* Joseph Stalin The Great Terror

Stalin: The Great Terror (1934-38)

Figure 1.--Stalin saw Segei Kirov as almost a son. They would spend summers together. Never before or after would Stalin develop such a close personal relationship. Here they are with Svetlana. We are not sure when this photograph was taken, probably about 1933. Stalin in the summer of 1934 which they also spent together asked Kirov to stop quetioning his policies and to come to Moscow. Kirov refused. It is likely that the ensuing Terror was so expansive in part because Stalin concludd that if he could not trust someone like Kirov that he had nutured and mentored that he could not trust anyone.< /i>

Stalin organized a series of show trials in which priminent officials and military officers were forced to admit to ludicrous accounts of treason. Soviet citizens were encouraged to denounce their neigbors. Many did in an effort to improve their chances of survival. Stalin consolidated his personal power by eliminating opponents, suppressing any vestige of independent thought. A biographer reports that Stalin ruled by the Big Lie "not only by terror but also by falsification". Stalin used torture to extract false confessions creating what has become known as the Great Terror. [Conquest] Stlalin turned the Soviet Union into a police state in which Soviet citizens lacked even the most basic civil liberties. Workers were completely at the disposition of the state. Stalin ordered purges in which millios lost their jobs, homes, freedom, and often their lives. Most important Blosheviks that had led the Revolution were arrested and show trails organized in which the tortured defendents confessed to traechery and traeason (1936-38). Most were executed. Only a few Bolsehevik leaders, men like Molotov who were close to Stalin, survived. But the FGreat Terror went far beyond individuals. The Politbiuro to gain Stalin's favor ordered Yezhov to launch 'mass operations' to round up recidivist criminals, remaining kulaks, and other 'anti-Soviet elements' (July 3, 1937). Those arrsted were judged by three-person tribunals. Yezhov established quotas in each district setting the number of people arrests. NKVD units in an effirt to show their effectiveness and hopefully earn promotions vied in exceeding these quotas. Yezhov's initial quota was 177,500 exiled and 72,950 executed. The NKVD subsrabyially exceeeded these quotas. One observer writes, "What had begun as bloody retribution against the defeated political opposition developed as a self-induced pathology within the body politic. Its psychic consequences among the survivors were long-lasting and incalculable."

Stalinist Policies

Stalin after Lennin died (1924) used his position as Secretary General of the Party to gain control of the Soviet Union. There were, however, many Old Bolsheviks who had played major roles in the Revolution, in many cases greater than that played by Stalin. Thus his leadership was not yet absolute. Stalin once in control launched major iniitiatives. His primary policy was to shift resources from the countrysude to support a rapidly expanding urban work force and a significant increase in the Soviet heavy industrial base. This not only economic consequence, but military consequences as well. Expanding heavy indutry increased the ability of the Soviet Union to build heavy weapons like artillery and tanks--although in key areas like steel production it still significantly lagged Germany. Industrialization also had political consequences because there was more support for the Communist Party among the urban proleterit than the rural pesantry. To accomplish the shifting of resources, Stalin decided that collectivization was needed. This would make it impossible for the peasantry to horde resources. The collectivization was combined with a policy of eliminating kulaks (well-to-do peasants and the Ukranian pesantry) which was ardently Catholic and anti-Soviet. They were also the best farmers in the country. The result was the Ukranian famine, famine engeneered by Stalin which would cost the lives of millions. The campaign against the Kulaks abd Ukranians by eliminating the best farmers in the country caused harvests to plummet--the opposite of what Stalin expected. Soviet agriculture would never recover. The emense human suffering caused by Stalin's policies caused many within the leadrship to begin quenstioning his policies. This included some of his previously loyal supporters as well as important Old Bolsheviks who had played important roles in the Revolution. One of these individuals was Sergei Kirov, a individual Stalin had mentord and looked on as a son.

Sergei Kirov (1886-1934)

Sergei Kirov was born in Urzhum, Russia (1886). He was orphaned at an ealy age. His grandmother took care of him until he was 7 years old at which time she sent him to an orphanage. Unlike many orphans, he managed to get a good education. He attended Kazan Technical School. It was there that he was attracted by the idelistic appeal of socialism and became a commited Marxist. He joined the Social Democratic Party (SDP) (1904). The net year the Revolition of 1905 shook the Tsarist regime to its roots. He was arrested in St. Petersburg, but was released after only 3 months in prison. The experience taught him that the moderate SDP approach would never dislodge the Tsarist state. He joined the more radical Bolshevik faction. He lived in Tomsk where helped print revolutionary tracks. He helped to organize a strike by railway workers. He moved to Moscow (1906). There he was arrested when he was found printing and distributing banned revolutionary literature. Several of his comrades also arrested were executed, but perhaps because of his youth was sentenced to only 3-years in prison. The Tsarist prison where he was confined had a passable library. He red many of te books and managed to substantially expand his education. Kirov was released (1909), but quickly returned to a range of revolutionary activity. World War I broke out (1914). We are not sure why he was not conscripted. He was again arrested for printing illegal literature (1915). He served a 1-year term and after his release he moved to the Caucasus. He was there when the Revolutiion began (February 1917). Tsar Nicholas II abducated (March 1917). The Bolsheviks overthrew the democratic provisional government and seized power in Moscow (October 1917). Kirov fought with the Red Army against anti-Bolshevik forces in the Caucasus as part of the Civil War. General Anton Denikin was finally defeated (1920). Lenin chose Kirov to lead the Azerbaijan party organization (1921). Kirov helped organize the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (1922). Lenin died (1924) leading toa struggle for power among the leadership. Kirov was an early supporter of Joseph Stalin who managed tongain control of the Party organization. Stalin rewarded him by chosing him to head the Leningrad party organization--one of the most important Party positions (1926). He was appointed to the Politburo as Satalin cemented his contol of the Prty and state institutiins (1930). This made him one of the leading figures in the Soviet Union. These appointment and his closeness to Stalin suggested to many that Stalin was grooming him for the future leadership of the Party. Stalin began treating him as a kind of son. Stalin became increasingly aware that opposition to his policies were growing within the Party (1932). The Ukranian Famine he enginered in particular had horified many. There was some public criticism nd even calls fo Leon Trotsky, Stalin's arch enemy, to be readmitted to the Party. Oppoition to Stalin grew to the point that the issues even suraced in Politburo discussions. Stalin was outraged and demanded that his critics be arrested and executed. Kirov had been a staunch supporter of Stalin's policies. The enormity of tge disaster in the Ukrine may have shaken his support for Stalin. He opposed the purge Stalin was demanding. The majority of the Politburo supported Kirov against Stalin, the first time this had happened. Kirov was an extremely popular figure, especially in St. Perersburg. From this seemingly secure base, Kirov argued for a reconciliation betwwem Party elements. He wanted political priooners released from the expanding Gulag, especially those who had been arrested for opposing Stalin's policie of forced collectivization and rapid industrialization. Stalin found himself holding a minority in the Politburo. Stalin had for several years been steadily removing opponents from the Party. He was shocked to find after thi careful winnoing of Pary ranks that he did not have full control over the Party. Many of those he has appointed and promoted now opposed him on at least some of his policies. He was especially disapointed wuth Kirov because he was so peronally close to him. He particularly was concerned with Kirov actually arguing with him in public. He was rightly concerned that this would undermine his authority within the Party. He saw Kirov evoling from a loyal mentor to a dangerous rival. Stalin and Kirov had developed the practice of spending their summer hiolidays with their families tiogether. And they did so again (summer 1934). Stalin used that summer together to persuade him to rethink his independent approach and resume his unquestioning loyallty. Stalin urged Kirov to leave his powerbase Leningrad and join him in Moscow. Stalin clearly wanted Kirov in a place where he was not surroundd by loyal staff and could be better monitored. Kirov refused, It is at this point Stalin realised that he had lost control of the person he hd considered his cloest and most loyal supporter--and a man who had addressed a considerable following in the Party.


The Great Purge was conceived and ordered by Stalin who was in complete control of both the Party and state aparatus. The All-Union People's Commissariat of Home Affairs (NKVD) was the instrument Stalin would use to conduct the Great Terror. Tge objective was to eliminate all opposition, real and imagined and t terify the Soviet population in general. And the NKVD was thevperfect instrument. It was a security force that was prepared toncarry out whay ever ordered withour question. NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda headed the NKVD when Stalin began to prepare for the purges. Most of the the purges were conducted by Nikolai Yezhov replaced Yagoda as NKVD chief (September 1936). Thus the Great Terroris sometimes known as the Yezhovshchina. Yezhov may have been resoonsible for the details and implementation, but there is no doubt that it was Stalin who developed the general outlines for the Purges and the dimensions of the operations. Both Yagoda and Yezhov would be consumed in the terror. Yagoda was a defendant at the Trial of the Twenty-One -- the final of the major Soviet show trials of the 1930s. Following his confession at the trial, Yagoda was found guilty and shot. Stalin selected Yagoda in part because he was Jewish and thus he could assign blame on both. The hevily abti-Semetic Russian peoople awould believe virtually anything about Jews. The NKVD had a monopoly on on law enforcement in ghe Soviet Union. And their were no constraints on theor use of force. The only limitatiion was what Stalin would permit.

Genrikh Yagoda (1891-1938)

Genrikh Yagoda Yenokh Gershonovich Ieguda in the town of Rybinsk (1891). Not a great deal is known of his family, but it ws Jewish. His father is variously reported as a pharmacist or a watchmaker. He completed a secondary education he found work as either a statistician or a pharmacist, again accounts vary. He became drawn into the revolutionary movement against the Tsaeist Government. He was active during thge Revolutionnof 1905. He wirked in an illegal printshop producung revolutiuinary tracts. Hhe joined the RSDRP (1907). He waa arrestede in Moscow for engaging in revolutiionary activities (1911). He was exiled (1911). He returned from exile and settled in St. Persburg (1913). After World War I broke out, he was drafted (1915). He joined the Bolshevik military organization (1917). He was involved in both the February Revolution overthrowing the Tsarist regime. And he later participated in the October Revolition in which the Bolshevik seized power. Yagoda was a member of the RKKA Supreme Military Inspection fighting on the Southern and Eastern fronts during the Russian Civil War (1918-19). He ws apponted to the Board of the People's Commissariat (Narcomat) of Foreign Trade (1919). Next he was appointed to the Presidium of the All-Russian Emergency Commission. This was the secret police more commonly known as the VeCheka (1920). He served as deputy chairman of the OGPU which replaced tge Chekka (1924-35). He was awarded the Red Banner Order (1927). HYagoda woukld have been deeply invloved in the forced collectivization campaign and Ukrania Famine. Stalin to reward him for loyal service promoted him chairman of OGPU (1934) and the People's Commissar (Narcom) for Internal Affairs (NKVD). It is in this position that he also became a member of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party (then referre to as known as VCP (b). He was given the rank of Commissar General of State Security (GB) (1935). This was the equivalent to rank of Marshall in the Red Army. It was from these positions as a Stalinist loyalist that Yagoda oversaw the launching of the Great Terrir. He carefully prepared the first Moscow political trial (1936). He also oversaw the OGPU foreign intelligence network. He began to bring the Red Army military intelligence service under the control of OGPU. After accomplishing all this for Stalin, Yagoda's star began to fall. It is unclear just why, but probably reflect's Stalin's desire to remove the one person who knew just what he had done, perhaps including the Kirov assasination. Getting rid of Yagoda meant getting rid of a great deal of evidence. Also as Yagoda was Jewish and generally despised by many other Party offiucials, Stalin could pose as a cimpantionate leader, placing the blame for excesses on Yagoda. Stalin demoted Yagoda, charging that he was 'unfit for the task of exposing the Trotskyite-Zinoviev block' (September 1936). Yagoda at that point must have understood where this was heading. He began drinking heavily. Nickolai Ezhov suceeded him to head the OGPU. Yagoda was arrested (April 3, 1937). He was charged with a range of crimes, including counterrevolutionary Trotskyite activity and espionage as well as 'medicinal assassinations' of Soviet leaders. He pleaded guilty. As IGPU he over saw the torture and black mail (threatening rekatives) to coerce confessions from the old Bolsheviks Stalin ordered ti be purged. Yagoda did deny the espionage charge. He claimed "Had I been a spy, then dozens of nations of the world would have to disband their intelligence services." [Torchinov and Leontiuck] Yagoda was one of the chief defendants in the Moscow 'anti-Soviet right wing Trotskyite' trial (March 1938). He was sentenced to death and executed. He stands as the was the only defendant in that trial who was not eventually rehabilitated after Stalin's death.

Kirov Asasination (December 1934)

The Leningrad leader Sergi Kirov was one of the most popular figures in the Soviet Union. He was even close to Stalin. Kirov was one of Stalin's important associates as he seized control of the Party duriung the late-1920s. Stalin rewarded him with the prestiguius Lenningrad position. Kirov gradually came to question Stalin's methods. This probably was why he was killed. Stalin is known to have derived satisfaction over many of the executions. Kirov seems to have been different. Leonid Nikolayev, a youthful Party member, shot Lenningrd Party boss Sergei Kirov (December 1, 1934). Most historians beliece that Stalin was behind it. This has never been proved, but in the Soviet Union it would not have been difficult to cover up any such evidence. Unlike most of Stalin's kill orders, the decesion to have him killed seems to have affected Stalin deeply. Stalin claimed that Nikolayev was part of an expansive conspiracy orcestrated by Leon Trotsky against the Soviet government. He ordered the arrest and execution of the Old Bolsheviks who had dared oppose him, including Genrikh Yagoda, Lev Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev, and 14 other party members. This was the begiining of what is now known as the Great Terror.


Stalin used the Kirov assasination as an excuse for launching a campaign of teror perhaps unequaled in histoy. Many within the Party had opposed him. His rise to power was not an easy matter. He faced considerable opposition. Now that he was in control, he prepared to root out any opposition, first within the Party and then society as a whole. This was done by targetting groups of people rather than individuals. The Purges began with individuals, but was expanded to groups as Stalin set out to terrorize an entire nation. This is often referred to as the Great Purges, although an important historian has popularized the term--the Great Terror. [Conquest] The purpose will never entirely be known. Vengence was a factor, but paying back opponents would have meant gundreds ir thousands at the most--not millions. Most historians believe that the gioal was to maximize his personal power and create a system where no one woukd dare question him. .


Stalin began with the Communist Party, targetuing fifures that had resisted his rise gto power. That was, however, only the beginning. Next was the Soviet elite as a whole as a prelude to totally dominating the Soviet people. He liquidated veteran semi-independent Bolsheviks, party bosses, military leaders, industrial managers, and important government officials. There was a long list of other victims. This included foreign Communists on Soviet territory and even the police organization that was assigned the task of carrying out the purges. No element of the Soviet elite was exempt: the arts, academia, jurists, diplomats, and others. What developed was haphazard, persecution that fed on itself and individuals sought to save themselves at the expense of others. NKVD units outdid themselves to over-fullfill quotas. They extorted denunciations and confessions thriough torture and threats to arrest family members. This process created perhaps more victims than Stalin himself had intended. Stalin's political victims would evebtually be numbered in tens of millions.


The NKVD began arresting acquantuces of those first arrested as NKVD units vied to achieve or even exceed their quotas. Those arrested were unterogated and forced to confess. Those that refused were torchured until they did so. Often they just signed a confession their interogators prepared for them. This led to other people being arrested because once a confession had been made then you had to name names. Some teenagers were among those arrested. Here we do not have a lot of detail. One of the bargains made to those arrested was if they confessed that the persons family would be spared. This happened to several important Officials and ministers in the government. However the promice was broken and the family was also arrested. After confessing, the individual was shot or sent to off to the Gulag. Here many died from mistreatment, including the cold, overwork, lack of food, or illness. Plans were prepared for mass repressions against the "social base" of potential opponents. This meant not individuals, but groups of people who might be prone to oppose Stalin.

Inerogations and Torture

Those arreted were subjected to susrained interogations and both torture and psychological pressure. Yagoda was reportedly persinally involved in the orocess. This produced many more names the NKVD could arrest. This arrested were forced to confess to completely outlandish crimes. Often they invented crimes themselves in an effort to end the torture. As a result, millions of Soviet cuitzens became drawn into the search for "enemies of the people".

Show Trials

Stalin ordered a series of spectacular show as the center pices of the Great Terror--a term historians have appropriated from the French Revolution. At the show trial, prominent officials and military officers including many Old Bolshevicks who made the Revolution were forced to admit to ludicrous accounts of treason. The Great Terror included a series of three elaborately staged and publicized show trials. The first Show Trial (July-August 1936) which shocked the world included high-ranking Communists who had dared to question Stalin. The defendents included Lev Kamenev, Grigorii Zinoviev, and fourteen others. They were accused of organizing a Trotskyite-Zinovievite terrorist center in 1932. Thus was in keeping with Stalin's first tactic of attacking left-wing critics allied with Trotsky within the Party. Trotsky was the former commander of the Red Army and Stalin's rival in his rise to power. They were accused of assassinating of popular Lenningrad boss Sergei Kirov in December 1934. (Most historians believe Stalin was actually responsible.) Stalin was reportedly dissatisfied with Yagoda's handling of the investigation and number of executions. Other historians bekieve he wanted to eliminate all knowledge of his involvement in the Kirov assasination. Stalin thus replaced Yagoda with Yezhov as head of the NKVD following the first trials.. The Second Show Trial (September 1936) quickly followed Yezhov's promotion. The defendents with the Old Bolshevicks now eliminated included Iurii Piatakov and other leading figures in the industrialization drive. The Third Show Trials were launched at the plenary session of the Party's Central Committee (February-March 1937). The defebdents jncluded Nikolai Bukharin and Aleksei Rykov They were the leading Party members associated with what Stalin described as the the so-called Rightist deviation (late-1920s and early-1930s) who had questioned Stalin;s leadership. They were accused of having collaborated with the Trotskyite-Zinovievite terrorists as well as with foreign intelligence agencies. They along with Yagoda and others were in due course tried, convicted, and sentenced to death (March 1938).

Purging the Soviet Military and Communist Party

The Show Trials shocked the world. How could so many Old Bolsheviks and leading figures in the Siviet Union be traitors and enenies of the people. And not fully understood at the time it was just the tip of the ice berg of what became the Great Terror. The elite of the Soviet Communist Party was desimated. Show trials were held for some. This was the public face of the purges. Most victims simply disppapeared, either being shot without a trial or being committed to the the Gulag. Stalin after eliminating Kirvov was in complete control of tge Soviet Union. With the full support of Yagoda and the NKVD his position was basically unassilable. The only force that could threaten his leadership was the military. He thus set out to eliminate any possible resistance within the military. Thus between the second and third show trials, he ordered Yezhov and the NKVD to comb the upper echelons of the Red Army for any sign of opposition to Stalin's leadership. Finding such sentiment was difficult. Thus the NKVD went after other indicators such as class origins and involvement with the Rapollo program. (Here many Red Army officers worked with Grman Reichwehr officers.) The professional leadership of the Red Army was as a result decimated by arrests and summary executions. The Soviet Union woukd pay a terrible price when the Germans attacks (June 1941). Stalin also decided to go after provincial party secretaries, party and state personnel among the national minorities, industrial managers, and other officials. The process as conducted by the NKVD fed upon itself.

Mass Arrests (July 1937)

And if this was not suffient, the Politbiuro to gain Stalin's favor ordered Yezhov to launch 'mass operations' to round up recidivist criminals, remaining kulaks, and other 'anti-Soviet elements' (July 3, 1937). Those arrsted were judged by three-person tribunals. Yezhov established quotas in each district setting the number of people arrests. NKVD units in an effirt to show their effectiveness and hopefully earn promotions vied in exceeding these quotas. Yezhov's initial quota was 177,500 exiled and 72,950 executed. The NKVD subsrabyially exceeeded these quotas. One observer writes, "What had begun as bloody retribution against the defeated political opposition developed as a self-induced pathology within the body politic. Its psychic consequences among the survivors were long-lasting and incalculable." Huge numbers of people were arrested. Large numbers were sumarily executed. Others were sentenced to the Gulag for varying terms. Mass graves are believed to exist all over the Soviet Union, but because the Soviets wer not defeated and cimpetely occupied during the War, the identification and study of these sites has not ocurred. Some have been found. The Germans furing World War II a sites where mistly Ukanians were burie-- Vinnytsia in the Ukraine. The NKVD was also sent into Mongolia.

The Handicapped

One of the many horrenous killing programs of the NAZIs was the T4 Euthanasia Program targetting handicapped children. The NKVD was not immune from targetting the handicapped. When the mass rrests began, the NKVD had to work hard to find new targets. So their reach also expanded to the handicapped. Now unlike the NAZIs, this does not see to be an ideologically motivated to remove the genetically defective, but there was a commonality. The NAZIs wanted to remove 'useless eathers". In the Soviet Union people were treated in terms of their capability to perform 'socially useful labor'. According to on author, 'those who could treated much as other Soviet citizens were and those who couldn’t with suspicion and repression." And during the Graet Terror the NKVD had to come up with numbers. People called at the time called the eaf and dumb came to the attention of the NKVD. The All-Russian Society of the Deaf and Dumb provided some assuastance, but many to make ends sold pictures and pencils on the street, especially in railway stations. And this seems to have triggered the NKVD terror machine. the NKVD incredably invented charges about the existence of a terrorist group aming the deaf and dumb that the authorities said was planning to kill leaders of the Soviet state. The NAZIs did there T-4 killing secretly. The NKVD actually justified their actions by claiming that their victims were enemies of the state. The NKVd had a problen in getting confessions. Not matter how much they beat these defenseless people, they could not confess. Thevhistorian covering this writes, "Interrogating those arrested was difficult for the militia NKVD which did not have sufficient numbers of people capable of working with the deaf and dumb, and so these victims were even more likely to be tortured than others and even more likely than other categories of people to be sentenced to be shot. Thirty-four of the 53 deaf and dumb people arrested in Leningrad were sentenced to be shot, with the remainder dispatched to work in the Mordvinian or Karaganda camps. The few of those who managed to survive were released in 1940, and all who were killed were posthumously rehabilitated in 1955." [Goble]


Soviet citizens were encouraged to denounce their neigbors. Many did in an effort to improve their chances of survival.

Personal Power

Stalin consolidated his personal power by eliminating opponents, suppressing any vestige of independent thought. A biographer reports that Stalin ruled by the Big Lie "not only by terror but also by falsification". Stalin used torture to extract false confessions creating what has become known as the Great Terror. [Conquest] Stlalin turned the Soviet Union into a police state in which Soviet citizens lacked even the most basic civil liberties. Workers were completely at the disposition of the state.


Stalin ordered purges in which millios lost their jobs, homes, freedom, and often their lives. Most important Blosheviks that had led the Revolution were arrested and show trails organized in which the tortured defendents confessed to traechery and traeason (1936-38). Most were executed. Only a few Bolsehevik leaders, men like Molotov who were close to Stalin, survived. The Great Purges were carried out in a number of carefully organized stages. [Okhotin and Roginsky] Stalin used the show trial of leading Communists to launch and expanding the new terror. Zinoviev and Kamenev were the first major victims. They were paraded in court to orate fabricated confessions (August 1936). They were sentenced to death and summarily shot. Two additional major trials followe (January 1937 and March 1938). Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, at the time the leading Soviet military figure and other leading generals were reported to have been court-martialed on charges of treason and shot (June 1937).

Nikolai Yezhov (1895-1939)

Nikolai Yezhov was born in St. Petersburg during 1895. He was a small man, only 5 feet tall and had a crippled leg. He acquired the nicknam the "Dwarf". Yezhov joined the Bolsheviks after the February Revolution which deposed the Tsar. In the Civil War which followed he fought with the Red Army. After the Civil War he attached himself to Stalin by 1927 was a trusted associate. Yezhov who became looked on with horror was know by his associates popular and well liked. He was even known as a gentle man. [Montefiore] Stalin chose Yezhov to replace the old Bolshevik Genrikh Yagoda to head the Peoples Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) (September 1936). Stalin ordered him to prepare a sensational action to arrest the iportant Soviet officials who held reservations about Stalin's leadership. The Terror is also known as the Ezhovshchina because of Yezhov's role. (His name is variously spelled Yezhov or Ezhov. He oversaw the process of the Terror after Yagoda was himself purged. Yezhov organized the arrest and show trials of Nickolai Bukharin, Alexei Rykov, Nikolai Krestinsky and Christian Rakovsky (1937). They were charged with plotting with Stalin's arch enemy Leon Trotsky against Stalin. Yezhov also had Yagoda arrested and tried with the other old Bolsheviks. They confessed to all charges against them. They were all found guilty and were eventually executed. The NKVD under Lagoda developed effective techniques for breaking prisioners down. They were beaten, kept awake, and their families threatened. Most signed what ever confessions were put before them. They were then shot or disappeared into the Gulag. The show trials were only the visible aspect of the Greatv Terror eported in the press. Yezhov proposed Order 00447 to the Soviet Politboro. When it approved it autorized arrest quotas for every region of the Soviet Union. Massive numbers of men and women were arrested, some were deported, others were shot or sentenced to long terms in the Gulag. An estimated 1.5 million people were arrested and 0.7 million shot. The Russians today refer to the Great Terror as "Yezhovshchina" or the "Yezhov affair". Yezhov's position in the NKVD lasted only briefly. Stalin became suspicious of him and replaced with Lavrenti Beria (December 1938). Like Yagoda, Yezhov was then arrested. He was probably executed in 1939, although no public announcement was mae. Beria was one of the few who knew and remembered.

Beria Thaw (November 1938-39)

The terror ended as Stalin decided to scale it back (1938). Stalin finally decided to stop the mass killing operations. It is not clear just why. It may have gone beyond what he had planned. Or he may have decided that he had achieved his goals. He relieved the overseer of the purges, Yezhov, and then had him purged. This had two advantages for Stalin. It made it look like he was not resonsible and the execution of Yezhov destoyed much of the evidence of his envolvement. Stalin appointed Lavrenty Beria, a fellow Georgian and close confidant, as the new NKVD chief. This period is thus called the Beria thaw. Beria ordered mass operations ended. He abolished the units set up for extrajudicial executions. Stalin reduced the terror, although he never completely abandoned it.

Lavrenty Beria (1899-1953)

Lavrenty Beria along with Yagoda is one of the true evil figures in the history of the 20th century. Stalin appointed Beria head of the NKVD (1938). Beria as NKVD chief became Stalin's chief administrator to continue the Terror. Beria was involved in all aspects of the Terror. He is known to have even participated in the torturing of those arrested. He personally organized mass operations such as the murder of the Polish officers in the Katyn Forrest. Like Himmler, Beria was a gifted administrator and organizers. Stalin gave him other key assignments such as building an atomic bomb. By all accounts he was a loving father and granfather. His attributes as a husband, however, were very different. He is known to have kidnapped countless women off the streets of Moscow and raped them. In the end when he learned that Stalin was about to have him arrested, he poisoned Stalin. Beria was no fool. He knew what Stalin did with NKVD chiefs who possessed so much knowledge of his apalling acts. His Politboro colleagues knowing him all to well, before he could effectively use the NKVD to place himself in power, had him tried and executed for actions comitted while head of the KNVD.


Historians disagree as to the full extent of the purges, especially the death toll. It seems likely that based on Soviet statistics that over 1 million Soviet citizens were sumarily executed or died as a result of illtreatment during detention. [Ellman] Soviet archives report about 1.6 million arrests and 0.7 million executions. Most of those arrested were sentenced to terms in the Gulag, often 10-year terms. Many of these inviduals died as a result of illtreatment in the camos or after their relaease. The Russian Memorial Society reports 1.7 million arrests , 1.4 million setenced, and 0.7 million executions. The majority of the execultions (0.4 million) were ordered by NKVD Troikas involved in anti-Kulak operations. Another major source of executions (0.2 million) were ordered by NKVD Dvoikas and local Special Troykas involved in operarions against targeted ethnic minorities. Military courts ordered 41,000 executions. While small in comparison to the other operations, this was particularly significant because it decimated the officer corps of the Red Army. While there are authors sympathetic to Stalin that deny these estimates, there are others who believe that thy are overstated. [Appelbaum, p. 584.] One author thinks as many as 1.7 people were executed during the purges. [Conquest] When the number of people who died as a result of mistreatment, the death tool may reach 2 million. The full accounting of Stalin's terror campaign in the 1930s may have a much greater death toll. Anthony Eden, British Foreign Minister, went to Moscow after the NAZI invasion which was the first step in organizing the grand alliance that would defeat Hitler (December 16-20, 1941). At the time, The Germans were still only a few miles from Moscow, although the Red Army had launched its counter-offensive and the Germans were retrating. He had a quiet private converstaion with Marshal Stalin. Eden asked Stalin how many peopledc had been killed in the 1930s. Stalin's answer speaks volumes. "I don't know, perhaps 10 million, but you have to know when to stop." [Davies ]

Notable Examples

Millions were caught up in the Great Terror and were killed, died from, abuse and mistreatment in the Gulag, or had their lives ruined. Countless children lost their parents. Some individual cases provide a window into Stalin's character. There are fewer published accounts of the experiences of the victims of the purges and other Soviet attrocities than is the case for the victims of the NAZIs. This is not because of any shortage of victims. It is because the Soviets did not lose the War and were not occupied by the Allies. Thus the victims of Stalin and the NKVD had little chnce to publish their accounts. There are, however, some accounts. Here for HBC we are particularly interested in the experiences of children. Once such account was of Al'dona Volynskaia, the daughter of an important Communist Party member in Moscow.

Broka Poskrebysheva

Broka Poskrebysheva was one of the rate individuals who dared to struggle against the Terror. She was a beautiful woman and dressed fassionably--standing out in the rather dour women who were married to Soviet leaders. And like the others who did, she paid a terrible price. she was the glamerous wife of one of Stalin's key aides--Alexander Poskrebysheva. He was Stalin's chef de cabinent or principal administrative assistant. Broka was devestated when her brother was arrested (1937). She must have appealed to her husband. The two were close, but it is unclear how much he dared tell her about Stalin. Surely he advised her not to approach Stalin on the matter, bu no one knows. She went to Stalin to plead personally for her beloved brother. Stalin hated this. The appeals had no affect, but no action was taken against her. Broka did not give up. She then called NKVD Chief Lavrenty Beria and asked to speak with him about her brother. This leads us to believe that Poskrebysheva did not dare to speak with his wife about the realities of Soviet leaders--especially Beria. Or perhaps she was just overcome by grief. After the call she was arrested and never seen by her family again. Poskrebysheva pleaded with Stalin who is reoorted to have told him, "Don't worry, we'll find you another wife." She was later shot in 1941. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the story is how Poskrebysheva continued to loyally work for Stalin and even remained friendly with Beria. Once Beria hugged their dauhter Natalya and told her, "You're going to be as beautiful as your mother." Poskrebysheva is said have ushered Natalya away from Beria and sent her out to play, [Montefiore] Of course Natalya still had a father. Often both mother and fathers were caught up in the Terror and children lost both their parents.


Molotov was perhap's Stalin's closest advisers or as close as one got to Stalin. Molotov was very close to his wife. Stalin on the other hand despisd her and advised Molotov to divorce her. She was Jewish and even more dangeroudly, offered support to Stalin's wife after he beat her. Stalin as Molotov fell out of favor had her arrested and she spent years in the Lubyanka, labor camps, and exile. His devotion to his wife does not appear to have diminished his ability to loyaly serve Stalin. Stlain was, however, apparently preparing to move against his perhaps most consistently loyal aide. Accounts suggest that at the time of Stalin's death he was preparing to have Molotov himself arrested. Despite this, after Stalin's death, Molotov opposed Khrushchev's De-Stanization effort.


Kalinin was the President of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. His wife was in exile for years while he worked closely with Stalin.


One topic not often addressed is what happened to the children of those arrested. There is no real accoubnting of the numbers arrested, but it is surely in the millions, especially when one considers not only the Great Purge and Terror, but subsequent arrests in the 1940s and early-50s. Wives might be left to take care of the children, but in many cases wives might also be arrested. The children might then be cared for by members of the extended families. In some cases, family members were afraid tio taken in the children of those arrested. Many children were taken to orphanages. We have not yet found an accounting of the number of children that wound up in orphanages. And children were not immune from arrest themselves if they wwre in their late teens or young adults. Many were stigmatized by their parents arrest and had difficulty obtaining access to highrer education. Even some of the younger childrent wound up in the Gulag, arrested as young adults after they grew up. Irina Kalina (1928- ) whose father Ignaty Kalina was foreign minister of the Belarus Soviet republic when he was arrested and accused of being a spy (1938). He died in jail. She was sent to a labor camp in Kazakhstan for 5 years. Large numbers of children were orphaned by the Great Terror and NKVD arrests before and after the Terror at created the Gulag. This is an often neglected aspect of the Terror. A reader writes, "In the great Terror whole families were arrested. The children were sent to orphanages all over the Soviet Union. Life in these institutions was often unpleasant. Orphanages in the Ukrine feature in the opening stages of the Great Patriotic War." HBC believes that it was more complicated than this. Some whole families may have been arrested, but we think this was not the general pattern. We know of many instances when the father was arrested, but not the wife, although she may have been arrested later. In many cases the family (grand parents and aunts and uncles) may have taken the children in, but in many cases they were afraid to so. We think it may have been a matter of chance, if the children were in the home when the NKVD arrived (almost always at night) to arrest the second parent (usually the wife) was arrested, then they were taken as well. But given the number of people involved, the NKVD may have developed standardized procedures. This we just do not know at this time. The NKVD's operating principle based on Stalin's thinking was that those who were related to or asociated associated with suspected individuals or those actually arrested were the most likely to be security risks themselves. This meant that husband or wives, family members, and associated were suspect. It also meant that in many families, both the father and mother were arrested, although often not at the same time. This left large numbers of child orphans. Many were taken in by families. Many others had to be cared for by state orphanges. Before the Great Terror, a major NKVD effort was to root out religion. It was a political crime to teach children about religion (Aricle 58-10). Often individuals accused could renounce their faith. Sentences were 10-years of hard labor. Those sentenced if the survived the Gulg weee prohibited from returning ttheir children. [Solzhenitsyn, p. 37-38.] While children were generally not arrested and committed to the Gulag, they along with their parents wete suspect and not infrequently arreted after they reached adulthood. The NKVD after the War launched into a campaign arrsting many of the children of those purged, including teenagers. [Solzhenitsyn, p. 90.] The children of military officers were a particular target. By this time 25-year sentences were increasingly standard, but juveniles might receivevonly 10-year sentences. [Solzhenitsyn, p. 91.] There were exception to the arrest of juveiles was the arrest of adolscents as a result of the World war II Decree on the Introduction of Military Discipline on the Railroads (Aoril 1943). By this time most of the ork on the railroads was conducted by women and adolescents as the men were conscripted by the military. The new railroad workers had little training ad were not provided barracks. As a result there were mistakes made considerble indiscipline. As a result quite a number f adolscents were arrested. [Solzhenitsyn, p. 87.] And there wee instances of whole familie being arrested, deported, or turned out of their himes to srarve. This include the camoaign against the Kulaks resultingin the Ukranian famine, the World Wr II supression of minorities seen as disloyal. [Solzhenitsyn, pp. 54-55.] And there were some occasions of children being arrested. The most notable was during the early years of collectivization. Parents woukd send their children out at night to stel food, often called 'snipping ears'. If caughtvregardless of age they received 10-year sentences forthe theft od Socialist Property. A law was pased specifically addrssing this problem abd became known as 'the Law of the Seven-eights' (1932). [Solzhenitsyn, pp. 57-58.] And this approach was continued after the War. A group of children involved in steling food was under a new law (clled the Four-Sixths) by prisoners given 20 year sentences. [Solzhenitsyn, pp. 88-89.] Our information on this aspect of the Terror is minimal. It is a topic not often addressed that we we hope to pursue. We would be very interested in reader insights on this topic. A reader has provided information on one little girl--Al'dona Volynskaia

The Gulag

Stalin did not create concentration camps. This was begun under Lenin. The approach was initially corrective labor. Stalin fundamentally changed the systems. The increasing numbers of arrests under the Stalinist Terror were used to fill an ever expanding number of camps throughout the country. The focus changed from corrective labor to slave labor. Not only did the arrests terrorize the Soviet people, but it provided a slave labor force which could be put to work on large scale projects decided on in the Five Year Plans. Many liked the Northern Canal resulted in enormois loss of life for pootly conceived projects. An estimated 18 million people are believed to have passed through the Soviet Gulag.


The literature of the Holocaust has provided a great deal of information about the individuals who executed Hitler's orders. A surprising conclusion is how ordinary they were and how despite their horrigic actions, they were normal husbands and wifes. Many of their children remember tender times at home with their fathers. Until recently very little was known about the perpetrators of the Great Terror other than Stalin. Sinece the disolution of the Soviet Union, a wealth of documents have become avaiable to scholars. Researchers have interviewed the children and grandchildren of the Stalin's important aides. Here British biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore has greatly added to our understanding of the men who carried out the Great Terror. Like their German counterparts, one can not help but be struck by their normality. The Soviet Terror is even more difficult than the Holocaust to understand. There are countless instances in history where those preceived as different (nationality, etnicity, or religion) have been subjected to unbelieveable cruelty. In the Soviet Terror the horror was visited in the Russian people themselves. Not only other Russians, but in countless casses family members--including the families of Stalin's own aides and ministers. One is at a lost to explain this. A unavoidable conclusion is that such criminality is possible anywhere. It is often thought that the Holocaust and Great Terror are somehow the result of defects in German and Russian character. The normality of the perpetrators and the ability to enduce them to even accept the arrest of family members suggest that such behavior is all to human and in the right mixture of deopraved leadership, absence of the rule of law, and appropriate historical circumstances that such erruption of horror are possible in any country.


There are today many appolgists for Stalin and the Soviet system. There are appolgists in both Russia and the West. In fact Stalin is today a very popular figure in Russia. Apparently the strong-man image has appeal to many Russians. In the West it is the continuing appeal of socialism, despite the clear evidence that socialism does not work. For those who do not believe in capitalim or liberal democracy, the Soviet Union has real appeal. Notice how impressed Senator Sanders was not only with the Soviet Union, but with Cuba s well. There are two basic arguments used by oviet appolgists. It is the standard argument used by the defenders of those who committed horrenous crimes, sich as the Japanese who fefend the Imperail Japanese rmy during World Wr II anf the Rape of Nanlkng. Theu clame that the numbers of victims are exagerated. Give the mountains of evidence, they cannot deny that the attrocities did mot occur. So they say that it was not as bad as claimed. The other basic argument is that the NKVD targets were limited to people of the middle and upper social classes. This is the usual defense of his system by many in the West and many in Russia today. Somehow for manythis justifies the terrible actions taken. You can see an echo of this thinking in the increasingly in the rheoric of the Left in the United States today and not just by the extreme Left.

World War II

The Soviets created 479 new Major Generals, almost out of whole cloth. Erickson, p. 19.] These promotions had a major impact on the Red Army. Many men were promoted that were not qualified. The principal qualification seenms to have been political reliability. Thy were promoted to replace the more experienced men with real military qualifications aught up in the purges. Red Army commanders realized that many of these men were not qualified. A a training program was insitituted to address this problem. This effort, however, was only partially successful. One problem was the time needed to acquire experience needed by senior commanders. Another problem was the personality chracteristics of successful commandrs are not the same as those likely to be seen as poliically reliable toadies. .

Modern Russian Views

President Vladimir Putin addressed the subject marking the 70th anniversary of the Great Purges (2007). He said that although the 1937 purge was one of the most notorious episodes of the Stalin era, no one should try to make Russia feel guilty about it because 'in other countries even worse things happened'. Putin, was speaking to a group of history teachers. He suggested that the United States' use of atomic weapons against Japan at the end of World War II was worse.


Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: A History.

Conquest, Robert. Stalin: Breaker of Nations.

Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror.

Davies, Norman.

Ellman, Michael. Soviet Repression Statistics: Some Comments (2002).

Erickson, John. The Road to Stalingrad (Berkshire, UK: Cox & Wyman Ltd., 2003).

Goble, Paul A. "80 years ago, Stalin’s NKVD began to arrest and shoot the deaf and dumb," Euromaidian Press (May 29, 2017).

Lukes, Igor. Czechoslovakia Between Stalin and Hitler: The Diplomacy of Edvard Beneš in the 1930s (Oxford University Press, 1996).

Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (Knopf), 785p.

Okhotin, N.G. and A.B. Roginsky. Great Terror (Memorial, 2007).

Rayfield, Donald. Stalin and His Hangmen: The tyrant and Those who Killed for Him (New York: Random House, 2004).

Solzhenitsyn, Alexsanddr I. Trans, Thomas P. Wjitney. The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-56: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (Harper & Row: New York, 1973), 660p.

Torchinov, V.A. and A.M. Leontiuck. Around Stalin.: Historical-Biographical Reference Book (St. Petersburg, 2000).


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Created: April 26, 2004
Last updated: 4:19 PM 8/17/2020