|Repression in the Soviet Union|
|Political repression • Economic repression • Ideological repression|
|Red Terror • Collectivization • Great Purge • Population transfer • Gulag • Holodomor • Political abuse of psychiatry|
|Religion • Suppressed research • Censorship • Censorship of images|
The Great Purge was a campaign of political repression in the Soviet Union orchestrated by Joseph Stalin from 1934 to 1939.1 It involved a large-scale purge of the Communist Party and government officials, repression of peasants and the Red Army leadership, and widespread police surveillance, suspicion of "saboteurs", imprisonment, and arbitrary executions.2 In Russian historiography, the period of the most intense purge, 1937–1938, is called Yezhovshchina (Russian: Eжовщина; literally, the Yezhov regime), after Nikolai Yezhov, the head of the Soviet secret police, NKVD.
In the Western world, Robert Conquest's 1968 book The Great Terror popularized that phrase. Conquest's title was in turn inspired by the period of terror (French: la Terreur) during the French Revolution.
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Background
- 3 Moscow Trials
- 4 Purge of the army
- 5 The wider purge
- 6 End of Yezhovshchina
- 7 Western reactions
- 8 Rehabilitation
- 9 Number of people executed
- 10 Stalin's role
- 11 Soviet investigation commissions
- 12 Mass graves and memorials
- 13 See also
- 14 Notes
- 15 References and further reading
- 16 External links
The term "repression" was officially used to describe the prosecution of people considered counter-revolutionaries and enemies of the people by the leadership of the Soviet Union. The purge was motivated by the desire to remove dissenters from the Communist Party and to consolidate the authority of Joseph Stalin. Most public attention was focused on the purge of the leadership of the Communist Party, as well as of government bureaucrats and leaders of the armed forces, most of whom were Party members. The campaigns also affected many other categories of the society: intelligentsia, peasants and especially those branded as "too rich for a peasant" (kulaks), and professionals.3 A series of NKVD (the Soviet secret police) operations affected a number of national minorities, accused of being "fifth column" communities. A number of purges were officially explained as an elimination of the possibilities of sabotage and espionage, mostly by a fictitious "Polish Military Organisation" and, consequently, many victims of the purge were ordinary Soviet citizens of Polish origin.
According to Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 speech, "On the Personality Cult and its Consequences," and more recent findings, a great number of accusations, notably those presented at the Moscow show trials, were based on forced confessions, often obtained by torture,4 and on loose interpretations of Article 58 of the RSFSR Penal Code, which dealt with counter-revolutionary crimes. Due legal process, as defined by Soviet law in force at the time, was often largely replaced with summary proceedings by NKVD troikas.5
Hundreds of thousands of victims were accused of various political crimes (espionage, wrecking, sabotage, anti-Soviet agitation, conspiracies to prepare uprisings and coups); they were quickly executed by shooting, or sent to the Gulag labor camps. Many died at the penal labor camps of starvation, disease, exposure, and overwork. Other methods of dispatching victims were used on an experimental basis. One secret policeman, for example, gassed people to death in batches in the back of a specially adapted airtight van.67
The Great Purge was started under the NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda, but the height of the campaigns occurred while the NKVD was headed by Nikolai Yezhov, from September 1936 to August 1938, hence the name Yezhovshchina. The campaigns were carried out according to the general line, and often by direct orders, of the Party Politburo headed by Stalin.
The Great Purge has provoked numerous debates about its purpose, scale and mechanisms. In the 1950s American scholars proposed a structural explanation of the Great Terror: as a totalitarian system, Stalin’s regime had to maintain its citizens in a state of fear and uncertainty, and recurrent random purging provided the mechanism (Brzezinski, 1958). Robert Conquest emphasized Stalin’s paranoia, focused on the Moscow show trial of “Old Bolsheviks”, and analyzed the carefully planned and systematic destruction of the Communist Party leadership as the first step toward terrorizing the entire population. In the mid-1980s, John Arch Getty, an American historian of the revisionist school, contested Conquest’s interpretation. He argued that the exceptional scale of the purges was the result of strong tensions between Stalin and regional Communist Party bosses who, in order to deflect the terror that was being directed at them, found innumerable scapegoats on which to carry out repressions. In this way, they demonstrated their vigilance and intransigence in the struggle against the common enemy. Thus, the Great Terror developed into a “flight into chaos” (Getty, 1985).
Historians of both schools focused on the purge of political, intellectual, economic or military elites, and the struggle between the center and regional party cliques. Mainly because of the scarcity of information on the subject, neither studied the mechanisms, organization, implementation of mass arrests and mass executions, or the sociology of the victims, who represented a much wider group than party elites or intelligentsia.
The previous theories have been fundamentally challenged by new information since the opening of the Soviet archives after the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, which allowed more research in new areas of materials. Scholars have come to view the Great Purge as a crucial moment – or rather the culmination – of a vast social engineering campaign started at the beginning of the 1930s (Hagenloh, 2000; Shearer, 2003; Werth, 2003). It claimed about 1% of the USSR adult population as its victims, and many children suffered as collateral damage.8
From 1930 onwards, the Party and police officials feared the “social disorder” caused by the upheavals of forced collectivization of peasants and the resulting famine of 1932–1933, as well as the massive and uncontrolled migration of millions of peasants into cities. The threat of war heightened Stalin’s perception of marginal and politically suspect populations as the potential source of an uprising in case of invasion. He began to plan for the preventive elimination of such potential recruits for a mythical “fifth column of wreckers, terrorists and spies.” (Hagenloh, 2000; Shearer, 2003).8
The term "purge" in Soviet political slang was an abbreviation of the expression purge of the Party ranks. In 1933, for example, the Party expelled some 400,000 people. But from 1936 until 1953, the term changed its meaning, because being expelled from the Party came to mean almost certain arrest, imprisonment, and often execution.
The political purge was primarily an effort by Stalin to eliminate challenge from past and potential opposition groups, including the left and right wings led by Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin, respectively. Following the Civil War and reconstruction of the Soviet economy in the late 1920s, veteran Communists no longer thought necessary the "temporary" wartime dictatorship, which had passed from Lenin to Stalin. Stalin's opponents on both sides of the political spectrum chided him as undemocratic and lax on bureaucratic corruption. These tendencies may have accumulated substantial support among the working class by attacking the privileges and luxuries the state offered to its high-paid elite. The Ryutin Affair seemed to vindicate Stalin's suspicions. He enforced a ban on party factions and banned those party members who had opposed him, effectively ending democratic centralism.
In the new form of Party organization, the Politburo, and Stalin in particular, were the sole dispensers of communist ideology. This required the elimination of all Marxists with different views, especially those among the prestigious "old guard" of revolutionaries. As the purges began, the government (through the NKVD) shot Communist heroes, including Mikhail Tukhachevsky and Béla Kun, as well as the majority of Lenin's Politburo, for disagreements in policy. The NKVD attacked the supporters, friends, and family of these "heretical" Marxists, whether they lived in Russia or not. The NKVD nearly annihilated Trotsky's family before killing him in Mexico; the NKVD agent Ramón Mercader was part of an assassination task force put together by Special Agent Pavel Sudoplatov, under the personal orders of Stalin.9
In 1934, Stalin used the murder of Sergey Kirov as a pretext to launch the Great Purge, in which about a million people perished. Some later historians came to believe that Stalin arranged the murder, or at least that there was sufficient evidence to reach such a conclusion.10 Kirov was a staunch Stalin loyalist, but Stalin may have viewed him as a potential rival because of his emerging popularity among the moderates. The 1934 party congress elected Kirov to the central committee with only three negative votes, the fewest of any candidate, while Stalin received 292 negative votes. After Kirov's assassination, the NKVD charged the former oppositionists, an ever-growing group according to their determination, with Kirov's murder as well as a growing list of other offences, including treason, terrorism, sabotage, and espionage.
Another justification for the purge was to remove any possible "fifth column" in case of a war. Vyacheslav Molotov and Lazar Kaganovich, participants in the repression as members of the Politburo, maintained this justification throughout the purge; they each signed many death lists.11 Stalin believed war was imminent, threatened both by an explicitly hostile Nazi Germany and an expansionist Japan. The Soviet press portrayed the country as threatened from within by Fascist spies.12
From the October Revolution1 onward,13 Lenin had used repression against perceived enemies of the Bolsheviks as a systematic method of instilling fear and facilitating social control. Periods of heightened repression included the Red Terror, the deportation of kulaks who opposed collectivization, and a severe famine in Ukraine. A distinctive feature of the Great Purge was that, for the first time, members of the ruling party were included on a massive scale as victims of the repression. Due to the scale of the terror, there were substantial victims of the purges were Communist Party members and office-holders.14 The purge of the Party was accompanied by the purge of the whole society. The following events are used for the demarcation of the period.
- The first Moscow Trial, 1936.
- 1937 introduction of NKVD troikas for implementation of "revolutionary justice".
- 1937mm, passage of Article 58-14 about "counter-revolutionary sabotage".
Between 1936 and 1938, three very large Moscow Trials of former senior Communist Party leaders were held, in which they were accused of conspiring with fascist and capitalist powers to assassinate Stalin and other Soviet leaders, dismember the Soviet Union and restore capitalism. These trials were highly publicized and extensively covered by the outside world, which was mesmerized by the spectacle of Lenin's closest associates confessing to most outrageous crimes and begging for death sentences.
- The first trial was of 16 members of the so-called "Trotskyite-Kamenevite-Zinovievite-Leftist-Counter-Revolutionary Bloc",citation needed held in August 1936,15 at which the chief defendants were Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, two of the most prominent former party leaders. Among other accusations, they were incriminated with the assassination of Sergey Kirov and plotting to kill Stalin.citation needed After confessing to the charges, all were sentenced to death and executed.16
- The second trial in January 1937 involved 17 lesser figures known as the "anti-Soviet Trotskyite-centre" which included Karl Radek, Yuri Piatakov and Grigory Sokolnikov, and were accused of plotting with Trotsky, who was said to be conspiring with Nazi Germany. Thirteen of the defendants were eventually executed by shooting. The rest received sentences in labor camps where they soon died.
- There was also a secret trial before a military tribunal of a group of Red Army commanders, including Mikhail Tukhachevsky, in June 1937.
Some Western observers who attended the trials said that they were fair and that the guilt of the accused had been established. They based this assessment on the confessions of the accused, which were freely given in open court, without any apparent evidence that they had been extracted by torture or drugging. The British lawyer and Member of Parliament D. N. Pritt, for example, wrote: "Once again the more faint-hearted socialists are beset with doubts and anxieties", but "once again we can feel confident that when the smoke has rolled away from the battlefield of controversy it will be realized that the charge was true, the confessions correct and the prosecution fairly conducted". Others, like Fitzroy Maclean were a little more astute in their observations and conclusions.
It is now known that the confessions were given only after great psychological pressure and torture had been applied to the defendants. From the accounts of former OGPU officer Alexander Orlov and others, the methods used to extract the confessions are known: such tortures as repeated beatings, simulated drownings, making prisoners stand or go without sleep for days on end, and threats to arrest and execute the prisoners' families. For example, Kamenev's teenage son was arrested and charged with terrorism. After months of such interrogation, the defendants were driven to despair and exhaustion.
Zinoviev and Kamenev demanded, as a condition for "confessing", a direct guarantee from the Politburo that their lives and that of their families and followers would be spared. This offer was accepted, but when they were taken to the alleged Politburo meeting, only Stalin, Kliment Voroshilov, and Yezhov were present. Stalin claimed that they were the "commission" authorized by the Politburo and gave assurances that death sentences would not be carried out. After the trial, Stalin not only broke his promise to spare the defendants, he had most of their relatives arrested and shot.17
In May 1937, the Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials, commonly known as the Dewey Commission, was set up in the United States by supporters of Trotsky, to establish the truth about the trials. The commission was headed by the noted American philosopher and educator John Dewey. Although the hearings were obviously conducted with a view to proving Trotsky's innocence, they brought to light evidence which established that some of the specific charges made at the trials could not be true.18
For example, Georgy Pyatakov testified that he had flown to Oslo in December 1935 to "receive terrorist instructions" from Trotsky. The Dewey Commission established that no such flight had taken place.citation needed Another defendant, Ivan Smirnov, confessed to taking part in the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934, at a time when he had already been in prison for a year.
The Dewey Commission later published its findings in a 422-page book titled Not Guilty. Its conclusions asserted the innocence of all those condemned in the Moscow Trials. In its summary, the commission wrote: "Independent of extrinsic evidence, the Commission finds:
- That the conduct of the Moscow Trials was such as to convince any unprejudiced person that no attempt was made to ascertain the truth.
- That while confessions are necessarily entitled to the most serious consideration, the confessions themselves contain such inherent improbabilities as to convince the Commission that they do not represent the truth, irrespective of any means used to obtain them.
- That Trotsky never instructed any of the accused or witnesses in the Moscow trials to enter into agreements with foreign powers against the Soviet Union [and] that Trotsky never recommended, plotted, or attempted the restoration of capitalism in the USSR.
The commission concluded: "We therefore find the Moscow Trials to be frame-ups."
In the second trial, Karl Radek provided (or more accurately was forced to provide)citation needed the pretext for greater purge to come on a massive scale with his testimony that there was a "third organization separate from the cadres which had passed through [Trotsky's] school"19 as well as "semi-Trotskyites, quarter-Trotskyites, one-eighth-Trotskyites, people who helped us, not knowing of the terrorist organization but sympathizing with us, people who from liberalism, from a Fronde against the Party, gave us this help."20
By the "third organization", he meant the last remaining former opposition group called the Rightists, led by Bukharin, whom he implicated by saying:
I feel guilty of one thing more: even after admitting my guilt and exposing the organisation, I stubbornly refused to give evidence about Bukharin. I knew that Bukharin's situation was just as hopeless as my own, because our guilt, if not juridically, then in essence, was the same. But we are close friends, and intellectual friendship is stronger than other friendships. I knew that Bukharin was in the same state of upheaval as myself. That is why I did not want to deliver him bound hand and foot to the People's Commissariat of Home Affairs. Just as in relation to our other cadres, I wanted Bukharin himself to lay down his arms.19
The third and final trial, in March 1938, known as The Trial of the Twenty-One, is the most famous of the Soviet show trials, because of persons involved and the scope of charges which tied together all loose threads from earlier trials. It included 21 defendants alleged to belong to the so-called "Bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites", led by Nikolai Bukharin, the former chairman of the Communist International, former premier Alexei Rykov, Christian Rakovsky, Nikolai Krestinsky and Genrikh Yagoda, recently disgraced head of the NKVD.
The fact that Yagoda was one of the accused showed the speed at which the purges were consuming its own. Meant to be the culmination of previous trials, it was now alleged that Bukharin and others sought to assassinate Lenin and Stalin from 1918, murder Maxim Gorky by poison, partition the U.S.S.R and hand her territories to Germany, Japan, and Great Britain, and other preposterous charges.
Even previously sympathetic observers who had stomached the earlier trials found it harder to swallow these new allegations as they became ever more absurd, and the purge expanded to include almost every living Old Bolshevik leader except Stalin. No other crime of the Stalin years so captivated Western intellectuals as the trial and execution of Bukharin, who was a Marxist theorist of international standing.21 For some prominent communists such as Bertram Wolfe, Jay Lovestone, Arthur Koestler, and Heinrich Brandler, the Bukharin trial marked their final break with communism, and even turned the first three into fervent anti-Communists eventually.2223 To them, Bukharin’s confession symbolized the depredations of communism, which not only destroyed its sons but also conscripted them in self-destruction and individual abnegation.21
The preparation for this trial, which took over a year, was delayed in its early stages due to the reluctance of some party members to denounce their comrades. It was at this time that Stalin personally intervened to speed up the process and replaced Yagoda with Nikolai Yezhov.
On the first day of trial, Krestinsky caused a sensation when he repudiated his written confession and pled not guilty to all the charges. However, he changed his plea the next day after "special measures", which dislocated his left shoulder among other things.24
Anastas Mikoyan and Vyacheslav Molotov later claimed that Bukharin was never tortured, but it is now known that his interrogators were given the order, "beating permitted," and were under great pressure to extract confession out of the "star" defendant. Bukharin initially held out for three months, but threats to his young wife and infant son, combined with "methods of physical influence" wore him down. But when he read his confession amended and corrected personally by Stalin, he withdrew his whole confession. The examination started all over again, with a double team of interrogators.25
Bukharin's confession in particular became subject of much debate among Western observers, inspiring Koestler's acclaimed novel Darkness at Noon and philosophical essay by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Humanism and Terror. His confessions were somewhat different from others in that while he pled guilty to "sum total of crimes", he denied knowledge when it came to specific crimes. Some astute observers noted that he would allow only what was in written confession and refuse to go any further.
The result was a curious mix of fulsome confessions (of being a "degenerate fascist" working for "restoration of capitalism") and subtle criticisms of the trial. After disproving several charges against him, one observer noted that Bukharin "proceeded to demolish or rather showed he could very easily demolish the whole case."26 He continued by saying that "the confession of the accused is not essential. The confession of the accused is a medieval principle of jurisprudence" in a trial that was solely based on confessions, he finished his last plea with the words: "the monstrousness of my crime is immeasurable especially in the new stage of struggle of the U.S.S.R. May this trial be the last severe lesson, and may the great might of the U.S.S.R become clear to all." 27
Romain Rolland and others wrote to Stalin seeking clemency for Nikolai Bukharin, but all the leading defendants were executed except Rakovsky and two others (who were killed in NKVD prisoner massacres in 1941). Despite the promise to spare his family, Bukharin's wife, Anna Larina, was sent to a labor camp, but she survived to see her husband rehabilitated.
The purge of the Red Army and Military Maritime Fleet removed three of five marshals (then equivalent to five-star generals), 13 of 15 army commanders (then equivalent to three- and four-star generals), eight of nine admirals (the purge fell heavily on the Navy, who were suspected of exploiting their opportunities for foreign contacts),28 50 of 57 army corps commanders, 154 out of 186 division commanders, 16 of 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commissars.29
At first it was thought 25-50% of Red Army officers were purged, it is now known to be 3.7-7.7%. Previously, the size of the Red Army officer corps was underestimated, and it was overlooked that most of those purged were merely expelled from the Party. Thirty percent of officers purged in 1937-9 were allowed to return to service.30
The purge of the army was claimed to be supported by Nazi-forged documents (said to have been correspondence between Marshal Tukhachevsky and members of the German high command).31 The claim is unsupported by facts, as by the time the documents were supposedly created, two people from the eight in the Tukhachevsky group were already imprisoned, and by the time the document was said to reach Stalin the purging process was already underway. However the actual evidence introduced at trial was obtained from forced confessions.32
Eventually almost all of the Bolsheviks who had played prominent roles during the Russian Revolution of 1917, or in Lenin's Soviet government afterwards, were executed. Out of six members of the original Politburo during the 1917 October Revolution who lived until the Great Purge, Stalin himself was the only one who remained in the Soviet Union, alive.1 Four of the other five were executed. The fifth, Leon Trotsky, went into exile in Mexico after being expelled from the Party but was assassinated by Soviet agent Ramón Mercader in 1940. Of the seven members elected to the Politburo between the October Revolution and Lenin's death in 1924, four were executed, one (Tomsky) committed suicide and two (Molotov and Kalinin) lived.
However, the trials and executions of the former Bolshevik leaders, while being the most visible part, were only a minor part of the purges.
In the 1920s and 1930s, 2,000 writers, intellectuals, and artists were imprisoned and 1,500 died in prisons and concentration camps. After sunspot development research was judged un-Marxist, twenty-seven astronomers disappeared between 1936 and 1938. The Meteorological Office was violently purged as early as 1933 for failing to predict weather harmful to the crops.33 But the toll was especially high among writers. Those who perished during the Great Purge include:
- The great poet Osip Mandelstam was arrested for reciting his famous anti-Stalin poem Stalin Epigram to his circle of friends in 1934. After intervention by Nikolai Bukharin and Boris Pasternak (Stalin jotted down in Bukharin's letter with feigned indignation: “Who gave them the right to arrest Mandelstam?”), Stalin instructed NKVD to "isolate but preserve" him, and Mandelstam was "merely" exiled to Cherdyn for three years. But this proved to be a temporary reprieve. In May 1938, he was promptly arrested again for "counter-revolutionary activities".34 On August 2, 1938, Mandelstam was sentenced to five years in correction camps and died on December 27, 1938 at a transit camp near Vladivostok.35 Pasternak himself was nearly purged, but Stalin is said to have crossed Pasternak's name off the list, saying "Don't touch this cloud dweller." 36
- Writer Isaac Babel was arrested in May 1939, and according to his confession paper (which contained a blood stain) he "confessed" to being a member of Trotskyist organization and being recruited by French writer André Malraux to spy for France. In the final interrogation, he retracted his confession and wrote letters to prosecutor's office stating that he had implicated innocent people, but to no avail. Babel was tried before an NKVD troika and convicted of simultaneously spying for the French, Austrians, and Leon Trotsky, as well as "membership in a terrorist organization." On January 27, 1940, he was shot in Butyrka prison.37
- Writer Boris Pilnyak was arrested on October 28, 1937 for counter-revolutionary activities, spying and terrorism. One report alleged that "he held secret meetings with (André) Gide, and supplied him with information about the situation in the USSR. There is no doubt that Gide used this information in his book attacking the USSR." Pilnyak was tried on April 21, 1938. In the proceeding that lasted 15 minutes, he was condemned to death and executed shortly afterward.37
- Theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested in 1939 and shot in February 1940 for "spying" for Japanese and British intelligence. His wife, the actress Zinaida Raikh, was murdered in her apartment.38 In a letter to Vyacheslav Molotov dated January 13, 1940, Meyerhold wrote:
The investigators began to use force on me, a sick 65-year-old man. I was made to lie face down and beaten on the soles of my feet and my spine with a rubber strap ... For the next few days, when those parts of my legs were covered with extensive internal hemorrhaging, they again beat the red-blue-and-yellow bruises with the strap and the pain was so intense that it felt as if boiling water was being poured on these sensitive areas. I howled and wept from the pain. I incriminated myself in the hope that by telling them lies I could end the ordeal. When I lay down on the cot and fell asleep, after 18 hours of interrogation, in order to go back in an hour's time for more, I was woken up by my own groaning and because I was jerking about like a patient in the last stages of typhoid fever.37
- Georgian poet Titsian Tabidze was arrested on October 10, 1937 on a charge of treason and was tortured in prison. In a bitter humor, he named only the 18th-century Georgian poet Besiki as his accomplice in anti-Soviet activities.39 He was executed on December 16, 1937.
- Tabidze's lifelong friend and fellow poet, Paolo Iashvili, having earlier been forced to denounce several of his associates as the enemies of the people, shot himself with a hunting gun in the building of the Writers' Union.40 He witnessed and was even forced to participate in public trials that ousted many of his associates from the Writers' Union, effectively condemning them to death. When Lavrenty Beria chief of the Soviet security and secret police apparatus under Stalin and subsequently head of the NKVD, further pressured Iashvili with the alternatives of denouncing Tabidze or being arrested and tortured by the NKVD, Iashvili killed himself.41
- In early 1937, poet Pavel Vasiliev is said to have defended Nikolai Bukharin as "a man of the highest nobility and the conscience of peasant Russia" at the time of his denunciation at the Pyatakov Trial (Second Moscow Trial) and damned other writers then signing the routine condemnations as "pornographic scrawls on the margins of Russian literature". He was promptly shot on July 16, 1937.42
- Jan Sten, philosopher and deputy head of the Marx-Engels Institute, was Stalin's private tutor when Stalin was trying hard to study Hegel's dialectic. (Stalin received lessons twice a week from 1925 to 1928, but he found it difficult to master even some of the basic ideas. Stalin developed enduring hostility toward German idealistic philosophy, which he called "the aristocratic reaction to the French Revolution".) In 1937, Sten was seized on the direct order of Stalin, who declared him one of the chiefs of Menshevizing idealists. On June 19, 1937, Sten was put to death in Lefortovo prison.43
On July 2, 1937, Stalin sent a top-secret letter to all regional Party chiefs (with a copy to NKVD regional chiefs) ordering them to present, within five days, estimates of the number of kulaks and “criminals” that should be arrested, executed, or sent to camps. Produced in a matter of days, these figures roughly matched those of “suspect” individuals already under police surveillance, although the criteria used to distribute the “kulak and criminal elements” among the two categories are not clear.
On July 30, 1937 the NKVD Order no. 00447 was issued, directed against "ex-kulaks" and other "anti-Soviet elements" (such as former officials of the Tsarist regime, former members of political parties other than the communist party, etc.). They were to be executed or sent to GULAG prison camps extrajudicially, under the decisions of NKVD troikas.
The following categories were systematically tracked down: “ex-kulaks” previously deported to “special settlements” in inhospitable parts of the country (Siberia, Urals, Kazakhstan, Far North), former tsarist civil servants, former officers of the White Army, participants in peasant rebellions, members of the clergy, persons deprived of voting rights, former members of non-bolshevik parties, ordinary criminals, like thieves, known to the police and various other “socially harmful elements”. However, many were also arrested at random in police sweeps, or as a result of denunciations or simply because they happened to be relatives, friends or just acquaintances of people already arrested. Many railwaymen, workers, kolkhoz peasants, and engineers were arrested in the course of the Kulak Operation just because they had the misfortune of working in, or near, important strategic factories, railway or building sites, where, as a result of frantic rhythms and plans, many work accidents had occurred in previous years. In 1937-1938, the NKVD reopened these cases and systematically ascribed them to “sabotage” or “wrecking” (Werth, 2009).
The orthodox clergy, including active parishioners, was nearly annihilated: 85% of the 35,000 members of the clergy were arrested. Particularly vulnerable to repression were also the so-called “special settlers” (spetzpereselentsy) who were under permanent police surveillance and constituted a huge pool of potential “enemies” to draw on. At least 100,000 of them were arrested in the course of the Great Terror.
One “sub-operation” targeted “the most vicious and stubborn anti-Soviet elements” in GULAG prison camps; they were all “to be put into the first category” - that is shot. Order no. 00447 decreed 10,000 executions for this contingent, but at least three times more were shot in the course of the secret mass operation, the majority in March–April 1938 (Junge and Binner, 2003).
As soon as the Kulak Operation was launched (August 5, 1937), regional party and NKVD bosses, eager to show their zeal, demanded an increase in the quotas. Accordingly, the quotas were increased. But this was not only the result of demands from below. The largest new allowances were distributed by Stalin and Ezhov on their own initiative: on October 15, 1937, for example, the Politburo passed a secret resolution increasing the number of people “to be repressed” by 120,000 (63,000 “in the first category” and 57,000 “in the second category”); on January 31, 1938, Stalin ordered a further increase of 57,200, 48,000 of whom were to be executed.
The police organized sweeps and round-ups of markets or railway stations where marginals and other social outcasts were likely to be found. In order to carry out a growing number of arrests, the State Security personnel of NKVD – approximately 25,000 officers – were supplemented by ordinary policemen, sometimes by civilian Party or Komsomol (Young Communist League) members.
Every NKVD local unit had a “casework minimum” of arrests to perform but also of confessions to extract in order to “unmask conspiracies”. Uninterrupted interrogation for days on end and merciless beatings were widely used to force prisoners to confess their alleged "counter-revolutionary crimes". In order to speed up the procedure, prisoners were often even forced to sign blank pages of the pre-printed interrogation folios on which the interrogator later typed up the confession.
After the interrogations the files were submitted to NKVD troikas which pronounced the verdicts in the absence of the accused. During a half-day long session a troika went through several hundred cases, delivering either a death sentence or a sentence to the GULAG labour camps. Death sentences were immediately enforceable. The executions were carried out at night, either in prisons or in a secluded area run by the NKVD and located as a rule on the outskirts of major cities.4445
The Kulak Operation was largest single campaign of repression in 1937-38, with 669,929 people arrested and 376,202 executed, more than half the total of known executions.46
A series of national operations of the NKVD was carried out during 1937–1940, justified by the fear of the fifth column in the expectation of war with "the most probable adversary", i.e., Germany, as well as according to the notion of the "hostile capitalist surrounding", which wants to destabilize the country. The Polish operation of the NKVD was the largest and the first of this kind,47 setting an example of dealing with other targeted minorities. Many such operations were conducted on a quota system. NKVD local officials were mandated to arrest and execute a specific number of "counter-revolutionaries," produced by upper officials based on various statistics.48 The Polish operation also claimed the largest number of victims: 143,810 arrests and 111,091 executions, and at least eighty-five thousand of these were ethnic Poles.47
Some of the victims of the terror were American immigrants to the Soviet Union, who had emigrated at the height of the Great Depression in order to find work. At the height of the Terror, American immigrants besieged the US embassy, begging for passports so they could leave the Soviet Union. They were turned away by embassy officials, only to be arrested on the pavement outside by lurking NKVD agents. Many were subsequently shot dead at Butovo Field near Scherbinka, south of Moscow.49 In addition, 141 American Communists of Finnish origin were executed and buried at Sandarmokh.50 127 Finnish Canadians were also shot and buried there.51
During the late 1930s, Stalin dispatched NKVD operatives to the Mongolian People's Republic, established a Mongolian version of the NKVD troika, and proceeded to execute tens of thousands of people accused of having ties to "pro-Japanese spy rings."52 Buddhist lamas made up the majority of victims, with 18,000 being killed in the terror. Other victims were nobility and political and academic figures, along with some ordinary workers and herders.53 Mass graves containing hundreds of executed Buddhist monks and civilians have been discovered as recently as 2003.54
The pro-Soviet leader Sheng Shicai of Xinjiang province in China launched his own purge in 1937 to coincide with Stalin's Great Purge, the Xinjiang War (1937) broke out amid the purge.55 Sheng received assistance from the NKVD, Sheng and the Soviets alleged a massive Trotskyist conspiracy and a "Fascist Trotskyite plot" to destroy the Soviet Union. The Soviet Consul General Garegin Apresoff, General Ma Hushan, Ma Shaowu, Mahmud Sijan, the official leader of the Xinjiang province Huang Han-chang and Hoja-Niyaz were among the 435 alleged conspirators in the plot. Xinjiang became under virtual Soviet control. Stalin opposed the Chinese Communist Party.56
The Great Purge of 1936–1938 can be roughly divided into four periods:57
- October 1936–February 1937
- Reforming the security organizations, adopting official plans on purging the elites.
- March 1937–June 1937
- Purging the Elites; Adopting plans for the mass repressions against the "social base" of the potential aggressors, starting of purging the "elites" from opposition.
- July 1937–October 1938
- Mass repressions against "kulaks", "dangerous" ethnic minorities, family members of oppositionists, military officers, Saboteurs in agriculture and industry.
- November 1938 – 1939
- Stopping of mass operations, abolishing of many organs of extrajudicial executions, repressions against some organizers of mass repressions.
By the summer of 1938, Stalin and his circle realized that the purges had gone too far; Yezhov was relieved from his post as head of the NKVD and was eventually purged himself. Lavrentiy Beria, a fellow Georgian and Stalin confidant, succeeded him as head of NKVD. On November 17, 1938 a joint decree of Sovnarkom USSR and Central Committee of VKP(b) (Decree about Arrests, Prosecutor Supervision and Course of Investigation) and the subsequent order of NKVD undersigned by Beria, cancelled most of the NKVD orders of systematic repression and suspended implementation of death sentences. The decree signaled the end of massive Soviet purges.
Nevertheless, the practice of mass arrest and exile continued until Stalin's death in 1953. Political executions also continued, but, with the exception of Katyn and other NKVD massacres during World War II, on a vastly smaller scale. One notorious example is the "Night of the Murdered Poets", in which at least thirteen prominent Yiddish writers were executed on August 12, 1952. Historians such as Michael Parrish have argued that while the Great Terror ended in 1938, a lesser terror continued in the 1940s.58
In some cases, military officers arrested under Yezhov were later executed under Beria. Some examples include Marshal of the Soviet Union A.I. Egorov, arrested in April 1938 and shot (or died from torture) in February 1939 (his wife, G.A. Egorova, was shot in August 1938); Army Commander I.F. Fed'ko, arrested July 1938 and shot February 1939; Flagman K.I. Dushenov, arrested May 1938 and shot February 1940; Komkor G.I. Bondar, arrested August 1938 and shot March 1939. All the aforementioned have been posthumously rehabilitated.59
When the relatives of those who had been executed in 1937-38 inquired about their fate, they were told by NKVD that their arrested relatives had been sentenced to "ten years without the right of correspondence" (десять лет без права переписки). When these ten-year periods elapsed in 1947-48 but the arrested did not appear, the relatives asked MGB about their fate again and this time were told that the arrested died in imprisonment.60
Although the trials of former Soviet leaders were widely publicized, the hundreds of thousands of other arrests and executions were not. These became known in the west only as a few former gulag inmates reached the West with their stories.61 Not only did foreign correspondents from the West fail to report on the purges, but in many Western nations, especially France, attempts were made to silence or discredit these witnesses; according to Robert Conquest, Jean-Paul Sartre took the position that evidence of the camps should be ignored, in order that the French proletariat not be discouraged.62 A series of legal actions ensued at which definitive evidence was presented which established the validity of the former labor camp inmates' testimony.63
According to Robert Conquest in his 1968 book The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties, with respect to the trials of former leaders, some Western observers were unable to see through the fraudulent nature of the charges and evidence, notably Walter Duranty of The New York Times, a Russian speaker; the American Ambassador, Joseph E. Davies, who reported, "proof...beyond reasonable doubt to justify the verdict of treason"64 and Beatrice and Sidney Webb, authors of Soviet Communism: A New Civilization.65 While "Communist Parties everywhere simply transmitted the Soviet line", some of the most critical reporting also came from the left, notably The Manchester Guardian.66 The American journalist H. R. Knickerbocker also reported on the executions. He called them in 1941 "the great purges", and described how over four years they affected "the top fourth or fifth, to estimate it conservatively, of the Party itself, of the Army, Navy, and Air Force leaders and then of the new Bolshevik intelligentsia, the foremost technicians, managers, supervisors, scientists". Knickerbocker also wrote about dekulakization: "It is a conservative estimate to say that some 5,000,000 [kulaks] ... died at once, or within a few years."67
Evidence and the results of research began to appear after Stalin's death which revealed the full enormity of the Purges. The first of these sources were the revelations of Nikita Khrushchev, which particularly affected the American editors of the Communist Party USA newspaper, the Daily Worker, who, following the lead of The New York Times, published the Secret Speech in full.68
The extent of the Great Purge has been questioned by revisionist scholars in the West, especially after the (partial) opening of the relevant Soviet files of the period in the early 1990s.697071 Jerry F. Hough claims, regarding the numbers executed in the Great Purge, "a figure in the low hundreds of thousands seems much more probable than one in the high hundreds" and that a lower figure of only "tens of thousands" was "even probable".72 Sheila Fitzpatrick also placed the numbers executed in the "low hundreds of thousands."72 Robert W. Thurston allows for 681,692 executions, but argues that Stalin "was not guilty of mass first degree murder from 1934 to 1941" and that he was a "fear ridden man" who "overreacted to events."73
The Great Purge was denounced by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev following Stalin's death. In his secret speech to the 20th CPSU congress in February 1956 (which was made public a month later), Khrushchev referred to the purges as an "abuse of power" by Stalin which resulted in enormous harm to the country. In the same speech, he recognized that many of the victims were innocent and were convicted on the basis of false confessions extracted by torture. To take that position was politically useful to Khrushchev, as he was at that time engaged in a power struggle with rivals who had been associated with the Purge, the so-called Anti-Party Group. The new line on the Great Purges undermined their power, and helped propel him to the Chairmanship of the Council of Ministers. Starting from 1954, some of the convictions were overturned. Mikhail Tukhachevsky and other generals convicted in the Trial of Red Army Generals were declared innocent ("rehabilitated") in 1957. The former Politburo members Yan Rudzutak and Stanislav Kosior and many lower-level victims were also declared innocent in the 1950s. Nikolai Bukharin and others convicted in the Moscow Trials were not rehabilitated until as late as 1988. Leon Trotsky, considered a major player in the Russian Revolution and a major contributor to Marxist Theory was never rehabilitated by the USSR. The book Rehabilitation: The Political Processes of the 1930s-50s (Реабилитация. Политические процессы 30-50-х годов) (1991) contains a large amount of newly presented original archive material: transcripts of interrogations, letters of convicts, and photos. The material demonstrates in detail how numerous show trials were fabricated.
According to the declassified Soviet archives, during 1937 and 1938, the NKVD detained 1,548,366 victims, of whom 681,692 were shot - an average of 1,000 executions a day (in comparison, the Tsarists executed 3,932 persons for political crimes from 1825 to 1910 - an average of less than 1 execution per week).74
Some experts believe the evidence released from the Soviet archives is understated, incomplete, or unreliable.74757677 For example, Robert Conquest claims that the probable figure for executions during the years of the Great Purge is not 681,692, but some two and a half times as high. He believes that the KGB was covering its tracks by falsifying the dates and causes of death of rehabilitated victims.78
Historian Michael Ellman claims the best estimate of deaths brought about by Soviet repression during these two years ranges from 950,000 to 1.2 million, which includes deaths in detention and those who died shortly after being released from the Gulag, as a result of their treatment therein. He also states that this is the estimate which should be used by historians and teachers of Russian history.79
Historians with archival access have confirmed that Stalin was intimately involved in the terror. Russian historian Oleg V. Khlevniuk states “…theories about the elemental, spontaneous nature of the terror, about a loss of central control over the course of mass repression, and about the role of regional leaders in initiating the terror are simply not supported by the historical record.”80 Stalin personally directed Yezhov to torture those who were not making proper confessions. In one instance, he told Yezhov "Isn’t it time to squeeze this gentleman and force him to report on his dirty little business? Where is he: in a prison or a hotel?" In another, while reviewing one of Yezhov's lists, he added to M. I. Baranov’s name, "beat, beat!"81
In addition to authorizing torture, Stalin also signed 357 proscription lists in 1937 and 1938 which condemned to execution some 40,000 people, and about 90% of these are confirmed to have been shot.82 While reviewing one such list, Stalin reportedly muttered to no one in particular: "Who's going to remember all this riff-raff in ten or twenty years time? No one. Who remembers the names now of the boyars Ivan the Terrible got rid of? No one."83 Stalin's alleged remark may be compared with Hitler's famous admonition to his generals in 1939: "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"84
At least two Soviet commissions investigated the show-trials after Stalin's death.citation needed The first was headed by Molotov and included Voroshilov, Kaganovich, Suslov, Furtseva, Shvernik, Aristov, Pospelov, and Rudenko. They were given the task to investigate the materials concerning Bukharin, Rykov, Zinoviev, Tukhachevsky, and others. The commission worked in 1956–1957. While stating that the accusations against Tukhachevsky et al. should be abandoned, it failed to fully rehabilitate the victims of the three Moscow trials, although the final report does contain an admission that the accusations have not been proven during the trials and "evidence" had been produced by lies, blackmail, and "use of physical influence". Bukharin, Rykov, Zinoviev, and others were still seen as political opponents, and though the charges against them were obviously false, they could not have been rehabilitated because "for many years they headed the anti-Soviet struggle against the building of socialism in USSR".
The second commission largely worked from 1961 to 1963 and was headed by Shvernik ("Shvernik Commission"). It included Shelepin, Serdyuk, Mironov, Rudenko, and Semichastny. The hard work resulted in two massive reports, which detailed the mechanism of falsification of the show-trials against Bukharin, Zinoviev, Tukhachevsky, and many others. The commission based its findings in large part on eyewitness testimonies of former NKVD workers and victims of repressions, and on many documents. The commission recommended rehabilitating every accused with exception of Radek and Yagoda, because Radek's materials required some further checking, and Yagoda was a criminal and one of the falsifiers of the trials (though most of the charges against him had to be dropped too, he was not a "spy", etc.). The commission stated:
- Stalin committed a very grave crime against the Communist party, the socialist state, Soviet people and worldwide revolutionary movement... Together with Stalin, the responsibility for the abuse of law, mass unwarranted repressions and death of many thousands of wholly innocent people also lies on Molotov, Kaganovich, Malenkov....citation needed
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, numerous mass graves filled with executed victims of the terror were discovered.85868788 Some, such as the killing fields at Kurapaty near Minsk and Bykivnia near Kiev, are believed to contain up to 200,000 corpses.89better source needed
In 2007, one such site, the Butovo firing range near Moscow, was turned into a shrine to the victims of Stalinism. Between August 1937 and October 1938, more than 20,000 people were shot and buried there.90
- Index of Soviet Union-related articles
- History of the Soviet Union (1927–1953)
- Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries
- Armenian victims of the Great Purge
- Gellately 2007.
- Figes 2007, pp. 227–315.
- Conquest 2008, pp. 250, 257–8.
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- British Embassy Report: Viscount Chilston to Mr. Eden, February 6, 1937
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- Comment on Wheatcroft by Robert Conquest, 1999
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- Twentieth Century Atlas - Casualty Statistics - Biggest Battles and Massacres
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Great Purge.|
- The Case of Bukharin Transcript of Nikolai Bukharin's testimonies and last plea; from “The Case of the Anti-Soviet Block of Rights and Trotskyites”, Red Star Press, 1973, page 369-439, 767-779
- Actual video footage from Third Moscow Trial
- Nicolas WerthCase Study:The NKVD Mass Secret Operation n° 00447 (August 1937 – November 1938)
- "Documenting the Death Toll: Research into the Mass Murder of Foreigners in Moscow, 1937–38" By Barry McLoughlin, American Historical Association, 1999