Russia’s “Reign of Terror”: The Great Purges of 1936-38
The great purges of 1936 through 1938 mark one of the darkest times in Soviet history. What originated as simple rumors of counter-revolutionary factions in government turned into a society-wide purge of whoever was labelled as a dissident. Reminiscent of the “reign of terror” during the French Revolution, this period was one of mistrust, greed, and unprecedented violence.
The beginning of the purges are marked with the 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov, a party boss from Lenningrad. The blame for the assassination was then placed on a “Trotskyite-Zinovievite terrorist center” (Siegelbaum). Whether or not any such group or plot existed, the fear of counter-revolution and government subversion that spread through the state was all too real. Lev Kamenev, Grigorii Zinoviev (both opposition leaders in the government), and fourteen others were convicted of organizing the Kirov assassination. Stalin, who was displeased with previous efforts to root out subversion, appointed Nikolai Ezhov as the head of the NKVD, the Soviet police, in 1936 (Siegelbaum). Ezhov was ruthless in his search for political subversion. He widened the scope of the purge to include almost anybody who spoke out against the stalinist regime. In 1937 most of the Red Army general staff either disappeared or were executed, which hampered the army’s goal of modernization (Freeze 365).
The purges did not end there however, as Lewis Siegelbaum says, “the same fate befell provincial party secretaries, party and state personnel among the national minorities, industrial managers, and other officials.” The general public then became involved, which created a veritable witch hunt throughout Soviet society. The most liable to be turned in were remnants of the old guard, such as military officers, and those who were seen as taking advantage of others, such as the party elite and high-ranking economic officials (Freeze 369). Siegelbaum goes on to say, “The process fed upon itself, as the accused under severe physical and psychological pressure from their interrogators, named names and confessed to outlandish crimes. Millions of others became involved in the frenzied search for ‘enemies of the people’.” These “enemies” were for those who were better-off than most, one of the biggest examples being the former Kulaks. By the end of the purges in 1938, over one million political-prisoners were interned in labor camps and nearly as many were documented to have been executed (Freeze 368-369).
To this day there remains little consensus as to the true motives of the purges. The common story is that Stalin himself initiated the purges by orchestrating the Kirov assassination in order to rid himself of a political rival and the opposition leaders at the same time. Others claim that the evidence shows that Stalin had no involvement in the assassination, and that the impetus for the purges came not from the government at the top, but rather the proletarian bottom . Others still, point to Stalin being threatened by a burgeoning bureaucracy, made up of old-guard bureaucrats and party eiltes, that was quickly gaining power (Freeze 366-367).
The fall of the Soviet Union has led to new insight into the soviet past, however the topic of the great purges remains in question. As Freeze writes, “[the purges] seem to have been so arbitrary in victimization, so elusive in motivation as to defy explanation. Access to long-closed archives of the NKVD, while clarifying some issues, has not yet yielded a satisfactory explanation… even what hitherto were assumed to be incontrovertible, basic facts are now in question” (Freeze 364). What is undeniable, however is that following the great purges Stalin was undoubtedly the supreme leader (or dictator) of the Soviet Union. With the persecution of opposition leaders, party elites, and anti-communist members of society, Stalin assumed near-total control over the government and gained much adoration and support from the proletariat.
Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Siegelbaum, Lewis. Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. n.d. http://soviethistory.macalester.edu/index.php (accessed October 11, 2014).
Wikipedia.org. NKVD. n.d. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NKVD (accessed October 11, 2014).
15 October, 2014 @ 10:28 pm
It’s easy to see through your post why Stalin was able to create such a stable government. The negative side to this stability (besides the millions killed) was that in the long run the censorship and purges would prevent new ideas from emerging in society. Much the same thing happened in China during the Cultural Revolution, and many intellectuals who could contribute to government and society are scared underground in similar circumstances.
16 October, 2014 @ 12:20 am
I agree. Though I feel that this is the problem of any totalitarian regime. There are no new ideas because those in power become disconnected with those that they govern by surrounding themselves with people who agree with their view. This is definitely the case with Stalin.
14 October, 2014 @ 11:35 am
I like how you almost created a timeline of what happened during the great purge. There was alot of back lashing in the political parties because they wanted to survive, so they turned in their friends to live.
13 October, 2014 @ 6:56 pm
This is an excellent post about the purges. It is truly frightening to see how many people were killed or disappeared, with little explanation as to why. One can only imagine how frightened and confused people must have been. Stalin was controlling how the media portrayed him, so on the one hand, the only image one sees of Stalin is this great leader, yet people knew or at least heard rumors that people were being executed or disappearing. Great job on this topic!
13 October, 2014 @ 3:00 pm
This post does such a good job of appreciating the complexity of the purges and the absence of an easy or singular explanation for them. Terrific illustration too!
12 October, 2014 @ 7:29 pm
I feel that this time period can be summarized as ‘saying one thing but doing another.’ When I was doing research for my own blog post, I came across several speeches that were well written and rather inspiring from the Soviet leaders. However at the same time, these Soviet leaders were also persecuting people from within their own party, eliminating dissidents, and persecuting peasants, the kulaks in particular. It’s harrowing to see how different their words are from their actions.
16 October, 2014 @ 12:09 am
I think that a lot of the purges and the infighting within the party itself was caused by a sense of insecurity, almost to the point of paranoia, among the higher ranks of the party and the government. At this time Soviet-Russia was only about 20 years old, and was still in a time of great change. The failed economic experiments and the intermittent famines and depressions made the public unhappy, and I think that many in the government feared rebellion. Getting rid of opposition groups, both political and societal, was one of the few choices that they had.