When mass murderers repent.
The following essay is adapted from Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.
Our cadres who knew the situation of 1932-1933 and who bore the blow are truly tempered like steel. I think that with them we can build a State the like of which the world has never seen.
—Grigory Ordzhonokidze to Sergei Kirov, 1934
Grigory Konstantovich Ordzhonokidze (1886-1937) is sometimes given retroactive credit because he died mysteriously during Stalin's terror campaign in the late 1930s and therefore might have been some sort of proto-liberal who, despite his curriculum vitae as an Old Bolshevik, had been secretly at odds all along with the course toward absolutism. There can be no doubt that in the year of his "suicide" he protested directly to Stalin about the free hand given to the NKVD, and it seems probable that in the mid-1930s he had more than once expressed doubts about Stalin's excesses: a sign of independence, which certainly spoke for his bravery and might well have ensured the subsequent mysterious death all on its own. But his earlier record was of a factotum thoroughly implicated in repressive measures that neither he nor other grandees of his rank thought excessive at the time. Indeed, he wasn't just implicated in those measures: In many cases he planned them.
One of the few non-Russians ever to serve in Stalin's government, he was born in Georgia, joined the Bolsheviks in 1908, and during the Civil War was instrumental in bringing the Caucasus under Soviet control, with appropriately firm methods of persuasion. Moving to the economic sphere, he led the forced march to industrialization in the 1920s and early 1930s, with an impact on the civilian populace that would have looked excessive enough if he had not been so confident about acting as one of the instruments of history. If he did indeed become a member of the "moderate bloc" that some historians would like to think made an attempt to rein Stalin in, his motives for joining it would have had to be the result of considering some of his own past actions, about which he was on record as being unrepentant, if not untroubled. From our position now, at a safe distance from the ideal state, which at one point he was proud of having helped to build, we can see that his true historical role was to provide us with a standing joke. He really did believe, and really did say, that the people who inflicted the suffering suffered most.
When Ordzhonokidze talked about the cadres who "bore the blow," we need to know that the blow they bore was the supposed necessity of inflicting injustice, not of suffering it. (They had been inflicting it since Lenin decreed that the party would have to rule by terror.) In other words, we are being asked to sympathize with the butchers, not the victims. As Primo Levi was to warn the world after the Holocaust, it will always be in the interests of the perpetrators, after a great crime is identified, to say that they, too, were helplessly caught up in it and also suffered. But Ordzhonokidze was saying more than that. He was saying that the perpetrators were the true victims.
In the period of 1932-1933, Stalin staged the first of his great massacres: the immense disaster comprising the collectivization of agriculture, the liquidation of the kulaks, and famine exploited as a social weapon. His second great massacre was still ahead: the Yezhovchina, the comprehensive terror of which the 1938 show trials were merely the small component that the world heard about. But the two-year jamboree of repression euphemistically cited in Ordzhonokidze's grotesque letter was bad enough. The upper-echelon officials, many of them the very same Old Bolsheviks who later on would be eliminated almost to a man by the bureaucrat they had foolishly allowed to inherit Lenin's keys of office, had faithfully carried out their orders to mow down the innocent. Anyone who had qualms did not allow them to affect his trigger finger. Ordzhonokidze should really be talking about the ruined lives of hundreds of thousands of blameless citizens. But the only suffering that interests him is the supposed wear and tear on the nerves of those deputed to carry out the destruction. By implication he includes himself and Kirov among their number: a brotherhood of martyrdom.
Clive James, the author of numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, writes for the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. He lives in London.
Reprinted from Cultural Amnesiaby Clive James © 2007 by Clive James, with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company Inc. This material may not be reproduced, rewritten, or redistributed without the prior written permission of the publisher. Photograph of Lewis Namier © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis.