Skip to main content
  • Share to or
The “Mednoe” Memorial Complex in Tver

Questions you're too embarrassed to ask about Stalin's Great Terror What happened in 1937? Were the victims guilty of any real crimes? Was the Gulag a great accomplishment?

Source: Meduza
The “Mednoe” Memorial Complex in Tver
The “Mednoe” Memorial Complex in Tver
Kirill Chaplinsky / TASS

Eighty years ago, on July 30, 1937, secret NVKD order number 00447 was signed. This day is widely considered the start of the “Great Terror,” a period of political repressions lasting into 1938 during which no less than 1.7 million people were arrested, more than 700,000 of whom were executed. Soviet secret police targeted “enemies of the people,” “counterrevolutionaries,” “wreckers,” and their friends and relatives. To mark the anniversary of this human catastrophe, Meduza asked historian Sergey Bondarenko, who works with the civil rights society “Memorial,” to answer some of the most basic, embarrassingly ignorant questions about the Stalinist repressions between 1937 and 1938.

What exactly happened in 1937?

During the summer of 1937, a whole series of repressive campaigns by the state got underway. Today, we know this period as the start of the “Great Terror.” Coined by British historian Robert Conquest in the 1960s, the term only gained currency in Russia after Perestroika. NKVD order number 00447 launched the so-called “kulak operation,” leading to the arrests of peasants, priests, former nobles, and individuals suspected of ties to the anti-Bolshevik counterrevolutionaries or various opposition political parties. Almost in parallel with this effort, police carried out a campaign against different ethnic minorities, arresting Germans, Poles, Latvians, and many others. A purge of the army began with the arrests of several major military commanders. Thousands of people found themselves in prison camps, charged with having ties to enemies of the people. These individuals were known as “members of the families of traitors to the Motherland.”

Why did the Soviet government think this was necessary? Why did it happen precisely when it did?

The middle of 1937 marked a drastic surge in the Soviet state’s terror campaign, but the groundwork and planning for this effort was years in the making. One starting point often cited is December 1, 1934, the day the Bolsheviks’ top man in Leningrad, Sergey Kirov, was shot and killed. To this day, Joseph Stalin’s role in the murder hasn’t been explained definitively. In the years after Kirov’s death, the number of arrests in the USSR spiked, and officials in Moscow started holding show trials against former Bolshevik leaders, like the “Trial of the Twenty-One,” which resulted in a massive purge of the nation’s security elite, including Nikolai Yezhov replacing Genrikh Yagoda as NKVD commissar. Reports appearing in the Soviet press during this era are filled with stories about the necessity of escalating the government’s repressions. New prison camps were opening to hold future “enemies,” and the state was busy forming special commissions to review their criminal cases.

There are many theories that try to explain why the Great Terror started when it did. In addition to explanations focusing on the internal logic of how the situation developed (Nikolai Yezhov took command of the NKVD in September 1936, and spent a year preparing the agency to carry out the mass purges), historians often rightly point out that the foreign policy situation played an enormous role: the course of the war in Spain, where the Communists were defeated by Franco’s army, the rise of Nazi Germany, and the next world war everyone could feel coming. Against this background, the USSR succumbed to spy mania. The first candidates in the search for domestic enemies turned out to be “former people”: “rich” peasants, priests, socialist-revolutionaries, and everyone they knew — their families, friends, and colleagues.

Another no less important reason for the Great Terror was the very system of rule that had developed in the Soviet Union in the 20 years since the time of the revolution. Without any civil or political freedoms, in the absence of a free press or real elections for government office, terror became the primary means of carrying out any social transformation. Violence became familiar, and repressions may have scared people, but the public came to see them as a part of everyday life. In this respect, 1937 stands out simply by virtue of its sheer scale and intensity. The country had already endured the Red Terror, collectivization and dekulakization, and the industrialization-engineered famines of the early 1930s in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and the Volga region. In this sense, the Great Terror was just another unique event in an already existing chain of similar occurrences.

This image was taken by the Moscow Canal when Nikolai Yezhov (right) was water commissar. After he fell from power, he was arrested, shot, and had his image removed by the censors.

How many victims were there total? Why is it often said that the scale of the Great Terror is exaggerated?

During the most active period of the Great Terror — from August 1937 until November 1938 (when Yezhov was removed from the NKVD) — more than 1.7 million people were arrested on political charges. The authorities executed more than 40 percent of these prisoners. These statistics, incidentally, represent just the minimum number of victims, given that the Soviet state was still exiling and deporting other citizens (at least 200,000 of them) according to ordinary administrative procedures. Hundreds of thousands of people were convicted of being “socially harmful elements.” Many of the formally criminal statutes at the time (like punishments for truancy or being late to work) could also be construed as politically motivated. With all this in mind, we can add another few hundred thousand victims to the total number of people killed in the Great Terror.

Statements about “exaggerations” of the terror’s death toll are usually based on two beliefs: reservations about supposedly “falsified” Soviet statistics (though archivists have since published many regional arrest “plans” and collections of memoirs based on archival materials, not to mention Stalin’s execution lists); or (and you encounter this one more often) doubts about the very essence of “political” charges. Many believe that police only arrested people for a good reason.

Well it’s not like they just up and arrested random people, is it? They were probably guilty of something!

The fundamental feature of Soviet political terror in the late 1930s was its profound irrationality and unpredictability. In this regard, it differed significantly from the Nazi terror to which it’s often compared, Yes, belonging to one of the “incorrect” citizen categories could carry certain threats, but the police also arrested street cleaners, and machinists, and housewives, and athletes, and artists — anyone was vulnerable, in short. Only a very small minority of those arrested were ever guilty of some real “undesirable activity” (whether any act that deviated from party politics qualifies as a crime is a separate issue). Everyone else locked up or shot during this campaign was just another member of the USSR’s law-abiding public. Because investigators in these cases often resorted to the active use of torture (physical violence, threats against the suspects’ families, extended sleep deprivation), the share of “confessors” was close to 100 percent. Confessions, moreover, were treated as the most significant evidence in support of a suspect’s guilt, along with corroborating testimony from other people (friends and colleagues) who’d already been arrested or executed.

Is it true that the purges first and foremost affected the party leadership itself?

Of the 1.7 million people arrested in the Great Terror, only about 100,000 had some connection to the Bolsheviks. These individuals were largely Komsomol members and ordinary party members, with only a few party bosses. Of course, one of Stalin’s goals in carrying out the terror was the destruction of the “old Bolsheviks” and revolutionaries, though many of these people by this point were playing only secondary or even tertiary roles in politics and presented no real opposition to the party. The idea of the Great Terror as a campaign against the party emerged during the Khrushchev era, when the state tried to present “loyal Leninists” as the main victims of Stalin’s crimes, simultaneously downplaying the overall scale of the repressions themselves.

Why is Stalin blamed for the repressions, if the Soviet people themselves reported each other to the authorities?

Another very common myth about the Great Terror is that there were “three, maybe four, million” denouncements to the police. Citizens actively reporting each other to the authorities was part of the country’s general political hysteria, and it doubtlessly played its part in the mass arrests, but far more people were arrested simply based on lists compiled well in advance, according to certified “plans” targeting “unreliable” citizens at different levels.

It’s also important to understand that many citizens were coerced to report their friends and neighbors. Under colossal psychological pressure, people gave false testimony against their loved ones. Investigators often presented individuals with a choice between the possibility (most often illusory) of personal survival or signing a document with allegations against someone else. These denouncements are part of another key question: how much responsibility does society bear for state terror? It’s important to recognize the involvement of many people who helped carry out the Great Terror, but that doesn’t justify characterizing the repressions as a purely “bottom-up initiative.”

Did Stalin personally give orders for executions? Was he so directly involved?

He did and he was, of course. Of 383 lists compiled for the personal review of Politburo members (the so-called “Stalin’s shooting lists”), Stalin personally signed 357 of them. More than 44,000 people were convicted according to this “list principle.” The vast majority of these people were shot. Additionally, Stalin and his inner circle built the entire architecture of the Terror, and the repressions were carried out under his direct control. Stalin received memos about the mass arrests, personally added individual names to the lists, and also reviewed the records of investigators’ interrogations.

How were the arrests and executions recorded?

Unlike many earlier repressive campaigns (such as the Red Terror or dekulakization), the major operations of the Great Terror were quite well documented. In addition to the already mentioned “Stalin’s lists,” archivists preserved numerous coded messages from the field requesting clarifications and expansions regarding the arrest “plans” drawn up and distributed by the central authorities. The number of arrests was recorded and reported. Investigators held “socialist competitions” to see who could close more cases.

A report on an NKVD death sentence carried out against a priest named Pavel Florensky in 1937.

The archival and investigative files of people arrested between 1937 and 1938 bear a stamp that reads, “Keep stored indefinitely.” Should you wish, you can go to the archives and read the case details of most of the people arrested (and rehabilitated) during the Great Terror.

Did they ever arrest someone and later release them, after realizing they’d made a mistake?

The stories of prisoners being miraculously freed or saved belong generally to the 1920s or first half of the 1930s. The very design of the investigations between 1937 and 1938 made no room for exonerations: the accused had no right to an attorney and there was no appeals process (very often, sentences were carried out the same day that a court or a “troika” extra-judicial authority reached the verdict).

In what’s occasionally referred to as the “Beria Amnesties,” some of the people arrested under Yezhov were released in 1939. Prisoners who were lucky enough to have avoided being sentenced before November 1938 sometimes managed to get their cases reviewed. This usually happened thanks to a case getting a new investigator, or when proceedings hadn’t formally concluded. Most of these hundreds of thousands of people, however, ended up being arrested later, during World War II or afterwards, between 1947 and 1948, when the Great Terror’s prison camp survivors were arrested once again.

How many people were punished for participating in the executions? Was there ever any system put in place to prosecute the NKVD officers?

According to the available data, roughly 1,000 NKVD agents were arrested along with Yezhov in the year after his removal. Just as with the most violent phase of collectivization, the Terror was written off as “excesses on the ground,” and the Kremlin blamed various individual perpetrators. Nevertheless, far from most security officers were ever punished or even removed from their jobs. Many of the Great Terror’s most active enforcers continued to serve during the war, receiving military awards for “political work in the army” and returning as heroes.

It’s a tragedy for the victims, of course, but at least the Gulag was effective?

When we talk about the Gulag, we’re talking about a gigantic and multi-component system that was formed not in 1937 but much earlier, almost a decade beforehand. The Gulag consisted not just of political prisoners, but also ordinary criminals, as well as all the guards and prison management. This was simultaneously an enormous labor exchange, as well as a machine of mass murder. In the camps, the time of the Great Terror was also a time of mass executions and very difficult survival conditions for prisoners. In some parts of the Gulag, when provisions ran out completely, only life at the front would have been harder.

Looking at when they built more, you can of course try to figure out what expansion was necessary at the time and what turned out to be useless, but regardless the Gulag’s economic effectiveness remains an ethical question: Exactly how much slave labor and how many dead people do we consider “effective” relative to the number of factories and cities constructed? It’s also worth noting that modern researchers have carefully studied the Gulag’s economy and no one has discovered anything that looks “successful.” Forced labor, after all, is very rarely more effective than free labor.

Russian text by Sergey Bondarenko, translation by Kevin Rothrock

  • Share to or