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The term purge has a peculiarly ominous tone because it has been intimately associated with the terror in communist countries. In fact, historically it denotes two distinct political operations in the Soviet Union. One was a process whereby institutions such as the state bureaucracies and the Communist Party sought to expel (purge) those functionaries suspected of political deviation and professional incompetence: leftovers from the old regime, former members of non-Bolshevik political parties, political oppositionists, and others deemed politically unreliable or professionally incompetent. The other was political repression and terror, a purge of society in general from "enemies."


The first process was not necessarily free from terror, but it was not meant to be a terror operation. It was most famously associated with the repeated "cleansing" operations within the Communist Party. Not dissimilar in kind from the exclusion of Nazi members from state institutions in postwar Germany or, in postcommunist Eastern Europe, of those associated with the secret police and political terror, the cleansings were meant to keep the party free from opportunists and other undesirable elements. Two specific factors made purges of the party inevitable. One is that whereas the party needed a broad mass political base and wished to broaden its membership, as it did first in 1917 when the party emerged from underground and expanded rapidly, it also had to maintain its political purity as a communist avant-garde party. The other is that the absence of pluralism and the system of one-party dictatorship necessitated purges. Since those who sought political activity, even those who disagreed with the Communist Party, had nowhere else to go and therefore sought to channel the Communist Party from within in the direction they desired, the party appeared constantly diluted by subversives who had to be removed. Scholars of "totalitarianism" have developed an elaborate theory on the need for a "permanent purge" for maintaining the party's revolutionary élan by eliminating the corrupt and the deviant.

The constant purge process did not appear adequate to the party leaders when they decided on sudden and radical policy changes. Therefore the Communist Party resorted periodically to party-wide purge campaigns. Some early cases had already occurred in 1918–1919 when the party was deeply involved in the civil war against the counterrevolutionaries. The first major party-wide purge campaign took place in 1921–1922, when the party was forced by economic necessity to retreat from revolutionary war to peaceful economic reconstruction (the New Economic Policy or NEP) through a partial reintroduction of market relations. This purge reduced the membership by nearly a quarter. The purge was followed by a rapid expansion of party ranks in the mid-1920s, particularly after the death of Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the party, through special recruitment campaigns of workers. Toward the end of the 1920s Joseph Stalin emerged as the victor in the struggle for power among the party elite and, ending NEP, turned to enact his "revolution from above" (rapid industrialization and wholesale collectivization). This inaugurated another party-wide purge carried out purportedly to strengthen the party's "fighting capacity." This purge was enacted simultaneously with recruitment campaigns to further "proletarianize." Yet by 1933, when Stalin's "revolution from above" had confronted a grave crisis owing to widespread famine, recruitment was terminated and another party-wide purge was executed. The party leadership found that many formerly trustworthy functionaries were not in sympathy with the harsh economic and political measures taken to cope with the famine crisis. As a result, a very large number of party members fell victim to the purge. The 1933 purge still failed to satisfy the party leaders, who continued membership inspection in various forms for the next several years. This process merged with the second kind of purge, terror and repression, in the mid- to late 1930s against the backdrop of the increasing threat of war. From 1933 to 1938 the Communist Party membership thus declined by more than 40 percent, from 3.5 million to 1.9 million (Rigby, p. 52).

The purge of the 1930s created a host of problems, starting with the chaos of bookkeeping and ending with the destruction of the lives of numerous loyal party members. So traumatic was the experience that Stalin, addressing the Eighteenth Party Congress in 1939, declared that although the purge campaign strengthened the party by expelling the politically unreliable, grave mistakes had been committed during the campaigns and that the party would have no need to resort to further mass cleansings. Indeed, such mass operations were officially abolished and were never to be repeated.

This did not mean that routine purges disappeared. They continued. Moreover, localized purges also took place in various areas of the country, for example, in those areas of the Soviet Union occupied during World War II (including the newly incorporated union republics such as the Baltic states), in order to purge the party of those members suspected of desertion, collaboration with enemy forces, and other crimes.


Purge as political terror began immediately after the October Revolution. The new revolutionary government created a secret police (Cheka) soon after the revolution to fight the counterrevolutionary forces. During the civil war that followed (1918–1921), as many as 150,000 death sentences were given in the country. Even this figure is probably underestimated. During the relatively peaceful NEP (1921–1927), approximately 10,000 people ("political criminals") were sentenced to death by the secret police (from 1923, the OGPU). Stalin's "revolution from above," which marked a sharp turn from NEP and met resistance both from within the party and the government and from Soviet society in general, led to a sharp increase in the number of political death sentences meted out. In the four years from 1928 to 1931 more than 30,000 were sentenced to death in the country for political crimes (all data on terror here and later come from Popov, p. 28).

These numbers are merely the tip of the iceberg. During the four years of Stalin's "revolution from above" almost half a million people were arrested for alleged political and economic crimes (such as "economic wrecking"), most of whom were sentenced to prison terms or exile. It was at this time that the infamous gulag (soviet labor camps) expanded rapidly. In collectivizing the countryside, the party purged it of the kulaks (rich peasants), branded as "class enemies" (rural bourgeois), and their supporters. This dekulakization operation dispossessed probably more than three million peasants. In addition, in 1928–1932 more than ten million people fled the countryside to the city, a large number of whom did so involuntarily.

When the immediate goals of Stalin's "revolution from above" were achieved, the purge operation declined to a degree, as far as the number of death sentences were concerned—about seven thousand much lower than the previous few years. The number of arrests remained very high, however, amounting to close to half a million. This reflected the fact that Stalin used political purges as terror widely during the famine of 1932–1933 (which itself claimed several million lives). The famine crisis and the terror used to cope with it marked a new stage in the history of Soviet purge. Up until then, the main target of the purge was the "class enemy," but during the famine crisis the target began to shift subtly from the "class enemy" to the "enemy of the people." This new, class-neutral image of enemy encompassed virtually anyone, including tried and tested party members. The famous Soviet prosecutor Andrei Vyshinsky under Stalin noted in 1933 that having lost the battle, the enemy now resorted to "methods known as quiet sapping" rather than direct frontal attack and sought to conceal its wrecking acts with all sorts of "objective reasons," "defects," and the contention that the incidents did "not seem to be caused by malicious human intent." Therefore, Vyshinsky emphasized, the enemy "becomes less detectable and hence it becomes less possible to isolate him" (Kuromiya, 1988, p. 318).

This meant that mass purges were inevitable in order to capture hidden enemies, even at the cost of the innocent. Indeed, it was then, 1932–1934, that even Communist Party members began to be arrested in great numbers and even executed as enemies. It was then that, against the background of international threat from the east (Japan) and the west (Germany), foreigners, foreign-born Soviet citizens, and those associated with them came under suspicion and were purged in significant numbers. Thus, many individuals born in Harbin, Warsaw, Riga, Bucharest, and elsewhere were purged (executed) for their alleged foreign connections. Even party members who hailed from abroad (Koreans, Bulgarians, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, and others) were subjected to the same fate. Numerous people (Poles, Ukrainians, and others) were arrested and executed for their alleged membership in "nationalist" organizations or in foreign (German, Japanese, Polish) "spy networks" (almost all of these accusations were fabricated by the secret police). The government began to collect data on all "suspect" national groups (such as ethnic Germans) in the country. All this paled, however, in comparison with what came to be known as the Great Purge (or Great Terror).


There is no universally accepted consensus on exactly when Stalin started the Great Purge. Many concerned with Ukraine, which was hard hit by the famine and the purge in 1932–1933, contend that it began at that time. Some assert that it began with the murder of Sergei Kirov, the head of the Leningrad party organization, in December 1934. Some suggest that Stalin launched it with the first Moscow show trial in August 1936. Yet others attribute it to the summer of 1937 when indisputably mass terror operations began. Most scholars tend to agree, however, that the Great Purge virtually came to a halt by the autumn of 1938, when Stalin's chief executioner, the secret police chief Nikolai Yezhov, was removed from his post. In the four years from 1935 through 1938, nearly 2 million (in 1937 and 1938 alone more than 1.3 million) people were arrested. Of them, nearly 700,000 were sentenced to death (Popov, p. 28; Wheatcroft, pp. 129–135). Although these data are almost certainly incomplete, the two years of 1937 and 1938 account for 99 percent of these death sentences. The execution rate of the arrested was 44 percent in 1937 and 59 percent in 1938, whereas it was less than 1 percent in 1935 and 1936.

Who was purged? It used to be believed that the main victims of the purge were the Soviet elite. Most famously, the three Moscow show trials (held in 1936, 1937, and 1938) highlighted prominent Bolsheviks (such as Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Georgy Pyatakov, and Nikolai Bukharin), most of whom were executed immediately after their trials. While it is likely that the elite suffered disproportionately because of their visibility and their positions of responsibility, in fact "little people"—workers, peasants, and other "ordinary" Soviet citizens—accounted numerically for the majority of the victims, as became clear after the opening up of previously closed Soviet archives in the 1990s. Formerly repressed kulaks, criminals, ministers of religion, and other politically "undesirable" elements were specifically targeted by a special mass operation in 1937–1938 (the so-called kulak operation). Many others, such as the unemployed and the elderly, regarded as socially "unproductive" and dependent were purged along with other target groups. In some cases, even those already incarcerated were executed as if imprisonment were not enough. Similarly, specific national groups (particularly "diaspora nations" in the Soviet Union such as ethnic Germans, Poles, Greeks, Latvians, Koreans, and Chinese) were targeted for purge in special mass operations ("national operations") in 1937–1938. Many people who were associated in one way or another with those targeted groups of people were also purged. Although these mass operations initially had concrete numerical goals for arrest and execution, in the course of their implementation a competition-like frenzy by the secret police operatives, which in turn was sanctioned by Stalin, resulted in numbers that far exceeded the original goals.

The Great Purge represents the most violent aspect of the Soviet Union. Naturally it has been represented in various artistic forms, most notably in literature. Arthur Koestler, in his famous novel Darkness at Noon (1940), modeled his hero after Bukharin (an old Bolshevik who was executed in 1938), describing his capitulation to Stalin's bloody carnival as deriving from his own revolutionary ideology: his erstwhile fight against Stalin and refusal to totally capitulate were grave political crimes in the face of the dire threat to the very survival of the regime posed by foreign enemies such as Germany and Japan. The poet Anna Akhmatova, whose family was destroyed by the Great Purge, wrote about it in a famous series of poems, Requiem. The poems were inspired by a nameless woman who, like Akhmatova, stood countless hours in the lines outside a prison in Leningrad. The woman "recognized" the famous poet and whispered ("everyone spoke in whispers there") into her ears: "Can you describe this?" Akhmatova answered, "I can." The vast majority of those purged in these years (and, for that matter, before and after under Stalin) have been rehabilitated since as innocent victims of Stalin's terror. Why did the Great Purge take place at all? There is much scholarly debate on this and there is no consensus. Some influential older theories, which explain certain aspects of the Great Purge well, have proved inadequate to explain its extent: that Stalin wanted to remove all former oppositionists, particularly the old Bolsheviks who possessed a degree of independence of mind, or that Stalin wanted to replace old elite cadres with young ones. One new theory is that the Great Purge was part of a gigantic social engineering attempt. However, this fails to explain the concentration of the killings in just two years (1937 and 1938) and the necessity of killing rather than incarceration, let alone the implementation of the "national operations." Another theory is that Stalin indeed faced a growing internal threat in the country, especially from the "dekulakized" peasants and other repressed elements. Yet this interpretation has so far not shown whether the threat indeed existed or whether the threat had increased so much that Stalin suddenly felt compelled to initiate mass purge operations. Yet another theory, which is not entirely new, claims that it was a preemptive strike against all real and imagined enemies who might pose a grave political threat from within in case of war from without. This, according to critics, fails to explain the social engineering aspects of the purge. So the debate continues.

It is noteworthy that Stalin and his henchmen such as Vyacheslav Molotov and Lazar Kaganovich never failed to defend the Great Purge as an absolute necessity even though some mistakes were made and innocent people suffered. Their justification was that without the Great Purge the country would have lost to Nazi Germany because the internal "enemies of the people" would have risen up against the Soviet government. It was the Great Purge that made it possible to secure the rear for war. Such a justification has been equally passionately disputed by many who claim that the country won the war against Nazi Germany not thanks to the Great Purges or Stalin's leadership but in spite of the Purge and in spite of Stalin.

How Soviet society reacted to the Great Purge is another difficult issue. Some appeared to support the terror against the "enemies of the people" without question, while others merely toed the official line. Many upwardly mobile individuals benefited from the purges, but there were also people who did question what appeared to be madness. Still, there were very, very few cases of open dissent, because even those Soviet citizens who did not believe in the actions of the government were intimidated or frightened and generally could not, or did not, try to understand what was happening.


Purges did not cease with the end of the Great Purge. At reduced levels, they continued. The areas newly incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1939–1940 were thoroughly purged of "bourgeois" and other suspect elements. The war against Nazi Germany intensified the hunt for suspected spies, defeatists, deserters, and others, and after the war many people suspected of collaboration were purged. During and after the war Stalin questioned the political loyalty of certain ethnic groups (Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and others) and resorted to brutal ethnic cleansings by removing them entirely from their native lands. All the Soviet POWs and civilian laborers repatriated from Germany after the war were carefully screened and many were purged. In western borderlands such as western Ukraine, where nationalist forces continued to fight a civil war against the Soviet forces into the 1950s, the purge operations were extraordinarily brutal. However, the Great Purge was not repeated. Even most of those Soviet citizens who took arms against the Red Army managed to survive in the gulag. Thus it was in 1950 that the gulag population reached its peak under Stalin.

In sum, whereas the purges devastated the entire nation, they served the political leadership well by removing suspect members from the Communist Party, the government, and Soviet society in general. The necessity for purges, which were conducted routinely and sometimes violently, stemmed in large part from the system of one-party dictatorship and the lack of political pluralism. Stalin's obsession with "enemies" made the purges an integral part of Soviet politics. The purges terrorized the entire country, both the elite and the ordinary people, affecting, in one way or another, nearly every family in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Although the purges were not necessarily unpopular, the majority of the population had no choice but to accept them and live on the terms dictated by the regime.

See alsoAkhmatova, Anna; Bolshevism; Gulag; Soviet Union; Stalin, Joseph; Terror.


Primary Sources

Akhmatova, Anna. The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova. Translated by Judith Hemschemeyer and edited by Roberta Reeder. Updated and expanded ed. Boston, 1994.

Chuev, Felix Ivanovich. Molotov Remembers: Inside Kremlin Politics: Conversations with Felix Chuev. Edited by Albert Resis. Chicago, Ill., 1993. Very interesting memoir by a close associate of Stalin's.

Davies, R. W., Oleg V. Khlevniuk, and E. A. Rees, eds. The Stalin-Kaganovich Correspondence 1931–1936. Documents translated by Steven Shabad. New Haven, Conn., 2003. Collection of top-secret correspondence between Stalin and his close colleague Kaganovich, 1931–1936.

Getty, J. Arch, and Oleg V. Naumov. The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks,1932–1939. New Haven, Conn., 1999. A collection of important documents related to purges and terror.

Ginzburg, Lidiia. Zapisnye knizhki. Vospominannia. Esse. St. Petersburg, 2002.

Lih, Lars T., Oleg V. Naumov, and Oleg V. Khlevniuk, eds. Stalin's Letters to Molotov, 1925–1936. Translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick. New Haven, Conn., 1995. Collection of top-secret correspondence between Stalin and his close associate Molotov, 1925–1936.

Popov, V. P. "Gosudarstvennyi terror v sovetskoi Rossii, 1923–1953 gg. (istochniki i ikh interpretatsiia)." Otechestvennye arkhivy 2 (1992): 20–31. Contains and discusses very useful and important data on the statistics of terror.

Secondary Sources

Binner, Rolf, and Marc Jung. "Wie der Terror 'Groß' wurde: Massenmord und Lagerhaft nach Befehl 00447." Cahiers du monde russe 42, nos. 2–4 (2001): 557–613.

Brzezinski, Zbigniew K. The Permanent Purge: Politics in Soviet Totalitarianism. Cambridge, Mass., 1956. A classic totalitarian interpretation of purges.

Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties. New York, 1968. One of the earliest and most exhaustive studies of the Great Purge.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. "Stalin and the Making of a New Elite, 1928–1939." Slavic Review 38, no. 3 (September 1979): 377–402.

Getty, J. Arch. Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933–1938. New York, 1985.

——. "'Excesses Are Not Permitted': Mass Terror and Stalinist Governance in the Late 1930s." Russian Review 61, no. 1 (2002): 113–138.

Holquist, Peter. Making War, Forging Revolution. Cambridge, Mass., 2002.

Khlevniuk, Oleg. "The Objectives of the Great Terror, 1937–1938." In Soviet History, 1917–53: Essays in Honour of R. W. Davies, edited by Julian Cooper, Maureen Perrie, and E. A. Rees, 158–176. London, 1995.

Kuromiya, Hiroaki. Stalin's Industrial Revolution: Politics and Workers, 1928–1932. New York, 1988.

——. "Accounting for the Great Terror." Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 53, no. 1 (2005): 86–101.

Martin, Terry. The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939. Ithaca, N.Y., 2001.

Merridale, Catherine. Ivan's War: The Red Army 1939–45. London: Faber and Faber, 2005.

Naimark, Norman M. Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe. Cambridge, Mass., 2001.

Rigby, T. H. Communist Party Membership in the U.S.S.R., 1917–1967. Princeton, N.J., 1968.

Weiner, Amir. Making Sense of War: The Second World War and the Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution. Princeton, N.J., 2001.

Wheatcroft, S. G. "Towards Explaining the Changing Levels of Stalinist Repression in the 1930s: Mass Killings." In Challenging Traditional Views of Russian History, edited by Stephen Wheatcroft, 112–146. New York, 2002.

Hiroaki Kuromiya