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Review: "Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938"

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

"Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938."

"Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938."

Synopsis of the Book

Throughout historian John Archibald Getty’s work, Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, the author provides an analysis of Stalin’s Great Purges which focuses on the political structure of the Communist Party in the 30s. Rather than attributing the atrocities of the purges to Stalin alone (as historian Robert Conquest does), Getty makes the point that the purges were largely the result of Stalin’s overzealous cadres within the Soviet regime. The arrests, interrogations, imprisonments, and executions of political, military, and civilian figures, he asserts, often resulted from decisions made on the ground by Stalin’s secret police and officials on the local level. Thus, as Getty points out, the traditional “top-down” approach by most historians that focuses solely on Stalin and the upper-echelons of the Communist Party in the 1930s is fallacious in that it largely ignores the complicated network of independent figures acting alone during the Great Purges.

Main Points

Getty focuses on the inner workings of the Bolshevik Party in the years leading up to the 1930s and explores the complicated web of political relationships that developed in these fledgling years of the Soviet regime. Moreover, Getty also analyzes the rise of Stalin during this particular period, and how his concentration of power led to chaos and inefficiency within the lower levels of the Communist Party since these individuals no longer knew who to answer to, as they struggled to come to terms with the rapidly evolving political hierarchy. As a result, Getty attributes these chaotic and tumultuous moments to the great devastation that emerged in the 30s, and the ensuing carnage that encompassed the entire Soviet Union.

Worth the Read

Getty relies heavily on archival materials, with a particular focus on letters and correspondences between local Communist Party leaders, as well as letters exchanged between top-level party members, including Stalin. Getty’s work is an excellent addition to current historiographical works as it approaches the issue of the purges in a manner that largely avoids focusing solely on Stalin, in favor of a view that stresses the importance of lesser-known figures.

All in all, I give this work 5/5 stars and highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the Great Purges as well as early Soviet history. Getty’s account is both well-written and scholarly and should not be ignored when studying this particular time period in Russian history. Definitely check it out!

Questions to Facilitate Group Discussion

1.) What was Getty's main argument(s) and thesis? Do you agree with the argument presented by the author? Why or why not?

2.) What sort of primary source material does Getty use to substantiate his overall claims? Does this reliance help or hinder his argument(s)? Why or why not?

3.) What were some of the strengths and weaknesses of this work? Were there any sections of this book that could have been improved upon by Getty? What parts of this book stand out most for you? Why were particular sections of Getty's work better than others?

4.) What did you learn after reading this book? Did any of the facts and figures presented by Getty surprise you?

5.) Would you be willing to recommend this book to a friend or family member to read? Why or why not?

6.) Did Getty organize this work in a logical manner? Did each of the chapters flow smoothly with one another? Why or why not?

7.) Can you suggest any other readings that would help supplement the material presented in this work?

Works Cited:

Getty, John Archibald. Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

© 2017 Larry Slawson