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The Great Purge (Russian: Большая чистка, transliterated Bolshaya chistka) is the name given to campaigns of political repression and persecution in the Soviet Union orchestrated by Joseph Stalin during the late 1930s. It involved the purge of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the persecution of unaffiliated persons, both occurring within a period characterized by omnipresent police surveillance, widespread suspicion of "saboteurs", show trials, imprisonment, and killings. In the West the term "the Great Terror" was popularized after the title of Robert Conquest's The Great Terror. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago is also devoted to this period of Soviet history.
The term "repression" was officially used to denote the prosecution of people recognized as counter-revolutionaries and enemies of the people. The purge was motivated by the desire on the part of the leadership to remove dissident elements from the Party and what is often considered to have been a desire to consolidate the authority of Joseph Stalin. Additional campaigns of repression were carried on against social groups which were believed, or at least were accused, for ulterior political motives, to have opposed the Soviet state and the politics of the Communist Party.
Also, a number of purges were officially explained as an elimination of the possibilities of sabotage and espionage, in view of an expected war with Germany. Most public attention was focused on the purge of the leadership of the Communist Party itself, as well as of government bureaucrats and leaders of the armed forces, the vast majority being Party members.
However, the campaigns affected many other categories of the society: intelligentsia, peasants and especially those branded as "too rich for a peasant" (kulaks), and professionals. A series of NKVD (the Soviet secret police) operations affected a number of national minorities, accused of being "fifth column" communities.
According to Khrushchev's 1956 speech, On the Personality Cult and its Consequences and more recent findings, many of the accusations, including those presented at Moscow show trials, were based on forced confessions and on loose interpretations of articles of Article 58 (RSFSR Penal Code), which dealt with counter-revolutionary crimes. Due legal process, as defined by the Soviet law in force at the time, was often largely replaced with summary proceedings by NKVD troikas.
Millions of people died in the purges. Several hundreds of thousands were executed by shooting and millions were forcibly resettled. Many were imprisoned and tortured or sent to labor camps, both functioning as part of the GULAG system. Many died at the labor camps due to starvation, disease, exposure and overwork. The Great Purge was started under the NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda, but the height of the campaigns occurred while the NKVD was headed by Nikolai Yezhov, from September 1936 to August 1938; this period is sometimes referred to as the Yezhovshchina ("Yezhov era"). However the campaigns were carried out according to the general line, and often by direct orders, of the Party Politburo headed by Stalin.
The term "purge" in Soviet political slang was an abbreviation of the expression purge of the Party ranks. In 1933, for example, some 400,000 people were expelled from the Party. But from 1936 until 1953, the term changed its meaning, because being expelled from the Party came to mean almost certain arrest, imprisonment or even execution.
The background of the Great Purge was Stalin's and the Politburo's desire to eliminate all possible sources of opposition to the government. They sought to ensure that members of the Party would follow the orders of the center, identified with Stalin and his circle, in strict accordance with the principle of democratic centralism. Another official justification was to remove any possible "fifth column" in case of a war, but this is less substantiated by independent sources. This is the theory proposed by Vyacheslav Molotov, a member of the Stalinist ruling circle, who participated in the Stalinist repression as a member of the Politburo and who signed many death warrants. The Communist Party also wanted to eliminate "socially dangerous elements", such as so-called ex-kulaks, former members of opposing political parties such as the Social Revolutionaries, and former Czarist officials. However, no one reason can fully explain the purge of the Party, the Army, and the general public.
Repression against perceived enemies of the Bolsheviks had been a systematic method of instilling fear and facilitating social control, being continuously applied since the October Revolution, although there had been periods of heightened repression, such as the Red Terror or the deportation of kulaks who opposed collectivization. A distinctive feature of the Great Purge was that, for the first time, the ruling party itself underwent repressions on a massive scale. Nevertheless, only a minority of those affected by the purges were Communist Party members and office-holders. The purge of the Party was accompanied by the purge of the whole society. The following events are used for the demarcation of the period.
- The First Moscow Trial, 1936.
- Introduction of NKVD troikas for express implementation of "revolutionary justice" in 1937.
- Introduction of Article 58-14 about "counter-revolutionary sabotage" in 1937.
 The Moscow Trials
Between 1936 and 1938, three Moscow Trials of former senior Communist Party leaders were held. The defendants were accused of conspiring with the western powers to assassinate Stalin and other Soviet leaders, dismember the Soviet Union and restore capitalism.
- The first trial was of 16 members of the so-called "Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Centre," held in August 1936, at which the chief defendants were Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, two of the most prominent former party leaders. All were sentenced to death and executed.
- The second trial in January 1937 involved 17 lesser figures including Karl Radek, Yuri Piatakov and Grigory Sokolnikov. Thirteen of the defendants were eventually shot. The rest received sentences in labor camps where they soon died.
- The third trial, in March 1938, included 21 defendants alleged to belong to the so-called "Bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites", led by Nikolai Bukharin, former head of the Communist International, former Prime Minister Alexei Rykov, Christian Rakovsky, Nikolai Krestinsky and Genrikh Yagoda. All the leading defendants were executed.
- There was also a secret trial before a military tribunal of a group of Red Army generals, including Mikhail Tukhachevsky, in June 1937.
Some Western observers who attended the trials said that they were fair and that the guilt of the accused had been established. They based this assessment on the confessions of the accused, which were freely given in open court, without any apparent evidence that they had been extracted by torture or drugging.
The British lawyer and MP Denis Pritt, for example, wrote: "Once again the more faint-hearted socialists are beset with doubts and anxieties", but "once again we can feel confident that when the smoke has rolled away from the battlefield of controversy it will be realized that the charge was true, the confessions correct and the prosecution fairly conducted."
It is now known that the confessions were given only after great psychological pressure had been applied to the defendants. From the accounts of former OGPU officer Alexander Orlov and the others, the methods used to extract the confessions are known: such tortures as repeated beatings, making prisoners stand or go without sleep for days on end, and threats to arrest and execute the prisoners' families. For example, Kamenev's teenage son was arrested and charged with terrorism. After months of such interrogation, the defendants were driven to despair and exhaustion.
Zinoviev and Kamenev demanded, as a condition for "confessing", a direct guarantee from the Politburo that their lives and that of their families would be spared. Instead they had to settle for a meeting with only Stalin, Kliment Voroshilov and Yezhov, at which assurances were given. After the trial, Stalin not only broke his promise to spare the defendants, he had most of their relatives arrested and shot. Bukharin also agreed to "confess" on condition that his family was spared. In this case, the promise was partly kept. His wife Anna Larina was sent to a labor camp, but survived.
In May 1937, the Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials, commonly known as the Dewey Commission, was set up in the United States by supporters of Trotsky, to establish the truth about the trials. The commission was headed by the noted American philosopher and educator John Dewey. Although the hearings were obviously conducted with a view to proving Trotsky's innocence, they brought to light evidence which established that some of the specific charges made at the trials could not be true.
For example, Georgy Pyatakov testified that he had flown to Oslo in December 1935 to "receive terrorist instructions" from Trotsky. The Dewey Commission established that no such flight had taken place. Another defendant, Ivan Smirnov, confessed to taking part in the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934, at a time when he had already been in prison for a year.
The Dewey Commission published its findings in the form of a 422-page book titled Not Guilty. Its conclusions asserted the innocence of all those condemned in the Moscow Trials. In its summary, the commission wrote: "Independent of extrinsic evidence, the Commission finds:
- That the conduct of the Moscow Trials was such as to convince any unprejudiced person that no attempt was made to ascertain the truth.
- That while confessions are necessarily entitled to the most serious consideration, the confessions themselves contain such inherent improbabilities as to convince the Commission that they do not represent the truth, irrespective of any means used to obtain them.
- That Trotsky never instructed any of the accused or witnesses in the Moscow trials to enter into agreements with foreign powers against the Soviet Union [and] that Trotsky never recommended, plotted, or attempted the restoration of capitalism in the USSR.
The commission concluded: "We therefore find the Moscow Trials to be frame-ups."
 Purge of the army
The purge of the Red Army was claimed to be supported by Nazi-forged documents (said to have been created by Nazi spymaster Reinhard Heydrich) which were introduced through an intermediary, President Beneš of Czechoslovakia. It was claimed that this forged evidence purported to show correspondence between Marshal Tukhachevsky and members of the German high command.
The claim is, however, unsupported by facts, since by the time the documents were supposedly created, two people from the eight in the Tukhachevsky group were already imprisoned, and by the time the document was said to reach Stalin, the purging process was already underway. However the actual evidence introduced at trial was obtained from forced confessions. The purge of the army removed three of five marshals (then equivalent to 6-star generals), 13 of 15 army commanders (then equivalent to 4- and 5-star generals), eight of nine admirals (the purge fell heavily on the Navy, who were suspected of exploiting their opportunities for foreign contacts), 50 of 57 army corps commanders, 154 out of 186 division commanders, 16 of 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commissars.
Some observers think this made the armed forces disorganized and devoid of experienced commanders, and left the country vulnerable to invasion. Some believe that this impression may actually have encouraged Hitler and Nazi Germany to launch Operation Barbarossa after they learned of the weakness of the Red Army.
Suvorov, in his The Cleansing (Очищение), writes that the impact of the purge on the Red army was not as severe as the later communist propaganda claimed to be. Of all the victims, not more than one-third were actually army officials. The other one-third were comissars—political supervisors, and the other one-third were NKVD officials, who wore military ranks. For example, one of the most senior executed, was the minister of navy affairs, former deputy minister internal affairs (NKVD), Mikhail Frinovsky (М.П. Фриновский) who wore the rank of "Army-commander 1st rank", although he never in his life served the army.
 The wider purge
Eventually almost all of the Bolsheviks who had played prominent roles during the Russian Revolution of 1917, or in Lenin's Soviet government afterwards, were executed. Out of six members of the original Politburo during the 1917 October Revolution who lived until the Great Purge, Stalin himself was the only one who survived. Four of the other five were executed. The fifth, Leon Trotsky, went into exile in Mexico after being expelled from the Party but was murdered by a Soviet agent in 1940. Of the seven members elected to the Politburo between the October Revolution and Lenin's death in 1924, four were executed, one (Tomsky) committed suicide and two (Molotov and Kalinin) lived. Of 1,966 delegates to the 17th Communist Party congress in 1934 (the last congress before the trials), 1,108 were arrested and nearly all died.
The trials and executions of the former Bolshevik leaders were, however, only a minor part of the purges:
While kulaks were "liquidated as class", on July 30, 1937 the NKVD Order no. 00447 was issued, directed against "ex-kulaks" and "kulak helpers", among other anti-Soviet elements, see NKVD troika. This order was notable in several respects, becoming a blueprint for a number of other actions of NKVD targeting specific categories of people.
 National operations of NKVD
A series of national operations of the NKVD was carried out during 1937–1940, justified by the fear of the fifth column in the expectation of war with "the most probable adversary", i.e. Germany, as well as according to the notion of the "hostile capitalist surrounding", which wants to destabilize the country. The Polish operation of the NKVD was the first of this kind, setting an example of dealing with other targeted minorities. Many such operations were conducted on a quota system. NKVD local officials were mandated to arrest and execute a specific number of "counter-revolutionaries", produced by upper officials based on various statistics. .
 End of Yezhovshchina
By the summer of 1938, Stalin and his circle realized that the purges had gone too far, and Yezhov was relieved from his head of NKVD post (remaining People's Commissar of Water Transport) and eventually purged. Lavrenty Beria, a fellow Georgian and Stalin confidant, succeeded him as head of the NKVD. On November 17, 1938 a joint decree of Sovnarkom USSR and Central Committee of VKP(b) (Decree about Arrests, Prosecutor Supervision and Course of Investigation) and the subsequent order of NKVD undersigned by Beria cancelled most of the NKVD orders of systematic repression and suspended implementation of death sentences. The decree signaled the end of massive Soviet purges. Nevertheless, the practice of mass arrest and exile was continued until Stalin's death in 1953.
 Western reactions
Although the trials of former Soviet leaders were widely publicized, the hundreds of thousands of other arrests and executions were not. These became known in the west only as a few former gulag inmates reached the West with their stories. Not only did foreign correspondents from the West fail to report on the purges, but in many Western nations, especially France, attempts were made to silence or discredit these witnesses; Jean-Paul Sartre took the position that evidence of the camps should be ignored, in order that the French proletariat not be discouraged. A series of legal actions ensued at which definitive evidence was presented which established the validity of the former concentration camp inmates' testimony.
Robert Conquest, a former communist and a British intelligence official and writer for the Foreign Office's Information Research Department, a department whose function was anti-communist propaganda, wrote the book The Great Terror in 1968. According to Conquest, writing in The Great Terror, with respect to the trials of former leaders, some Western observers were unable to see through the fraudulent nature of the charges and evidence, notably Walter Duranty of The New York Times, a Russian speaker; the American Ambassador, Joseph Davis, who reported, "proof...beyond reasonable doubt to justify the verdict of treason" and Beatrice and Sidney Webb, authors of Soviet Communism: A New Civilization. According to Conquest, writing in The Great Terror, while "Communist Parties everywhere simply transmitted the Soviet line", some of the most critical reporting also came from the left, notably The Manchester Guardian.
Despite great skepticism regarding the show trials and occasional reports of Gulag survivors, many western intellectuals retained a favorable view of the Soviet Union. Some of them dissociated themselves from the Communist party, but not from Communist convictions, only in 1956, when the Stalinist crimes were made public within the inner communist circles in Russia. With the beginning of the Cold War and McCarthyism, supporters of the USSR were persecuted, so there were personal motives for many intellectuals to change their mind. Also, evidence and the results of research began to appear after Stalin's death which revealed the full enormity of the Purges. The first of these sources were the revelations of Khrushchev which particularly affected the American editors of the Communist Party USA newspaper, the Daily Worker, who, following the lead of The New York Times, published the Secret Speech in full . In 1968, Robert Conquest published The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago followed in 1973. By the glasnost era of the late 1980s Stalin was denounced openly by Gorbachev as a criminal and Soviet records were opened to Western and Soviet researchers after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Finally, in France, where the intellectual climate was most sympathetic to Soviet communism, The Black Book of Communism (1997), relying in part on revelations of the Great Purge, compared communism unfavorably to Nazism. Nevertheless, minimization of the extent of the Great Purge continues among revisionist scholars in the United States (see, e.g., pp. 15–17, In Denial, ISBN 1-893554-72-4) and small but passionate groups of modern day Stalinists .
The Great Purges were denounced by Nikita Khrushchev, who became the leader of the Soviet Union after Stalin's death. In his secret speech to the 20th CPSU congress in February 1956 (which was made public a month later), Khrushchev referred to the purges as an "abuse of power" by Stalin which resulted in enormous harm to the country. In the same speech, he recognized that many of the victims were innocent and were convicted on the basis of false confessions extracted by torture. To take that position was politically useful to Khrushchev, as he was at that time engaged in a power struggle with rivals who had been associated with the Purge, the so-called Anti-Party Group. The new line on the Great Purges undermined their power, and helped propel him to the Chairmanship of the Council of Ministers.
Starting from 1954, some of the convictions were overturned. Mikhail Tukhachevsky and other generals convicted in the Trial of Red Army Generals were declared innocent ("rehabilitated") in 1957. The former Politburo members Yan Rudzutak and Stanislav Kosior and many lower-level victims were also declared innocent in the 1950s. Nikolai Bukharin and others convicted in the Moscow Trials were not rehabilitated until as late as 1988, and Leon Trotsky himself was never rehabilitated.
The book Rehabilitation: Political Processes of 30–50th years (Реабилитация. Политические процессы 30-50-х годов) (1991) contains a large amount of newly presented original archive material: transcripts of interrogations, letters of convicts, and photos. The material demonstrates in detail how numerous show trials were fabricated.
 Victim toll
According to the declassified archives, between 1937-38, there were 681,692 death sentences.  However, the number of those that were actually executed were much lower. According to historian A.Dugin, there were 642,980 executions for political crimes between 1921-1953 <ref>А.Дугин. Сталинизм: легенды и факты // Слово. 1990, №7. С.23; 1934-1939 гг. - ГАРФ, ф.9414, оп.1, д.1155, л.3-6.</ref> Historian Yuri Zhukov asserts that between 1937-38 there were actually 300 to 400 thousand executions of those that received a death sentence 
 Soviet investigation commissions
At least two Soviet commissions investigated the show-trials after Stalin's death. The first was headed by Molotov and included Voroshilov, Kaganovich, Suslov, Furtseva, Shvernik, Aristov, Pospelov and Rudenko. They were given the task to investigate the materials concerning Bukharin, Rykov, Zinoviev, Tukhachevsky and others. The commission worked in 1956–1957. Because it included people like Molotov and Kaganovich, it could not have been objective, and, while stating that the accusations against Tukhachevsky et al. should be abandoned, they failed to fully rehabilitate the victims of the three Moscow trials, although the final report does contain an admission that the accusations have not been proven during the trials and "evidence" had been produced by lies, blackmail, and "use of physical influence". Bukharin, Rykov, Zinoviev, and others were still seen as political opponents, and though the charges against them were obviously false, they could not have been rehabilitated because "for many years they headed the anti-Soviet struggle against the building of socialism in USSR".
The second commission largely worked from 1961 to 1963 and was headed by Shvernik ("Shvernik Commission"). It inclued Shelepin, Serdyuk, Mironov, Rudenko, and Semichastny. The result of the hard work consisted of two massive reports, which detailed the mechanism of falsification of the show-trials against Bukharin, Zinoviev, Tukhachevsky, and many others. The commission based its findings in large part on eyewitness testimonies of former NKVD workers and victims of repressions, and on many documents. The commission recommended to rehabilitate every accused with exception of Radek and Yagoda, because Radek's materials required some further checking, and Yagoda was a criminal and one of the falsifiers of the trials (though most of the charges against him had to be dropped too, he was not a "spy", etc.). The commission stated:
- Stalin committed a very grave crime against the Communist party, the socialist state, Soviet people and worldwide revolutionary movement... Together with Stalin, the responsibility for the abuse of law, mass unwarranted repressions and death of many thousands of wholly innocent people also lies on Molotov, Kaganovich, Malenkov....
However, soon Khrushchev was deposed and the "Thaw" ended, so most victims of the three show-trials were not rehabilitated until Gorbachev's time.
 Skepticism and denial
Some authors, who align themselves politically with Stalinism, such as Ludo Martens, maintain that the scope of the purges was greatly exaggerated and the purges themselves were a necessary means of struggle against political enemies at that time. They claim that the prevailing point of view on the purges is the result of the coincidence of the interests of the post-Stalin Soviet and Western politicians and historians: the goal of the former (Nikita Khrushchev in particular, who initiated "destalinisation") was to discredit Stalinist opposition, while the goal of the latter was to discredit the Soviet Union as a whole.
 Further reading and references
- Rehabilitation: As It Happened. Documents of the CPSU CC Presidium and Other Materials. Vol. 2, February 1956-Early 1980s. Moscow, 2003. Compiled by A. Artizov, Yu. Sigachev, I. Shevchuk, V. Khlopov under editorship of acad. A.N. Yakovlev.
- Robert Conquest: The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties. 1968.
- Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment, Oxford University Press, May 1990, hardcover, ISBN 0-19-505580-2; trade paperback, Oxford, September, 1991, ISBN 0-19-507132-8
- J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov, The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks,Yale University Press, 1999.
- J. Arch Getty and Roberta T. Manning, Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
- Nicolas Werth, Karel Bartosek, Jean-Louis Panne, Jean-Louis Margolin, Andrzej Paczkowski, Stephane Courtois, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, Harvard University Press, 1999, hardcover, 858 pages, ISBN 0-674-07608-7. Chapter 10: The Great Terror, 1936-1938.
- John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage, Encounter Books, September, 2003, hardcover, 312 pages, ISBN 1-893554-72-4
- Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon, 1940, ISBN 0-553-26595-4
- Rehabilitation: Political Processes of 30-50th years, in Russian (Реабилитация. Политические процессы 30-50-х годов), editor: Academician A.N.Yakovlev, 1991 ISBN 5-250-01429-1
- Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956, HarperCollins, February, 2002, paperback, 512 pages, ISBN 0-06-000776-1
- Eugene Lyons, Assignment in Utopia, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1937.
 External links
- Another View of Stalin, by Ludo Martens, in defence of Stalin (if you download the Postscript files, you can convert them to .pdf format here)
- CDI Russia Weekly #230, "Russia: Rights Group Marks Bolshevik Anniversary With Catalog Of Soviet Repressions" By Gregory Feifer
- "The Collectivization 'Genocide'"
- "The Twentieth Century Atlas"de:Große Säuberung
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