There have been many books, both fiction and non-fiction, written about Stalin’s purges, but there is nothing quite like Karl Schlögel’s monumental Moscow 1937, which I’ve just finished. As the title suggests, the book is a portrait of Moscow in the year in which the Stalinist terror reached a horrific pitch of self-destruction on the 20th anniversary of the Russian revolution.
That year the Stalinist tyranny arrested 2 million people, of whom just under 700,000 were murdered and 1.3 million deported to labour camps and forced labour projects, where tens of thousands of them died. This horrific harvest was a consequence of the ‘mass operations’ carried out by the regime to eliminate a Trotskyist conspiracy that existed entirely in the imagination of the regime itself.
Taking his cue from Bulgakov’s hallucinatory allegory The Master and Margarita, Schlögel meticulously assembles a vast panoramic portrait of a city and a society locked into a ‘bacchanal of destruction’ in which ecstatic orchestrated pseudo-revolutionary spectacles, hyper-modernisation and the constant threat of extreme violence coincided with show trials, collective explosions of xenophobic hatred and the gratuitous mass murder of tens of thousands of entirely innocent people.
This was the world that the American philosopher Susan Buck-Morss evoked in Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West, but Schlögel achieves his own ‘chronotope’ of Moscow in 1937 through an extraordinarily-detailed montage, brilliantly drawing on a vast range of mostly untouched material.
Literary and political diaries, maps of the city, burial records at the Butovo shooting range where the NKVD murdered most of its victims, childrens literature, utopian city plans, geological congresses, architectural projects, eyewitness descriptions of gymnastic processions and sports parades, accounts of polar expeditions, Central Committee plenums, censuses, jazz concerts – all these different activities coincided with the year of terror and all of them are part of Schlögel’s portrait.
These materials are brought to life through Schlögel’s own astute and consistently insightful analysis of a society that believed itself to be hurtling towards a brave new revolutionary future even as it annihilated its own citizens by the tens and thousands. The sheer scale of the killing and the range of the NKVD’s victims was staggering. It included leading party members, veteran revolutionaries, film directors, writers, members of particular nationalities and ethnic groups. exiled members of the Comintern, peasants and workers, priests and ‘old believers’, mountaineers and members of the NKVD itself.
Much of this is already known, but Schlögel brilliantly shows how this atmosphere of witchhunts and systematic mass murder coincided with mass political manipulation on an unprecedented scale, with orchestrated collective spectacles, and an endless flow of slogans and images that concealed the essential barbarity of what was taking place, under a regime that proclaimed the Soviet Union as the embodiment of the hopes of humanity even as it ripped itself to shreds.
The result is a masterpiece of historical reconstruction and remembrance of a dire period of Russian history in which human life became essentially worthless, and survival was entirely dependent on the maniacal whims of a paranoid and all-powerful regime that was able to murder its victims with absolute impunity. A terrifying, illuminating, and absolutely essential book.