The NKVD on paper: making sense of the Soviet interrogation files of the 1930s, Lecture to ASEEES (Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, Boston, December 2018

In the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens were arrested and executed by the Soviet political police; an era that has become known as the Great Terror.[1]

As historians continue to try and understand in greater depth exactly why these terrible events took place, one useful piece of evidence is the interrogation file of those suspected by the Soviet political police (SPP). 

Within the existing academic literature on the great terror, there is little consensus about exactly what these files represent. Some academics, such as Hiroaki Kuromiya, suggest that the files are ‘essentially fictions’[2], but J. Arch Getty contends that the files are not a stream of ‘outrageous’ and ‘constant’ lies, but written with a clear objective in mind.[3] Many historians have commented on the need to treat these files with caution,[4] while others have paused to reflect on the upsetting experience of working with these files.[5] A lot of existing the literature frames the enquiry in terms of the suspect, asking whether the suspect was telling the truth, whether they may have been under the threat of torture during the interrogation and so on. The paradox of the Soviet interrogation file is neatly summed up by Katerina Clark: 

‘Western historiography has tended to foreground the arbitrariness of the purges and the insubstantiality, not to say fantastic nature, of the charges leveled, yet generally for each purge victim care was taken to provide a written record of the interrogation justifying the verdict.’[6]

Clark rightly asks why, if the charges were all false, was such care and time taken over the creation of these files? I suggest that to get a deeper understanding of these files – and more generally the implications of what the files can tell us about the broader role of the SPP and this extraordinary decade in Soviet history – we need to move away from the focus on the suspect and establish what these files tell us about the SPP itself. 

To do this we must consider two important factors. First, we need to consider the external factors, and specifically the constantly shifting and evolving nature of the political, legal and cultural landscape in the Soviet 1930s, which had a great impact on the way the SPP carried out their investigations. Secondly, we must consider the internal pressures on the SPP, and particularly how their work in the 1930s was overshadowed by the problem of ‘groupthink’ – a condition that is common to intelligence organisations all over the world. 

Internal and external pressure on the SPP

To briefly discuss each of these factors in turn, let us examine the question of shifting contexts. The legal powers of the SPP had always had an element of the arbitrary, ever since the formation of the Cheka in 1917. However, by the beginning of the 1930s the party seemed to sense a need for a more stable legal basis for Soviet society, and in particular in the actions of the SPP. Between 1931 and 1934, several attempts were made to reform the legal system, including the creation of an all-union Procuracy in 1933, and the complete reform of the OGPU into the NKVD in 1934. This was not simply reforming or tinkering with the legal system, but a real attempt to establish exactly what sort of legal system the Soviet Union needed – and what the very concept of revolutionary legality meant. As such, it was of course characterised by deep disagreement within the party.[7]

In Ukraine, the situation was further muddled by the cultural shifts taking place. In the 1920s the Soviet leadership had positively encouraged a policy known as korenisatsiia, which aimed to quell nationalist opposition to the Bolsheviks through the development of the national cultures of each Soviet republic. However, by the 1930s Ukrainian nationalism was seen as a major threat to Soviet power, and the policy was quickly and cruelly reversed, leaving those who had previously been members of the Ukrainian cultural vanguard suddenly dangerously exposed.[8]

These two effectively meant that the legal system was in flux, and also that in Ukraine, the concept of what constituted a crime was also changing. These two conditions produced an extraordinary situation of doubled risk, especially for those working in the cultural arena. 

Secondly, the internal workings of the SPP itself played a big role. The SPP is very different from its international counterparts in many respects, and the great terror itself is one of the very most important differences: MI5 have never carried out a massive campaign against the British people. Nevertheless, there are some characteristics that are common to all intelligence organisations, for example the issue of ‘groupthink’. 

Groupthink, a concept often discussed by scholars of the discipline of intelligence studies, describes how the priorities of policy-makers are transmitted from government to intelligence organizations. Although many intelligence scholars often discuss an ideal model by which intelligence organisations operate in a clearly separate way from the policy-makers who are their ‘consumers’, allowing the intelligence organization a degree of objectivity, it is also often observed that in reality, intelligence organisations are heavily influenced by the political priorities of the policy-makers. Further, intelligence organisations are often so keen to provide policy-makers with the intelligence that they desire, that they develop an almost cyclopean view of their subject, and this view pervades the entire organization, with a complete absence of advocacy for alternative points of view. The tendency for one idea or train of thought to prevail throughout an intelligence organization, particularly when convinced of the guilt of one person or group for a certain crime, can lead to a situation in which a lack of evidence is not interpreted as meaning that no crime has taken place.[9] I suggest that we see elements of this syndrome in the SPP of the early 1930s, although this is not confined to the Soviet Union, or to authoritarian regimes, but has been noted in several western intelligence agencies as well. 

Interrogation files in the 1930s

Interrogation files do not exist for many of those who were executed as part of the so-called ‘mass operations’ that took place in the second half of the 1930s. Often, the only documents that relate to the deaths of these citizens, which were carried out in batches, are the lists of victims.[10] More usually, interrogation files were only maintained for those more visible members of Soviet society, such as members of the political elite, or socially significant in some other way, who were arrested and tried not by troika but by the Military Collegium (ie. within the the formal legal, judicial proceedings of the established courts), and thus needed a more comprehensive degree of paperwork to justify their fate. 

However, one group of Ukrainian intellectuals had the misfortune of belonging to both groups – as members of the intelligentsia their arrests demanded that proper notes be made in their interrogation files. However, because of the accelerated nature of the events of the terror in Ukraine, and most especially the famine the took place after the collectivisation of agriculture, mass arrests began earlier in Ukraine than in other republics of the USSR. A large group of Ukrainian intellectuals were arrested by the Military Collegium and imprisoned (many of them in Solovki) in 1933. However, they were later shot as part of the mass operations in 1937. As such, their files give us an extraordinary level of insight into the functioning of the SPP at this moment in the early 1930s. 

Case study: Les Kurbas 

Multiple case studies of Ukrainian writers (all shot on the same day) – but for today will just focus on 

One such individual was Oleksandr (‘Les’) Stepanovich Kurbas, a theatre director and practitioner in Ukraine in the 1920s, now acknowledged as one of the foremost theatrical talents of his age, and founder of the Berezil Theatre. His theatre practice has been compared with that of Bertolt Brecht, and he once was described by Vsevelod Meyerhold as the ‘greatest living Soviet theatre director’.[11]  

In Ukraine in the 1930s, Ukrainian nationalism was seen as a major threat to Soviet power, and this had a very specific impact on the way that the repression took place there. Ukrainian intellectuals, many of whom had been at the forefront of the Ukrainian cultural resurgence of the 1920s, often found themselves accused of plotting to overthrow the Soviet authorities in the early 1930s. 

Kurbas was arrested in Moscow on the 25 December 1933, accused of crimes under articles 58/8 and 58/11 of the constitution, in other words the crime of anti-Soviet agitation,[12] and in this case, the numbers following the number 58 indicate that Kurbas was specifically suspected of terrorism and connections to an anti-Soviet organisation. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment and executed in 1937. 

Kurbas’s file is around 240 pages long. Of the 240 pages, a total of around 100 relate to his interrogation or investigation. The second half of the file is mostly paperwork for his rehabilitation which began in the 1950s and then a large amount of correspondence from the 1980s, from Ukrainian theatre journals wanting to find out the details of his arrest and death. [Seen here: a page from his file, which is the front cover of a prog from Berezil theatre.]

What is striking about Kurbas’s file is that the crimes he admits to are in the main quite plausible. There is one section early on in Kurbas’s file where one of his peers testifies about a plot to kill Stalin. However, in Kurbas’s confession he admits that his theatre was the focus of his anti-Soviet activity:

My work… unfolded in the theatre, its purpose on the theatrical front to guide the course of cultural and creative process in Ukraine along bourgeois-nationalistic rails, to educate new cadres in the nationalist spirit, the establishment of connections with other theatre centres, other nationalists, to support their national tendencies.[13]

When later pressed on the issue of the exact nature of his counter-revolutionary activity, he states:

I made Berezil Theatre a mouthpiece for nationalist dramatic art… Only under pressure from party organs and the proletarian public, I entered into the repertoire the plays of proletarian playwrights… My c-r [counter-revolutionary] work had a generally bourgeois western orientation, which led to the separation of the theatre from the tastes of the mass working audience.[14]

We know that this is all quite true, Kurbas did stage plays and poetry by Ukrainian writers, and also modified plays by western playwrights to sit more comfortably with his Ukrainian sensibilities. Furthermore, there was no Chekhov to be found at the Berezil – Kurbas did not stage plays by Russian writers. All completely as we would expect: because of the 1920s – Ukrainian koren.

Kurbas talks at length in his confession about his Ukrainian nationalism, beginning by making it clear that the part of Ukraine where he grew up was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and dominated by what he describes as ‘an atmosphere of extremely sharp inter-ethnic conflict’. Kurbas argues that this encouraged strong nationalist feeling within him from a very young age: 

Age 7 I opposed myself to the Poles, and age 11 I decided I was not Russian but Ukrainian.[15]

He emphasizes the nationalist bent of his work at the Berezil over and over again in his testimony, and also describes how he used a theatre tour to Tbilisi to try and make links with Georgian artists and nationalists to form an anti-Soviet block.

Lastly, his confession reflects the increasing tempo of events in the early 1930s. He describes 1932 as a ‘turning point’ citing the famine and grain procurements as the fundamental cause. He says that there were a growing number of voices at this time calling for a coup. In 1933, after the arrival of Postishev in Ukraine and the worsening of the famine, Kurbas describes the mood as ‘unprecedentedly grave’. He describes emphasising the colonial element Postyshev’s policies in his discussions with friends and colleagues, even comparing them with fascism. He describes using the facts of the Ukrainian famine in theatre as ‘kindling’ for nationalist and actively anti-Soviet attitudes.[16]


The question is: was he therefore guilty of the crime with which he was charged: anti-Soviet activity? We know that he is innocent. Documents later on in the file, from the 1950s attest to the fact that after a complaint was made, the case against Kurbas was dropped for ‘lack of a crime’.[17]  

So how do we understand the earlier testimony? Is it false? Without wanting to sound too philosophical, looking for absolute truth or absolute falsehood here is misleading. Perhaps we can only understand Kurbas’s confession by understanding the intersection of the very particular forces that were at work at the start of the 1930s. First, the political shift from the policy of Ukrainianisation to the rejection – and fear – of Ukrainian nationalism. Many of Kurbas’s ‘crimes’ in fact sprang from his enthusiastic participation in the Bolsheviks endorsement of Ukrainian culture during the 1920s. 

This is confirmed by Kurbas’s own references throughout his interrogation to his re-education. He is regularly asked to reflect on his ‘crimes’, and he gives various versions of the same reply, which is that he now sees his activities in a new light. In his first statement he says: ‘This statement is the result of an analysis of all my previous activities in terms of Soviet, Communist and political criteria – result of a reassessment of all values.’[18] A couple of months later he even compares his experience to that of a patient undergoing psychoanalysis: ‘I feel like a hysteric after very successful treatment by doctor FREUD.’[19]

Kurbas’s own understanding of how his actions have mutated from the actions of a theatre director into a crime demonstrates that he really does seem to apprehend how the landscape has changed (of course, what he thinks about this change is a separate matter and one that is hard to speculate about). That the SPP repeatedly ask him the same questions confirms that this is their view too. 

The questions posed by those SPP officers who interrogated Kurbas also show interesting evidence of groupthink on their part, in the sense that the questions show that they are looking for particular types of evidence. For example, again and again they circle back to the question of Kurbas’s nationalism as confirmation of his criminal intent. The questions also often revolve about how Kurbas views events ‘now’ (ie in the 1930s), as opposed to how he saw them at the time. Despite all the indications to the contrary, one answer is that what Kurbas did was a crime. But only a crime in that very specific moment in history in which it took place. Kurbas’s deeds had not been criminal in the decade previously, nor would they be two decades afterwards. However, in that decade, because of the extraordinary nature of events – collectivization and the ensuing famine, the changes in Soviet legality, not to mention Hitler’s coming to power – Kurbas’s actions could be construed as a crime. This may not make sense to us today, but it does at least begin to help us to und

[1] Approximately three-quarters of a million Soviet citizens were executed by the NKVD between 1937 and 1938 alone. See James Harris, The Great Fear: Stalin’s Terror of the 1930s, Oxford University Press, 2016, p1.

[2] Kuromiya, H, The Voices of the Dead: Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s, Yale University Press, 2007, p6-7.

[3] J. Arch Getty, Practicing Stalinism, Yale, 2013, p??.

[4] See for example: Harris, J The Great Urals: Regionalism and the Evolution of the Soviet System, Ithaca, 1999, p217-218.

[5] See Lynne Viola, Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial, Oxford, 2017, p7. And Kotkin podcast.

[6] K. Clark, Moscow – The Fourth Rome, p93.

[7] See Francesco Benvenuti, ‘The ‘Reform’ of the NKVD, 1934’, Europe-Asia Studies, Sep 1997, Vol49 (6), pp1037-1056.

[8] Yuri Shapoval and Marta D. Olynyk. ‘The Holodomor: A Prologue to Repressions and Terror in Soviet Ukraine.’ Harvard Ukrainian Studies, vol. 30, no. 1/4, 2008, pp. pp109-114.

[9] For an analysis of a classic case of ‘groupthink’ see: Aldrich, Richard J. “Whitehall and the Iraq War: The UK’s Four Intelligence Enquiries.” Irish Studies in International Affairs 16 (2005), p77

[10] See Getty & Naumov, The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939

[11] Irena R. Makaryk, Shakespeare in the Undiscovered Bourn: Les Kurbas, Ukrainian Modernism and Early Soviet Cultural Politics, University of Toronto Press, 2004, p4.

[12] For further explanation of Article 58: Sarah Davies, ‘The crime of “anti-Soviet agitation” in the Soviet Union in the 1930s’ Cahiers du Monde Russe, 1998  39-1-2  pp. 149-167.

[13] SBU p43-44

[14] SBU, p58.

[15] SBU p57. 

[16] SBU p66.

[17] SBU p103-106.

[18] SBU 43-44

[19] SBU 72.