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The traditional approach to the Soviet history claimed it was a totalitarian system, with the personality cult and the almost unlimited powers of the "great leader". These ideas were challenged later by historians, one of whom was Arch Getty. In his book, Origins of Great Purges published in 1985, Arch Getty argued that the Soviet political system was not completely controlled from the center, and that Stalin only responded to political events as they arose.  The book was a challenge to works by Robert Conquest. In an appendix to the book, Getty also questioned the previously published findings that Stalin organized himself the murder of Sergey Kirov to justify his campaign of Great Terror.
Many who lauded Stalin's Soviet Union as the most democratic country on earth lived to regret their words. After all, the Soviet Constitution of 1936 was adopted on the eve of the Great Terror of the late 1930s; the "thoroughly democratic" elections to the first Supreme Soviet permitted only uncontested candidates and took place at the height of the savage violence in 1937. The civil rights, personal freedoms, and democratic forms promised in the Stalin constitution were trampled almost immediately and remained dead letters until long after Stalin's death.
Other historians criticized work by Arch Getty as apologetics for Stalin and accused them of downplaying the terror.Sarah Davies and James Harris note that with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the release of the archives, some of the heat has gone out of the debate as Getty's more pro-Soviet findings were found to be true, and he could even be found to be even more critical than actual documents would excuse.
John Arch Getty and Roberta Thompson Manning. Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives, (ed., with Roberta T. Manning), New York, Cambridge University Press, 1993. ISBN0-521-44670-8
J. Arch Getty, Oleg V. Naumov. The Central Party Archive: A Research Guide, Univ Pittsburgh Center for Russian. 1993. ISBN99944-868-6-1
John Archibald Getty Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1985. Ninth printing, 1996. ISBN0-521-33570-1
J. Arch Getty, Oleg V. Naumov, The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939, Yale University Press, 1999, ISBN0-300-09403-5
Stalin's "Iron Fist:" The Times and Life of N. I. Yezhov, Yale University Press, 2008. ISBN0-300-09205-9
J. Arch Getty Practicing Stalinism: Bolsheviks, Boyars, and the Persistence of Tradition, Yale University Press, 2013, ISBN0-300-16929-9
"Stalin as Prime Minister: Power and the Politburo," in Sarah Davies and James Harris, Stalin: A New History, Cambridge University Press, 2005, 83-107.
"'Excesses are not permitted:' Mass Terror Operations in the Late 1930s and Stalinist Governance," The Russian Review, 16:1, Jan. 2002, 112-137.
"Mr. Ezhov Goes to Moscow: The Rise of a Stalinist Police Chief," in William Husband, ed., The Human Tradition in Modern Russia, New York, 2000, 157-174.
"Samokritika Rituals in the Stalinist Central Committee, 1933-1938," The Russian Review, 58:1, January, 1999, 49-70.
"Afraid of Their Shadows: The Bolshevik Recourse to Terror, 1932-1938," in Stalinismus vor dem Zweiten Weltkrieg. Neue Wege der Forschung, ed. Manfred Hildermeier and Elisabeth Mueller-Luckner, Munich, 1998.