Archives for category: USSR 1928-41

Left Opposition

Zinoviev (1936)

Kamenev (1936)

Trotsky (1940)


Right Opposition

Tomsky (1936)

Bukharin (1938)

Rykov (1938)


Party Officials

All party leaders in the Soviet republics

Radek and Pyatakov (1937)


Class Enemies

15 million kulaks

“wreckers, saboteurs, spies”


Bourgeosis experts


Red Army

3 out 5 marshals

14 out of 16 army commanders

37,000 officers


Secret Police

over 3000 members

Yagoda (1938)

Yezhov (1939)


Stalin’s enemies saw the Purges as evidence of his paranoid tendencies.  He seems to have distrusted everyone, including those from his own family.

Trotsky saw the Purges as evidence that Stalin had betrayed the revolution and his creation of personal dictatorship.

Yet, the scale of the purges do point to a degree of sport for Stalin’s actions and purges at the local level were often driven by the pressure of the rank and file communists to rid the USSR of it’d class enemies.

Reasons for Accusations

Malice was responsible for some of this, especially against collective administrators.

Another reason was the fact that people realized job opportunities were opened up with the removal of those who occupied those posts.


Results of the Purges

The Gulag housed half a million inmates between 1937-1939.

Two-thirds of the 1.3 million inmates in 1939 were labelled as either ” political criminals” or “socially harmful”.

Nearly three-quarters of a million people were executed rather an imprisoned.

There were also purges on the lower levels of the party.

Denunication of communist officials were partly driven by a sense of justice.

Kulaks, “bourgeosis experts, were rooted out as class enemies.

Children were encouraged to inform on their parents if they suspected them of “Capitalist tendencies” and many did.

Purging the Red Army

During 1937-1938, the army also saw a purge of its personnel

3 out 5 marshals, 14 out of 16 army commanders and 37,000 officers were purged.

The navy lost one of its admirals.

The usual accusation was of links to foreign countries, which has some truth in it as a few army leaders did have contacts within the German army dating back to the 1920s.

However, their real crime was probably the army’s criticism of collectivization.

This is because the peasantry, which made up much of the grunts in the army, were demoralized by the hardships presented by collectivization.  This was having a detrimental effects on army morale.

The growing importance of the army due to increased defense spendings also made them that much more dangerous to Stalin and as a result, they had to be cut down to size.


Purging the Secret Police (NKVD)

The influence of the NKVD grew with growing scale of the purges and as a result, they were purged in order to eliminate the potential threat to Stalin.

1938, Yagoda, former head of the NKVD, was shot.  His replacement, Yezhov, purged over 3000 of his own personnel before being arrested in early 1939 as the scapegoat for the excess purges, which were now coming to an end.

By 1938, the purges shifted focus to the former leaders of the Right Opposition.

While Tomsky had committed suicide, Bukharin and Rykov were accursed of forming a “Trotskyite-Rightist Bloc”, which they both confessed to.

This was probably fake, and their real crime was to criticize the Five-Year Plans, which Bukharin, a champion of the NEP, often did.

In 1937, the purges shifted focus to deal with accusations of wrecking and sabotage in industry.

Party officials such as Radek and Rytakov were accursed of working for Trotsky and other foreign governments to undermine the Soviet economy.

Their real crime was probably criticizing the Five Year Plans

During 1935-1936, there were a wave of denunciations and arrests of the supporters of the Left Opposition, who were still at large.

Party members were advised to be vigilant against “enemies of the state in all their disguises.”

This led to a series of show trials that included the leaders of the Left Opposition, Zinoviev and Kamenev in August 1936.

They were accursed of working as Trotsky’s agents to undermine the Soviet state.

With severe pressure from the NKVD, they implicated others in the conspiracy, such as Trotsky, Bukarin and Rykov.

The event which triggered the Great Purges began with the murder of Kirov in 1934.  

Opposition to Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan and collectivization had began with the Right Opposition in 1928, but they had been defeated in 1929. Yet, with collectivization causing unrest in the countryside, their view of avoiding confrontation with the peasantry surfaced again in 1932. Thus, a call for a more conciliatory approach was put forth in the Politburo, possibly by Kirov, which posed a threat to Stalin’s economic policies. Stalin may also have mistrusted Kirov because of his popularity in the party as Leningrad’s party leader and because his supporters was former the ones which supported the Left Opposition. Thus, the murder of Kirov was likely carried out by Stalin’s orders, but it is certain that the NKVD did all they can to help the assassin. The official explanation was that Kirov’s assassin was a member of the Left Opposition. Both Zinoviev and Kamenev were arrested and sentenced to long term imprisonment as a result. This became a pattern after a while, where one person was arrested, and then other people were implicated and also arrested, usually on trumped-up charges.

Thus, the murder of Kirov was the event which prompted the purging of large sections of the Communist Party.

The Great Purges of the 1936-1939 period were a wave of terror brought upon the Soviet Union by Stalin and his supporters in order to eliminate his enemies.  The targets were so-called enemies of states and accursed of crimes which, more often than not, they could never possibly have committed.


The Apparatus

By the early 1934, an extensive state machinery of terror was in place.  There was a Party Secretariat which collected information Soviet citizens and officials.  The secret police, known as the OGPU until 1934, and the NKVD afterwards were involved in the surveillance and running of the labour camps.