The Great Fear by James Harris

Stalin’s great terror, a period in soviet history in the late 1930s when millions of Russian people from all walks of life were purged and murdered, most often for no reason, holds an endless fascination for historians. However, a new book from OUP sets out to challenge the simplistic view that it was all based on Stalin’s insecurity and makes a very compelling case. Author James Harris, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Leeds, has spent years studying Soviet history, with access to many archives not available in the past and he’s used this knowledge and research to come up with fascinating new theories on the source of the purges.

great fear

The pat view of the Great Terror is that it was a result of Stalin’s paranoia and his attempts to ensure that all potential rivals were eliminated. The received wisdom is that the dictator wanted to crack down on old Bolsheviks such as Zinoviev and Bukharin, with the high-profile show trials having a deterrent effect on any plotters intending to try to unseat him. The assassination of Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad regional party secretary, on 1st December 1934, is generally considered as triggering the slaughter. But if the foregoing is the case, why then would so many of the purged be ordinary people – workers, lowly party members, engineers, soldiers and the rank and file who kept the Soviet Union going.?

Harris’s argument against looking at Stalin’s terror in isolation is a persuasive one; as his introduction reveals, the history of Slav countries is of a culture holding grimly onto power, riddled with paranoia and plotting. Mass killings and repression had taken place under the various Tsarist regimes, and continued in the early days of the USSR – Lenin was not averse to the removal of anyone perceived to be in the way. However, there are a number of other factors involved and as Harris makes clear, there is no one simple answer to the question of why this happened.

…it remains that the logic of the appalling political violence unleashed by Stalin was not the logic of some lone, paranoid, bloodthirsty dictator. it was the logic of the Bolsheviks, and albeit in a more extreme form, the logic of the Russian Tsars determined to preserve and protect the autocracy.

Pivotal to the book is Harris’s account of the kind of information gathering that was going on in the USSR at the time. The early 1930s were a time of much world instability and rumours of another war; Russia was in constant fear of invasion, perceiving itself as threatened on all sides by hostile capitalist powers. Used in the West as we are to seeing Russia as a large, confident, warlike and hostile force, it’s perhaps hard to recognise that the fledgling state felt anything but confident, and was convinced it was about to be invaded at any time.

In this kind of climate, the authorities relied very much on the secret services and the results of their spying for information on what was happening in the rest of the world and whether conflict was about to break out. But unfortunately the structure of the Soviet state, the constant pressures to achieve unreasonable targets and the various vested interests had created such a climate of suspicion and mistrust that the information reaching Stalin and his colleagues was anything but accurate. The powers given to the OGPU/NKVD allowed them such a free rein that they could obtain ‘confessions’ by any means, confessions which were quite probably worthless; and it was in their interests to keep the spectre of invasion real to justify their existence.

And as a result of this misguided, inaccurate and misleading intelligence which fostered an incorrect view of the state of the world and the threat to the USSR, the leaders were persuaded that there were enemies everywhere. Denunciations, which decimated society from top to bottom, resulted in the purges which weakened the state considerably at a crucial time just before WW2. And all the threads came together – the misleading intelligence, the ‘outsiders’ turning on those in positions of authority, the fear of invasion – resulting in a maniacal necessity to clamp down on any perceived transgression.


“The Great Fear” presents a nuanced reading of history drawing on a number of primary sources; its strength is to see the Great Terror in the context of world and Russian events which contribute to the structure of society and mindset of the people in power, rather than as the result of one’s man’s paranoia or capriciousness; indeed, Harris presents Stalin as making quite rational decisions based on the information he was receiving. However the effect on the country was dramatic and destructive, and had Stalin and his cronies had more accurate intelligence their behaviour might well have been very different. “The Great Fear” is not a book for the uninitiated; for example, if you don’t know what a Stakhanovite is, you’ll struggle here. But for those with a keen interest in Soviet history, this excellent book is a must for the light it throws on a dramatic and appalling period of the regime’s history.

(Review book kindly supplied by Oxford University Press – for which many thanks!)