From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Great Purge was a series of campaigns of political repression and
persecution in the Soviet Union orchestrated by Joseph Stalin in
1937–1938. It involved a large-scale purge of the Communist Party
and Government officials, repression of peasants, Red Army leadership,
and the persecution of unaffiliated persons, characterized by widespread
police surveillance, widespread suspicion of "saboteurs", imprisonment,
and executions. According to the archive data, in 1937–38 the number
of death sentences was 681,692 and many more died in GULAG labor camps.
In Russian historiography the period of the most intense purge,
1937–1938, is called Yezhovshchina (Russian: Åæî́âùèíà; literally, the
Yezhov regime), after Nikolai Yezhov, the then head of the Soviet secret
In the Western World the term "the Great Terror" was popularized by
the title of Robert Conquest's book. The book, The Great Terror, was in
turn inspired by the period of the Great Terror (French: la Grande
Terreur) at the end of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution.
The term "repression" was officially used to
denote the prosecution of people considered as anti-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 out
against social groups which were accused of acting against the Soviet
state and the politics of the Communist Party.
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: intelligentsia, peasants and especially those branded as
"too rich for a peasant" (kulaks), and professionals. A series of
NKVD (the Soviet secret police) operations affected a number of national
minorities, accused of being "fifth column" communities.
According to Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 speech, "On the Personality
Cult and its Consequences", and more recent findings, a great number of
accusations, notably those presented at the Moscow show trials, were
based on forced confessions, often obtained by torture, and on loose
interpretations of Article 58 of the RSFSR Penal Code, which dealt with
counter-revolutionary crimes. Due legal process, as defined by Soviet
law in force at the time, was often largely replaced with summary
proceedings by NKVD troikas.
Hundreds of thousands of victims were falsely accused of various
political crimes (espionage, wrecking, sabotage, anti-Soviet agitation,
conspiracies to prepare uprisings and coups) and then executed by
shooting, or sent to the Gulag labor camps. Many died at the penal labor
camps due to starvation, disease, exposure and overwork. Other methods
of dispatching victims were used on an experimental basis. For example,
one secret policeman gassed people to death in batches in the back of a
specially adapted airtight van.
The Great Purge was started under the NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda, but
the height of the campaigns occurred while the NKVD was headed by
Nikolai Yezhov, from September 1936 to August 1938, hence the name
"Yezhovshchina". However the campaigns were carried out according to the
general line, and often by direct orders, of the Party Politburo headed
Voroshilov, Molotov, Stalin, with Nikolai Yezhov, 1937
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 political purge was primarily an effort by Stalin to eliminate
challenge from past and potential opposition groups, including left and
right wings led by Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin, respectively.
Following the Civil War and reconstruction of the Soviet economy in the
late 1920s, the "temporary" wartime dictatorship which had passed from
Lenin to Stalin seemed no longer necessary to veteran Communists.
Stalin's opponents on both sides of the political spectrum chided him as
undemocratic and lax on bureaucratic corruption. These tendencies may
have accumulated substantial support among the working class by
attacking the privileges and luxuries the state offered to its high-paid
elite. The Ryutin Affair seemed to vindicate Stalin's suspicions. He
therefore enforced a ban on party factions and banned those party
members who had opposed him, effectively ending democratic centralism.
In the new form of Party organization, the Politburo, and Stalin in
particular, were the sole dispensers of communist ideology. This
necessitated the elimination of all Marxists with different views,
especially those among the prestigious "old guard" of revolutionaries.
Communist heroes like Tukhachevsky and Béla Kun, as well as Lenin's
entire politburo, were shot for minor disagreements in policy. The NKVD
were equally merciless towards the supporters, friends, and family of
these heretical Marxists, whether they lived in Russia or not. The most
infamous case is that of Leon Trotsky, whose family was almost
annihilated, before he himself was killed in Mexico by NKVD agent Ramón
Mercader, who was part of an assassination task force put together by
Special Agent Pavel Sudoplatov, under the personal orders of Joseph
Stalin and Kirov
murder in 1934 may be called the crime of century as it was used by
Stalin as a pretext to launch the Great Purge, in which about a million
people perished. Some later historians came to believe that Stalin
himself arranged the murder, or at least that there was sufficient
evidence to reach such a conclusion. Kirov himself was a staunch
Stalin loyalist, but Stalin may have viewed him as a potential rival
because of his emerging popularity among the moderates. In the 1934
party congress, Kirov was elected to the central committee with only
three negative votes, the fewest of any candidate, while Stalin received
292 negative votes. After Kirov's assassination, Stalin NKVD charged the
ever growing group of former oppositionists with Kirov's murder and a
growing list of other charges including treason, terrorism, sabotage,
Another official justification was to remove any possible "fifth column"
in case of a war, but this is less substantiated by independent sources.
This is the theory proposed by Vyacheslav Molotov, a member of the
Stalinist ruling circle, who participated in the Stalinist repression as
a member of the Politburo and who signed many death warrants.
Stalin's vehemence in eliminating political opponents may have had some
basis in, and was definitely given official justification by, the need
to solidify Russia against her neighbors, most notably Germany and
Japan, whose governments had previously invaded, and now openly
threatened, Soviet territory. A famous quote of Stalin's is "We are 50
or 100 years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this lag
in 10 years. Either we do it, or they crush us." The Communist Party
also wanted to eliminate what it perceived as "socially dangerous
elements", such as ex-kulaks, ex-"nepmen", former members of opposing
political parties such as the Social Revolutionaries, and former Tsarist
Repression against perceived enemies of the Bolsheviks had been a
systematic method of instilling fear and facilitating social control,
being continuously applied by Lenin since the October Revolution,
although there had been periods of heightened repression, such as the
Red Terror, the deportation of kulaks who opposed collectivization, and
a severe famine. 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.
First and Second Moscow Trials
Between 1936 and 1938,
three very large Moscow Trials of former senior Communist Party leaders
were held, in which they were accused of conspiring with fascist and
capitalist powers to assassinate Stalin and other Soviet leaders,
dismember the Soviet Union and restore capitalism. These trials were
highly publicized and extensively covered by the outside world, which
was mesmerized by the spectacle of Lenin's closest associates confessing
to most outrageous crimes and begging for death sentences.
The first trial was of 16 members of the so-called
held in August 1936, at which the chief defendants were Grigory Zinoviev
and Lev Kamenev, two of the most prominent former party leaders. Among
other accusations, they were incriminated with the assassination of
Sergey Kirov and plotting to kill Stalin. After confessing to the
charges, all were sentenced to death and executed.
The second trial in January 1937 involved 17 lesser figures known as the
"anti-Soviet Trotskyite-centre" which included Karl Radek, Yuri Piatakov
and Grigory Sokolnikov, and were accused of plotting with Trotsky, who
was said to be conspiring with Nazi Germany. Thirteen of the defendants
were eventually shot. The rest received sentences in labor camps where
they soon died.
There was also a secret trial before a military tribunal of a group of
Red Army generals, including Mikhail Tukhachevsky, in June 1937.
Some 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. Others, like Fitzroy Maclean were a little more
astute in their observations and conclusions.
The British lawyer and Member of Parliament D. N. 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".
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: such tortures as repeated
beatings, simulated drownings, 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 and followers would be spared. This offer was accepted, but
when they were taken to the alleged Politburo meeting, only Stalin,
Kliment Voroshilov, and Yezhov were present. Stalin claimed that they
were the "commission" authorized by the Politburo and gave assurances
that death sentences would not be carried out. After the trial, Stalin
not only broke his promise to spare the defendants, he had most of their
relatives arrested and shot.
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, Georgy Pyatakov 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 later published its findings in 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
Implication of the Rightists
In the second trial, Karl Radek provided (or more accurately was forced
to provide) the pretext for greater purge to come on a massive scale
with his testimony that there were "third organization separate from the
cadres which had passed through [Trotsky's] school" as well as
"semi-Trotskyites, quarter-Trotskyites, one-eighth-Trotskyites, people
who helped us, not knowing of the terrorist organization but
sympathizing with us, people who from liberalism, from a Fronde against
the Party, gave us this help."
By the "third organization", he meant the last remaining former
opposition group called Rightists led by Bukharin, whom he implicated by
saying: "I feel guilty of one thing more: even after admitting my guilt
and exposing the organisation, I stubbornly refused to give evidence
about Bukharin. I knew that Bukharin's situation was just as hopeless as
my own, because our guilt, if not juridically, then in essence, was the
same. But we are close friends, and intellectual friendship is stronger
than other friendships. I knew that Bukharin was in the same state of
upheaval as myself. That is why I did not want to deliver him bound hand
and foot to the People's Commissariat of Home Affairs. Just as in
relation to our other cadres, I wanted Bukharin himself to lay down his
Third Moscow Trial
The third and final trial, in March 1938, known as
The Trial of the Twenty-One, is the most famous of the Soviet show
trials, because of persons involved and the scope of charges which tied
together all loose threads from earlier trials. It included 21
defendants alleged to belong to the so-called "Bloc of Rightists and
Trotskyites", led by Nikolai Bukharin, the former chairman of the
Communist International, ex-premier Alexei Rykov , Christian Rakovsky,
Nikolai Krestinsky and Genrikh Yagoda, recently disgraced head of the
The fact that Yagoda was one of the accused showed the speed at which
the purges were consuming its own. Meant to be the culmination of
previous trials, it was now alleged that Bukharin and others sought to
assassinate Lenin and Stalin from 1918, murder Maxim Gorky by poison,
partition the U.S.S.R and hand out her territories to Germany, Japan,
and Great Britain, and other preposterous charges.
Even previously sympathetic observers who had stomached the earlier
trials found it harder to swallow new allegations as they became ever
more absurd, and the purge now expanded to include almost every living
Old Bolshevik leader except Stalin. No other crime of the Stalin years
so captivated Western intellectuals as the trial and execution of
Bukharin, who was a Marxist theorist of international standing. For
some prominent communists such as Bertram Wolfe, Jay Lovestone, Arthur
Koestler, and Heinrich Brandler, the Bukharin trial marked their final
break with communism, and even turned the first three into fervent
anti-Communists eventually. To them, Bukharin’s confession
symbolized the depredations of communism, which not only destroyed its
sons but also conscripted them in self-destruction and individual
The preparation for this trial, which took over a year, was delayed
in its early stages due to the reluctance of some party members in
denouncing their comrades. It was at this time that Stalin personally
intervened to speed up the process and replaced Yagoda with Nikolai
Yezhov. Stalin also observed some of the trial in person from a hidden
chamber in the courtroom.
On the first day of trial, Krestinsky caused a sensation when he
repudiated his written confession and pled not guilty to all the
charges. However, he changed his plea the next day after "special
measures", which dislocated his left shoulder among other things.
Anastas Mikoyan and Vyacheslav Molotov later claimed that Bukharin
was never tortured, but it is now known that his interrogators were
given the order, "beating permitted," and were under great pressure to
extract confession out of the "star" defendant. Bukharin held
out for three months, but threats to his young wife and infant son,
combined with "methods of physical influence" wore him down. But when he
read his confession amended and corrected personally by Stalin, he
withdrew his whole confession. The examination started all over again,
with a double team of interrogators.
Bukharin's confession in particular became subject of much debate
among Western observers, inspiring Koestler's acclaimed novel Darkness
at Noon and philosophical essay by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Humanism and
Terror. His confessions were somewhat different from others in that
while he pled guilty to "sum total of crimes", he denied knowledge when
it came to specific crimes. Some astute observers noted that he would
allow only what was in written confession and refuse to go any further.
Also the fact that he was allowed to write in prison (he wrote four
book-length manuscripts including a autobiographical novel, How It All
Began, philosophical treatise, and collection of poems - all of which
were found in Stalin's archive and published in 1990's) suggests that
some kind of deal was reached as a condition for confession. (He also
wrote a series of very emotional letters to Stalin tearfully protesting
his innocence and professing his love for Stalin, which contrasts with
his critical opinion of Stalin and his policies expressed to others and
his conduct in the trial.)
There are several interpretations of Bukharin's motivations (besides
being coerced) in the trial. Koestler and others viewed it as a true
believer's last service to the Party (while preserving little amount of
personal honor left) whereas Bukharin biographer Stephen Cohen and
Robert Tucker saw traces of Aesopian language, with which Bukharin
sought to turn the table into an anti-trial of Stalinism (while keeping
his part of bargain to save his family). Bukharin himself speaks of his
"peculiar duality of mind" in his last plea, which led to
"semi-paralysis of the will" and Hegelian "unhappy consciousness", which
presumably stemmed from the reality of ruinous Stalinism (although he
could not of course say so in the trial) and the impending threat of
fascism (which required kowtowing to Stalin, who became the
personification of the Party).
The result was a curious mix of fullsome confessions (of being a
"degenerate fascist" working for "restoration of capitalism") and subtle
criticisms of the trial. After disproving several charges against him
(One observer noted that he "proceeded to demolish or rather showed he
could very easily demolish the whole case.") and saying that "the
confession of accused is not essential. The confession of the accused is
a medieval principle of jurisprudence" in a trial that was solely based
on confessions, he finished his last plea with the words: "the
monstrousness of my crime is immeasurable especially in the new stage of
struggle of the U.S.S.R. May this trial be the last severe lesson, and
may the great might of the U.S.S.R become clear to all."
Romain Rolland and others wrote to Stalin seeking clemency for
Bukharin, but all the leading defendants were executed except Rakovsky
and two others (who were killed in NKVD prisoner massacres in 1941).
Despite the promise to spare his family, Bukharin's wife, Anna Larina,
was sent to a labor camp, but she survived to see her husband
Purge of the army
The first five Marshals of the Soviet Union in November, 1935. (l-r):
Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Semyon Budyonny, Kliment Voroshilov, Vasily
Blyukher, Aleksandr Yegorov.
Only Voroshilov and Budyonny survived the
The purge of the Red Army was claimed to be supported by
Nazi-forged documents (said to have been correspondence between Marshal
Tukhachevsky and members of the German high command).
The claim is, however, unsupported by facts, since by the time the
documents were supposedly created, two people from the eight in the
Tukhachevsky group were already imprisoned, and by the time the document
was said to reach Stalin, the purging process was already underway.
However the actual evidence introduced at trial was obtained from forced
confessions. The purge of the army removed three of five marshals
(then equivalent to six-star generals), 13 of 15 army commanders (then
equivalent to four- and five-star generals), eight of nine admirals (the
purge fell heavily on the Navy, who were suspected of exploiting their
opportunities for foreign contacts), 50 of 57 army corps commanders, 154
out of 186 division commanders, 16 of 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28
army corps commissars.
Viktor Suvorov, in his The Cleansing (Î÷èùåíèå), writes that the
impact of the purge on the Red Army was not as severe as was claimed
later; in fact he suggests that it was beneficial to the Red Army, and
was not Stalin's blunder as usually claimed. Of all the victims, not
more than one-third were actually army officials. Of the remainder,
one-third were commissars — political supervisors — and one-third were
NKVD officials who wore military ranks. For example, one of the most
senior executed was the minister of navy affairs, former deputy minister
internal affairs (NKVD), Mikhail Frinovsky (Ì.Ï. Ôðèíîâñêèé) who wore
the rank of "Army-commander 1st rank", although he never in his life
served in the army.
The wider purge
Eventually almost all of the Bolsheviks who had played prominent roles
during the Russian Revolution of 1917, 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 remained in the Soviet Union,
alive. Four of the other five were executed. The fifth, Leon Trotsky,
went into exile in Mexico after being expelled from the Party but was
assassinated by Soviet agent Ramón Mercader 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.
However, the trials and executions of the former Bolshevik leaders,
while being the most visible part, were only a minor part of the purges.
Ex-kulaks and other "anti-Soviet elements"
On July 30, 1937 the NKVD Order no. 00447 was issued, directed against
"ex-kulaks" and other "anti-Soviet elements" (such as former officials
of the Tsarist regime, former members of political parties other than
the communist party, etc.).
They were to be executed or sent to GULAG prison camps
extrajudicially, under the decisions of NKVD troikas.
The order instructed to classify kulaks and other anti-Soviet
elements into two categories: the First category of repressed was
subject to death by shooting, the Second category was sent to prison
labor camps. The order set upper quotas per territory and category. For
example Byelorussian SSR was estimated to have 2,000 (1st cat.) + 10,000
(2nd cat.) = 12,000 anti-Soviet elements. It was specifically stressed
that quotas were estimates and could not be exceeded without personal
approval of Yezhov. But in practice this approval was easy to obtain,
and eventually these initial quotas were exceeded by orders of
magnitude. For example, in September 1937, the Dagestan obkom requested
the increase of the First Category from 600 to 1,200; the request was
granted the next day.
The implementation was swift. Already by August 15, 1937, 101,000
were arrested and 14,000 convicted.
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. The Polish operation of the NKVD was
the first of this kind, setting an example of dealing with other
targeted minorities. Many such operations were conducted on a quota
system. NKVD local officials were mandated to arrest and execute a
specific number of "counter-revolutionaries", produced by upper
officials based on various statistics.
Timeline of the Great Purge
The Great Purge of 1936–1938 can be roughly divided into four
1.October 1936–February 1937
Reforming the security organizations, adopting official plans on purging
2.March 1937–June 1937
Purging the Elites; Adopting plans for the mass repressions against the
"social base" of the potential aggressors, starting of purging the
"elites" from opposition.
3.July 1937–October 1938
Mass repressions against "kulaks", "dangerous" ethnic minorities, family
members of oppositions, military officers, Saboteurs in agriculture and
Stopping of mass operations, abolishing of many organs of extrajudicial
executions, repressions against some organizers of mass repressions.
End of Yezhovshchina
By the summer of 1938, Stalin and his
circle realized that the purges had gone too far; Yezhov was relieved
from his post as head of the NKVD and was eventually purged himself.
Lavrenty Beria, a fellow Georgian and Stalin confidant, 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.
The decree signaled the end of massive Soviet purges.
Nevertheless, the practice of mass arrest and exile was continued
until Stalin's death in 1953. Political executions also continued, but,
with the exception of Katyn and other NKVD massacres during WWII, on a
vastly smaller scale. One notorious example is the "Night of the
Murdered Poets," in which at least thirteen prominent Yiddish writers
were executed on August 12, 1952.
It should be noted that when the relatives of those who had been
executed in 1937-38 inquired about their fate, they were told by NKVD
that their arrested relatives had been sentenced to "ten years of
imprisonment without the right to correspond with anybody" (äåñÿòü ëåò
áåç ïðàâà ïåðåïèñêè). When these ten year periods elapsed in 1947-48 but
the arrested did not appear, the relatives asked MGB about their fate
again and this time were told that the arrested died in imprisonment.
The causes and the dates of the deaths were invented by MGB.
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. Not only did foreign correspondents from
the West fail to report on the purges, but in many Western nations,
especially 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
labor camp inmates' testimony.
According to Robert Conquest in his 1968 book The Great Terror:
Stalin's Purge of the Thirties, 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
E. Davies, who reported, "proof...beyond reasonable doubt to justify the
verdict of treason" and Beatrice and Sidney Webb, authors of Soviet
Communism: A New Civilization. While "Communist Parties everywhere
simply transmitted the Soviet line", some of the most critical reporting
also came from the left, notably The Manchester Guardian.
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 Nikita 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.
Some of the victims of the terror were American immigrants to Russia,
who had emigrated to Russia at the height of the Great Depression in
order to find work. At the height of the Terror, American immigrants
besieged the US embassy, begging for passports so they could leave
Russia. They were turned away by embassy officials, only to be arrested
on the pavement outside by lurking NKVD agents. Many were subsequently
shot dead at Butovo Field near Scherbinka, south from Moscow.
Efforts to minimize the extent of the Great Purge continue among
revisionist scholars in the United States.
1963 postage stamp of the Soviet Union, featuring Tukhachevsky
following his post-death rehabilitation The Great Purge was 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), Khrushchev 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 on the basis of
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 had 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
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 not rehabilitated until as
late as 1988.
The book Rehabilitation: The Political Processes of the 1930s-50s
(Ðåàáèëèòàöèÿ. Ïîëèòè÷åñêèå ïðîöåññû 30-50-õ ãîäîâ) (1991) contains a
large amount of newly presented original archive material: transcripts
of interrogations, letters of convicts, and photos. The material
demonstrates in detail how numerous show trials were fabricated.
Number of people executed
According to the declassified Soviet archives, during 1937 and 1938, the
NKVD detained 1,548,367 victims, of whom 681,692 were shot - an average
of 1,000 executions a day. Historian Michael Ellman claims the best
estimate of deaths brought about by Soviet Repression during these two
years is the range 950,000 to 1.2 million, which includes deaths in
detention and those who died shortly after being released from the Gulag
as a result of their treatment in it. He also states that this is the
estimate which should be used by historians and teachers of Russian
history. According to Memorial society
On the cases investigated by the State Security Department of NKVD (GUGB
At least 1,710,000 people were arrested
At least 1,440,000 people were sentenced
At least 724,000 were executed. Among them:
At least 436,000 people were sentenced to death by NKVD troikas as part
of the Kulak operation
At least 247,000 people were sentenced to death by NKVD Dvoikas' and the
Local Special Troykas as part of the Ethnic Operation
At least 41,000 people were sentenced to death by Military Courts
Among other cases in October 1936-November 1938:
At least 400,000 were sentenced to labor camps by Police Troikas as
Socially Harmful Elements (ñîöèàëüíî-âðåäíûé ýëåìåíò, ÑÂÝ)
At least 200,000 were exiled or deported by Administrative procedures
At least 2 million were sentenced by courts for common crimes, among
them 800,000 were sentenced to Gulag camps.
Some experts believe the evidence released from the Soviet archives
is understated, incomplete or unreliable. For example, Robert Conquest
suggests that the probable figure for executions during the years of the
Great Purge is not 681,692, but some two and a half times as high. He
believes that the KGB was covering its tracks by falsifying the dates
and causes of death of rehabilitated victims.
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. While stating that the accusations against
Tukhachevsky et al. should be abandoned, it 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 "use
of physical influence". Bukharin, Rykov, Zinoviev, and others were still
seen as political opponents, and though the charges against them were
obviously false, they could not 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 ("Shvernik Commission"). It included Shelepin, Serdyuk,
Mironov, Rudenko, and Semichastny. The hard work resulted in 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 was not 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
Mass graves and memorials
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, numerous mass graves filled
with executed victims of the terror were discovered. Some,
such as the killing fields at Kurapaty near Minsk and Bykivnia near
Kiev, are believed to contain up to 200,000 corpses.
In 2007, one such site, the Butovo firing range near Moscow, was
turned into a shrine to the victims of Stalinism. From August 1937
through October 1938, more than 20,000 people were shot and buried