Halfin's work focuses on one institution, the Communist University in Leningrad, through the maelstrom of the Great Purges. Through one discrete social and political setting, Halfin provides a "thick description" of the Great Terror, from student party cells to party leaders' dachas to the execution rooms in the basements of NKVD buildings. At its core, this book examines the procedures of the purge and what it meant to its participants on both sides of the interrogation table. This is a seminal study and a major contribution to understanding one of the most disputed and puzzling events in modern history.
During Stalin's Great Terror, accusations of treason struck fear in the hearts of Soviet citizens-and lengthy imprisonment or firing squads often followed. Many of the accused sealed their fates by agreeing to confessions after torture or interrogation by the NKVD. Some, however, gave up without a fight.
In Stalinist Confessions, Igal Halfin investigates the phenomenon of a mass surrender to the will of the state. He deciphers the skillfully rendered discourse through which Stalin defined his cult of personality and consolidated his power by building a grassroots base of support and instilling a collective psyche in every citizen. By rooting out evil (opposition) wherever it hid, good communists could realize purity, morality, and their place in the greatest society in history. Confessing to trumped-up charges, comrades made willing sacrifices to their belief in socialism and the necessity of finding and making examples of its enemies.
Halfin focuses his study on Leningrad Communist University as a microcosm of Soviet society. Here, eager students proved their loyalty to the new socialism by uncovering opposition within the University. Through their meetings and self-reports, students sought to become Stalin's New Man.
Using his exhaustive research in Soviet archives including NKVD records, party materials, student and instructor journals, letters, and newspapers, Halfin examines the transformation in the language of Stalinist socialism. From an initial attitude that dismissed dissent as an error in judgment and redeemable through contrition to a doctrine where members of the opposition became innately wicked and their reform impossible, Stalin's socialism now defined loyalty in strictly black and white terms. Collusion or allegiance (real or contrived, now or in the past) with “enemies of the people” (Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Germans, capitalists) was unforgivable. The party now took to the task of purging itself with ever-increasing zeal.
Culminating Halfin's pathbreaking work on the political culture of Soviet Communism, this book offers a fundamentally new reading of the Stalinist purges. Halfin takes seriously the eschatological orientation informing the Communist project. Drawing on secret NKVD interrogation files, he presents the purges as a moral reckoning and final judgment. Halfin's achievement is immense: he effectively unravels what used to be called the mystery of the Stalinist purges.
In this study of the Great Purges, [Halfin's] examination of Stalinist language and ideology does much to deepen our understanding of this extremely disturbing and perplexing event.
Paints a vivid picture of a narrow but significant slice of the Terror . . . A valuable work on the dynamics of fear.
An important contribution to the scholarly understanding of perhaps the least explained phenomenon in Russia's modern history, the upsurge of mass political violence during the late 1930s, widely known as the Great Terror. . . . In particular, the book is a step forward in elucidating the intellectual and linguistic dimensions of the terror—a complex and challenging field, in which Halfin has done significant work.
A terrific book at an empirical level, and one that offers some fascinating insights into the behavior of people during the purges.
Igal Halfin is senior lecturer in the department of history at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of Intimate Enemies: Demonizing the Bolshevik Opposition, 1918-1928; From Darkness to Light: Class, Consciousness, and Salvation in Revolutionary Russia; and Terror in My Soul: Communist Autobiographies on Trial. Halfin is also editor of Language and Revolution: The Making of Modern Political Identities.