138: The Great Purges


It was time to clean house.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 138 - The Soviet Union Part 8 - The Great Purges. We are now back to what will be the final episode of this series on the internal political developments in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, but it is an important one. This episode will cover the political purges that would occur in the second half of the 1930s as Stalin would, for lack of a better phrase, clean house. These actions are referred to as the Great Purge, or the Great Terror, and they would see thousands of individuals imprisoned or executed ranging from previously highly placed Communist leaders all the way down to normal people. Targets for these purges would also be found in the Soviet military, with those individuals deserving their own episode due to the importance of the military purges to the story of the Second World War. The general basis for all of the actions that would take place during the purges was the idea that there was a great conspiracy, which had the goal of overthrowing the Soviet leaders and the Communist system. As we have talking about many times up to this point, they were cast as manifest threats to Communism. When cast in this light all of the actions of those who were purged were escalated to treason, and their punishments were commonly execution. The conduit for the actions of the purges would be the NKVD, or the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, with the NKVD’s actions during the purges making them one of the most feared groups within the Soviet Union.

While the purges would begin later in the 1930s, one of the important steps on the way to the purge would be the Ryutin Affair, which was named after Martemian Ryutin, a Moscow Party official during the early 1930s. In March 1932 Ryutin would publish a document titled “Stalin and the Crisis of Proletarian Dictatorship”, and it discussed at length the problems that Stalin was causing and that he had to be dealt with personally if the revolution was to continue. Here is a small quote “The elimination of Stalin and his clique via the normal democratic means guaranteed by the rules of the party and the Soviet Constitution is completely impossible The Party has two choices: to continue meekly to endure the mockery of Leninism, terror, and to wait calmly for the final collapse of the proletarian dictatorship; or to eliminate this clique by force and save the cause of communism.” As you can see, the document was not pulling any punches, and it was 194 pages in length, so it had a lot of punches to throw. A copy of this document made its way into Stalin’s hands and he was, believe it or not, not exactly thrilled with its contents. But the document itself would not precipitate the purges, but it would be used as a key piece of evidence in almost all of the public show trials of the purge years. It would be called a treasonous document, and those who could be associated with it in anyway were tried and convicted of that treason. To be fair to Stalin and his supporters, it was a treasonous document, if you considered action again Stalin to be treason. It called for Stalin to be physically removed, violence would be necessary. But, and this was the key point of many moments in many actions between the revolution and the purges, both sides felt that they were protecting the revolution, and so that violence was necessary. Stalin, at least publicly, proclaimed and built support around the idea that he was protecting the revolution, protecting communism, from the treasonous right deviationists, the fascists, the capitalists. The Ryutin text, and those that opposed Stalin believed that his policies had strayed from the path of Communism and towards the things that Stalin himself claimed to be defending against. It just to happened that Stalin was better at consolidating and using power, which allowed him to consolidate his power during the late 1920s, and then in the late 1930s he would use that power to begin an outburst of violence against those he claimed were threats to the revolution.

While the Ryutin text would be a foundational text used to facilitate the actions of the purges, the moment that would begin the purges would not occur until December 1, 1934, when Sergei Kirov was killed. Kirov had been a close associate of Stalin, and had been used as Stalin’s guy in Leningrad who had taken over the Leningrad party apparatus to push Zinoviev out of his position of power in Leningrad. Over the years that he was in charge of the Leningrad party Kirov would be a generally popular party leader, he is known to have refused a few of Stalin’s orders from time to time, which is somewhat remarkable due to how that ended up for many people, but there is no real evidence that he was anything over than a loyal follower of Stalin, although rumors of him being an anti-Stalin conspirator do linger. But then he was killed, and how his death was discussed made his death very important, in a great display of Stalin and his supporters taking an unrelated event and expertly spinning it to their needs. The man who would murder Kirov was Leonid Nikolaev, a former member of the party who had been expelled. Beyond his name and his history with the party, things get fuzzy, because there are a lot of different theories and stories told about why Nikolaev killed Kirov. What is known is that he would kill Kirov in the Smolny Institute, walking up to him and shooting him with the pistol, Kirov would die, and Nikolaev would be executed for his actions on December 29, and that is in many ways where the firm information about the assassination ends. After Kirov’s murder, the Soviet leaders would claim that Nikolaev was working with the anti-Stalin opposition, probably with Zinoviev and his followers in an attempt to bring back the old Leningrad party leaders. He would be called by newspapers the “treacherous hand of an enemy of the working class.” Other theories are that he was instead actually acting on the orders, or influenced, by the party leadership, under the theory that they were sacrificing Kirov to manufacture and excuse for the purges that would follow. There would be commissions setup in the post Stalin era, in the Khrushchev and Gorbachev era to investigate the Kirov murder more closely. The conclusion that these investigations came to was that there was no evidence that Nikolaev was involved in anyway with anti-Stalin opposition groups, and that whatever evidence for this connection that existed was manufactured after the fact. But equally, there was not a lot of hard evidence that Nikolaev was acting on the instructions of Stalin. I quite like this quote from Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator on why the idea that Nikolaev was working directly for Stalin is such an appealing idea: “The idea that Stalin was behind Kirov’s murder has all the hallmarks of a conspiracy theory. Such theories tend to rest on the idea that if an event benefits some sinister person, he must have brought it about. They tend to deny the possibility of random occurrences and ignore the fact that chance events happen all the time.” The discussions about the motivations for Kirov’s murder really remind me of the accusations made about the causes of the Reichstag Fire. And in both cases I am personally inclined towards the simplest answer, that the perpetrator, in this case Nikolaev, was merely an individual driven by his own desires whose actions were capitalized on by the group in power for their own purposes. Also, as with the Reichstag fire, after December 1, 1934, the exact truth of why Kirov was killed did not matter at all, all that mattered was that it could be used as an excuse for the actions that were taken over the following years during the purges.

Placing the blame on the former opposition leaders very quickly allowed events to transition from simple blame to criminal charges. Up until Kirov’s murder former leaders like Zinoviev and Kamenev had been allowed to continue to live their lives. They had been stripped of their positions of power within the Communist Party, but they were still party members, often considered to be in good standing, and were able to hold lesser positions of leadership. They also still had their own supporters within the party, with patronage and support networks that dated back to the revolution and before. But with these same individuals being blamed for the murder of Kirov, this was all about to change. Suddenly they were classified as enemies and anti-communist rebels. Because of this they had to be arrested, and they would not be tried and convicted in private but instead in a series of show trials with the goal of making it publicly clear that they had been working against Stalin and more importantly agains the future of the Soviet Union. The show trials were not really trials, they were media events staged for the purpose of propaganda. And it would not just be Zinoviev and Kamenev who were sentenced as part of these events, but instead dozens of other individuals who had previously been identified for their actions or their words as anti-Stalinist agitators. The first of these trials would be held in late 1934 and then into early 1935. These initial trials would result in sentences of 10 years for many of the former leaders, and during those trials they were forced to admit that they were moraly complicit with the actions of Nikolaev and the murder of Kirov. They would be sent to prison, but it would not be their last trip in front of a show trial. These events were also used as a good excuse to round up thousands of individuals who had been closely connected with the leaders, or who were formerly of groups where it was felt resistance to the new direction of the Soviet Union was particularly strong, former nobles, clergy, tsarist officials, etc. They were arrested in mass and often sent in exile to gulag camps. It was claimed that they were all guilty of “counterrevolutionary activity” which was a broad charge that could be applied to a variety of individuals in a variety of circumstances. Monthly later, in August 1936, Zinoviev and Kamenev and other former leaders would find themselves in another show trial. During this trial, after months of imprisonment, they would tell the story that they were expected to tell. Not only had they been personally involved in Kirov’s murder, they had also been working with Trotsky. They said they had met with Trotsky in Berlin in 1932, and the plan was for Kirov to be first before assassination attempts were to be made on other Soviet leaders. There was not hard evidence of any of this, but Zinoviev, Kamenev, and others would produce quotes from memory from letters with Trotsky as proof of what had happened. The letters were not presented. The general theory of the trials is that the most important thing was the confession of the accused, if they confessed then they were guilty, simple. This did of course ignore the fact that confessions can be suggested, with varying degrees of force, to those who are imprisoned for long periods. The deal that had been struck before the confession was that those accused would confess to their involvement, say the things they were told to say, and in exchange they would not be killed. This arrangement would be confirmed by Soviet investigations in the last years of the Soviet Union. And so they said what they were told to say, but then instead of not being killed, they would instead be executed just a few days later. Once the confessions of the initial set of former leaders had been publicly made, the flood gates could open under the theory that the anti-communist contagion originating in Trotsky, transmitted through Zinoviev, Kamenev, and their associates had infected many others. In January 1937 the second major show trial was held, with a particular focus on economic and industrial leaders. The charge against them was purposeful sabotage of the Soviet economy, which had resulted in the failure to meet the goals of the Five Year Plans. That sabotage, was of course rooted in their counterrevolutionary ideas. The third show trial would involve Bukharin, Rykov, and others, against the charge being counterrevolutionary agitation due to their former connections with men like Zinoviev and Kamenev, with Bukharin having been initially removed from the Politburo for illicitly meeting with a disgraced Kamenev. While former leaders were being tried and executed, a new set of party leaders were emerging. Men like Nikita Khrushchev and Andrei Zhdanov who would support and help facilitate the purges and Nikolai Yezhov who would take over at the head of the NKVD. He would replace Yagoda who had previously led the NKVD from 1934 to 1936 but would find himself on the wrong end of one of the purges under the accusation that he obstructed efforts by others to properly purge the Leningrad party. Yezhov would not last very long in the position.


While the most famous result of the purges would be the show trials, the effects of the purges were far more wide spread. Throughout 1937 the number of individuals targeted by the purge continued to grow. At the start it numbered at maximum in a few tens of thousands and the party was purged of those who were in anyway connected with the former oppositions or were just unlucky. By in August 1937 the number of those who were targeted greatly expanded outside of just party officials, transitioning a party purge into what is often called the Great Terror. The root of this expansion was in NKVD Order Number 447 which was approved by the Politburo in July 1937. It introduced new target lists, and placed expectations on different regions to find and convict a certain number of individuals to be either killed or imprisoned. The list of targets included the kulaks, with the expanded definition of what that means, along with whole groups of individuals who had done certain things in the pre-revolutionary years. Former tsarist officials, former members of the White groups from the civil war, former Communists or Bolsheviks who had fallen out of favor for criticizing the actions of Stalin and other leaders, people who were already imprisoned for previous actions, even those that had formerly been released. You could also be targeted based simply on your ethnicity with many ethnic groups being targeted: Poles, Germans, Romanians, Latvians, Estonians, Finns, Greeks, Afghans, Iranians, Chinese, Bulgarians, Macedonians, and other groups. Regardless of why a specific individual found themselves as a target for the purges, the accusation was largely the same, being an anti-Soviet and counter-revolutionary threat. The exact number of individuals who were arrested during the first year of the purges is unknown. But the best number is maybe around 1.6 million people arrested, and 700,000 shot, I will just caution by saying you can find a wide variance on these numbers. And it also continued, though at a lesser scale throughout late 1938 and into early 1939. Throughout this entire time period, it can be difficult to fully know what an average individual living in the Soviet Union thought. But it is worth noting that there are many accounts from this time period that show that many individuals did really believe that those who were being arrested, even those that they might know, were guilty of being enemies of the revolution and actively working against the Soviet Union. Others, even if they were concerned that innocent people were being convicted during this time period, they often believed that the number of truly innocent people caught up in the purges was small, or that at some level the actions were still a net positive. Lev Kopelev, who saw the purges first hand, would later write that: “I convinced myself and others that the main thing had remained unchanged, that all our ills, malefactions and falsehoods were inevitable but temporary afflictions in our overall healthy society. In freeing ourselves from barbarity, we were forced to resort to barbaric methods, and in repulsing cruel and crafty foes, we could not do without cruelty and craftiness.”

The generally held believe in modern times is that the purges and the terror were not based in any real evidence of a grand conspiracy against the Soviet leadership . And because of the very divisive opinions on Stalin held by various groups there is also very different opinions held on Stalin’s role in the purges and the actions of the NKVD during the terror time period from 1937 to 1939. What is certain is that Stalin knew about what was happening, and he received very frequent updates on events, arrests, and executions. He would also set the course for the purges, signing many of the documents that would make it happen. Stalin would also play a role in what evidence should be fabricated against the former Communist leaders during the show trials, and then also against other party leaders over the following years. In several cases all that was needed for someone to be purged was Stalin’s belief that they were guilty, if he believed you were guilty then you were guilty. And the weapon used to prove that guilt would be the NKVD. I think an important detail is that Stalin was not just giving high level directives during this time, he was often involved in the minutest of details of the purges, signing lists of individuals who were to be imprisoned or executed, and making decisions about which of those actions should be taken against particular individuals. But also, he was not involved in every single decision, there were many lists, many groups targeted by others in the party leadership or by local party officials. In those cases Stalin set the stage and those who supported him ran with his intentions. The person who ran with those intentions the most was Yezhov, who would be even more involved in the exact details of how the purge was executed. But Yezhov would very soon find himself a target as well, with the sequence of events that would lead to Yezhov’s execution beginning in August 1938 when Stalin appointed Lavrenty Beria as Yezhov’s deputy. In October those loyal to Yezhov were arrested, and they were forced to confess that Yezhov was leading a counterrevolutionary group within the NKVD. Yezhov would then be arrested and executed just like Yagoda before him. No one but Stalin was truly safe from the purges. And that included the Red Army, who would find themselves a target of particular focus during the purges, which will be covered next episode.