Staunton, April 4 – Many Russians have been horrified by the decision of the powers that be to arrest or conduct searches against relatives of leading opposition figures, historian Tamara Eidelman says. But the one reaction no one should have is surprise because that tactic has long and deep roots in Russia.
It arose under the Bolsheviks who viewed the entire world as divided between “us” and “them” and thus felt that those who were in any way part of “them” rather than “us” could be treated as hostages or worse. That led to the rise of the concept of “members of families of enemies of the people” (theins.ru/opinions/eidelman/240643).
Wives and children of those Stalin had arrested or killed were themselves arrested and sent to the GULAG. Many remember the horrific stories of their suffering, but there is less attention to another aspect of this situation, the way these “hostages” were used to break Stalin’s enemies.
Historians have long been intrigued, Eidelman continues, by the fact that tough battle-scarred old Bolsheviks “almost without exception” broke down and confessed to the most improbable and absurd crimes. There are many explanations for this, including torture, but the role of the hostages certainly was prominent among them.
Many of these men would have quite willingly gone to their deaths insisting on their innocence, but they weren’t willing to visit such a terrible fate on their families. And Stalin’s secret police offered them a deal, confessions for the lives of their children. Many did, and remarkably Stalin’s henchmen generally respected those deals.
Now, when the ruler in the Kremlin faces opposition figures who are prepared to act on principle up to the point of arrest and even death, this situation has arisen again, the historian argues. And so the Putin regime is targeting the wives, children and even parents of those who dissent from it so as to be able to gain leverage on the opposition figures.
It is entirely admirable to die for one’s own cause; and it is something people of principle are often willing to do. But it is something else if doing so will lead to the deaths or other harm to one’s family. Expecting otherwise is foolish; and those carrying out such repressions are many things, but they are not entirely stupid.