Purges, The Great

views updated


The term Great Purges does not accurately designate the chaotic chain of events to which it is applied and was never used by the Soviet authorities. The regime tried to cover up the large-scale violence it had deployed between the summer of 1936 and the end of 1938. Although scholars apply the term purges to this period, many of them agree that the appellation is misleading. It implies that the Bolshevik attempts to eliminate the system's presumed enemies were a carefully planned, faithfully executed series of punitive operations, and this was far from being the case. The terror of 1936 to 1938 emerged without clear designit targeted ill-defined categories of people and it proceeded haphazardly. Although purges victimized around 1.5 million individuals, they did not succeed in ridding the country of the problems they were supposed to stamp out.

fear of opposition

The Bolsheviks were convinced that the USSR was threatened by internal adversaries. They never hesitated to attribute discontent among the people to instigation by irreconcilably hostile elements, and they frequently did not even trust fellow militants. In the course of the 1930s, failure was increasingly imputed to deliberate sabotage.

There was barely a sector of life where the regime's initiatives succeeded. Collectivized agriculture did not feed the country properly, industry did not work according to plans, the Communist Party and the state administration did not carry out important directives. Peasants on collective farms did their best to avoid work, officeholders in the countryside vacillated between compromising with rural ways and taking brutal measures, workers were hard to discipline, managers invented ways to seem to be doing their jobs, officials in all institutions eagerly covered up for incompetent colleagues and the true state of affairs. The Bolsheviks were unwilling to acknowledge that the masses were only reacting to the outcome of the regime's policies, and top decision-makers were unable to grasp that subordinates were following their own example of not speaking out about inextricable issues, leaving problems unsolved, blaming whipping boys for their own miscalculations, and lavishing praise on achievements that were more than dubious. The elite never came close to recognizing that the monopoly of the Party-state in nearly every domain left no room for checks and balances, and that attempts to improve the situation could not bring results as long as they were entrusted to the very establishment whose practices had to be corrected. The leaders could not see that the regime's difficulties were part-and-parcel of the system and could not be overcome without changing it completely.

Unwilling to accept responsibility for the system's failures, the Bolsheviks intensified the search for hidden enemies. Even top leaders were convinced that intractable problems were due to subversion. They projected the secretive character of their own dealings onto controlled aspects of the Party and state apparatus, and imagined conspiratorial intrigues behind the USSR's accumulating troubles. For Bolsheviks, there was no question but that the remnants of the prerevolutionary elite, adherents of defunct parties, and former kulaks represented a threat. They also suspected erstwhile oppositionists of disloyalty. Many of the Trotskyites and other deviationists of the 1920s had the same revolutionary credentials as their persecutors and thus were seen as dangerous rivals for legitimate authority. Josef V. Stalin feared that they might try to claim power if the situation worsened.

Although thousands of deviationists remained in the Communist Party until 1937, many others were expelled during membership screenings in 1935 and 1936. Starting in 1935, secret directives instructed the NKVD to detect their terrorist intentions, even if they were in exile and detention. A show trial highlighted the terrorist designs of the deviationist leaders Lev B. Kamenev and Grigory E. Zinoviev in August 1936, and this date is seen as the starting point of the Great Purges.

the purges begin

The trial of Lev B. Kamenev and Grigory Y. Zinoviev and subsequent directives from the Central Committee triggered a vigilance campaign within the Party. The campaign targeted not only the opposition, but also Party members who had criticized the Party or whose work and lifestyle brought discredit to the Bolsheviks. The failures of agriculture, construction, industry, and other branches of the economy provided a legion of opportunities to denounce workers and managers. Poor results, errors, and accidents were reclassified as intentional sabotage. There were plenty of motives to level accusations of poor discipline, since the campaign came during a severe crop failure and in the wake of a Stakhanovist drive that had disorganized production and undermined workplace safety. Leading cadres were reluctant to dig too deeply into conditions in their workplaces, and it was safer to single out alleged Trotskyites as scapegoats, for the Party already had a tendency to blame them for nearly every shortcoming.

Sabotage is more accurately described as the regime's daily routine. Inefficiency, abuses, and heavy-handed handling of subordinates and the population disrupted the proper functioning of the Party, the state, and the national economy. The charge of oppositionist schemes was more problematic. It was used to justify the elimination of imprisoned Party members who had been dissidents in the 1920s. It was also used to stigmatize anyone who could be blamed for the regime's shortcomings without having to indicate any fault other than alleged sympathy, association, or even simple acquaintance with Trotskyites. Insinuations of this sort obscured Party efforts to correct official misconduct, facilitated scapegoating, and deflected blame onto the most vulnerable cadres. But there was hardly any other feasible way to dissociate the regime from its misdeeds and to suggest that the culprits were foreign or hostile to the Soviet ideal.

The scapegoats singled out in this way were made to answer for the defects of the Soviet system. Since many officeholders were at least partly responsible for the difficult living and working conditions imposed on them, the masses were not impervious to the argument that their superiors were enemies of the people. Quite a few citizens were ready to take up this argument against unpopular bosses as a way of venting their discontent and avenging past mistreatment and humiliations.

The leaders of the purges often emphasized that the alleged enemies were Party members in order to exploit tensions within the Party, in government agencies, and in other administrations. A show trial in January 1937 abundantly featured charges of wrecking and treason against Yuri L. Piatakov, deputy commissar of heavy industry and former member of the Central Committee, and other prominent figures in economic management and foreign affairs. Those who engineered this attack on leading Communists also tried to mobilize support in the lower ranks of the Party. The plenum of the Central Committee in February and March 1939 decided to reelect officeholders by secret ballot. It also decided to use the secret ballot at forthcoming elections for the Supreme Soviet, where, for the first time since the Revolution, all citizens were supposed to vote and have the right to be run for office. High officials at the plenum warned that subversive elements were likely to take advantage of the election campaign. They were aware of the discontent among the masses that had surfaced in public discussions about the recently adopted constitution, and especially that some people were attempting to invoke their constitutionally guaranteed rights to reclaim confiscated property and to freely practice religion.

The Party elections were expected to eliminate disruptive practices and boost the regime's reputation by replacing unruly and unpopular cadres. The targeted members did everything possible to ensure their reelection, because fallen communists risked jailor worse. Networks of mutual aid were set in motion to rescue colleagues whose defeat would have endangered the position of everyone connected to them. While many targeted communists were saved, others were irreparably damaged when the police stepped in. By the summer of 1937, the winners of the intra-Party elections increasingly faced charges of having deceived the Party faithful. By that time, Party members alarmed by the increasing popular unrest had convinced the top leadership that it was necessary to launch an extensive purge. The crackdown came suddenly. No arrangements had been made to prepare concentration camps for the arrival of several hundred thousands of prisoners.

Seen as a preventive strike before the elections to the Supreme Soviet, the massive operation targeted a wide spectrum of so-called class enemies: kulaks, members of dissolved parties, ecclesiastics, sectarians, recidivist criminals. Moscow ordered the regional administrations to shoot, imprison, or deport specific quotas of enemies. Three-member boards (troikas) handed down summary sentences. This operation had hardly begun when another terror campaign was initiated. The new campaign was ostensibly aimed at ethnic Poles accused of being agents of the Polish government, but it was soon extended to other minorities, most of whom were not even mentioned in the central directives. No limits were set on the number of victims of this cleansing. Both operations were expected to end in December 1937, on the eve of the elections.

At first glance, it was easy to identify people on the basis of their past activities or political affiliations, especially former oppositionists. Nonetheless, it was impossible to know what constituted deviation because the term applied to attitudes as well as behaviors. In the same way, there was no guarantee that only declassed people and believers were dissatisfied with the regime. Moreover, there was no guarantee that potential subversion by foreign governments could be countered by massacring their ethnic kin.


The Great Purges resulted in chaos. About 100,000 Party members were arrested, often tortured to confess to concocted charges, and sent before the firing squad or to camps. But it soon became evident that many of them were victims of overzealous officials, some of whom were themselves later purged. The mass terror took almost a year more than projected. This was partly because zealous cadres sought to demonstrate their vigilance by requesting new quotas from Moscow for additional arrests and shootings. The names of purported accomplices were frequently obtained by cruelly mistreating the detainees. People were sometimes punished because of a foreign-sounding name or simply because anyone could be accused of being a German, Japanese, Latvian, or Greek spy. The campaign took on a life of its own. Even when it was halted in November 1938, scheduled executions continued in some regions.

More than 680,000 people were killed in 1937 and 1938, and about 630,000 were deported to Siberia. Nevertheless, two years after the purge the number of persons listed as politically suspect by the secret police exceeded 1,200,000. But official misconduct, incompetence, and networks of solidarity did not change, despite the massive change in the leading personnel. The national economy and the administration suffered from the loss of valuable specialists, and the hunt for enemies in the army decapitated the high command and decimated the officer corps. Many of the victims were sincerely devoted to the principles of Bolshevism.

The Great Purges are usually associated with Joseph V. Stalin and his police chiefs, Nikolai I. Yezhov and Lavrenty P. Beria. But their true origin lay in the Soviet regime's inability to utilize modern techniques for managing institutions, political processes, and social relations. The purges showed that indiscriminate campaigns, police operations, and violence would play an important role as policy instruments and take priority over economic and administrative incentives to enlist popular support. They also showed the disastrous consequences of the system's lack of independent watchdog agencies that could, if necessary, restrain the Party-state's actions. The intent behind the purges bore some resemblance to social engineering, but the sociopolitical framework led to an outcome that had little in common with the original aims.

See also: beria, lavrenti pavlovich; gulag; komanev, lev borisovich; show trials; stalin, josef vissarionovich; state security, organs of; yezhov, nikolai ivanovich; zinoviev, grigory yevseyevich


Chase, William J. (2001). Enemies Within the Gates? The Comintern and the Stalinist Repression, 19341939. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Conquest, Robert. (1990). The Great Terror: A Reassessment. New York: Oxford University Press.

Getty, J. Arch. (1985). Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 19331938. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Getty, J. Arch. (1999). The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 19321939. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Getty, J. Arch. (2002). "'Excesses Are Not Permitted': Mass Terror and Stalinist Governance in the Late 1930s." Russian Review 2:113138.

Getty, J. Arch, and Manning, Roberta T., eds. (1993). Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Siegelbaum, Lewis, and Sokolov, Andrei. (2000). Stalinism as a Way of Life: A Narrative in Documents. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Gabor T. Rittersporn