REPRESSION UNDER STALIN

REPRESSION UNDER STALIN

The gradual accession of Stalin to power in the 1920s eventually brought an end to the liberalization of society and the economy, leading instead to a period of unprecedented government control, mobilization, and terrorization of society in Russia and the other Soviet republics. In the 1930s, agriculture and industry underwent brutal forced centralization, and Russian cultural activity was highly restricted. Purges eliminated thousands of individuals deemed dangerous to the Soviet state by Stalin's operatives. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The fox trot, the tango and other ballroom dances were banned under Stalin. The Most productive farmers were forced off their land and the most brilliant scientist and intellectuals were sent to prison. Stalin's new constitution officially recognized the secret police which controlled militias, exercised censorship and built a huge system of forced labor camps. Stalin established the dreaded NKVD security force to enforce his political agenda at home. He also created a political police force, called the GPU, that conducted espionage abroad and had thousands of agents planted all over the world. This was the precursor of the KGB.

The West was largely unaware of the horrors that were occurring in Russia under Stalin. The Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times correspondent Walter Durant wrote a story in 1933 at the height of the Great Famine under the headline: “Russians Hungry, But No Starving.” He also justified some of Stalin’s action as necessary “because the circumstances and Russia demand it” and said he was “giving the Russian people...what they really want, namely joint efforts, communal effort. He also wrote that the Red Army offered no threats and Stalin was committed to helping minorities.

As Stalin was starving and executing millions of people there were plenty of voices of admiration in Europe and the United States, from intellectuals to the unemployed, a few even voluntarily emigrating to the Soviet Union during the Great Depression.

Religious Repression Under Stalin

The Russian Communists dealt harshly with the conflict between Marxist atheist ideology and the desire to preserve Russian Orthodox culture. In the 1920s, they tried unsuccessfully to create a puppet "Living Church." When they didn't work Stalin staged an all out attack on religion under the "league of the Militant Godless."

Churches were destroyed and priests were jailed, deported and executed (in extreme cases their tongues were reportedly cut off and their eyes ripped out of their sockets). The religious assault climaxed in 1931 with the destruction of Moscow's massive Cathedral of Christ of the Savior— the Russian Orthodox church's equivalent of St. Peters cathedral. Original built in 1812, to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon and completed after decades of work in 1883, it boasted five gold domes 14 bells in four separate belfries with a combined weight of 65 tons. It was large enough to accommodate 10,000 worshipers and contained 312 kilos of gold. The highest dome was 103 meters tall, as tall as a 30-story building, and 30 meters wide.

Under Stalin's orders, the Cathedral of Christ of the Savior was looted of its bells, icons and gold and destroyed with explosives. Thousands of holy pictures, 48 marble reliefs and 177 marble tablets were obliterated. Stalin wanted to replace the cathedral with a Palace of the Soviets—a building 115 feet higher than the Empire than the Empire State Building, topped by a statue of twice as large as the Statue of Liberty. Lenin's index finger alone was planned to be 15 feet long. The ground proved to be too spongy to support such an edifice. All that came of the building was a massive foundation that kept flooding.

Stalin tried to wipe out the church altogether and then backed it to drum up patriotism and support at the beginning of World War II. During World War II, Stalin made peace with the Orthodox church and other religions to gain popular support.

Millions of Death Under Stalin

Stalin reportedly said, "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is statistic." The estimates of men, women and children that died during Stalin's rule (1927 to 53) range from 10 million to 50 million. The most common accepted figure is 20 million—almost four times the number killed in the Holocaust.

Of the 20 million that died under Stalin: 1) five million perished in forced labor camps during the Great Terror of 1935-38 when people were imprisoned for "counterrevolutionary activities" or simply not being liked by Stalin; 2) seven million died during a famine brought on by forced collectivization of farms in southern Russia and the Ukraine in the 1930s; and 3) eight million died in collectivization attempts after Stalin solidified his power in 1928 and during purges that lasted until he died in 1953.

In the late 1930s, half of the children in many school classrooms had missing fathers. So many railroad workers were removed from their positions the railroads failed run on time and so many engineers and factory managers were exiled or killed that the Soviet industrial complex was in disarray on the eve of World War II. One of the great riddles of Soviet history is how Stalin remained popular among his people while all these atrocities were going on.

A mass grave discovered in the early 2000s in the forest neat Toksovo near St. Petersburg is believed may contain the bodies of 32,000 people killed between the late 1920s and the early 1930s. It that is true it would be the largest known grave of victims killed in the Stalinist period. Some think it “only” contains 8,000 bodies. An estimated 40,000 were killed in the Leningrad area during Stalin’s Great Terror.

Collectivization

In the 1920s and 30s, Stalin government took over privately run farms, organized huge government-run state farms and order peasants to join together and form collective farms. Many peasants whose families had worked their land for centuries resisted and were forced to give up their farms and move to huge collective farms.

"Collectivization" was an aim to produce enough food for everyone and free people to factory workers. It was thought that fewer people would be able to produce more food under the system, but actually productivity dropped and peasantry was destroyed as a class and a way of life.

Stalin forced peasants into collective farms against their will and imposed impossible quotas. Police and party brigades carried off away food and seed grain. Mills and storage facilities were burned down and harvests were confiscated and exported while people went hungry to demonstrate to the world the success of "scientific socialism."

To satisfy the state's need for increased food supplies, the First Five-Year Plan called for the organization of the peasantry into collective units that the authorities could easily control. This collectivization program entailed compounding the peasants' lands and animals into collective farms (kolkhozy; sing., kolkhoz) and state farms (sovkhozy; sing., sovkhoz) and restricting the peasants' movement from these farms. The effect of this restructuring was to reintroduce a kind of serfdom into the countryside.

Agriculture Policy Under Stalin

Under Stalin the government socialized agriculture and created a massive bureaucracy to administer policy. Stalin's campaign of forced collectivization, which began in 1929, confiscated the land, machinery, livestock, and grain stores of the peasantry. By 1937 the government had organized approximately 99 percent of the Soviet countryside into state-run collective farms. Under this grossly inefficient system, agricultural yields declined rather than increased. The situation persisted into the 1980s, when Soviet farmers averaged about 10 percent of the output of their counterparts in the United States. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

During Stalin's regime, the government assigned virtually all farmland to one of two basic agricultural production organizations--state farms and collective farms. The state farm was conceived in 1918 as the ideal model for socialist agriculture. It was to be a large, modern enterprise directed and financed by the government. The work force of the state farm received wages and social benefits comparable to those enjoyed by industrial workers. By contrast, the collective farm was a self-financed producer cooperative that farmed parcels of land that the state granted to it rent-free and that paid its members according to their contribution of work. *

In their early stages, the two types of organization also functioned differently in the distribution of agricultural goods. State farms delivered their entire output to state procurement agencies in response to state production quotas. Collective farms also received quotas, but they were free to sell excess output in collective-farm markets where prices were determined by supply and demand. The distinction between the two types of farms gradually narrowed, and the government converted many collective farms to state farms, where the state had more control.

Collectivization and Kulaks

One of the main targets were kulaks, relatively rich peasants accused of exploiting peasants who worked for them. The kulaks were often the hardest working, most energetic and enterprising rural people but it was a misnomer to describe them as rich. They seldom owned more than a few acres and two or three horses and cows. They were useful in organizing peasant society and employing other peasants. Later the kulak label was use to describe any peasant who resisted collectivization, refused to turn grain over to the state or otherwise caused trouble.

Although the program was designed to affect all peasants, Stalin in particular went after the kulaks. Generally, kulaks were only marginally better off than other peasants, but the party claimed that the kulaks had ensnared the rest of the peasantry in capitalistic relationships. In any event, collectivization met widespread resistance not only from the kulaks but from poorer peasants as well, and a desperate struggle of the peasantry against the authorities ensued. Peasants slaughtered their cows and pigs rather than turn them over to the collective farms, with the result that livestock resources remained below the 1929 level for years afterward. The state in turn forcibly collectivized reluctant peasants and deported kulaks and active rebels to Siberia. Within the collective farms, the authorities in many instances exacted such high levels of procurement that starvation was widespread. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

"Collectivization" caused hardships particularly in the Ukraine and the Volga-Don region, the heart of the farming belt, where hundreds of thousands of farmers, many of them kulaks, resisted. Many were killed or sent to labor camps or remote areas of Siberia to start new villages and had their grain, homes and possessions were seized. Other protested the action by killing all their animals: sheep, cattle, pigs goats and even the horses and oxen that pulled their plows.

Great Famine in the Early 1930s

The two greatest famines in the 20th century were in China in the 1960s and the Soviet Union in the 1930s. The famine created by Stalin policies between 1929 and 1933 is believed to have caused 5 million and 40 million deaths. The hardest hit area was the Ukraine. The historian Robert Conquest estimated that 14.5 million people died, half of them children and 6.5 million of the kulaks, making it the second or third worst famine ever.

The famine was its worst between the spring of 1932 to the summer of 1933. Much of it was caused the decline of food production that accompanied collectivization. This in turn was caused when the people who worked the land were driven away or killed. At the time of the famine four fifth of the Soviet population was made up of peasant farmers.

There was initially plenty of food, but to fulfill the unrealistic quotas, nearly all of it was handed over the state. Some farmers stopped growing grain. There was no incentive to grow it because they had to turn it over to the state, with very little compensation. Those who didn’t turn over their grain were accused of “hoarding” and imprisoned or killed. Marxist brigades searched houses for food; peasant who looked healthy were singled out for intensive searches.

Farmers starved to death while working in the fields. Entire villages perished from starvation. One Ukrainian farmer who returned to his farm in 1933 after a year’s absence, found his village “almost extinct” and survivors living on grass, bark on and occasional rabbit. His brother told him when the food sources gave out: “Mother says we should eat her is she dies.” Survivors of the Great Famine recall piles of bodies and monasteries turned into orphanages. Many children were raised by their grandparents or in orphanages.

Book: Harvest of Sorrow by historian Robert Conquest.

Famine, Repression and the Export of Grain

Soldiers searched the homes for the presence for grain. People were issued internal passports to keep them from searching for food. People caught with any amount of grain could executed. Executions for food thefts and hoarding were randomly applied.

Fields were guarded against the hungry. People were executed for picking an ear of corn. There were so many reports of cannibalism that posters were printed to remind people that it was illegal. The borders were sealed. Few reports leaked out about the tragedy. Afterwards the Soviet government insisted the famine never happened, and Western government didn't push the issue, not wanting to raise tensions. Some say the whole process of collectivization and famines was orchestrated by Stalin to wipe out dissent in independent-minded Ukraine.

The famine was exacerbated by the Soviet government’s export of 3.5 million tons of grain during a two-year period in 1932-34 and the fact that peasant killed 50 percent of the country's livestock to protest collectivization. The famine would have been worse if Stalin hadn't allowed people to set up backyard garden plots so they could feed themselves.

Trofim Lysenko and the Famine

Trofim Denisoveich Lysenko (1898-1976) was a charlatan biologist who worked under Stalin and Khrushchev and found favor among Communist ideologues because his theories that acquired characteristics could be inherited seemed to confirm Marxist doctrine and transcended Darwinism and Mendel genetics, which were popular in the West.

Lysenko played a major role in the famine of 1932-34. A specialist in agronomy, he claimed that he developed a technique called vernalization that could "train" spring wheat to be winter wheat and produce additional harvests. Soviet agricultural specialists agreed to try his methods on a large scale even though his technique had not been properly tested. The result: failed crops and farming methods that contributed to the starving deaths of millions of people.

Lysenko’s “miracles” were supposed to cure the Soviet Union of the problems caused for forced collectivization, but they made them much worse. Lysenko sent Soviet biology back decades with his wacky ideas and caused the Soviet Union to miss out on the genetics revolution. He also supplied ideology for led pogroms. Colleagues that dared to speak out against his ideas, in many cases were imprisoned and even executed.

Book: Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science by Valery Soyfer (Rutgers University Press, 1995).

Divisions of Ethnic Groups in the Soviet Union

The ethnic mix and configuration of some the ethnic republics was odd and unnatural. The strange ethnic make up of some of the ethnic republics was primarily the work of Joseph Stalin, when he served as the People's Commissar of Nationalities under Lenin in the 1920s , to suit the needs of the state not the people. In some cases traditional rivals were placed together in the same state and major population centers for one group were divided into different states. Some of the most creative gerrymandering was done where Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan meet (See Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan Under Central Asia).

The borders of the ethnic homelands and republics were gerrymandered to suit the divide-and-rule policy of Moscow. Stalin’s idea was to group rival ethnic group into the same states rather than give them their own state so they would be too occupied bickering among themselves to unite against Moscow and threaten the Soviet state and in turn require a strong Soviet military presence to keep the peace. One Russian newspaper editor told National Geographic, “It wasn’t just divide and conquer. It was divide, conquer and tie up in trouble.”

As Lenin’s commissar in charge of national minorities, Stalin created “autonomous regions” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 1922, as part of the divide to conquer strategy he also employed in Central Asia, where he grouped Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in artificial enclaves. One objective was to create a situation in which if the Soviet republics were ever able to break the grip of Soviet rule they would experience a wave of ethnic violence. One Georgian historian called the autonomous regions “time bombs set to detonate if Georgia became independent.” Indeed that is what happened when Georgia became independent in 1991. It also happened the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Volga Tartars, Germans and Cossacks, among others, have lobbied through history for the creation of ethnic states within the Russian empire. One American State Department official told the New York Times, “If you are Russian and you look at the map, what you see is that most of the country isn’t yours. The psychological consequences are enormous. It’s as if American had honored all the Indian treaties and everything from the Mississippi to the Pacific was an Indian reservation.”

See Separate Article EARLY SOVIET PERIOD IN CENTRAL ASIA under Central Asia.

Mass Deportations of Ethnic Groups

In the 1930s, a number of ethnic groups, including the Greeks, Tatars, Koreans and Volga Germans were suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile n Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. Some were imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.” More than 1.5 million people were deported to Siberia and Central Asia.

Initially the Greeks prospered under Soviet rule. Greek schools, newspapers and culture flourished in places where there were large numbers of Greeks. The number of Greek schools rose from 33 in 1924 to 140 in 1938. There a was political drive to create an autonomous Greek territory.

Things changed in 1930s, when Stalin included the Greeks among the groups that were persecuted and deported. Greek schools were shut down. Publications in Greek were banned and much of the Greek population was suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. Many were imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.” In 1949, Stalin exiled tens of thousands of Pontic Greeks in Crimea and the Caucasus.

During World War II, the Volga Germans and Caucasus ethnic groups such as the Chechens and Ingush were rounded up a transported in cattle cars to new "homelands" in Siberia and Central Asia. After Stalin died some were allowed to return. The mass deportation and, arguably, genocide against twenty nationalities—including the Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and the Volga Germans—during World War II is called the “war on cosmopolitans.

Mass Deportations of Chechens

In 1936 Stalin created the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic. In 1943, when Nazi forces reached the gates of the Chechen capital, Groznyy, Chechen separatists staged a rebellion against Russian rule. In response, the next year Stalin deported more than 1 million Chechens, Ingush, and other North Caucasian peoples to Siberia and Central Asia on the pretext that they had collaborated with the Nazis. The remaining Muslim people of the Chechnya region were resettled among neighboring Christian communities. Stalin's genocidal policy virtually erased Chechnya from the map,

Some Chechens and Ingush had collaborated with the Nazi who occupied the northern Caucasus briefly from later 1942 to early 1943 but less of them did than Ukrainians and Byelorussians were not similarly persecuted. No Chechens or Ingush were spared, even those who fought for the red Army on the German front. A third of the population of Chechnya is believed to have died from suffocation, hunger, disease and cold. It was clear the goal was to eliminate Chechnya and the Chechens. Chechnya was divided among its neighbors. Mapmakers and historians were instructed to remove all references to Chechnya and Chechens from maps, textbooks and reference books.

The carefully prepared operation began on February 22, 1944, towards the end of World War II. Hundreds of thousands of Chechens were packed into cattle cars in trains in the dead of winter and taken on a three week journey for "resettlement" in desolate steppes in Kazakhstan. Many Chechens regard the operation as an act of genocide.

The operation was organized by the Lavrenty Beria, the head of Stalin's secret police. In a memo he wrote: "The eviction of the Chechens and Ingush is proceeding normally: 342,647 people were loaded onto trains February 25 and by February 29] the number had risen to 478,479 of whom 91,250 were Ingush and 387,229 were Chechens...The operation proceeded in an organized fashion, with no serious instances or resistance, or other incidents. There were only isolated cases of attempted flights."

As many as a third of the Chechens died in transit. According to one memo only 12,000 railway carriages were used instead of the planned 15,000 because of "compressed cargo" and large numbers of children were shipped because they took up less space.

Forced Exile of Crimean Tatars

On May 18, 1944, towards the end of World War II, all of the Crimean Tatars—some 230,000 of them—were roused from their beds and rounded up in one night, under orders from Stalin, and forced onto trucks and rail cattle cars for the long trip to Central Asia (mostly to Uzbekistan) and the southern Urals. The Tatars were falsely accused by Stalin of collaborating with the Nazis— even though they supplied a large of soldiers to anti-Nazi units in the Red Army—and were exiled as punishment. The Tatars were one of a dozen or so ethnic groups accused by Stalin of collaborating with the Nazis.

One Tatar late told the Washington Post, "A Russian officer came with three soldiers and ordered us to leave. He said the Tatars were traitors to the Motherland. My father gave him documents showing that my brother was fighting the Germans in the Red Army, but [the officer] threw them aside. He said that meant nothing.”

The Tatars were locked inside the cattle cars. At stops some food and water was thrown in and dead bodies were removed. As many 100,000 of them died—nearly half their entire population— during the journey and the early days or resettlement. Those who survived lost their land, lost their identity and were subjected to crushing restrictions.

Crimean Tatars in Uzbekistan

The Tatars were settled in communities under tight supervision. They were prohibited from traveling or publishing in their language. One woman told the Washington Post, “In Uzbekistan, Tatars are being turned into Uzbeks and Russians. We're losing our languages, our culture and identity.”

The Tatars first lived in concrete huts set up on the steppes. Over time they built proper houses. After Stalin died, other groups were allowed to return to their homelands, but not the Tatars. Some historians believe this was because that Tatars might stir up anti-Soviet activity among other Muslim groups. Other historians have said the Soviet’s simply wanted the Tatars land and firmer grasp on the strategically important Crimean peninsula.

Back in the Crimea, Russians had moved into Tatars houses and farmed Tatar land and destroyed Tatar mosques and cemeteries. The Crimea was developed into an important military zone and a playground for the Soviet elite. In 1946, the Crimean Tatars ceased to officially exist as a distinct ethnic group, instead they were grouped in the broad Tatar category.

Return of the Crimean Tatars

In the 1960s, the Crimean Tatars began what was described as the most persistent campaign of dissent under Soviet rule. They overwhelmed the Kremlin with petitions that called for apology for what happened to them and for the right to return to their homes in the Crimea. In 1967, the Kremlin issued a decree exonerating the Tatars of allegedly treason. The decree didn't end the petition drive and demonstrations.

With the arrival of glasnost under Gorbachev, Tatars started returning to their homeland with their families in the late 1980s, with the pace picking up in the 1990s after break up of the Soviet Union. About half of the 500,000 Crimean Tatars that lived in Central Asia returned to the Crimea. Many of them lived around Simferopol and Bakhchysaray (the last capital of Crimean Tatarstan). More would have liked to move but couldn't afford it.

Inevitably the Tatars found their old houses occupied by Russians who were unwilling to give them up, and thus the Tatars were forced to build new ones. Authorities denied them land. They squatted and built houses. These were bulldozed. Mass protests ultimately pressured authorities to allow them to stay.

Great Terror and Purges Under Stalin

The Great Terror is a period from about 1936 to 1938 of intense repression in the Soviet Union when millions were imprisoned, deported, and executed by Stalin's secret police for spurious political or economic crimes. The Great Terror affected all of Soviet society, including the highest levels of the party, government, and military.

Social upheaval continued in the mid-1930s, when Stalin began a purge of the party; out of this process grew a campaign of terror that led to the execution or imprisonment of untold millions from all walks of life. During the Great Terror of 1936 to 1938, more than a million people were executed and millions more were arrested, exiled, forced out of their jobs or sent to labor camps. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the 1930s, Stalin aimed to consolidated his power within the Communist party, the government and the military by launching a series of purges against people he accused of "plotting against the state." People in the party that opposed Stalin or were perceived to oppose him were arrested and sometimes tried in show trials. Nikolia Yezhov, who organized many of the show trials, is believed to have ordered 20,000 executions.

The purges are mainly blamed on Stalin paranoia. Stalin ordered the execution of fellow comrades and close friends. With no bourgeois left to purge he invented them, often within the Communist party. In the 1940s, Stalin became increasingly more paranoid and anti-Semitic. The infamous Doctor's Plot was used by Stalin to purge the trop ranks of the Jewish scientific intelligentsia. The historian Richard Pipes wrote, the government gave itself "the power to kill its citizens not for what they had done but because their death 'was needed.'"

Hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens played an active part in the purges: serving as jailers and police; informing on their friends and family members; coming up with victims of non-existence crimes; carrying out torture and executions. The poet Osip Mandelshtamm wrote: "Stalin doesn't have to cut heads off/ They fly off by themselves like dandelions." People routinely betrayed friends and relatives. Stalin often arrested the wives of people who worked under him and waited them to plead for their release to gain some advantage. He made sure cleaning women were KGB informers.

History of Stalin’s Purges

The complete subjugation of the party to Stalin, its leader, paralleled the subordination of industry and agriculture to the state. Stalin had assured his preeminent position by squelching Bukharin and the "right-wing deviationists" in 1929 and 1930. To secure his absolute control over the party, however, Stalin began to purge leaders and rank-and-file members whose loyalty he doubted. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Stalin's purges began in December 1934, when Sergey Kirov, a popular Leningrad party chief who advocated a moderate policy toward the peasants, was assassinated. Although details remain murky, many Western historians believe that Stalin instigated the murder to rid himself of a potential opponent. In any event, in the resultant mass purge of the local Leningrad party, thousands were deported to camps in Siberia. *

There were well-publicized show trials of party leaders and unpublicized purges that swept through the ranks of younger leaders in party, government, industrial management, and cultural affairs. Party purges in the non-Russian republics were particularly severe. The Yezhovshchina ("era of Yezhov," named for NKVD chief Nikolay Yezhov) ravaged the military as well, leading to the execution or incarceration of about half the officer corps. The secret police also terrorized the general populace, with untold numbers of common people punished after spurious accusations. By the time the purges subsided in 1938, millions of Soviet leaders, officials, and other citizens had been executed, imprisoned, or exiled.

Kirov Assassination and Its Impact

In December 1934, Sergey Kirov was assassinated in Leningrad. This marked the beginning of the Great Terror, which caused intense fear among the general populace and peaked in 1937 and 1938 before subsiding. Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, Stalin's former political partners, received prison sentences for their alleged role in Kirov's murder and were executed.

Sergei M. Kirov was the head of the Leningrad Communist Party and once was a close associate of Stalin. In what is sometimes referred as the "Kremlin's greatest mystery," he was shot at close range and killed in his office in the Smolny Institute on December 1, 1934. A disgruntled young Communist named Leonid V. Nikolayv was arrested and executed after he reportedly confessed.

Later there were accusations of a conspiracy and Zinov'yev and Kamenev—then two prominent members of the anti-Stalin opposition— were arrested and executed in 1936. Stalin agreed to spare them the death penalty if they plead guilt to the false charges. Zinov'yev and Kamenev agreed to do that but were shot anyway. A few hours after their conviction, Stalin ordered their execution that night.

Two years later the leader of the conspiracy investigation, Genrikh Yagoda, was himself arrested and executed. Many historians believe, although it has yet to be definitively proven, that Stalin ordered the murder. Yagoda’s show trial is was regarded as the beginning of Stalin’s Great Terror. Later it was revealed that Kirov’s murder took place on orders from Stalin. [Source: The Kremlin's Greatest Mystery by Amy Knight (Hill and Wang, 1999]

Victims of Stalin’s Purges

Executions were carried out on “an industrial scale” during Stalin’s purges. Entire families were wiped out for the perceived minor offense of one person. At one site near Moscow up to 500 people were killed a day between August 1937 and 1938, the height of the Great Terror. Among the victims were many ordinary farmers., factory workers as well as government officials and army members.

More than one million members of the Communist Party were purged. Many of people that helped Stalin in his drive for power were killed. Of the 1,961 people attended the 17th Party Congress in 1934, 1,108 were executed. Leningrad was particularly hard hit.

The Soviet Union military was also hit hard. Over 1,000 Soviet generals were shot between 1938 and 1940 (in contrast only 600 Nazi generals died in all of World War II). In 1937-38, three out of five marshals, 13 of 15 army commanders, 110 or 195 divisional commanders, 220 of 406 brigaders and countless other officers were executed under Stalin's orders for alleged treason. These killings seriously hurt the Russian military on the eve of World War II.

At three publicized show trials held in Moscow between 1936 and 1938, dozens of these Old Bolsheviks, including Zinov'yev, Kamenev, and Bukharin, confessed to improbable crimes against the Soviet state. Their confessions were quickly followed by execution.

Trotsky's Assassination

Leon Trotsky—the last of Stalin's old rivals— was accused of masterminding conspiracies against Stalin from abroad. He was murdered in Mexico in 1940, presumably on the orders of the NKVD, in an attack with an ice ax. The 60-year-old Trotsky died 26 hours after the attack from damage to his brain caused from 3-inch hole in his skull made with the ice ax.

Trotsky was assassinated on August 20, 1940 after feeding his rabbits in his fortified mansion outside of Mexico City. He just escaped an assassination attempt three months before in which 20 men dressed in fake police and military uniforms assaulted his mansion with incendiary bombs, dynamite bombs and 73 machine bullets. Trotsky and his wife survived by hiding under their bed. The plot was reportedly arranged by the Mexican artist David Alfaro Siquiros.

Trotsky's assassin, Jaime Ramón Mercader del Rio Hernandez, was a passionate Spanish Stalinist who had managed to infiltrate Trotsky's inner circle by seducing one of Trotsky's followers who helped the assassin gain the confidence of Trotsky's security men. On the day of the murder, Trotsky welcomed Hernandez into his study to read an article Hernandez had written. Inside a raincoat clutched against his chest, Hernandez carried a mountaineering ice ax.

Hernandez later confessed: "I put my raincoat on the table on purpose so that I could take out the ice ax which I had in the pocket...I took the piolet out of my raincoat, took it in my fist, and, closing my eyes, I gave him a tremendous blow on the head...The man screamed in such a way that I will never forget as long as I live. His scream was Aaaaaa!...very long, infinitely long, and it still seems to me as if that scream were piecing my brain..."

Hernandez was captured, beaten, arrested, tried and convicted for murder but spared the death penalty. He was released from prison in 1960 and fled to Czechoslovakia, where he lived until his death. During his years in prison he became a kind of mystery man because he refused to reveal details of his past.

Stalin Solidifies His Grip on Power During the Great Terror Purges

The reasons for the period of widespread purges remain unclear. Western historians variously hypothesize that Stalin created the terror out of a desire to goad the population to carry out his intensive modernization program, or to atomize society to preclude dissent, or simply out of brutal paranoia. Whatever the causes, the purges must be viewed as having weakened the Soviet state. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In 1936, just as the Great Terror was intensifying, Stalin approved a new Soviet constitution to replace that of 1924. Hailed as "the most democratic constitution in the world," the 1936 document stipulated free and secret elections based on universal suffrage and guaranteed the citizenry a range of civil and economic rights. But in practice the freedoms implied by these rights were denied by provisions elsewhere in the constitution that indicated that the basic structure of Soviet society could not be changed and that the party retained all political power. *

The power of the party, in turn, now was concentrated in the persons of Stalin and the members of his handpicked Politburo. As if to symbolize the lack of influence of the party rank and file, party congresses were convened less and less frequently. State power, far from "withering away" after the revolution as Karl Marx had prescribed, instead grew. With Stalin consciously building what critics would later describe as a cult of personality, the reverence accorded him in Soviet society gradually eclipsed that given to Lenin. *

NKVD–Stalin’s Secret Police

During the period of purges, the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodnyy komissariat vnutrennikh del--NKVD), the secret police agency that was heir to the Cheka of the early 1920s, stepped up surveillance through its agents and informers and claimed to uncover anti-Soviet conspiracies among prominent long-term party members. Stalin established the dreaded NKVD to enforce his political agenda at home. He also created a political police force, called the GPU, that conducted espionage abroad and had thousands of agents planted all over the world.

The concept of an intelligence force was nothing new in Russia. Most of the tsars had some form of secret police. The Bolsheviks revived the tsar's political police months after they seized power in 1917. Headed by Feliks Dzerzhinsky until his death in 1926, the organization was called the Cheka, an acronym of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage. A statue of Dzerzhinsky still stands outside the headquarters of the KGB in Moscow and in many cities and towns in Russia.

Over the years the Cheka changed it name numerous times. The names included the OGPU, NKVD, MVD, MGB, KGB, FSB. In 1923 the name was changed to OGPU and renamed in 1934 the NKVD under Stalin. In 1946 the secret police were divided into two parts: the MGB which operated mainly abroad and the MVD which operated the forced labor camps and policed the local population. It became the KGB on March 13, 1954, shortly after Stalin's death.

Under Lenin's leadership the Cheka persecuted enemies of the Communist party. This policy reached an unprecedented level under Stalin. The NKVD, headed by the notorious Lavrenti Beria, purged and executed millions of real and imagined enemies in the Soviet Union and attacked Stalin's adversaries such as Leon Trotsky, abroad.

The NKVD took carry of rounding up and interrogating many of the people who were executed or sent to the gulags under Stalin. It was based in the same building in Moscow that was later used by the KGB and its successor the FSB. The NKVD kept meticulous records, many of which were finally made public in the early 2000s. Some bore the stamp “ Khranit’ Vecho’—“Preserve for Eternity”—a special classification developed in the 1930s. People bound for the gulags had “ zdorov k fiztrudu”—“fit for physical labor”—written on their medical report.

People Arrested During the Great Terror Period

Many of those sent to the gulags were classified as counter-revolutionaries or enemies of the people under Stalin’s criminal code. Many were taken into custody in what were called “prophylactic arrests”—which simply met that anyone could be arrested based on suspicion alone. Questions, if they were asked at all, came later. Many times an individuals’s class, ethnic group or profession was reason enough to arrest them.

At height of the purge,in 1938, more than 12 million people were arrested, often on trumped up charges or because they were deemed "Enemy of the people" or "Enemy of the state." Many Russians in the 1990s knew someone or had a relative that was arrested. One high school student told Newsweek, "My grandfather, they came for him at night. My grandmother never found out what happened to him. She didn't like to talk about it."

The daughter of a Baku oil baron, told National Geographic, "My father wasn't very clever. They arrested him for being a former capitalist. They put a stool pigeon in his cell. This provocateur started to curse Stalin. My father said, 'What do you want? He's a dictator. This comment was reported he was sent to Kazakhstan and shot." Alla B. Shister was once an enthusiastic Stalin supporter. But after one husband was killed the Great Terror, another disappeared into a mental institution and she herself was sent to labor camps she changed her tune.

People who spoke up for democracy were jailed under charges of plotting to "topple the Communist system, liquidate the Warsaw Pact, dissolve the Soviet Union and promote the system of the United States." All the guests at parties where a single jokes critical of Stalin was told were arrested and sent to Siberia. One family was thrown out of its house and sent to the Arctic because they were labeled as bourgeoisie for owning two horses.

Description of a Stalin-Era Arrest

Describing the arrest of Osip Mandelstam in May 1934, his wife Nadezhda wrote: "In the evening the translator David Brodski turned up and then just would not leave. There wasn't a bit to eat in the house and M. went around to the neighbors to try and get something for Akhmatova's supper...At about one o'clock in the morning , there was a sharp unbearably explicit knock on the door. 'They've come for Osip,' I said and went to open the door."

"Some men in civilian overcoats were standing outside—there seemed to be a lot of them. For a split second I had a tiny flicker of hope that this still wasn't it...Without a word or a moment's hesitation, but with consummate skill and speed, they came in past me (not pushing, however) and the apartment was suddenly full of people already checking our identity papers, running their hands over our hips with a precise well-practiced movement, and feeling our pockets to make sure we had no concealed weapons.

"M. came out of the large room. 'have you come for me?' he asked. One of the agents a short man, looked at him with what could have been a faint smile and said, 'Your papers.' M. took them out of his pockets, and after checking them, the agent handed him a warrant. M read it and nodded...After checking our papers, presenting their arrest and making sure there would be no resistance, they began to search the apartment.

"Brodski slumped into his chair and sat there motionless...At last permitted to walk freely...Brodski suddenly roused himself, help up his hand like a schoolboy and asked permission to go to the toilet. the agent directing the search looked at him with contempt, 'You can go home,' he said...The secret police despised their civilian helpers. Brodski had no doubt been ordered to sit with us that evening in case we tried to destroy any manuscripts when we heard the knock on the door."

Interrogation After a Stalin-Era Arrest

The poet Mikhail Isayevich, a former Red Army soldier who served in Berlin in World War II, was arrested after saying that the roads in Germany were good (the conversation in which he said that had been recorded by a friend-informant). He told Newsweek, that after his arrest "they put me in a car. There were four of them who came for me. In the car they always offer a cigarette. As soon as the door shut, everything changed. First they took off your hooks and buttons from your pants so you had to hold up your pants."

"After that I went to a cell; it was not a special prison. It was downtown Rostov-on-Don, in a district where there were meat warehouses. They turned the warehouses into prisons. The average-size room was about 20 square meters. I was arrested in May. It was very hot, almost hard to breath. There were 12 people in the room...All different people. I don't know why most of them were there."

"At the beginning of my interrogation I didn't say anything. They didn't torture us—no slivers under the fingernails or that sort of thing. But this is what they did: they prevented us from sleeping. And every night they would ask the same things: tell us about your anti-Soviet activities! I would start to nod off and they would shake me and say, 'Are you here to sleep or what?' Eventually I "confessed" to praising German roads." For the crime of "praising life abroad" he spent six years at a labor camp in Siberia."

After torture and coercion even the most loyal Communists confessed to betraying the state and engaging in terrorist plots. The judicial process was minimal. If there was a trial, the judiciary acted on orders from the Stalin regime and gave the sentences the regime wanted.

Gulags Under Stalin

The term gulag was used to describes a vast network of hundreds of forced labor camps and prisons that were established mostly in Siberia, the Arctic, the Far East and Central Asia. Gulag is the Russian acronym for “Glavny Upravlenie Lagerey” ("Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps”). It came to mean “camp” or more generally “the camps.”

Stalin expanded the gulag system. At its height the system contained 476 camp complexes, within which there were often dozens, sometimes hundreds of individual camps. From 1929, when Stalin consolidated his grip on power, until 1953 when he died, 18 million people passed through the camp system. Six million more were exiled to isolated, police villages in Siberia or Kazakhstan or to special settlements known as spetposelki.

The gulags were central to Stalin’s ambition to industrialize the Soviet Union. Gulag labor built roads, railroads, dams and factories. They worked in coal mines, set pipelines, developed oil fields. They fished for salmon, made missiles, clear timbered, slaughtered livestock and made toys. Stalin had hoped the gulags would turn a profit but they ultimately drained more than contributed to the Soviet economy. After Stalin’s death the number of people sent to the camps was great reduced but they continued to exist right up until Gorbachev.

Some of the most notorious camps were in Magadan, Karaganda and Kolyma in the Russian Far East and a group of camps spread along the Ob River every five miles or so between Nadym and Salekhard in Siberia. These camps were known as the "Gulag Archipelago" the title of an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn book. The system was huge. The Kolyma area alone is six times the size of France. There were hundreds of camps. Many were in places where no one had previously lived. The Komi region cities of Ukhta, Syktyvkar, Pechora, Vorkuta, and Inta all began as camp centers.

Magadan was a port and the capital of Kolyma. In Magadan there were camps just for women. They panned for gold. In other places there special “children’s labor colonies” for troublesome children. More than three million people died here between 1931 when they were inaugurated and Stalin’s death in 1953.

See Separate Article on Gulags.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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