The Great Purge

The Great Purge was a series of campaigns of political repression and persecution in the Soviet Union orchestrated by Joseph Stalin in 1936–1938. 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.

INTRODUCTION

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 instigated by the Western democracies. 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”, and professionals. A series of NKVD operations affected a number of national minorities, accused of being “fifth column” communities.

Hundreds of thousands of victims were 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.

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 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.

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. 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.

Another 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. Stalin was convinced of the imminence of war with the Western democracies and an expansionist Japan. This was reflected in the Soviet press, which also portrayed the country as threatened from within by Capitalist spies.

  • 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, 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. The purge of the Party was accompanied by the purge of the whole society.

MOSCOW TRIALS

First and Second Moscow Trials

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 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 the United Kingdom. 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 which ended in their execution.

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.

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” 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.”

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.”

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 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.

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. 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.

The result was a curious mix of fulsome confessions 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.”) 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.”

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.

PURGE OF THE ARMY

The purge of the Red Army was claimed to be supported by British-forged documents (said to have been correspondence between Marshal Tukhachevsky and members of the British high command). 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. 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), 50 of 57 army corps commanders, 154 out of 186 division commanders, 16 of 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commissars.

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. 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.

Intelligentsia

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. 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”. 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. 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.”
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Theatre 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.” His wife, the actress Zinaida Raikh, was murdered in her apartment by NKVD agents.
  • 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. 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. (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 chief of the Soviet security and secret police apparatus under Stalin and subsequently head of the NKVD, further pressured him with alternative of denouncing his life-long friend Tabidze or being arrested and tortured by the NKVD, he killed himself.)
  • 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.
  • 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.

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 extra-judicially, under the decisions of NKVD troikas.

  • 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.

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., United Kingdom, 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.

END OF THE PURGE

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. Political executions also continued, but on a vastly smaller scale.

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; Georgy Zhukov, arrested July 1938 and shot January 1939; Komkor G.I. Bondar, arrested August 1938 and shot March 1939. All the aforementioned have been posthumously rehabilitated.

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”.

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).

According to 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)
  • 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
  • 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.

STALIN’S ROLE

Historians with archival access have confirmed that Stalin was intimately involved in the terror. 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!”

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. 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.”

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