The purges in the USSR started in the mid-1930’s and continued throughout the late 1930’s. Joseph Stalin had shared power with Zinoviev and Kamenev in the time after the death of Lenin (1924) and he had no intention of ever being put in that position again. By the mid-1930’s Stalin believed that the Bolshevik Party ‘Old Guard’ represented a threat to him and unless he did something about them they would remove him from power. Stalin suspected everyone who had any semblance of power and he wanted them dealt with. For the purges to start Stalin wanted to give the process a degree of legal legitimacy. In December 1934, the popular party head of Leningrad, Sergei Kirov, was murdered. What part Stalin played in this remains an issue that historians are not fully agreed on. Stalin, adhering to his policy of making the whole issue look legitimate, asked the Politburo for their support to purge the party so that certain elements could be removed. The Politburo gave Stalin their support for this and the purges began.
The first people rounded up were labelled ‘Trotskyites’. They were put in prisons run by the NKVD who, according to the very few that survived this experience, used both physical and psychological torture to gain information about other ‘traitors’ to the cause. The NKVD also did what it could to get signed confessions out of those they dealt with. Stalin himself upped the ante when he signed a decree that made families liable for the crimes committed by their husband or father. Children aged 12 could also be executed under this decree. Basically no one was safe. However, the people that had good reason to be very fearful were those who Stalin believed were a challenge to his position and one of the most common charges made against an arrested person was plotting to kill Stalin. The NKVD needed a confession and they proved very adept at their work. One member of the NKVD stated that given the time he could get anyone to sign a confession that they were “the king of England”. Given the nature of the work they did, there are no clear figures for the number of people arrested by the NKVD. If anyone enquired, then they themselves would have been viewed as suspect in the extreme.
In keeping with Stalin’s desire to maintain an air of legality to the purges, major figures were given the ‘luxury’ of a public trial – the so-called show trials. A guilty verdict at the end of these stage-managed trials was an inevitability. Many signed a confession knowing that what they had confessed to was wrong. In his book “Darkness at Noon” Arthur Koestler commented that many in NKVD prisons saw death as the best way out of life in these prisons and signed confessions knowing that they were in effect signing their own death warrants but death was a swift way out. To what extent this is true is impossible to know as no one survived their execution! Some did survive NKVD prisons and the gulags and later wrote about their experiences (such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn in “One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich”) and what unites all of these books is the appalling life they must have led while in these establishments while they had to live with the knowledge that an early release was all but impossible. For them death must have seemed a release. But for Stalin a signed confession was like a trophy to parade among the people as proof of his suspicions of their treasonable behaviour.
It has been estimated that between 1934 and 1939, one million party members were arrested and executed. During the same period it is thought that 10 million were sent to the gulags with many of them dying – either in transit or as a result of the terrible living conditions they had to endure.
Stalin used the purges to promote his own people to positions of responsibility. Whereas before the NKVD had assured him that through their interrogations they had found out that hundreds of the ‘Old Guard’ were plotting against him, Stalin could feel content that while the purges went on, he had loyal people in place. These people would have known what had happened to their predecessors – the newspapers openly published trial reports with Stalin’s blessing – and by the very nature of this, they would have known that it was common-sense to be openly loyal to Stalin as he was their benefactor.
Not everything went as the NKVD had planned. Nikolas Krestinsky is a case in point. He was arrested for being a “Trotskyite”. On the first day of his trial he stated in an open court that he had been forced to sign a confession and to confess to certain crimes for which he was not guilty. “I plead not guilty to the charge of having had connections with the German intelligence.” Krestinsky also stated in court, “I am not a Trotskyite”. Clearly this could have proved an embarrassment to Stalin and the trial was quickly adjourned. What happened over the next hours is unknown but in court the next day Krestinsky apologised to the court and stated:
“I fully and completely admit that I am guilty of all the gravest charges brought against me personally and that I admit my complete responsibility for the treason and treachery I have committed.”
After admitting his guilt, the court found him guilty and he was executed.
Stalin believed that he would not trust the Red Army, especially the senior officers. He was convinced that they were plotting a coup against him. 30,000 members of the army were executed, which represented 50% of the officer corps and three out of five Marshals. Military historians have part blamed this cull of Red Army officers for the Wehrmacht’s success during the first few days of ‘Operation Barbarossa’ – that the army was led by inexperienced officers who did not know how to react to the situation the Red Army was in. The initial success of Barbarossa was built on by experienced Wehrmacht officers and the Red Army had to wait until the likes of Zhukov had made their name at Stalingrad.
With the army purged as well as the Old Guard, Stalin now felt strong enough to purge the NKVD – the very organisation that had been carrying out his desired purges. Stalin was scared that senior NKVD officers knew too much and that this information could be held against him in future years. Stalin announced that the NKVD had been infiltrated by fascists and that they had arrested and executed innocent people. Laventry Beria was appointed to hunt out the fascists in the NKVD. Many of those who held senior positions in the NKVD were found guilty and executed including three former chiefs of it.
It can be argued that the purges finally ended on August 20th 1940 when Stalin’s nemesis, Leon Trotsky, was murdered by a Soviet agent in Mexico. Trotsky was in the process of writing a biography of Stalin. His last words in the incomplete work were:
“Stalin’s first qualification was a contemptuous attitude towards ideas.”