The horror of Stalin's purges of the 1930s lies in more than
the killings and incarcerations, the individual and familial suffering,
and the decimation of an entire stratum of talented and energetic
leaders in politics, the economy, the army and every walk of intellectual
life. The repression also spawned a chilling atmosphere of suspicion
and fear that permeated a generation of Russians and non-russians
alike. These people's hopes for a rewarding and humane way of
life shattered and their children and grandchildren still struggle
today to forge a society of integrity, legality, and mutual confidence
out of the ruins of Stalinism. The Nazis maintained their third
reich for barely 12 years and murdered some 7 million jews, poles,
yugoslavs and others. Stalin ruled for 24 years and a modified
Stalinist system persisted for another 32. 10-11 million soviet
citizens perished in the resistance to collectivization, the famine
and the purges. The nightmare touched almost every soviet family
and will take years more for the country to heal.
Beginning with the kulaks in 1929 and continuing into the 1930s
Stalin began using more terroristic means against his foes, including
against party members. He sent them to the Gulag, imprisoned them
or executed them.
By 1929 stalin probably had convinced himself that disapproval
equalled betrayal and he publicly vowed to exact vengeance on
anyone who withheld whole-hearted backing. Therefore open political
opposition in the party ended, but during 1932-33 Stalin faced
a grave economic and political crisis. Forced collectivization
had brought on famine and hunger in the cities and provoked widespread
nationalist opposition, especially among Ukrainian peasants. As
his popularity fell to its nadir, Trotskii's Bulletin of the
Opposition (a journal he began publishing abroad) announced
"In view of the incapacity of the present leadership to get out
of economic and political deadlock, the conviction about the need
to change the leadership of the party is growing." Trotsky reminded
readers of Lenin's Testament which had urged Stalin's removal.
In November 1932, Nadezheda Allileuva (Stalin's beloved young
second wife) spoke out about the famine and discontent. Stalin
silenced her roughly and she apparently committed suicide.
Reign of terror unleashed. Stalin, not the NKVD, initiated the
Great Purge (1936-38) and approved executions of prominent figures.
Three great show trials held in Moscow:
TRIAL OF THE SIXTEEN (August 1936)Kamenev and Zinoviev
and others accused of plotting to remove Stalin and overthrow
the regime. All were forced to confess and all were shot.
OPPOSITION IN CENTRAL COMMITTEE--stalin replaces Iagoda
with Yezhov as head of NKVD. Yezhov took purge to bloody heights.
TRIAL OF THE 17 (Jan. 1937) Old Bolsheviks accused
of dealing with Japan and Germany.
TRIAL OF THE 21(March 1938) included Bukharin, Rykov,
and Iagoda. Before an audience of 350 including foreign correspondents
and members of the diplomatic corps. Dramatic spectacle. Stalin
had gotten Bukharin's "confession" only after threatening
to harm his wife and young son. Then 9 moths of torture and
drugs to polish the confession--accused of wrecking, sabotage,
treason, murder, and plotting to kill Stalin.
According to one correspondent, At the trial, Bukharin's replies
to the outlandish charges were precise, logical and defiant--he
agreed to the overall charge but denied any knowledge of specific
acts, thereby undermining the whole "confession"
"I plead guilty to the sum total of crimes committed by this
counterrevolutionary organization, irrespective of whether
or not I knew of, whether or not I took a direct part in any
In his final statement, he included a strong condemnation
of fascism. He managed as well to denounce Stalinism in Aesopian
"For when you ask yourself "If you must die, what are you
dying for? An absolutely black vacuity suddenly arises before
you with startling vividness. There was nothing to die for,
if one wanted to die unrepented. And, on the contrary, everything
that glistens in the Soviet Union [the vision of socialism]
acquired new dimensions in one man's mind."
Within 3 days a firing squad shot Bukharin, Rykov and 13 others.
As the horror proliferated, Stalin could not possibly have
overseen its operations at lower levels and in all regions directly.
Instead, as during collectivization, zealous Party and police
officials eager to prove their devotion extended the hunt for
"enemies of the people. Yet Stalin set the tone from the top
and almost daily reviews and lists of victims and confessions.
The party had to become an impregnable fortress to safeguard
the country and the gains of socialism from foreign and domestic
enemies. In Stalin's words:
"As long as capitalist encirclement exists, there will be wreckers,
spies, diversionist and murders in our own country, sent behind
our lines by the agents of foreign states." The Soviet public
found this view credible.
Why did the accused publicly admit to crimes they could not
have committed when their confessions constituted the only legal
basis for conviction?
--hoped to save their lives, their positions and their families
--had been broken down by the NKVD
--use of torture in extracting confessions.
Results of Great Purge:
Those who were tried and executed or died by other means
--all surviving members of Lenin's original Politburo (except
Stalin and Trotsky) a former premier, the head of the trade
unions, two heads of the Comintern.
In 1914 and after some top leaders were indeed found to be
spies and police agents. Also the legacy of police infiltration
of revolutionary movements under tsarism provided some basis
for believing the revelations of the 1930s.
--Decimated the leadership corps of the Soviet armed forces.
The military chiefs, especially Marshal Tukachevskii (who
had made the red army an effective fighting machine) had been
critical of the earlier show trials. In May 1937, he and other
prominent generals were arrested for "collaborating with Germany
and Japan" and shot
--Also most members of the Supreme War Council were purged;
3 out of 5 marshals; 14 of 16 army generals; and all full
admirals; appx. 1\2 of the officer corps were shot or imprisoned.
--Old Bolsheviks and many Stalinist leaders were eliminated:
70% of the Central Committee members and candidates chosen
in 1934. At the 18th party congress in 1939, only 35 of the
1,827 rank and file delegates from the previous congress were
alive. From the party and army the purge reached downward
to reach the general population as friends and relatives of
those purged were arrested. Thousands of ordinary citizens
were denounced and arrested for crimes the did not and could
not have committed.
In December 1938, with the arrest of Yezhov, the most intensive
phase of the purge ended. By then, half the urban population
of the USSR was on police lists, and 5% had actually been arrested.
Yet large-scale terror lasted until Stalin's death. Beria became
head of NKVD in 1929
--Epilogue to the great Purge was the brutal murder of Trotsky
in Mexico (August 1940)
In 1989 a Soviet biographer of Stalin estimated that 4.5 to
5.5 million people were arrested--800,000 to 900,000 received
the death penalty, and many of the rest died either at the Gulag
or en route to it. Another 1994 study argues that 2.5 million
people were arrested in 1937 and 1938 and that 2-3 million overall
died in the purge.