. 3, S. 475-476

Verfasst von: Hiroaki Kuromiya


James Harris: The Great Fear. Stalins Terror of the 1930s. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. X, 205 S. ISBN: 978-0-19-969576-8.

Historians need archives to examine history, but an uncritical reading of archival sources will inevitably mislead them. Both truth and fiction are hidden there. The present book is a good example of uncritical reading and the result is an apologia for Stalin and his dictatorship.

Harris has worked diligently in Russian archives for years, and purports to have found what he believes to be the candid private voices of Soviet decision-makers, otherwise hidden from the public. His scrutiny of these formerly classified documents leads him to the conclusion that Stalin and his entourage spoke the same way in private as they did in public: enemies, spies, conspiracies, and the like were ubiquitous and Stalin’s power and the country itself were in grave danger. In one of his earlier works (Stalin’s World: Dictating the Soviet Order, 2014), Harris and his co-author contend that it was indeed an easy matter for foreign countries (such as Britain, France, Germany, Poland, and Japan) to recruit spies and saboteurs and organize subversive activity within the Soviet Union. In this book, too, Harris sees foreign spies and subversion afoot in the Soviet Union. Without citing a single case, he states, for example: “Some of those who had requested political asylum [in the Soviet Union] probably were spying for foreign powers, or otherwise hiding hostile intentions towards the regime.” (p. 149) True, the capitalist countries were hostile towards an openly anti-capitalist Communist state and engaged in espionage and subversion, but Harris makes no effort to examine how successful Soviet counter-intelligence was. There is no evidence that Harris has had access to any intelligence and counter-intelligence archive in the former Soviet Union. Moreover, the present book has consulted not a single book in French, German, Polish or Japanese. Nor is there indication of any archival work in the capitalist countries. Nevertheless he poses as one familiar with the ins and outs of international politics in the 1930s.

In fact, much of intelligence-related documents in Moscow remain closed to researchers. Hundreds of files in Stalin’s personal archives are still classified, and even many declassified documents in Moscow archives contain numerous empty pages (whited out for secrecy). Historians are still fed only the information that the Kremlin deems convenient. Accepting this at face value, Harris insists that Stalin had good reason to resort to terror because he truly feared foreign subversion and war. Having emphasized Stalin’s “great fear”, however, Harris conveniently ignores the fears of Soviet infiltration in capitalist countries: the present book does not discuss Moscow’s extraordinarily successful penetration of foreign (capitalist) countries by its agents. Nor does it discuss Stalin’s military provocation, subversion, and aggression into foreign countries in the 1920s and 1930s. Likewise, Harris remains silent about the Great Terror Stalin exported abroad.

Having justified Stalin’s terror with the “great fear”, Harris goes even further and implies that ultimately it was not Stalin and his men who were to blame. It was the hostile world. It was Russia’s historical development that bred a siege mentality. Existential threats to Stalin’s survival were real if overblown. Harris suggests that the way Moscow collected intelligence was such that Stalin sincerely believed in the reports of his intelligence organs. Thus it was the flawed system of intelligence that was responsible. One wonders who created and managed such a system. When Stalin terrorized his secret police toward the end of the Great Terror in 193738, Harris contends that it was not so much scapegoating as Stalin’s coming to believe that enemy agents had been working in his secret police to mislead him! It turns out in this book that Stalin had a terrible “misperception” (p. 32) of the world that was historically and systemically conditioned. According to Harris, Stalin’s fault is merely his “misperception”: misled by his own intelligence system, he carried the terror too far.

Harris suggests here that Stalin and his entourage were a bunch of naive simpletons, aliens in a world of intrigue, disinformation, misinformation, camouflage, and other machinations. Someone else, the capitalist countries, or something else, Russia’s history and the Stalinist system of information, was to blame. If one carefully reads Soviet archival sources available to historians and compares them with documents from other countries, one reaches very different conclusions, as scholars in various countries have done in recent years.

Taking Soviet documents at face value, Harris distorts a very complex period in Soviet history. He ignores much of critical scholarship in English and all of non-Anglophone (save Russophone) scholarship on Stalin and his terror. Ultimately, Harris goes out of his way to justify Stalin’s terror with the “great fear”. This is retrogressive scholarship.

Hiroaki Kuromiya, Indiana University

Zitierweise: Hiroaki Kuromiya über: James Harris: The Great Fear. Stalin’s Terror of the 1930s. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. X, 205 S. ISBN: 978-0-19-969576-8, http://www.dokumente.ios-regensburg.de/JGO/Rez/Kuromiya_Harris_The_Great_Fear.html (Datum des Seitenbesuchs)

© 2017 by Institut für Ost- und Südosteuropastudien Regensburg and Hiroaki Kuromiya. All rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact jahrbuecher@ios-regensburg.de

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