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The book vividly depicts a summary of the state of Joseph Stalin's regime during the Holocaust that took place in the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s. In this book, Harris paints a picture of how a government in fear acts in the face of a perceived tragedy due to historical reasons. Harris takes us back in history to when the Soviet state was under invasion from various forces including the French under Napoleon, Germans, and the Vikings and the present threat from Japanese attack to the East.
Under Stalin the Soviet was no different than under Bolshevik as fear of external infiltration as well as internal spies made the ruling class wary of another invasion. The author notes that this fear has been long before even Bolshevik and existed even amongst the ancient rulers in the Soviet Union. In the book, the state eliminated those who they considered enemies by purging the country from all that they think are saboteurs and in alliance with foreign enemies.
Sergei Kirov's assassination in 1934 might have been the cause of the tension that rose and erupted later on, but Harris is quick to point out that his murder enabled Stalin to use it as a way to purge the country of all that was against him and his regime. Stalin customizes on this and directs his investigation in a way to prove his earlier perception and fuel the arrests. Stalin was informed by his political police that there was a plan to oust him by forces within his regime and outside which resulted in torture and death.
The fear of foreign invasion was partly true and partly false due to poor data collection, analysis and reporting on the part of the investigators as well as media outlets at the time. According to the author, the arrests, torture, and murder were targeted as it included individuals who had been earlier considered saboteurs and those who were against Stalin's regime.
It is not sure whether Stalin had full knowledge of the extent of torture and death that took place in mid-to-late 1930s. However, reports suggested that he spent a considerable amount of time with the head of NKVD which was a unit responsible for atrocities that took place when the purge began. When the arrests and executions started, those tasked with questioning went too far, and doctoring of information about why the arrest was made was rampant. The author explains how the victims were often tortured to confessing what they did not do or know.
The cleansing that started in 1937 increased to hundreds of thousands and included many people not necessarily from political and military circles but also from the wider populace who were subjected to torture and death. The main perpetrators of violence had to obey an order without justifying whether it was right or wrong. From James Harris findings that seek to explain the aspect of rooting out spies as the main theme as explained the Great Terror is evidenced by various murderous executions, exile, and trials in the 1930s. The explanation for such dreadful actions was due to perceived external and internal aggressions to the leading Soviet state. The country's security organs and other authoritative agencies such as the Cheka, which came after the OGPU, and whose role was to give information concerning the opponents of the Soviet republic.
Harris describes how many Russian leaders were paranoid about Kiev Rus until the modern day. History shows that Russia has always been attacked by foreign powers and the occupants from West and East. The Viking attack, Mongols, the Swedes, British, Napoleon's army, Japanese and Nazis have all been attacking the Soviet state creating what is described as ‘siege mentality' in a state that is constantly invaded by hostile forces in both political and military aspects. During the civil war in Russia, the intervention by foreign forces fuelled the greatest fear of Soviet's leadership of political interference and interference with internal affairs.
According to James, the factor that led to the victory of the left in in the civil war was the disunity of the forces that were fighting against the Bolshevik, and they were the military commanders, Menshevik, SRs and other war-lords from the East. The Bolshevik system was firm and more organized on the ideological purpose, military expertise, and the shape of the new Red Army and a very efficient police system, the Cheka and the feeling that the new revolution was preferable to the old political dispensation which was mostly capitalist and perceived as plutocratic.
Harris further explains that the political police's success in eliminating the counter-coup sources in the past years of Soviet reign was the central element fomenting internal resistance and international conspiracies during Stalin's rise to power. The accuracy of intelligence or information collected at the complex international politics of the 1930s did not matter at all and therefore if the OGPU said it was the case it was accepted that way and the consequences to the perpetrators would inevitably follow. The analysis done by Harris clearly shows that much of the fear was genuine and that would be dispute by present-day politicians as fake news.
Many Soviets from high ranking officials to ordinary citizens were arrested, exiled and even sentenced and were not given a chance to defend themselves. Harris describes the great break by summarizing the sudden transition from NEP to rapid industrialization and centralized socialist planning and vividly illustrates how Stalin was convinced by his security agencies that the foreign enemies and internal saboteurs were already at work. The plan to subdue the perceived threat started through the elimination of rotten apples in the domestic Soviet barrel. The information was not entirely accurate, and so the author termed it, Chimera, since there was no actual Western invasion.
The last chapter which is titled, The Perfect Storm shows a connection between local and international situation. The Japanese threat of militaristic tendencies was reduced in the West by lack of coordination. Finally, Harris goes back to the main theme of the constant and historical paranoia fuelled by propaganda that was made against Russia. The information was widely shared by international media.
‘The great Fear' is a well-articulated book and gives a clear understanding of Stalin's ‘Great Terror.'
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