Almost exactly 80 years ago, on 3 November 1937, the NKVD executed the renowned Ukrainian theatre director Les Kurbas. Kurbas was not alone that day – a large group of Ukrainian writers and intellectuals were executed alongside him. The loss of so many of Ukraine’s cultural community resonated deeply with their compatriots, and those who had been executed became known in Ukraine as the ‘garrotted renaissance’.[1]

This execution was a tiny part of one of the most significant moments in Soviet history, a chain of events often referred to as the Great Terror.[2] As the Terror swept through Soviet society hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens were arrested and executed, from

Les_Kurbas_OGPU-NKVD
Les Kurbas, in his official ‘mug shot’ taken by the NKVD shortly after his arrest in 1933

the political elite down to the most humble worker.[3]

It was not uncommon for writers and thinkers to be executed or imprisoned during this period, although it was unheard of for so many to be executed together. To grasp why this was so, we need to understand a little more about the complex and varied reasons why writers were arrested or imprisoned.

For some Russian writers, it really was the words that flowed from their pen that were their undoing. Perhaps most famously Osip Mandelstam’s poem – characterising Stalin as ‘the Kremlin crag-dweller’ and comparing his eyes to cockroaches – led to his arrest and sentence to the Gulag. Mandelstam died en route to his destination.

In the case of the ‘garrotted renaissance’ it was not what they wrote so much as their Ukrainian nationality that was the key to their fate. This is confirmed when we examine the interrogation files of the writers in question. Within the pages of Mandelstam’s interrogation file, the focus was very much on the content of the writing, and possible interpretations. During his interrogation, Mandelstam’s interrogator, N.K. Shivarov, actually asked him to compare different drafts of his poem about Stalin and comment upon them.[4]

Even in the interrogation file of Isaac Babel, who was accused of conspiring with Trotskyists, there is much discussion of the former’s writing, and of the effect that his regular meetings with anti-Bolshevik editors and writers had on his work.[5] Babel was executed in January 1940.

In the interrogation files of Ukrainian writers, the focus on the actual creative output of the writers is almost entirely absent. Instead, these interrogations are largely focused on the possibility of the Ukrainians being members of anti-Soviet nationalist groups. The opening statement written by Kurbas in his interrogation file begins: ‘ I hereby… admit that I belonged to the counter-revolutionary terrorist organisation the UVO.’ His

455px-Berezil_poster2
1924 Poster from the Berezil Theatre

statement goes on to detail how his work at the Berezil theatre in Kyiv led him to join the UVO (in Ukrainian, the Ukrayins’ka Viys’kova Orhanizatsiya or Ukrainian Military Organisation).[6]

Why this change of emphasis? What was so different about the Ukrainian intelligentsia? Were they really all members of underground nationalist organisations, writing poems and plays by day, and plotting to murder Stalin by night? The answer lies in the broader context of the 1930s.  As the decade opened, Ukraine had become a problem for the Soviet leadership.

During the 1920s, Ukrainian language and culture had been recognised and positively encouraged by the Soviet leadership, as part of the policy of ‘Ukrainisation’, a pragmatic attempt to win over the peoples of the former Russian empire to the Bolshevik cause. However, by the early 1930s the policy was reversed, amid rising fears of anti-Soviet forces working within the Soviet Union.[7] Bordering Poland, Ukraine was considered both a conduit and breeding ground for spies, and as such allowing Ukrainian language and culture to thrive was seen as too great a risk.

Those who had held prominent roles in the creation of a confident, articulate Ukrainian culture – many of them writers, critics, and university professors – were now identified as enemies.[8] Their crimes were not rooted in their writing as such, but in their supposed nationalist aims. And on that day in November, this supposed threat was extinguished with one brutal blow – not just as a punishment, but as a warning to any other Soviet citizen who might be quietly nurturing nationalist hopes.

Does the nature of the execution matter? Is it even possible for us to compare the manner of one execution to another? Hardly. However, these subtle differences do shed a little light on the dynamics of the Terror: reminding us that it was not just one homogenous act of state violence but a complicated process, with small but important variances.

Polly Corrigan is a PhD candidate in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London, where she is currently writing her thesis on the Soviet political police and their relationship with writers. She studied history at the University of Liverpool, and then completed an MA at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, UCL. You can find her on Twitter at @pollycorrigan

References

[1] Lavrinenko, Y, Rozstriliane Vidrodzhennia: Antolohiia, 1917-1933. Paris, 1959.

[2] For a useful discussion of the term ‘Great Terror’ see Ryan, J, The Sacralization of Violence: Bolsheviks Justifications for Violence and Terror during the Civil War, Slavic Review 74, no. 4 (Winter 2015), pp. 808-809.

[3] See Conquest, R. The Great Terror, London, 1968; Getty, JA, Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938, Cambridge, 1985; Getty, JA & Naumov OV, The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939, London, 1999.

[4] Shentalinsky, V, The KGB’s Literary Archive, London, 1995, pp. 172-173.

[5] Ibid, pp. 30-31

[6] Archives of the SBU, F6, Op1, Spr75608, pp. 38-39.

[7] Harris, J, The Great Fear: Stalin’s Terror of the 1930s, Oxford, 2016, pp. 178-179.

[8] Shkandrij, M, Ukrainian Nationalism: Politics, Ideology and Literature, 1929-1956, Yale University Press, 2015, p. 272.

 

 

 

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