The Great Purge

After Lenin died in 1924, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union began to factionalise. Leadership hopefuls began to stake their claim, forming competing alliances and manoeuvring to become Lenin's heir. During this power struggle, Joseph Stalin emerged as Lenin's successor. Almost immediately after becoming the leader of the Soviet Union, Stalin sought to consolidate his power by removing his rivals. Such persecution commenced in 1927 with Leon Trotsky's exile, accelerated during the mass expulsion of communists throughout the early 1930s, and culminated in the Great Purge of 1936.

The Great Purge The Great Purge

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Table of contents

    Great Purge Definition

    Between 1936 and 1938, the Great Purge or Great Terror was a campaign led by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to eliminate people he saw as threats. The Great Purge started with the arrests of party members, Bolsheviks, and members of the Red Army. The purge then grew to include Soviet peasants, members of the intelligentsia, and members of certain nationalities. The effects of the Great Purge were monumental; throughout this period, over 750,000 people were executed, and a further one million were sent to prison camps known as Gulags.

    Gulag

    The term Gulag refers to the forced labour camps established by Lenin and developed by Stalin during the Soviet Union. While synonymous with Soviet Russia, the Gulag system was inherited from the Tsarist regime; for centuries, the Tsars had employed the Katorga system, which sent prisoners to labour camps in Siberia.

    Purge

    The term purge refers to the removal of undesirable members from a nation or organisation. One of the starkest examples of this was Stalin's Great Purge, which saw the execution of 750,000 people he saw as a threat to his leadership.

    The Great Purge Soviet Union

    The Great Purge of the Soviet Union is split into four distinct periods, shown below.

    DateEvent
    October 1936 – February 1937Plans are implemented to purge the elites.
    March 1937 – June 1937The Purge of the Elites. Further plans are made to purge the opposition.
    July 1937 – October 1938 The Purge of the Red Army, Political Opposition, Kulaks, and people from specific nationalities and ethnicities.
    November 1938 – 1939The Purge of the NKVD and appointment of Lavrentiy Beria as head of the Secret Police.

    Origins of the Great Purge

    When Premier Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, a power vacuum emerged in the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin fought his way to succeed Lenin, outmanoeuvring his political rivals and gaining control of the Communist Party in 1928. While Stalin's leadership was initially widely accepted, the Communist hierarchy began to lose faith in Stalin during the early 1930s. This was mainly due to the failures of the First Five-Year Plan and the policy of collectivisation. The failure of these policies led to economic collapse. Therefore, the government confiscated grain from the peasantry to increase trade exports. This event – known as Holodomor – led to the deaths of approximately five million people.

    Holodomor

    Taking place between 1932 and 1933, the term Holodomor refers to the man-made famine of Ukraine initiated by the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.

    The Great Purge Holodomor StudySmarterFig. 1 - Starvation during the Holodomor, 1933

    After the famine of 1932 and the subsequent deaths of five million people, Stalin was under significant pressure. At the 17th Communist Party Congress in 1934, nearly one-quarter of all delegates voted against Stalin, with many suggesting that Sergei Kirov took charge.

    The Assassination of Sergei Kirov

    In 1934, Soviet politician Sergei Kirov was assassinated. This exacerbated the mistrust and suspicion that was already shrouding Stalin's premiership.

    The Great Purge Sergei Kirov StudySmarterFig. 2 - Sergei Kirov in 1934

    The investigation into Kirov's death revealed that several party members were working against Stalin; those involved in Kirov's assassination also supposedly 'admitted' plotting to murder Stalin himself. While countless historians doubt these assertions, all agree that the assassination of Kirov was the moment in which Stalin decided to take action.

    By 1936, the atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust had become untenable. The rise of fascism, the possible return of rival Leon Trotsky, and increased pressure on Stalin's position as leader led him to authorise the Great Purge. The NKVD carried out the purge.

    Throughout the 1930s, fascist dictatorships emerged in Germany, Italy, and Spain. Following a policy of appeasement, the Western Allies refused to stop the spread of fascism in Europe. Stalin – understanding that Western assistance wouldn't be forthcoming in the event of war – sought to strengthen the Soviet Union from within by purging dissidents.

    The NKVD

    The secret police agency in the Soviet Union that enacted the majority of the purges during the Great Purge.

    Heads of the NKVD

    The NKVD had three leaders throughout the Great Purge: Genrikh Yagoda, Nikolai Yezhov, and Lavrentiy Beria. Let's look at these individuals in more detail.

    NameTenureOverviewDeath
    Genrikh Yagoda10 July 1934 – 26 September 1936
    • Tasked with investigating the assassination of Kirov.
    • Organised the Moscow Show Trials.
    • Oversaw the beginning of the Red Army Purge.
    • Expanded the Gulag system.
    Arrested in March 1937 on the orders of Stalin on charges of treason and was executed during the Trial of the Twenty-One in March 1938.
    Nikolai Yezhov26 September 1936 – 25 November 1938
    • Oversaw the false accusations of Kamenev and Zinoviev in the murder of Kirov.
    • Framed his predecessor Yagoda for the attempted murder of Stalin.
    • Oversaw the height of the purge; nearly 700,000 were executed whilst he was in charge.
    Stalin argued that the NKVD under Yezhov had been taken over by 'fascist elements', with countless innocent citizens being executed as a result. Yezhov was secretly arrested on 10 April 1939 and executed on 4 February 1940.
    Lavrentiy Beria26 September 1936 – 25 November 1938
    • Oversaw a thaw in Purge activity.
    • Cancelled the systematic repression and suspended death sentences.
    • Oversaw the purge of the heads of the NKVD, including Yezhov.
    After the death of Joseph Stalin, Beria was arrested and subsequently executed on 23 December 1953.

    Trial of the Twenty-One

    The third and final of the Moscow Trials, the Trial of Twenty-One saw Trotskyites and those on the right of the Communist Party tried. The most famous of the Moscow Trials, the Trial of Twenty-One saw figures such as Nikolai Bukharin, Genrikh Yagoda, and Alexei Rykov put on trial.

    Stalin's Great Purge

    Stalin initiated the Great Purge to remove political figures who threatened his leadership. Consequently, the initial phases of the purge began with the arrests and executions of party members, Bolsheviks, and members of the Red Army. Once this was achieved, however, Stalin sought to consolidate his power through fear, expanding the Purge to include Soviet peasants, members of the intelligentsia, and members of certain nationalities.

    Whilst the most intense period of the purge was over by 1938, the fear and terror of persecution, execution, and imprisonment remained throughout Stalin's reign and beyond. Stalin had established a precedent in which anti-Stalinists were removed under the guise of being anti-communist.

    Political opponents were mainly executed throughout the purge, whereas citizens were predominantly sent to gulags.

    The Moscow Trials

    Between 1936 and 1938, there were significant 'show trails' of former Communist Party leaders. These were known as the Moscow Trials.

    Show trial

    A show trial is a public trial whereby the jury has already decided the defendant's verdict. Shows trials are used to satisfy public opinion and make an example out of those accused.

    First Moscow Trial

    In August 1936, the first of the trials saw sixteen members of the "Trotskyite-Kamenevite-Zinovievite-Leftist-Counter-Revolutionary Bloc" tried. Prominent leftists Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev were charged with the assassination of Kirov and plotting to assassinate Stalin. The sixteen members were all sentenced to death and executed.

    The "Trotskyite-Kamenevite-Zinovievite-Leftist-Counter-Revolutionary Bloc" was also known as the "Trotsky-Zinoviev Center".

    The Great Purge Bolshevik Revolutionaries StudySmarterFig. 3 - Bolshevik revolutionaries Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev, and Grigory Zinoviev

    Second Moscow Trial

    The Second of the Moscow Trials saw seventeen members of the "anti-Soviet Trotskyite centre" tried in January 1937. The group, which included Grigory Sokolnikov, Yuri Piatakov, and Karl Radek, was charged with plotting with Trotsky. Out of the seventeen, thirteen were executed, and four were sent to prison camps.

    Third Moscow Trial

    The third and most famous of the Moscow Trials occurred in March 1938. The twenty-one defendants were allegedly members of the Bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites.

    The most well-known defendant was Nikolai Bukharin, a prominent member of the Communist Party. After three months of imprisonment, Bukharin finally gave in when his wife and infant son were threatened. He was found guilty of counter-revolutionary activities and subsequently executed.

    The Great Purge Nikolai Bukharin StudySmarterFig. 4 - Nikolai Bukharin

    Red Army Purge

    During the Great Purge, approximately 30,000 Red Army personnel were executed; historians believe that 81 out of the 103 admirals and generals were killed during the purge. Stalin justified the Red Army's purge by claiming they were plotting a coup.

    While Stalin's purge of the Red Army saw the inception of a military force that was subservient to him, the considerable removal of military personnel weakened the Red Army drastically. In fact, Stalin's purge of the Red Army prompted Hitler to move forward with his invasion of the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa.

    Purge of the Kulaks

    Another group to be persecuted during the Great Purge was the Kulaks – the group of wealthy former-landowning peasants. On 30 July 1937, Stalin ordered the arrest and execution of the Kulaks, former Tsarist officials, and people who had belonged to political parties other than the Communist Party.

    Kulaks

    The term Kulak refers to wealthy, landowning peasants in the Soviet Union. Stalin opposed the Kulaks as they sought to make capitalist gains within the supposedly classless USSR.

    Purge of Nationalities and Ethnicities

    The Great Purge targeted ethnic minorities and people of certain nationalities. The NKVD carried out a series of Mass Operations concerned with attacking certain nationalities. The NKVD's 'Polish Operation' was the largest Mass Operation; between 1937 and 1938, over 100,000 Poles were executed. The wives of those arrested or killed were sent to prison camps, and the children were sent to orphanages.

    As well as the Polish Operation, NKVD Mass Operations targeted nationalities such as the Latvians, Finnish, Bulgarians, Estonians, Afghans, Iranians, Chinese, and Greek.

    Mass Operations

    Carried out by the NKVD during the Great Purge, Mass Operations targeted specific groups of people within the Soviet Union.

    The Purge of the Bolsheviks

    Most of the Bolsheviks involved in the Russian Revolution (1917) were executed. During the October Revolution in 1917, there were six original members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party; by 1940, the only one still alive was Joseph Stalin himself.

    The End of the Purge

    The last stage of the purge occurred in the summer of 1938. It saw the execution of the senior figures of the NKVD. Stalin argued that the NKVD had been taken over by 'fascist elements', with countless innocent citizens being executed as a result. Yezhov was swiftly executed, with Lavrentiy Beria succeeding him as head of the Secret Police.

    The Great Purge NKVD StudySmarterFig. 5 - NKVD Chiefs

    By the end of the Great Purge in 1938, Stalin had established a compliant society kept in line with a precedent of fear and terror. The purge had seen the terms 'anti-Stalinist' and 'anti-communist' conflated, with Soviet society worshipping the cult of Stalin's personality.

    Stalin's Cult of Personality

    This term refers to how Stalin was idealised as an all-powerful, heroic, god-like figure in the USSR.

    Whilst historians mark the end of the Great Purge in 1938, the removal of perceived political opponents continued until Stalin' died in 1953. Only in 1956 – through Khrushchev's policy of de-Stalinization – was political repression diminished and the terrors of the purge fully realised.

    De-Stalinization

    This term refers to a period of political reform under Nikita Khrushchev in which Stalin's cult of personality was dismantled, and Stalin was held responsible for his crimes.

    De-Stalinization saw the freeing of gulag prisoners.

    Effects of the Great Purge

    One of the most severe examples of political repression in modern history, the Great Purge had a

    significant effect on the Soviet Union. As well as the huge loss of life – an estimated 750,000 – the Purge allowed Stalin to silence his political opponents, consolidate his power base, and establish a totalitarian system of governance in the Soviet Union.

    While political purges had been a common tenet of the Soviet Union since its inception in 1917, Stalin's purge was unique: artists, Bolsheviks, scientists, religious leaders, and writers – to name but a few – were all subject to Stalin's wrath. Such persecution ushered in an ideology of terror that would last for two decades.

    The Great Purge – Key takeaways

    • Taking place between 1936 and 1938, The Great Purge or Great Terror was a campaign led by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to eliminate people whom he saw as threats.
    • The Great Purge saw over 750,000 people executed and one million sent to prison camps.
    • The Great Purge started with the arrests of party members, Bolsheviks, and members of the Red Army.
    • The Purge grew to include Soviet peasants, members of the intelligentsia, and members of certain nationalities.
    Frequently Asked Questions about The Great Purge

    What was the Great Purge?

    Taking place between 1936 and 1938, the Great Purge was a Stalinist policy which saw the execution and imprisonment of anyone perceived as a threat to his leadership.

    How many died in the Great Purge?

    Approximately 750,000 people were executed and a further 1 million sent to prison camps during the Great Purge. 

    What happened during the Great Purge?

    During the Great Purge, the NKVD executed and imprisoned anyone perceived as a threat to Stalin's leadership.

    When did the Great Purge start?

    The Great Purge officially began in 1936; however, Stalin had been removing political threats from as early as 1927. 

    What was Stalin's aim in the Great Purge?

    Stalin initiated the Great Purge to remove his political opponents and consolidate his leadership over the Soviet Union.

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