The travesty that befell Russia from 1936 until 1939 (some argue longer) was brought about by a paranoid tyrant. When Stalin came to power he was fearful of others he had shared power with taking it from him. So he started the “purge” of power from the party. He cut down anyone that had the opportunity or ability to rival his power.
The Great Purge or the Great Terror coincided with the forced collectivization. These two events raked up the death toll to tens of millions. There was an order given by Stalin to kill or capture all criminals or anti-Soviet activists. This order was carried out by Stalin’s dogs, the NKVD. Stalin later added to the order that all families of these people could be captured or killed by association. Russians were terrified because they didn’t know who they would blame or what lies the NKVD heard and believed.
The leader of the NKVD, Ezhov, set quotas for the number of arrests, exiles, and executions. The numbers that he set were greatly exceeded. The power that the NKVD had was staggering and they abused it often. But as the party became cleansed, Stalin found that the people who were a threat was the military officers. The military had the ability to stage a coup and throw Stalin from power. So, he turned his cleansing techniques towards the military, exiling or executing half of the officers.
As Stalin slowly made his way towards every are that could oppose his power, he found himself looking back towards the organization that was fulfilling his wishes. He suspected the NKVD of having the ability to stage a coup. And with the information that the organization had about the Great Purge, they were too dangerous. So, Stalin purged the NKVD of high ranking officers and former officers that had any information.
There have been estimations of how many actually died during the time of the Great Purge. Estimations that I have found have said anywhere from 10 million to 19 million people died from execution, labor camps, prison, or arrests. Most of these people being men. The survival rate was estimated to be around 3 percent. 3 percent of the population did not have to fear being taken or killed.
Stalin created a submissive population and eradicated all opposition that could be possible. He was an iconic figure. Many people loved and feared him and mourned for his death. But no one questioned or spoke up about the Russian holocaust that ensued prior to the Second World War. Stalin had the ultimate control, though it failed him, as he lie dying by himself with everyone too scared of him to disobey his orders and enter his room.
Video: Stalin: Inside the Terror