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The Great Purge was a series of campaigns of political repression and persecution in the Soviet Union orchestrated by Joseph Stalin in 1936–1938.[1][2] It involved a large-scale purge of the Communist Party and Government officials, repression of peasants, Red Army leadership, and the persecution of unaffiliated persons, characterized by widespread police surveillance, widespread suspicion of "saboteurs", imprisonment, and executions.[1] The Great Purge can be reflected by the Stalin's famous saying: There is a person - there is a problem, there is no person - there is no problem.

In Russian historiography the period of the most intense purge, 1937–1938, is called Yezhovshchina (Russian: Ежовщина; 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 popularised that phrase. Conquest was in turn inspired by the period of the Great Terror (French: la Grande Terreur) at the end of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution.

Contents

Introduction

Joseph Stalin circa 1936

The term "repression" was officially used to denote the prosecution of people considered as anti-revolutionaries and enemies of the people. The purge was motivated by the desire on the part of the leadership to remove dissenters from the Party and what is often considered to have been a desire to consolidate the authority of Joseph Stalin. Additional campaigns of repression were carried out against social groups which were accused of acting against the Soviet state and the politics of the Communist Party.

A number of purges were officially explained as an elimination of the possibilities of sabotage and espionage, in view of an expected war with Germany. Most public attention was focused on the purge of the leadership of the Communist Party itself, as well as of government bureaucrats and leaders of the armed forces, most being 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.

According to Hunter Romano'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 falsely accused of various political crimes (espionage, wrecking, sabotage, anti-Soviet agitation, conspiracies to prepare uprisings and coups) and then executed by shooting, or sent to the Gulag labor camps. Many died at the penal labor camps due to 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.[6][7]

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.

Background

The term "purge" in Soviet political slang was an abbreviation of the expression purge of the Party ranks. In 1933, for example, some 400,000 people were expelled from the Party. But from 1936 until 1953, the term changed its meaning, because being expelled from the Party came to mean almost certain arrest, imprisonment, and even execution.

The political purge was primarily an effort by Stalin to eliminate challenge from past and potential opposition groups, including 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, the "temporary" wartime dictatorship which had passed from Lenin to Stalin seemed no longer necessary to veteran Communists. 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 therefore 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 necessitated the elimination of all Marxists with different views, especially those among the prestigious "old guard" of revolutionaries. Communist heroes like Tukhachevsky and Béla Kun, as well as Lenin's entire politburo, were shot for minor disagreements in policy. The NKVD were equally merciless towards the supporters, friends, and family of these heretical Marxists, whether they lived in Russia or not. The most infamous case is that of Leon Trotsky, whose family was almost annihilated, before he himself was killed in Mexico by NKVD agent Ramón Mercader, who was part of an assassination task force put together by Special Agent Pavel Sudoplatov, under the personal orders of Joseph Stalin.[8]

Sergei Kirov, Leningrad party leader, and Stalin in 1934.

Sergey Kirov's murder in 1934 was used by Stalin as a pretext to launch the Great Purge, in which about a million people perished. Some later historians came to believe that Stalin himself arranged the murder, or at least that there was sufficient evidence to reach such a conclusion.[9] Kirov himself was a staunch Stalin loyalist, but Stalin may have viewed him as a potential rival because of his emerging popularity among the moderates. In the 1934 party congress, Kirov was elected to the central committee with only three negative votes, the fewest of any candidate, while Stalin received 292 negative votes. After Kirov's assassination, Stalin NKVD charged the ever growing group of former oppositionists with Kirov's murder and a growing list of other charges including treason, terrorism, sabotage, and espionage.

Leon Trotsky, in 1929, shortly before being driven out of the Soviet Union.

Another official[citation needed] justification was to remove any possible "fifth column" in case of a war. This was a justification maintained to the very end by Vyacheslav Molotov and Lazar Kaganovich, participants in the repression as members of the Politburo, who both signed many death lists.[10] Stalin was convinced of the imminence of war with an explicitly hostile Nazi Germany and an expansionist Japan. This was reflected in the Soviet press, which also portrayed the country as threatened from within by Fascist spies.[11]

The Communist Party also wanted to eliminate what it perceived as "socially dangerous elements", such as ex-kulaks, ex-"nepmen", former members of opposing political parties such as the Social Revolutionaries, and former Tsarist officials.[citation needed]

Repression against perceived enemies of the Bolsheviks had been a systematic method of instilling fear and facilitating social control, being continuously applied by Lenin since the October Revolution,[2] although there had been periods of heightened repression, such as the Red Terror, the deportation of kulaks who opposed collectivization, and a severe famine. A distinctive feature of the Great Purge was that, for the first time, the ruling party itself underwent repressions on a massive scale. Nevertheless, only a minority of those affected by the purges were Communist Party members and office-holders.[12] 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.

Moscow Trials

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First and Second Moscow Trials

Grigory Zinoviev speaking. Zinoviev, who was executed on Stalin's orders after a show trial, was once one of the most powerful and well-known leaders of the Soviet Communist party.

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", held in August 1936, 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. After confessing to the charges, all were sentenced to death and executed.
  • 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 shot. 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 generals, 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. Others, like Fitzroy Maclean were a little more astute in their observations and conclusions.

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".

It is now known that the confessions were given only after great psychological pressure 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.[13]

Dewey Commission

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.

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. 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."

Implication of the Rightists

In the second trial, Karl Radek provided (or more accurately was forced to provide) 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" [14] 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." [15]

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." [14]

Third Moscow Trial

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, ex-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 out 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 new allegations as they became ever more absurd, and the purge now 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.[16] 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.[17] 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.[16]

The preparation for this trial, which took over a year, was delayed in its early stages due to the reluctance of some party members in denouncing their comrades. It was at this time that Stalin personally intervened to speed up the process and replaced Yagoda with Nikolai Yezhov. Stalin also observed some of the trial in person from a hidden chamber in the courtroom.

Bukharin's Confession

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.[18]

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 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.[19]

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. Also the fact that he was allowed to write in prison (he wrote four book-length manuscripts including an autobiographical novel, How It All Began, philosophical treatise, and collection of poems - all of which were found in Stalin's archive and published in the 1990s) suggests that some kind of deal was reached as a condition for confession[citation needed]. (He also wrote a series of very emotional letters to Stalin tearfully protesting his innocence and professing his love for Stalin, which contrasts with his critical opinion of Stalin and his policies expressed to others and his conduct in the trial.)

There are several interpretations of Bukharin's motivations (besides being coerced) in the trial. Koestler and others viewed it as a true believer's last service to the Party (while preserving little amount of personal honor left) whereas Bukharin biographer Stephen Cohen and Robert Tucker saw traces of Aesopian language, with which Bukharin sought to turn the table into an anti-trial of Stalinism (while keeping his part of bargain to save his family). Bukharin himself speaks of his "peculiar duality of mind" in his last plea, which led to "semi-paralysis of the will" and Hegelian "unhappy consciousness", which presumably stemmed from the reality of ruinous Stalinism (although he could not of course say so in the trial) and the impending threat of fascism (which required kowtowing to Stalin, who became the personification of the Party)[citation needed].

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 he "proceeded to demolish or rather showed he could very easily demolish the whole case." [20]) and saying that "the confession of 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." [21]

Romain Rolland and others wrote to Stalin seeking clemency for 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.

Purge of the army

The first five Marshals of the Soviet Union in November, 1935. (l-r): Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Semyon Budyonny, Kliment Voroshilov, Vasily Blyukher, Aleksandr Yegorov. Only Voroshilov and Budyonny survived the Great Purge.

The purge of the Red 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).[22] 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.[23] The purge of the army removed three of five marshals (then equivalent to six-star generals), 13 of 15 army commanders (then equivalent to four- and five-star generals), eight of nine admirals (the purge fell heavily on the Navy, who were suspected of exploiting their opportunities for foreign contacts[24]), 50 of 57 army corps commanders, 154 out of 186 division commanders, 16 of 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commissars.[25].

The wider purge

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.[2] 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. Of 1,966 delegates to the 17th Communist Party Congress in 1934 (the last congress before the trials), 1,108 were arrested and nearly all died.

However, the trials and executions of the former Bolshevik leaders, while being the most visible part, were only a minor part of the purges.

Intelligentsia

1938 NKVD arrest photo of the poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in NKVD custody. Officially his death was of natural causes, but it is possible that he was murdered.
The NKVD photo of Isaac Babel made after his arrest
Vsevolod Meyerhold's mugshot, taken at the time of his arrest

In the 1920s and 1930s, two thousand 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.[26] 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".[27] 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.[28] Boris 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." [29]
  • 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 Andre 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.[30]
  • 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 (Andre) 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.[30]
  • Theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested in 1939 and shot in February 1940 for "spying" for Japanese and British intelligence. In a letter to Vyacheslav Molotov dated January 13, 1940, he 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." [30] His wife, the actress Zinaida Raikh, was murdered in her apartment by NKVD agents.[31]
  • 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.[32] He was executed on December 16, 1937. His friend and 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.[33] (He witnessed and even had to participate in public trials that ousted many of his associates from the Writers' Union, effectively condemning them to death. When Lavrenty Beria further pressured him with alternative of denouncing his life-long friend Tabidze or being arrested and tortured by the NKVD, he killed himself.)[34]
  • In early 1937, poet Pavel Vasiliev is said to have defended 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.[35]
  • 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.[36]

Ex-kulaks and other "anti-Soviet elements"

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 order instructed to classify kulaks and other "anti-Soviet elements" into two categories[citation needed]: the First category of repressed was subject to death by shooting, the Second category was sent to prison labor camps. The order set upper quotas per territory and category. For example Byelorussian SSR was estimated to have 2,000 (1st cat.) + 10,000 (2nd cat.) = 12,000 anti-Soviet elements. It was specifically stressed that quotas were estimates and could not be exceeded without personal approval of Yezhov. But in practice this approval was easy to obtain, and eventually these initial quotas were exceeded by orders of magnitude. For example, in September 1937, the Dagestan obkom requested the increase of the First Category from 600 to 1,200; the request was granted the next day.

  • The 'kulak operation' was largest single campaign of repression in the Purges of 1937-38, with 669,929 people arrested and 376,202 executed, more than half the total of known executions.[37]

National operations of NKVD

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 first of this kind, 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.[38]

Western émigré victims

Some of the victims of the terror were American immigrants to Russia, who had emigrated to Russia 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 Russia. 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 from Moscow.[39] In addition, 141 American Communists of Finnish origin were executed and buried at Sandarmokh.[40]

Mongolian Great Purge

Monument dedicated to the victims of the repressions in Ulan Bator, Mongolia

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."[41] 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.[42] Mass graves containing hundreds of executed Buddhist monks and civilians have been discovered as recently as 2003.[43]

Timeline of the Great Purge

The Great Purge of 1936–1938 can be roughly divided into four periods:[44]

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 oppositions, 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.

End of Yezhovshchina

In this famous image, Nikolai Yezhov is shown with Voroshilov, Molotov, and Stalin inspecting the White Sea Canal
In this second image, Yezhov, having been purged, has been replaced by a stretch of the canal bank and canal

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. Lavrenty Beria, a fellow Georgian and Stalin confidant, succeeded him as head of the 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 was continued until Stalin's death in 1953. Political executions also continued, but, with the exception of Katyn and other NKVD massacres during WWII, 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.

It should be noted that 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 of imprisonment without the right to correspond with anybody" (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. The causes and the dates of the deaths were invented by MGB[citation needed].

Western reactions

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.[45] 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; Jean-Paul Sartre took the position that evidence of the camps should be ignored, in order that the French proletariat not be discouraged.[46] A series of legal actions ensued at which definitive evidence was presented which established the validity of the former labor camp inmates' testimony.[47]

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"[48] and Beatrice and Sidney Webb, authors of Soviet Communism: A New Civilization.[49] While "Communist Parties everywhere simply transmitted the Soviet line", some of the most critical reporting also came from the left, notably The Manchester Guardian.[50]

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.[51]

Efforts to minimize the extent of the Great Purge continue among revisionist scholars in the West.[52][53][54]

Rehabilitation

1963 postage stamp of the Soviet Union, featuring Tukhachevsky following his post-death rehabilitation

The Great Purge was denounced by Nikita Khrushchev, who became the leader of the Soviet Union after 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.

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.

Number of people executed

According to the declassified Soviet archives, during 1937 and 1938, the NKVD detained 1,548,367 victims, of whom 681,692 were shot - an average of 1,000 executions a day (in comparison, from 1825 to 1910 the Tsarists executed 3.932 persons for political crimes).[55] Historian Michael Ellman claims the best estimate of deaths brought about by Soviet repression during these two years is the range 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 in it. He also states that this is the estimate which should be used by historians and teachers of Russian history.[56]

According to Memorial society,[44] on the cases investigated by the State Security Department of NKVD (GUGB NKVD):

  • At least 1,710,000 people were arrested
  • At least 1,440,000 people were sentenced
  • At least 724,000 were executed. Among them:
    • At least 436,000 people were sentenced to death by NKVD troikas as part of the Kulak operation (see also figure of 376,202[37])
    • At least 247,000 people were sentenced to death by NKVD Dvoikas' and the Local Special Troykas as part of the Ethnic Operation
    • At least 41,000 people were sentenced to death by Military Courts
  • Among other cases in October 1936-November 1938:
    • At least 400,000 were sentenced to labor camps by Police Troikas as Socially Harmful Elements (социально-вредный элемент, СВЭ)
    • At least 200,000 were exiled or deported by Administrative procedures
    • At least 2 million were sentenced by courts for common crimes, among them 800,000 were sentenced to Gulag camps.

Some experts believe the evidence released from the Soviet archives is understated, incomplete or unreliable.[55][57][58][59] For example, Robert Conquest suggests 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.[60]

Soviet investigation commissions

At least two Soviet commissions investigated the show-trials after Stalin's death. 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 to rehabilitate 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....

However, soon Khrushchev was deposed and the "Thaw" ended, so most victims of the three show-trials were not rehabilitated until Gorbachev's time.

Mass graves and memorials

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, numerous mass graves filled with executed victims of the terror were discovered.[61][62][63] Some, such as the killing fields at Kurapaty near Minsk and Bykivnia near Kiev, are believed to contain up to 200,000 corpses.[64]

In 2007, one such site, the Butovo firing range near Moscow, was turned into a shrine to the victims of Stalinism. From August 1937 through October 1938, more than 20,000 people were shot and buried there.[65]

See also

Notes

  1. ^ a b Orlando Figes The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, 2007, ISBN 0-08050-7461-9, pages 227-315.
  2. ^ a b c Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe. By Robert Gellately. 2007. Knopf. 720 pages ISBN 1400040051
  3. ^ Pages 250, 257–258, The Great Terror, ISBN 0195071328
  4. ^ Page 121, The Great Terror, ISBN 0195071328 which cites his secret speech
  5. ^ Page 286, The Great Terror, ISBN 0195071328
  6. ^ Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia by Catherine Merridale. Penguin Books, 2002 ISBN 0142000639 p. 200
  7. ^ Timothy J. Colton. Moscow: Governing the Socialist Metropolis. Belknap Press, 1998. ISBN 0674587499 p. 286
  8. ^ The Sword and the Shield: The Mikrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, pp 86 and 87
  9. ^ Conquest, Robert, Stalin and the Kirov Murder, Oxford University Press New York, 1987, at 122-138, ISBN 0-19-505579-9
  10. ^ Orlando Figes The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, 2007, ISBN 0-08050-7461-9, page 239.
  11. ^ Orlando Figes The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, 2007, ISBN 0-08050-7461-9, pages 235-236.
  12. ^ Stalin's Terror: High Politics and Mass Repression in the Soviet Union by Barry McLoughlin and Kevin McDermott (eds). Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, p. 6
  13. ^ Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment" Page 87
  14. ^ a b British Embassy Report: Viscount Chilston to Mr. Eden, February 6, 1937
  15. ^ Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment" Page 164
  16. ^ a b Corey Robin, "Fear", Page 96
  17. ^ Bertram David Wolfe, "Breaking with communism", p. 10; Arthur Koestler, 'Darkness of Noon', p.258
  18. ^ Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment" Page 352
  19. ^ Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment" Pages 364-5
  20. ^ Report by Viscount Chilston (British ambassador) to Viscount Halifax, No.141, Moscow, March 21, 1938
  21. ^ Robert Tucker, "Report of Court Proceedings in the Case of the Anti-Soviet "Block of Rights and Trotskyites", Pg.667-8
  22. ^ Pages 198, 199 The Great Terror: A Reassessment"; a Soviet book, "Marshal Tukhachevskiy by Nikulin, pages 189–194 is cited.
  23. ^ Pages 200–202 The Great Terror: A Reassessment"
  24. ^ Page 211, The Great Terror: A Reassessment"
  25. ^ Page 198, Black Book of Communism
  26. ^ Robert Conquest, "The Great Purge: A Reassessment", p.295
  27. ^ N.N.: Osip Emilevich Mandelstam, PoemHunter.com. URL last accessed 2007-10-20.
  28. ^ Caxtonian, Collecting Mandelstam, November 2006
  29. ^ Robert C. Tucker, "Stalin in Power", Page 445
  30. ^ a b c The Independent, "The History of Hell", January 8, 1995
  31. ^ Kern, Gary. A Death in Washington: Walter G. Krivitsky and the Stalin Terror. Enigma Books, 2003. ISBN 1929631146 pg 111
  32. ^ Tarkhan-Mouravi, George (January 19, 1997), 70 years of Soviet Georgia, Retrieved on May 14, 2007.
  33. ^ Suny, Ronald Grigor (1994), The Making of the Georgian Nation: 2nd edition, p. 272. Indiana University Press, ISBN 0253209153
  34. ^ Tarkhan-Mouravi, George (January 19, 1997), 70 years of Soviet Georgia
  35. ^ Robert Conquest, "The Great Purge: A Reassessment", p.301
  36. ^ Roy Medvedev, "Let history judge", p. 438
  37. ^ a b Orlando Figes The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, 2007, ISBN 0-08050-7461-9, page 240
  38. ^ Black Book of Communism
  39. ^ Tim Tzouliadis. Nightmare in the workers paradise BBC, 2 August 2008
  40. ^ John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. American Communists and Radicals Executed by Soviet Political Police and Buried at Sandarmokh (appendix to In Denial: Historians, Communism and Espionage).
  41. ^ Hiroaki Kuromiya, The Voices of the Dead: Stalin's Great Terror in the 1930s. Yale University Press, 24 December 2007. ISBN 0300123892 p. 2
  42. ^ Christopher Kaplonski, Thirty thousand bullets, in: Historical Injustice and Democratic Transition in Eastern Asia and Northern Europe, London 2002, p.155-168
  43. ^ Mass grave uncovered in Mongolia RTÉ News, Thursday, 12 June 2003
  44. ^ a b N.G. Okhotin, A.B. Roginsky "Great Terror": Brief Chronology Memorial, 2007
  45. ^ Page 472,473 Great Terror ISBN 0195071328
  46. ^ Page 472, Great Terror ISBN 0195071328
  47. ^ Page 472-474, Great Terror ISBN 0195071328
  48. ^ Page 468, Great Terror ISBN 0195071328
  49. ^ Page 469, Great Terror ISBN 0195071328
  50. ^ Page 465,467 Great Terror ISBN 0195071328
  51. ^ On Leaving the Communist Party by Howard Fast, November 16, 1957
  52. ^ John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage. Encounter Books, 2003. ISBN 1-893554-72-4 pp. 15–17
  53. ^ John Keep. Recent Writing on Stalin's Gulag: An Overview. 1997
  54. ^ Rosefielde, Steven (2009). Red Holocaust. Routledge. pp. 173-213. ISBN 978-0-415-77757-5. 
  55. ^ a b Communism: A History (Modern Library Chronicles) by Richard Pipes, pg 67
  56. ^ Soviet Repression Statistics: Some Comments by Michael Ellman, 2002
  57. ^ Stalinism in Post-Communist Perspective: New Evidence on Killings, Forced Labour and Economic Growth in the 1930s by Steven Rosefielde, 1996. See also: Documented Homicides and Excess Deaths: New Insights into the Scale of Killing in the USSR during the 1930s. Communist and Post-Communist Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3, pp 321-333, 1997. University of California
  58. ^ Comment on Wheatcroft by Robert Conquest, 1999
  59. ^ Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum, pg 584
  60. ^ Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia: 1934-1941. - book reviews by Robert Conquest, 1996, National Review
  61. ^ "Pictorial essay: Death trenches bear witness to Stalin's purges" CNN, July 17, 1997
  62. ^ "Mass grave found at Ukrainian monastery", BBC, July 12, 2002
  63. ^ "Wary of its past, Russia ignores mass grave site", by Fred Weir, The Christian Science Monitor, October 10, 2002
  64. ^ Twentieth Century Atlas - Casualty Statistics - Biggest Battles and Massacres
  65. ^ "Former Killing Ground Becomes Shrine to Stalin’s Victims" by Sophia Kishkovsky, The New York Times, June 8, 2007

References and further reading

Books

  • Robert Conquest: The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties. 1968.
  • Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. hardcover, ISBN 0-19-505580-2; trade paperback, Oxford, September, 1991, ISBN 0-19-507132-8
  • Robert Gellately, Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe. Knopf, August 2007, 720 pages, ISBN 1400040051
  • J. Arch Getty, Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  • J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov, The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.
  • J. Arch Getty and Roberta T. Manning, Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Nicolas Werth, Karel Bartosek, Jean-Louis Panne, Jean-Louis Margolin, Andrzej Paczkowski, Stephane Courtois, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, Harvard University Press, 1999, hardcover, 858 pages, ISBN 0-674-07608-7. Chapter 10: The Great Terror, 1936-1938.
  • John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage, Encounter Books, September, 2003, hardcover, 312 pages, ISBN 1-893554-72-4
  • Ilic, Melanie (ed.), Stalin's Terror Revisited. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
  • Barry McLoughlin and Kevin McDermott, Stalin's Terror: High Politics and Mass Repression in the Soviet Union, Palgrave Macmillan, December 2002, hardcover, 280 pages, ISBN 1403901198
  • Hiroaki Kuromiya, The Voices of the Dead: Stalin's Great Terror in the 1930s. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. ISBN 0300123892
  • Tzouliadis, Tim. The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin's Russia. The Penguin Press, 2008 (Hardcover, ISBN 1594201684)
  • Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon, 1940.
  • A.N. Yakovlev (ed.), Реабилитация. Политические процессы 30-50-х годов [Rehabilitation: Political Trials of the 1930s-50s]. Moscow: ROSSPEN, 1991.
  • Rehabilitation: As It Happened. Documents of the CPSU CC Presidium and Other Materials. Vol. 2, February 1956–Early 1980s. Moscow, 2003. Compiled by A. Artizov, Yu. Sigachev, I. Shevchuk, V. Khlopov under editorship of acad. A. N. Yakovlev.
  • Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956. In Three Volumes. New York: Harper and Row, 1973-1976.
  • Eugene Lyons, Assignment in Utopia, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1937.
  • Vadim Rogovin, "Two lectures: Stalin's Great Terror: Origins and Consequences Leon Trotsky and "The Fate of Marxism in the USSR" Mehring books, ISBN 0-929087-83-6 1996
  • Vadim Rogovin, "1937: Stalin's Year of Terror." Mehring books, 1996. ISBN 0-929087-77-1
  • Robert Thurston, LIfe and Terror in Stalin's Russia, 1934-1941. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Film

  • Eternal Memory: Voices From the Great Terror. 1997. 16 mm feature film directed by Pultz, David. Narrated by Meryl Streep. USA.

External links


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