Skip to main content

Review: "Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia, 1934-1941"

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

"Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia: 1934-1941."

"Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia: 1934-1941."

Synopsis of the Book

Throughout historian Robert Thurston’s book, Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-1941, the author provides an analysis of Stalin’s “Great Purges” in a manner that is rarely undertaken by the academic community. Whereas most historical works focus on the aspects of “fear” and “repression” that Stalin used to bring order to the Soviet state, Thurston argues that neither of these was necessary to the success of the purges. Why is this the case? Through the incorporation of countless interviews and memoirs from archival research, Thurston makes the argument that ordinary Soviet citizens genuinely believed and succumbed to the lies portrayed by the Stalinist regime. As a result, Thurston argues that Soviet citizens firmly believed in Stalin’s vision for the future of Communism and actively sought to root out individuals and groups that posed a threat to both socialism and the establishment of a communist utopia. Why did such sentiments exist within the populace at large? Thurston argues that the Russian Civil War produced an atmosphere in which individuals from all sectors of the Soviet Union sought to maintain order and stability. For the Soviet populace, Thurston argues that this meant unveiling all perceived enemies of the state, as well as eliminating individuals who stood in the way of radical reform. As Thurston argues within his book, massive reform programs through collectivization, the rapid industrialization of Russia, as well as the show trials of the early thirties all helped to paint Stalin as a hero and protector of his people. Consequently, Thurston points out that Stalin’s purges did not have the effect of instituting fear into Soviet society (nor was fear a requirement for the purges to succeed). Rather, the Soviet populace, as he asserts, already believed in and greatly supported Stalin’s cause.


In comparison to other historiographical works on the “Great Purges,” this rendition is particularly interesting as it follows closely with Lesley Rimmel’s interpretation which rejects the notion that the Soviet populace was victimized by the Soviet regime. Instead (like Rimmel), Thurston’s account clearly points out that the purges were a time of great shifts in the political realm of the Soviet Union that was greatly fueled by both the energy and spirit of Stalin and ordinary citizens under his leadership.

All in all, I give this work 5/5 stars and highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the early history of the Soviet Union. The facts and figures presented by Thurston are both informative and well-researched. Definitely check it out if you get a chance!

Questions to Facilitate Group Discussion

1.) What was Thurston's thesis? What are some of the main points and arguments that the author is attempting to make with this work? Is his argument(s) convincing to you? Why or why not?

2.) What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of this work? Are there any particular spots that the author could have improved upon?

3.) Who is the author's intended audience for this book? Can both scholars and the general public benefit from the contents of this work? Is it important for scholars to make their works readable (and accessible) to more general audiences?

4.) What did you like most about this work?

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

Suggestions for Further Reading on the "Great Purges"

Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: A Reassessment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Figes, Orlando. The Whisperer’s: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007).

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism, Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

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

Goldman, Wendy. Inventing the Enemy: Denunciation and Terror in Stalin’s Russia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

Works Cited:

Thurston, Robert. Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-1941 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).

© 2017 Larry Slawson