Revisiting Stalin’s Great Purge: A Period of Extreme Repression and Terror
The Great Purge, a period of political persecution in Russia initiated by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin between 1936-1938, is regarded as one of the largest mass killings in human history.
Under the purge, anyone suspected of being an anti-Soviet element was executed or sent to a labor camp, where many died of starvation, overwork, or disease. Stalin did not care if he killed those aligned with his cause, or other innocent lives. Rather he held that innocents must be sacrificed in order to ensure that real enemies were eliminated. “Every communist is a possible hidden enemy. And because it is not easy to recognize the enemy, the goal is achieved even if only 5 percent of those killed are truly enemies,” Stalin proclaimed.
Thus, top targets for purging included those born in foreign countries, those who had previously been affiliated with non-communist political parties, and rich farmers that had their property rights taken away by revolution.
Stalin’s extreme paranoia combined with communism’s demand for ideological purity led him to kill countless members of his own party.
The murder of Sergey Kirov, a communist party leader and loyal supporter of Stalin, is often regarded as the start of the purge. Some historians suspect Stalin ordered Kirov’s killing due to fear of Kirov’s increasing popularity within the party.
Whether true or not, Stalin went on to use Kirov’s murder as a premise to eliminate all threats to his power.
While propagating conspiracies that anti-Stalinists in the party were plotting to assassinate him and other Soviet leaders, Stalin accused hundreds of political opponents in Soviet government and intelligence agencies of plotting Kirov’s murder.
The defendants were tried in seven separate trials that became the first of the show trials, public trials where defendants were coerced, often through the use of physical and psychological torture, into falsely confessing their guilt.
The trials in turn served the dual purpose of fabricating evidence for Stalin’s anti-Stalinist claims and providing warning for other potential dissidents.
Stalin next turned his attention to the Red Army after he became convinced that red army generals were secretly plotting a coup against him. Consequently, 30,000 members (7 percent) of the army was executed, including three out of the five Marshals, 13 of 15 army commanders, 8 of 9 admirals, and 154 out of 186 division commanders.
In the last stage of internal purging, Stalin thought that senior members of the NKVD—the Soviet Secret Police organization that carried his previous purges—knew too much, and that this information could later be used against him. Stalin appointed Lavrenti Beria as the new head of the Secret Police, who implemented the execution of NKVD members under the pretext that they were fascists who had caused the deaths of many innocent civilians.
Many who held senior positions in the NKVD were executed or sent to labor camps, including three former chiefs. At the end of the purge, roughly a third of the Communist Party’s three million members were eliminated.
It is hard to estimate the total death count of Stalin’s purges.
NKVD archives recovered years later say 681,692 people were executed during the 1937-1938 period, though these numbers may be low due to the NKVD’s deceptive nature.
Robert Conquest cites a figure of 1,750,000 executions given both by the Head of the Russian Archives and a spokesman for the Security Ministry.
Most historians estimate the number of unnatural deaths brought by the purge to be 1-2 million. In any case, the purge shows clearly the extreme obsession Communist governments have with maintaining power, and the pervasive tactics of mass killing, deceit, and creation of terror that are used in order to create a false appearance of stability.
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