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Great Purge

The Great Purge is the name given to campaigns of repression in the Soviet Union during the late 1930s which included a purge of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The term "repression" was officially used to denote the prosecution of people recognized as counter-revolutionaries and enemies of the people. The purge was motivated by the desire on the part of the leadership to remove dissident elements 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 on against social groups which opposed the Soviet state and the politics of the Communist Party. Also, 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, the vast majority being Party members. However, the campaigns affected many other categories of the society: anti-Soviet elements among the intelligentsia, the wealthier peasants (kulaks), in industry, and in transport. A series of NKVD (the Soviet secret police) operations affected a number of national minorities, perceived as the fifth column. According to Khrushchev's 1956 speech, On the Personality Cult and its Consequences and more recent findings, many of the accusations, incuding those presented at Moscow show trials, were based on forced confessions and on loose interpretations of articles of Article 58 (RSFSR Penal Code), which dealt with counter-revolutionary crimes. Due legal deliberation was largely replaced with summary proceedings by NKVD troikas. Hundreds of thousands were executed by firing squad and millions were forcibly resettled or sent to labor camps. The height of the campaigns occurred while the NKVD was headed by Nikolai Yezhov, from September 1936 to August 1938; this period is sometimes referred to as the Yezhovshchina ("Yezhov era"). However the campaigns were carried out according to the general line, and often by direct orders, of Party politburo headed by Stalin. In particular, in 1937 the Politburo issued an order to apply "means of physical coercion". Towards the end of the purges, Yezhov was relieved from his post, later arrested on charges of espionage (proved to be false) and treason, tried, found guilty, and shot.



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 or even execution.

The background of the Great Purge was the Politburo's desire to eliminate all possible sources of opposition. They sought to ensure that members of the Party would follow the orders of the center, in strict accordance with the principle of democratic centralism, rather than continuing as the faction-ridden revolutionary party it had been in the 1920s, and to remove any possible "fifth column" in case of a war. Vyacheslav Molotov said later that the purge and imprisonment of those whose loyalty was suspect was a protection of the country in the face of a potential invasion of Nazi Germany. The Communist Party also wanted to eliminate "socially dangerous elements", such as so-called ex-kulaks, former members of opposing political parties such as the Social Revolutionaries and former Czarist officials.

Repression against actual and perceived enemies of the Bolsheviks had been continuous since the October Revolution, although there had been periods of heightened repression such as the Red Terror or the deportation of kulaks who opposed collectivization. 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. The following events are used for the demarcation of the period.

The Moscow Trials

Main article: Moscow Trials.

Between 1936 and 1938 three Moscow Trials of former senior Communist Party leaders were held. The defendants were accused of conspiring with the western powers to assassinate Stalin and other Soviet leaders, dismember the Soviet Union and restore capitalism.

  • The first trial was of 16 members of the so-called "Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Centre," held in August 1936, at which the chief defendants were Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, two of the most prominent former party leaders. All were sentenced to death and executed.
  • The second trial in January 1937 involved 17 lesser figures including Karl Radek, Yuri Piatakov and Grigory Sokolnikov. Thirteen defendants were shot, the remainder received terms of imprisonment in labor camps where they soon died.

Most 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 MP Denis 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."

In the political atmosphere of the '30s the accusation that there was a conspiracy to destroy the Soviet Union was not incredible, and few outside observers were aware of the events inside the Communist Party that had led to the purge and the trials.

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: repeated beatings, torture, 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 would be spared. Instead they had to settle for a meeting with only Stalin, Kliment Voroshilov and Yezhov, at which assurances were given. After the trial Stalin not only broke his promise to spare the defendants, he had most of their relatives arrested and shot. Bukharin also agreed to "confess" on condition that his family was spared. In this case the promise was partly kept. His wife Anna Larina was sent to a labour camp but survived.

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, Piatakov 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 published its findings in the form of 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."

Some contemporary observers who think the trials were inherently fair cite the statements of Molotov who while conceding that some of the confessions contain unlikely statements, said there may have been several reasons or motives that this can be attributed to - one being if the handful who made doubtful confessions were trying to undermine the Soviet Union and its government, then making dubious statements within the confession would cast doubts on their trial. Molotov postulated a defendant could invent a story that he collaborated with foreign agents and party members to undermine the government, and then those members would come under suspicion despite doing nothing, while the false foreign collaboration charge would be believed as well. Thus, the Soviet government was in his view the victim of false confessions. Nonetheless, he said the evidence of mostly out-of-power Communist officials conspiring to make a power grab during a moment of weakness in the upcoming war was there.

Purge of the army

The purge of the Red Army was supported by fabricated evidence that German counter-intelligence had introduced through an intermediary, President Beneš of Czechoslovakia. This forged evidence purported to show correspondence between Marshal Tukhachevsky and members of the German high command. However the actual evidence introduced at trial was obtained from forced confessions. The purge of the army removed 3 of 5 marshals, 13 of 15 army generals, 8 of 9 admirals (the purge fell heavily on the Navy who were suspected of exploiting their opportunity for foreign contacts), 50 of 57 army corps generals, 154 out of 186 division generals, 16 of 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commissars.

Some observers think this made the armed forces disorganized and devoid of experienced commanders, and left the country vulnerable to invasion. These observers think the army purge may actually have encouraged Hitler and Nazi Germany to launch Operation Barbarossa after they learned of the weakness of the Red Army.

The wider purge

Eventually almost all of the Bolsheviks who had played prominent roles during the 1917 Russian Revolution, 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 survived. Four of the other five were executed. The fifth, Leon Trotsky, went into exile in Mexico after being expelled from the Party but was murdered by a Soviet agent 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.

The trials and executions of the former Bolshevik leaders were, however, only a minor part of the purges:


While kulaks were "liquidated as class", on July 30, 1937 the NKVD Order no. 00447 was issued, directed against "ex-kulaks" and "kulak helpers", among other anti-Soviet elements, see NKVD troika. This order was notable in several respects, becoming a blueprint for a number of other actions of NKVD targeting specific categories of people.

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. Polish operation of the NKVD was the first of this kind, setting an example of dealing with other targeted minorities.

End of Yezhovshchina

By the summer of 1938, everyone in power realized that the purges had gone too far, and Yezhov was relieved from his head of NKVD post (remaining People's Commissar of Water Transport) and eventually purged. Lavrenty Beria 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. This signalled the end of massive, overzealous purges.

Nevertheless, the practice of mass arrest and exile was continued until Stalin's death in 1953.

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. Especially in 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. A series of legal actions ensued at which definitive evidence was presented which established the validity of the former concentration camp inmates' testimony.

Robert Conquest, a former communist and a British intelligence official and writer for the Foreign Office's Information Research Department, a department whose function was anti-communist propaganda, wrote the book The Great Terror in 1968. According to Robert Conquest, writing in The Great Terror, 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 Davis, who reported, "proof...beyond reasonable doubt to justify the verdict of treason" and Beatrice and Sidney Webb, authors of Soviet Communism: A New Civilization. According to Robert Conquest, writing in The Great Terror, while "Communist Parties everywhere simply transmitted the Soviet line", some of the most critical reporting also came from the left, notably the Manchester Guardian.

Despite great skepticism regarding the show trials and occasional reports of Gulag survivors, many western intellectuals retained a favorable view towards the Soviet Union, which gradually began fading as time went on. With the beginning of the Cold War and McCarthyism, supporters of the USSR were persecuted, so there were personal motives for many intellectuals to change their mind. Also, 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 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 [1]. In 1968, Robert Conquest published The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago followed in 1973. By the late 1980's Stalin was denounced openly by Gorbachev as a criminal during glasnost and Soviet records were opened to Western and Soviet researchers after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Finally, in France, where the intellectual climate was most sympathetic to Soviet communism, The Black Book of Communism (1997), relying in part on revelations of the Great Purge, compared communism unfavorably to Nazism. Nevertheless minimizations of the Great Purge continues among revisionist scholars in the United States (see, e.g., pp. 15-17, In Denial, ISBN 1893554724) and small but passionate groups of modern day Stalinists [2].


The Great Purges were 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), Khruschev 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 based on 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 has 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 rehabilitated later, in 1988.

The book Rehabilitation: Political Processes of 30-50th years (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. On this basis, it is shown in detail how numerous show trials were fabricated.

Victim toll

By the MVD estimates carried out by the order of a special commission of the Communist Party in preparation to the 20th Party Congress, at least 681,692 people were executed during 1937–38 alone, and only accounting for the execution lists signed personally by Stalin from archives of NKVD. The exact total number of persons affected remains uncertain and depends on how the count is made, especially depending on the time period considered and whether deaths related to the Gulag and transportation losses are included.

One of Russia's leading human rights groups, the Memorial Society, has released a list of 1,345,796 names of people who fell victim to Stalin's purges.

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. Since it included people like Molotov and Kaganovich, it couldn't have been objective, and, while stating that the accusations against Tukhachevsky et al. should be abandoned, they 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 "measures of physical influence". Bukharin, Rykov, Zinoviev and others were still seen as political opponents, and though the charges against them were obviously false, they couldn't 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. It included Shelepin, Serdyuk, Mironov, Rudenko and Semichastny. The result of the hard work consisted of 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 wasn't 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.

Skepticism and denial

Some authors, such as Ludo Martens, maintain that the scope of the purges was greatly exaggerated and the purges themselves were a necessary means of struggle against political enemies at that time. They claim that the prevailing point of view on the purges is the result of the coincidence of the interests of the post-Stalin Soviet and Western politicians and historians: the goal of the former (Nikita Khrushchev in particular, who initiated "destalinisation") was to discredit Stalinist opposition, while the goal of the latter was to discredit the Soviet Union as a whole.

Outright denial of Stalin's crimes, such as that of Martens and other apologetes of Stalinism, should not be confused with the legitimate scholarly revisions, based mainly on documentary evidence from the partially opened Soviet archives, which tend to show that some older mainstream estimates (certain death toll estimates, GULAG statistics) were exaggerated.

Further reading and references

  • 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.
  • Robert Conquest: The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties. 1968.
  • Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment, Oxford University Press, May 1990, hardcover, ISBN 0195055802; trade paperback, Oxford, September, 1991, ISBN 0195071328
  • J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov, The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks,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 0674076087. 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 1893554724
  • Rehabilitation: Political Processes of 30-50th years, in Russian (Реабилитация. Политические процессы 30-50-х годов), editor: Academician A.N.Yakovlev, 1991 ISBN 5250-01429-1

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