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Europe/Russia : The Great Terror

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Guthrum
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24 Nov 2015
07:22:31pm
One of the most extraordinary passages of bloodletting in modern history, Stalin's Great Terror is unsurprisingly not directly commemorated on stamps of the Soviet Union. Nowhere among the six thousand-odd stamps of the USSR will you find reference to the major figures: Bukharin, Kamenev, Zinoviev or, of course, Trotsky - who mistakenly thought he could escape the purge by emigrating to Mexico.

However, as we know, Khrushchev, in the 20th Party Congress in 1956, explicitly broke with Stalinism, and a closer study of the catalogue will throw up lesser names: men who perished in the dungeons of the Lubyanka or on the firing range at Butovo, often in degrading circumstances. I decided to make a small collection of a few pages marking their fate.

Most of them were politicians who knew too much or became too popular. There is a smattering of artists and intellectuals, and rather more military top brass (a fact which Hitler duly took into account in 1941). Not all of these men were innocents: many had blood on their hands. And the nineteen whose names and likenesses eventually found their way onto Soviet stamps were, of course, a minute fraction of all those hundreds of thousands, from all walks of life, who were remembered or denounced or simply found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many of these were innocent.

I started with the man whose murder in late 1934 kicked the whole thing off: Sergei Kirov. He was the leader of the Leningrad branch of the Party. When in the XVII Party Congress he was voted onto the Central Committee, such was his popularity that a mere three votes were registered against him. Rumour has it that Stalin's tally of negative votes was considerably more. Unable to tolerate a rival, Stalin ordered his assassination, duly carried out months later. Like the Reichstag Fire the previous year, such a public outrage, however dubiously perpetrated or covered up, provided the excuse for extreme measures. The Great Terror, carried out principally by Yezhov and continued by Beria, was to last three years and directly cost almost a million lives.

Two other major figures died early on in unexplained circumstances: the writer Maxim Gorky in 1936, and the politician and Stalin henchman Sergo Ordzhonikidze in 1937. It is possible that the latter committed suicide and the former, nearing 70, died of illness (or grief at the murder of his son), but both had offended Stalin. Naturally they appeared subsequently on several stamps, as if no-one was to suspect anything unusual.

These three, Kirov, Gorky and Ordzhonikidze, are the subject of my first three pages. After that, I'll put up individual stamps in the order that their 19 subjects died. I'll conclude with a page on four people whose demise in the early 1940s was either brought on by conditions during imprisonment, or merely happened as a vicious afterthought.

Putting together such a list depends on internet sources: checking out every personality on Soviet stamps whose death is recorded from 1937 to 1939 (and for a couple of years thereafter). Even then, there are late additions, such as the leading rocket designer Korolyov, whose death aged 59 was to a great extent exacerbated by the dreadful years he spent in prison and the Gulags during the Terror. No doubt there will be other similar grim discoveries.

I usually try to avoid the 'illustrated encyclopedia' approach when writing up albums (Wikipedia often illustrates its entries with the same stamps I am displaying), but it's not easy in this case. I don't like too much writing on a page, but inevitably much of this mini-album is biographical in content. Here, then, is page 1 of this collection (trimmed to exclude page borders, as advised earlier). Usual apologies for scan quality.

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Page two awaits delivery of a couple of Gorky stamps!




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