The Great Purge

The Great Purge
Kevin J. Benoy
• Were it not for the
Holocaust, the Soviet
Great Purge might be
known as history’s most
barbaric event
The Official Soviet View to 1956
• The closer Soviet society
moved to socialism, the
more desperate the class
enemy became. They
would do anything to hold
back the building of
socialism: sabotage, murder
of Soviet leaders,
collaboration with the
secret services of Germany
and Japan. As a result, the
Party had to fight back. The
class struggle sharpened.
The Soviet View from 1956 to Gorbachev
• Stalin did a good job
fighting anti-party elements
in the 1920s and early 1930.
• Hew was also justified in
collectivization and
industrialization, but owing
to problems that arose in
these processes and the
negative influence of Beria,
Stalin became isolated from
the party and began
persecuting its leading
members who became
victims of Stalin’s cult of
Since Gorbachev & Glasnost
• Stalin made dreadful
errors, falsely accusing
Party members of crimes
they did not commit.
• Post communist Russians
are divided about him.
– Some consider him a
– Others feel he may have
committed excesses, but
only for the greater good
of the country.
Western Perceptions
• Some Westerners claim
the purges were a
manifestation of Stalin’s
paranoia – perhaps
arising out of syphilis.
• Others say that
paranoia was indeed
the cause – but that it
came out of a deep
inferiority complex.
Western Perceptions
• Others see a conspiracy at
• The German Gestapo
created havoc by
producing convincinglooking documents
showing Soviet leaders
plotting with the
Germans to overthrow
Stalin – something
confirmed to him by the
Czech secret service.
Western Perceptions
• Still others point to the severe
strains of collectivization and
industrialization in the nation
and in the party – even among
his own followers
• At one stage he even found
himself within a minority on
the Central Committee and
was almost ousted.
• This theory insists he turned
against those who he felt
betrayed him. In a secret
ballot of Party members in
1934, Stalin found others were
more popular than himself –
including his protoge, Kirov –
who Stalin then had killed.
Origins of the Purge
• It is difficult to say
exactly when Stalin
decided to turn on the
Party itself.
• He certainly had a
pessimistic view of
events and people.
• The 1932 suicide of his
2nd wife, Nadia
Alliluyeva, surely had a
great effect.
Nadya’s Suicide
• Even she had criticized his
policies and the terror they
• After a family dispute in
which he publicly hurled
abuse at her, she went
home and shot herself.
• Stalin was badly shaken – he
offered his resignation, but
they did not know how to
respond and he was
persuaded to stay on.
• After this point he seemed
to lose trust in even his
closest friends.
1934 Party Conference
• Nonetheless, there seemed no
reason to act.
• Stalin announced that “there
is nothing to prove and, it
seems, no one to fight.”
• Had not the peasants and
workers been beaten into
• Even the Politburo now
consisted only of Stalin’s
cronies – but now some of
them began to echo the
concerns of the beaten
Kirov’s Murder
• Sergei Kirov, Stalin’s
apparent favourite, was
dispatched to Leningrad
to “clean up” Zinoviev
supporters there.
• On December 1, 1934 he
was assassinated by a
supposed supporter of
• Hardliner, Andrei
Zhdanov, was dispatched
to replace Kirov.
Kirov’s Murder
• Hundreds of “Kirov’s
murderers” were rounded
up and sent to Sibertia.
• Kamenev & Zinoviev
themselves were sentenced
to long terms for abetting
the murder.
• Officially, a grief-stricken
Stalin allowed a reign of
terror to begin. Khruschev,
in his secret 1956 speech,
hinted that Stalin ordered
the murder himself.
Purges Begin
• Arrests continued in
mid 1935 and 1936, but
not in large numbers.
• Stalin was more
interested in the
drafting of a new
constitution – largely by
the disgraced figure,
Show Trials
• In August, 1936
show trials opened
of 16 old
Bolsheviks –
including Kamenev
and Zinoviev.
• The Defendants
were all convicted
and shot.
Show Trials
• Next it was announced that
the 16 implicated others,
including Bukharin, Rykov
and Tomsky, though the
Central Committee rejected
the claim.
• In January, 1937 trials began
for 17 lesser figures.
• The accused confessed to
even the wildest claims
against them and were
Show Trials
• The third series of trials
proved the most dramatic
and bizarre.
• The accused included:
– All of Lenin’s Politburo
except Stalin.
– Rykov, a former Premier.
– Bukharin.
– Tukhachevsky, ex-Chief of
the General Staff.
– Tomsky, ex-Chief of Trade
– Trotsky
Show Trials
• Arrests developed
momentum as the trials
• They did not end with the
elimination of the old
Bolsheviks. They included:
– 70% of the 1934 Central
– Most high ranking officers
and 24% of the military
officer corps.
– 90% of trade union officials.
– Most Soviet ambassadors to
Europe and Asia.
– Managers, intellectuals and
Party and Comintern
The Purge Expands
• Arrests were not limited to
Party members.
• Millions of ordinary citizens
were accused.
• Historian Donald Treadgold
writes: “orders went out to the
secret police to arrest a certain
percentage of the whole population
varying slightly from district to
district. It has been estimated that
eight million people were arrested,
and the actual total may be higher
still.” To this total one must include
those who Stalin eliminated by other
means – through murder or suicide.
Willing Confessions
• What astounded the
outside world was the
readiness of purge victims
to confess to even the most
ridiculous accusations.
• Independent investigations
showed many charges to be
“physically impossible,
meeting at hotels long since
dismantled, landing at
airports where no such
planes has landed and so
• Confessions were also
drawn out by torture – both
mental and physical.
• Some honestly believed
that confessions might bring
pardons or lighter
sentences – though it soon
became clear that
prosecutor Vyshinsky’s call
to the courts to “shoot the
mad dogs” was invariably
Purge document signed by
Stalin and others.
• Some may have felt that
confessions would save
their families.
• For some, it was a final
service to the Party.
• Perhaps they would be
the last scapegoats,
saving their party and
country from further
• Perhaps this was a
necessary historical
phase, despite unfairness
to the individual.
Zinoviev’s arrest photograph
• As novelist Arthur Koestler
suggests in his novel
Darkness at Noon, “they
were too deeply entangled
in their own past, caught in
the web they had spun
themselves, according to
the laws of their own
twisted ethics and twisted
logic: they were all guilty,
although not of these deeds
of which they accused
The Unrepentant
• For those who would
not confess, there were
secret trials or even
simply executions
without trial.
• This was the fate of
some civilians and all of
the military leaders.
The Truth?
• Was there any truth to the
– In almost all cases there was
no objective truth.
– They were tried on trumped
up charges of which they
were innocent.
Stalin’s biographer, Isaac
Deutscher noted: “They may
want to overthrow me in a
crisis – I shall charge them
with having already made the
The Truth
• In the case of the military, Deutscher believes that
there might well have been a real conspiracy.
• While some claim that Stalin was fed disinformation
by the Gestapo or even by elements of the Soviet
Secret police, who feared the military, quite a few
non-Stalinist sources maintain the generals did
indeed plan a coup d’etat and did this from their own
motives – and not in compact with any foreign power.
• The first step was not taken until Khrushchev’s
1956 speech -- an admission that the purges
were an abuse of power that harmed the
Soviet Union.
• Army generals were declared innocent in
• Some Politburo and many lesser officials also
had their sentences belatedly overturned in
the 1950s.
• Khrushchev even allowed publication of
Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan
Denisovich – the story of a Gulak Zek.
• With Khrushchev’s fall, rehabilitations ended
until Gorbachev’s time.
• Mikhael Gorbachev
started a sea change in
Soviet attitudes.
• The reputations of
those falsely accused
were restored and his
policy of Glasnost –
openness – meant that
Soviet archives were
opened for the first
• After the Soviet system
collapsed, interest went
beyond paper inquiry.
• Mass graves, such as those at
Kurapaty (Minsk) and
Bykivinia (Kyiv) were opened.
• At Butovo firing range
(Moscow) a popular shrine
was erected to recognize the
memories of the more than
20,000 people shot there in
• The 5 year plans had been socially costly, but they
strengthened the nation at a time when the world
was drifting toward war – establishing industries east
of the Urals.
• The purges weakened the state dramatically, though
they did two things for Stalin: They left him
unchallenged as totalitarian master and in filling the
Gulags, they created a vast reservoir of slave labour.
• Though large scale penal labour began
under Lenin – creating the White Sea
Canal – the scale of it increased
dramatically with the Great Purge.
• More than anything else, the Purge
was the hallmark of Stalinism, leaving
an indelible stain on the legacy of the
Soviet Union.
• Furthermore, a link was forged
between “Stalinism” and “Socialism” in
the minds of many in the West and in
former Soviet affiliated nations, soiling
the ideology for many – even for those
forms of Socialism completely opposed
to Stalinist actions.
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