The Collective Punishment of Kin under Stalin

Golfo Alexopoulos, Director, Institute for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies (IREES); Professor, School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies, 09. September 2023

Stalinist terror is perhaps the best-known aspect of twentieth century communist history. The paranoid denunciations of countless innocents, the systematic murder and deportation of millions, and the infamous show trials of old Leninist cadres perfectly encapsulate the senseless brutality of the Stalin era for many. Often overlooked, however, is that for every victim of this political terror, there often followed several more who were, in the eyes of the regime, guilty by association: the victim’s family. In this article, Professor Golfo Alexopoulos explores this aspect to Stalin’s terror, demonstrating that, despite Stalin’s famous assertion, in the Soviet Union, the son did, in fact, “answer for the father”.  

A family labeled as “kulaks” on their way to exile. PHOTO: Holodomor Research and Education Consortium.

In many ways, the family constituted the basic unit of terror under Stalin. Political enemies were imagined and punished as kinship networks, real or symbolic. Whether the Soviet security police described its targets as economic dependents, co-inhabitants, or explicitly mentioned specific kin, it considered people responsible for (or complicit in) the crimes of those close to them. Under Stalin, terror became directed at intimate relationships and social interactions, and political danger was assessed in terms of one’s family ties.

This Stalinist practice was not new. Political enemies in Russia had often been punished collectively as kinship groups in the past. In the fifteenth century, the Tsar Ivan the Terrible eliminated the old aristocrats of Muscovy, the Boyars, as clans and not individuals, and Peter the Great also initiated an assault against powerful families. Such practices of collective punishment date back to the Mongol invasion when, under Genghis Khan, kinship groups were jointly responsible for the obligations and offenses of family members.

Soviet political repression against perceived enemies of the regime targeted individuals as well as their families. Bolshevik revolutionaries viewed the private sphere and the traditional family with hostility and suspicion, as a potential site of co-called ‘bourgeois’ tendencies and subversive activity. Class enemies were characterized as those who placed the interests of their own family above the collective. For the communist revolutionaries, strong personal attachments appeared “unsocialist” because one’s primary loyalty was supposed to be directed to the working class or the proletarian state, with comrades as brothers and sisters and the communist party leader as father.

In the Stalin years, spouses, children, siblings, parents, and even ex-wives of accused enemies were often rounded up as relatives of so-called kulaks, enemies of the people or traitors to the motherland. Stalinist terror against political enemies reveals a remarkable obsession with kinship. Official instructions referred to kinship using various descriptors, but mostly through such code words as “financial dependents” and “co-inhabitants,” which typically signaled wives, elderly parents, and children.

Stalin waged two large-scale campaigns of class war against so-called class enemies—disenfranchisement and dekulakization. Soviet legislation identified people marked for disenfranchisement as “bourgeois classes”. These included private traders and middlemen, religious clerics, agents of the former tsarist police and security services, former noblemen, and White Army officers. The disenfranchised or lishentsy lost all rights in Soviet society and became effective outcasts; millions were deported or sent to forced labor camps in the Far North and Siberia. Dekulakization coincided with the collectivization of agriculture and represented a wave of terror against the so-called kulaks, or the wealthy peasant class. The campaign resulted in mass executions, large-scale deportations, and starvation for millions of peasants. These two extensive assaults against “class enemies” targeted kin groups. If one member of the family was disenfranchised or dekulakized, spouses and children became similarly stigmatized.

The Vakhromeev family, depicted in the 1920s.  They were later identified as a “kulak” family and faced persecution. PHOTO: International Memorial Archive www.foto-memorial.org.

The assault on the peasant family became synonymous with collectivization. In its decrees on kulak deportations, the Politburo used the terms kulak household or farm (kulatskie khoziaistva) and kulak family (kulatskie semeistva) interchangeably. Kulaks were deported in family units consisting of the head of household plus economic dependents. In the case of disenfranchisement, Soviet legislation stressed that “the financial dependents of persons disenfranchised” would also be subjected to the loss of rights.

Bolshevik perceptions regarding the strong kinship ties of ethnic minorities often made these populations especially vulnerable to political repression. Party officials and Soviet ethnographers characterized the kinship networks and “clan survivals” of the country’s ethnic minorities as serious obstacles to socialist construction. Across various populations of the USSR, family networks played an important role in providing social support, yet party officials often focused on the potentially subversive nature of kinship ties. This prejudice appears to have been distinctly pronounced in the case of non-Russian populations. 

Under Stalin, the collective punishment of kin greatly magnified the effects of class warfare. After a 1930 Politburo decree called for the punishment and exile of entire kulak families, the dekulakization of 200,000 families could result in the punishment of one million people given that the standard peasant family had five members. This multiplier effect can be seen in the case of disenfranchisement too. In 1929, across the Russian republic, dependents, usually women and children, constituted thirty-five percent of the disenfranchised in urban areas and nearly half of all the rural disenfranchised.

Stalin repudiated the collective punishment of kin in December 1935 when he made his famous remark that “the son is not responsible for the father.” The leader’s statement signaled that the children of class enemies would no longer be tainted because of their kinship ties. Stalin’s 1936 constitution declared the USSR to be a classless society, thus enabling the children of class enemies to earn rehabilitation. However, in practice, many dependents continued to face stigmatization.

The 1936-1938 Great Purges directed against “enemies of the people” condemned family members even more intensely. NKVD order no. 00486 of August 15, 1937, required the secret police to collect extensive data on the family members of those condemned as “traitors to the motherland,” members of “right-Trotskyist spying-sabotage organizations,” and others sentenced by military tribunals. This included the accused person’s spouse, elderly parents, and children, especially children over fifteen who are “socially dangerous and capable of anti-Soviet actions.” Wives were supposed to be arrested along with their husbands and subject to labor camp detention for “no less than five to eight years.”

On November 7, 1937, Stalin declared that enemies should be eliminated as kinship groups: “We will eliminate every such enemy [of the state and peoples of the USSR]… we will eliminate his entire lineage-- his family!” During the mass operations, the Soviet security police treated all relatives severely, but male kin were more likely to receive a death sentence. Mikhail Tomsky’s two sons were shot, as were all the male relatives of Trotsky (with the exception of one nephew). By contrast, the daughters of the purged military leaders Mikhail Tukhachevskii and Yan Gamarnik lived in a special children’s home with the children of other purged officers; later, they were each arrested as teenagers and sent to a labor camp. Depending on their age, the perceived degree of danger that they posed, and their ability to “remake” themselves, the “children of repressed enemies of the people” were either sent to NKVD camps, labor colonies, or to special orphanages. Moreover, they could not be settled in the major urban centers of Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Tbilisi, and Minsk, nor in border or coastal cities.

As in the case of class warfare, it was a change in the regime’s policy regarding the collective punishment of kin that first signaled the reduction of terror during the Great Purges. On October 17, 1938, the NKVD reversed the provision in order no. 00486 that required wives to be punished together with their husbands. Shortly thereafter, Stalin’s bloodiest purge came to an end, although the collective punishment of kin continued.

During World War II, a decree of the State Defense Committee entitled “On the Family Members of Traitors to the Motherland” stated that adult family members of military personnel and civilians sentenced to death as spies, traitors, or collaborators would be subject to arrest and exile. Unlike similar pronouncements from the state security organs in earlier years, this decree defined a traitor’s family in very broad terms: “Family members of traitors to the Motherland include: the father, mother, husband, wife, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters if they lived with the traitor to the Motherland or were dependent on him [or her] at the time the crime was committed or at the moment of [the person’s] mobilization into the army at the start of the war.”

Soviet political violence was applied to the family unit in a remarkably persistent manner. From one campaign of terror to the next, it is apparent that the stigma of kinship becomes more severe and immutable. The communist party under Stalin viewed kinship ties and those resembling them as potentially subversive. An enormous population—often the majority—of victims of political repression was condemned solely as family members of marked enemies. The Stalinist leadership imagined and apprehended not individual enemies, but families of enemies. For the Soviet Marxists, clan and not class often mattered most.

Golfo Alexopoulos is Professor and Director of the USF Institute for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies at the University of South Florida. Her research interests include Russia, the Soviet Union, Stalinism, authoritarianism, political violence, human rights, and medicine. She holds an M.A. (1988) from Yale University and a Ph.D. (1996) from the University of Chicago.