Prof Rempel lecture: the purges

Site Network: café historia - our news site | who we are | site map | terms | cookies | image use | contact us | click to see who is online with you!

      casahistoria - web site for students of modern history!


The Purges

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


Lenin and Dzerzhinskii, not Stalin, organized the first Soviet institutions of police coercion and terror. It happened not long a after the October Revolution. During the Civil War the Cheka made widespread use of torture and execution squads to deal with counter-revolutionaries, speculators, liberal and socialist politicians, and other alleged "enemies of the people."

A large number of such ''enemies'' were placed in concentration camps or executed between 1918 and 1920. Under NEP such drastic methods were no longer required, but the Soviet authorities still relied on the secret police, which was known as the GPU between 1922 and 1923 and the OGPU between 1923 and 1934. The secret police was used to prevent priests, non-Bolshevik socialists, White Guardists, and dispossessed landowners and bourgeois from trying to regain for themselves some of the influence over Russian affairs that they had just lost in the course of the Revolution and the Civil War.

In addition, the Soviet state refused to tolerate work stoppages or violations of its economic regulations by kulaks, private traders, and entrepreneurs. A considerable number of such kulaks, Nepmen, and ''instigators'' of discontent among workers were arrested and put in concentration (i.e., ''corrective labor'') camps during the twenties.

The decision to collectivize agriculture and to hasten industrialization in the late twenties almost necessarily led to rapid expansion of the secret police and prison camp apparatus. The most immediate problem of police control naturally concerned the peasantry, which desperately resisted collectivization. The Soviet state not only used police intimidation, class warfare, and the army to deal with particularly serious cases of peasant resistance to collectivization but it also deported millions of members of peasant families (especially those labeled as kulaks) to forced settlements and concentration camps. As early as 1930 the rapidly growing prison-camp population required the creation of a special Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps headed by G. G. Iagoda, who had worked for the secret police since the Civil War and was soon to become the chairman of the NKVD.

The technical intelligentsia also posed a problem, for in the late twenties a large proportion of them still questioned the wisdom of forced industrialization. It was apparently in an effort to cow and intimidate such technical experts that the Soviet secret police staged the first of its famous ''show trials'' during the early years of rapid industrialization. In these trials, the first of which took place in 1928, a number of Russian and foreign engineers and technical specialists were tried, convicted, and, in many instances, executed for having allegedly attempted to ''wreck'' and sabotage the First Five-Year Plan under the orders of French, Polish, German, or British capitalists.

In almost all cases the accused were convicted not on the basis of evidence but on that of confessions obtained through torture, continuous interrogations over extended periods of time, and threatened reprisals against the wives and children of the accused. It seems to have been especially the experience gained in the course of these trials that enabled the Soviet secret police to perfect the torture and inquisitorial methods that it was to use so effectively in the ''Great Purge'' of the second part of the thirties.

At the beginning of the thirties Stalin still had not achieved complete control over the secret police as a reliable instrument of his own personal dictatorship. Thus in 1932, when Old Bolshevik M. N. Riutin circulated in party circles a 200-page anti-Stalin document demanding the abandonment of forced collectivization, the reduction of investment in industry, and the removal of Stalin, "the grave digger of the Revolution and of Russia," from his post at the head of the party, Stalin failed in his efforts to have Riutin shot. Indeed, the matter was referred by the secret police to higher party authorities, and Stalin experienced the humiliation of being unable to obtain a Politburo majority in favor of Riutin's execution. At the beginning of 1933 he experienced another setback when he could not obtain from the Politburo approval of the death penalty for A. P. Smirnov, a party member since 1896, for having advocated ideas similar to those of Riutin among a small number of old Bolshevik workers in Moscow. Both episodes illustrated that there were limits beyond which many normally pro-Stalin police officials and Politburo members still were not willing to go.

The years 1933-1934 were relatively quiet and peaceful one in a decade of Soviet history generally characterized by brutal police terror and radical social and economic change. For Stalin the most trying year of that decade was certainly 1932, when the outcome of his desperate struggle with the peasantry was still uncertain and when Nadezhda Allilueva, his second wife, committed suicide after having dared to criticize him for the suffering collectivization had caused countless Soviet peasants. However, senior-level party leaders, including his former left-wing and right-wing opponents, sided with Stalin and against the peasants, while hundreds of thousands of less prominent Communists, especially Ukrainians and members of other national minorities who had shown insufficient zeal during the collectivization campaign, were expelled from the party during 1933 and the first months of 1934.

As for the peasants themselves, their will to resist Collectivization was broken after millions of them died during the terrible and man-made famine of the winter 1932-1933. Having won this major battle, certain party leaders decided that the extreme and often cruel methods employed during the period of the First Five-Year Plan were no longer necessary. In the Politburo a ''liberal'' faction appears to have spoken out in favor of easing pressures on the population and forgiving some of the sins of opposition leaders.

In mid-1933 Zinoviev and Kamenev were allowed to return from Siberia, where they had been sent in 1932 in connection with the Riutin affair, and (as they had already done on previous occasions) to confess their various errors. At the Seventeenth Party Congress early in 1934, party members forgot many of their previous differences and united in extravagant praise of Stalin's leadership; but a majority of those present endorsed Ordzhonikidze's proposal that the party should scale down the rate of economic growth projected for the Second Five Year Plan. Such a reduction in the rate of industrial growth was clearly contrary to the wishes of Stalin, who, as early as 1931, had warned against the dangers of Russia's backwardness:

"We are fifty to a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or we will be crushed."

The brief period of relaxed tension and good feeling ended abruptly in December 1934 with the murder of S. M. Kirov, the head of the Leningrad party organization and a full member of the Politburo since 1930. Kirov, a brilliant orator and an extremely popular figure in party circles, reportedly had supported Politburo ''liberals'' in opposing Riutin's execution and favoring a reduction of the tempo of industrialization. Stalin may well have resented Kirov's popularity. The circumstances of Kirov's death, as Khrushchev remarked in his secret speech of 1956, have never been fully explained. It seems clear that the assassin, an emotionally unstable individual and a party member since 1920, could never have reached Kirov's normally carefully guarded office without assistance from someone within the secret police. Stalin's personal responsibility for the murder of Kirov is probable but not certain.

Stalin used Kirov's murder as a pretext to exorcise the spirit of reconciliation and relaxation that had prevailed in party Circles during 1933 and 1934 and to create a new atmosphere of fear, tension, and terror. Stalin's insistence in 1932 that Riutin, who had committed no crime other than that of agitating against Stalin, should be shot was one indication that he had been thinking along these lines for at least several years. In July 1934 OGPU was abolished and its functions transferred to a new police organization, the Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD), headed by Iagoda, a loyal Stalinist and until then chief of the Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps. This reorganized and expanded Soviet police apparatus went into action immediately after Kirov's assassination.

In December 1934 and in January 1935 tens of thousands of people were arrested and deported to Siberia and the Arctic region. A number of people were also executed, very few of whom had even the remotest connection with the Kirov case. Included among those arrested were Zinoviev, Kamenev, and sixteen other members of an alleged ''Moscow Center,'' whom a special Military Collegium found guilty of ''moral'' responsibility for Kirov's murder. Although the confessions obtained from the preliminary interrogations and at the public show trial were not very convincing, the 18 defendant were found guilty and sentenced to terms of 5 to 10 years of imprisonment.

Between early 1935 and mid-1936 Stalin's agents carefully prepared for the great ''Trotskiite-Zinoviev Terrorist Center'' trial of August 19-24, 1936. One probable Politburo opponent of the execution of prominent old Bolsheviks disappeared when Kuibyshev suddenly died under mysterious circumstance on January 26, 1935; and the scruples of other reluctant Politburo members seem to have been overcome through a combination of persuasion and thinly veiled threats.

At the same time, Iagoda's NKVD apparatus worked indefatigably and successfully to induce prominent old Bolsheviks to admit that they had committed treason against and betrayed the cause of Marxist revolution in Russia. One particularly effective threat used by NKVD after April 1935 was the reminder that the death penalty could be legally applied to children from ''traitors''' families down to the age of 12. Others, as Khrushchev put it in 1956, were unable ''to bear barbaric tortures'' and ''charged themselves (at the order of the investigative judge-falsifiers) with all kinds of grave and unlikely Crimes.'' But all majority of the old Bolsheviks arrested between 1935 and 1938 seemed to have had sufficient strength of mind, body and character to withstand NKVD torture, threats, and uninterrupted interrogations well enough to be rejected as unsuitable material for display at the public show trials that were staged during this period.

Between 1936 and 1938 an estimated 850,000 members, or 36% of the total membership, were purged from the party. The exact fate of these hundreds of thousands of party members is not known, but it is certain that all large proportion of them perished in Concentration camps. Well-known and veteran Communists were particularly vulnerable to brutal treatment by the NKVD. Of the 1956 delegates to the Seventeenth Party Congress (the so-called ''victors' Congress'') of 1934, a majority of 1108 were arrested on charges of counterrevolutionary activities.

According to Khrushchev, 98 of the 139 members and candidate members of the Central Committee elected by this same Congress were shot. Special efforts were made by the NKVD and public prosecutors to discredit old Bolsheviks who had stood close to Lenin at the three great show trials held between August 1936 and March 1938. In the first of these trials, that of the ''Trotskiite-Zinoviev Terrorist Center,'' Kamenev, Zinoviev, and 14 others confessed either fully or partially to having conspired with Trotskii to assassinate party leaders and were found guilty and shot.

Between the first and the second trials NKVD chief Iagoda incurred Stalin's displeasure by failing to display proper zeal and persistence in pressing charges against the Chairmen of the Council of People's Commissars Rykov and party theoretician Bukharin. In Sept. 1936 Iagoda was replaced by N. I. Ezhov, whose first important victims consisted of a mixed group of economic administrators and one-time supporters of Trotskii. They were accused of having attempted to carry out a conspiracy organized by Trotskii and by German and Japanese Fascists to ''wreck'' the Soviet economy and overthrow the Soviet government.

Tried and found guilty as the ''Anti-Soviet Trotskyite Center'' in January 1937, 13 of the accused were shot and 4 received prison sentences varying between 8 and 10 years. Most noteworthy among the accused was the assistant to Heavy Industry Commissar Ordzhonikidze, G. L. Piatakov. Ordzhonikidze, who attempted to save the life of this man whose organizational talents had been an important factor in the development of Soviet heavy industry during the thirties, either committed suicide or was murdered by the secret police in February 1937.

During the period of more than a year that separated the second and third major show trials, Stalin and Ezhov purged the army of its best officers and the NKVD of Iagoda's closest associates. At the same time, they conducted mass terror against the entire Soviet population, paying particular attention to such groups as professional people, national minorities, priests, the Komsomol, and the families of alleged ''enemies of the people.''

It was only toward the latter part of 1938 that the number of those in concentration camps reached its maximum of a probable 8 to 10 million. But as early as the summer of 1937 the Soviet urban population lived in constant fear of being denounced by malicious neighbors or empty-headed chatterboxes, which usually led to arrest and deportation to the arctic region or Siberia. Once in a concentration camp their chances for survival were not good. The annual mortality rate in these camps seems to have been in the neighborhood of 20 per cent during the years Ezhov headed the NKVD. Ex-NKVD chief Iagoda himself was arrested in March 1937, and 3,000 of his most trusted former NKVD assistants reportedly were executed in the course of that same year.

In May and June the arrest of Marshal Tukhachevskii, who more than anyone else was responsible for the development of the Red Army into an effective fighting force, and of other senior-level military officers followed that of Iagoda. Charged with espionage and treason on the behalf of foreign powers. Tukhachevskii and the other military ''conspirators'' were tried by all special and secret court, found guilty, and shot. Tukhachevskii and his immediate associates denied these charges; and the only ''real'' evidence to establish their guilt was all falsified dossier that had been planted with the NKVD by the German Gestapo.

Their execution marked the beginning of all general purge of the army that was to eliminate 3 of the 5 marshals, 14 of the 16 army commanders, and approximately half of the 70 to 80,000 men in the entire officer corps. Needless to say, this purge necessarily had an extremely deleterious effect on the effectiveness of the Red Army's military leadership.

The third great trial, that of the ''Anti-Soviet Bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites,'' took place in March 1938 and involved party theoretician Bukharin, ex-chairman of the Council of People's Commissars Rykov, former NKVD chief Iagoda, and 18 others. On this occasion the accused were not only charged with having carried out espionage for Germany and Japan and with conspiracy against the leaders of the USSR but also with having planned in the past the murder of Kirov, Lenin, Maxim Gorkii, and others. In regard to Iagoda, it is of course possible that some of the charges may have contained more than a grain of truth.

On the other hand, Rykov and Bukharin probably acted with all clear conscience when they denied their complicity in murder plots and espionage; but they admitted--apparently in an effort to protect their families or out of loyalty to the party--their general responsibility for the various crimes allegedly committed by the ''Anti-Soviet Bloc of Rightists and Trotskiites.'' At the trial all 21 of the accused delivered one form or another of all confession for the prosecution and, on this basis alone, were found guilty. Three of the defendants received sentences of 15 to 25 years; the others, including Bukharin, Rykov, and Iagoda, were sentenced to death.

In the latter part of 1938 the Soviet leadership decided to lessen the intensity of the purge in the army and party and to reduce the rate of inflow of new prisoners into concentration camps. By that time the uncontrolled expansion of the forced labor and settlement camps (which then contained approximately 10 per cent of the total Soviet labor force according to one estimate) and the decline of morale in the party and army made the continuation of Ezhov's extreme methods seem undesirable.

In December 1938 Ezhov was replaced as NKVD head by L. P. Beria, all Georgian party official and servile flatterer of Stalin; in February 1939 Ezhov disappeared from the scene and died or was shot at an undisclosed later date. Under Beria the number of mass arrests declined, and many people in prison or awaiting trial were released.

Terror was, however, by no means abandoned as an instrument of political rule; indeed, four of the six executed members of Stalin's Politburo perished between 1939 and 1941. Ezhov's former NKVD associates and additional party and army figures were also purged during these years, and many ordinary citizens continued to be arrested. But the number of concentration camp inmates declined during 1939-1940; it again climbed after 1940 as millions of Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Germans, and other non-Russians were deported to the Soviet Arctic region and Siberia.

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


Related casahistoria sites on this topic:

  Background to Revolution
  1917 Revolutions
  Lenin's Russia
  Stalin's Russia 1927-39   
Stalin: Economics & Terror, 1927-41


casahistoria is recommended by:
BBC Radio 4 History Channel 4 History
BBC radio,
Channel 4 TV, UK Birmingham GRID for Learning, UK UK joint university database Argentina's national paper
SBC Education
Blue Ribbon HOT site, USA
SovLit, Harvard Univ, USA


  café historia - our news site | who we are | site map | terms | cookies policy | image use | contact us | online visitor map

Google Analytics Alternative