‘Moscow 1937′: A Terrifying Read


Wareham, Mass.:  Heron hunting, July 2009
Wareham, Mass.: Heron hunting, July 2009

          The scariest book I ever read I didn’t read on a moonless night with a flashlight in a sleeping bag at 9000 feet in the Teton Wilderness Area.  That was The Exorcist.

           No, the most terrifying – the one that haunts me to this moment – I read during idyllic fall days sitting at my desk by a study hall window from which I could look across the turbid Housatonic at the slowly coloring Litchfield Hills two miles to the east.

           It was the fall of my first year in boarding school.  A sadistic English master had decided his freshmen would read Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, an experience that gave me a life-long rooting interest in Mordred and Morgan le Fay‘Fie on Goodness’ indeed!

          Fortunately, other classes were reading something that wouldn’t attract the monitor’s attention:  1984.

           The hopelessness of Winston Smith’s romance, the torture, the rats, the Chestnut Tree….  All that scared me, but the evident reality of what Orwell described terrifies me yet.

           Reality?  1984 is fiction, you might say, conceived in the fevered mind of a dying tubercular.  And so it is.

           But during the Spanish Civil War Orwell had experienced Communism Soviet style.

           Orwell had fought with an anarchist brigade for the Republican cause, as had the Communists.  The Communists were at least as interested in destroying non-Communist leftists as they were in defeating the rebel Franco’ Falangists.

           With his wife, Eileen, Orwell fled Barcelona in May 1937 just ahead of functionaries assigned to capture and kill him.

           A new book appears to confirm the accuracy of Orwell’s take on life in the Soviet metropolis. I say ‘appears to’ because I’ve only read a fifth of Karl Schlogel’s Moscow 1937 [2008] (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2012) 560 pages.[1]  What I’ve read of this masterful history is as horrifying as 1984 for it supplies some ‘whys’.

           So monstrous is it that we think of Stalin’s Great Terror in isolation, like the Shoah, the catastrophe.  Instead, both were culminations with immediate origins in common.

           The Soviet Union was born in the Great War of 1914-18.  The Bolsheviks did not finally triumph until the early 1920s.  Then came internal class warfare and collectivisation of the countryside.  In 1930, Schlogel reports, the government recorded ‘13,755 mass uprisings’ and ‘20,201 villagers … sentenced to death’.[2]

           One thing at which the Soviets excelled was borders.  There was no way out of the country.  Consequently and with great consequences:

At the same time [1930], millions and millions had fled from the countryside into the towns….  This meant that, with every refugee from the countryside and every peasant migrating to the towns, images of executions, the deportation of entire villages, house searches and firing squads seeped into the towns.[3]

           Ignore the circumstances, for a moment, and consider just the scale here.

           According to Schlogel, Moscow proper had lost 40 percent of its 2 million inhabitants between the 1917 Revolution and the Bolsheviks’ final victory.  By 1939, Moscow had taken in 2 million refugees from the countryside.[4]

           By contrast, the Great Migration of African Americans from the Cotton Belt to the northern industrial cities between 1916 and 1930 involved, perhaps, a 1.5 million people.  The Second Great Migration from 1940 to 1970, another 6.5 million.[5]

           But then, writes Prof. Schlogel the circumstances:

 Everything [in Moscow in 1937] seemed right for a civil war, a struggle of all against all; behind almost every individual stood the pressure of an existential struggle for survival, and the city was weighed down by the pressure of a thousand atmospheres – the pressure that arises when streams of people in flight all congregate at the same point.  The knowledge they had acquired in their struggle for survival had entered the big city with them, magnified a million times over.  Once there, that knowledge remained latent initially.  But what would happen when all these people collided with one another or indeed were let loose on one another?[6]

           Perhaps to Stalin belongs the ultimate responsibility (whatever that debased phrase means) for the Terror, the purges, the show trials, the mass murders, the deportations….

           What Orwell forces us to confront is that Big Brother, whatever his reality, was a picture.  It was the people, trapped like the rats in Winston Smith’s imagining, ‘let loose on one another’.  Their hearts of darkness made the Terror.  ‘The horror!  The horror!



           1.  I have learnt not to praise translators.  Since I don’t read any language other than English, I can’t judge whether Rodney Livingstone ably or faithfully translated Moscow 1937.  I can only say that while it reads very well – if not easily – its German origins never disappear in English idioms.  The paragraphs are quite long; so are many sentences.  But I’ve never gotten lost.  And, in places the language is poetic, almost Homeric.

           2.  Karl Schlogel, Moscow 1937 [2008] (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2012), p. 75.

           3.  Id.

           4.  Id., pp. 50-53.  Tables would certainly have aided his discussion of Moscow’s population in the interbellum years.  The book also lacks an index suitable to a 560 page work of scholarship.

          5.  The New York Public Library’s interesting website, In Motion: the African American Migration Experience, presents inconsistent and unsourced numbers for the dimensions of the two.  For instance, the numbers given for the Great Migration range from 1.5 million to more than 800,000.

          6.  Schlogel, op. cit., p. 53.