The Great Terror of 1937, also known as the Great Purge, was a brutal political campaign led by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to eliminate dissenting members of the Communist Party and anyone else he considered a threat. Although estimates vary, most experts believe at least 750,000 people were executed during the Great Terror, which started around 1936 and ended in 1938. More than a million survivors were sent to forced labor camps, known as Gulags. This ruthless and bloody operation caused rampant terror throughout the Soviet Union and impacted the country for many years.
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Motives for the Great Terror
Soviet Union leader Vladimir Lenin, head of the Bolshevik party, died in 1924. Stalin had to fight his way to political succession, but ultimately declared himself dictator in 1929.
Upon Stalin’s rise to power, some members of the former Bolshevik party began to question his authority. By the mid-1930s, Stalin believed anyone with ties to the Bolsheviks or Lenin’s government was a threat to his leadership and needed to go.
The exact motives for the Great Terror are endlessly debated among historians. Some claim the actions of Stalin were prompted by his desire to maintain authority as dictator. Others see it as his way to preserve, enhance and unify the Soviet Communist Party.
The rise of Nazi Party power in Germany and militarists in Japan also posed a great danger to the Soviet Union. Many experts believe these threats further encouraged Stalin to carry out his purge in an effort to unite and strengthen his country.
The first event of the Great Terror took place in 1934 with the assassination of Sergei Kirov, a prominent Bolshevik leader.
Kirov was murdered at the Communist Party headquarters by a man named Leonid Nikolayev. Although his role is debated, many speculate that Stalin himself ordered the murder of Kirov.
After Kirov’s death, Stalin launched his purge, claiming that he had uncovered a dangerous conspiracy of anti-Stalinist Communists. The dictator began killing or imprisoning any suspected party dissenters, eventually eliminating all the original Bolsheviks who participated in the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Among those purged were opposing members of the Communist Party, government officials, army officers and any accomplices.
Kirov’s death led to three widely publicized trials that successfully wiped out many of Stalin’s political rivals and critics. Several former high-ranking Communists, including Lev Kamenev, Grigorii Zinoviev, Nikolai Bukharin and Aleksei Rykov, to name a few, were accused of treason.
The trials, which became known as the Moscow Trials, were clearly staged events. The accused admitted to being traitors and spies. Later, historians learned that the defendants agreed to these forced confessions only after being interrogated, threatened and tortured.
Meanwhile, the Soviet secret police, known as NKVD, conducted three-member committees in the field to decide whether killings of other anti-Soviets were justified. The accused were tried, found guilty on site and quickly executed.
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Stalin used terms, such as “fifth column,” “enemy of the people” and “saboteurs” to describe those who were sought out during the Great Purge.
The killing and imprisonment started with members of the Bolshevik party, political officials and military members. Then the purge expanded to include peasants, ethnic minorities, artists, scientists, intellects, writers, foreigners and ordinary citizens. Essentially, no one was safe from danger.
Convinced they were plotting a coup, Stalin had 30,000 members of the Red Army executed. Historians estimate that 81 of the 103 generals and admirals were executed.
Stalin also signed a decree that made families liable for the crimes committed by a husband or father. This meant that children as young as 12 could be executed.
In all, about one-third of the Communist Party’s 3 million members were purged.
Gulag Labor Camps
There’s no doubt the brutal tactics of Stalin paralyzed the country and promoted a climate of widespread terror.
Some victims claimed they would rather have been killed than sent to endure the torturous conditions at the infamous Gulag labor camps. Many who were sent to the Gulag camps were ultimately executed.
Although most historians estimate that at least 750,000 people were killed during the Great Purge, there’s debate over whether this number should be much higher. Some experts believe the true death figure is at least twice as high.
Because many people simply vanished, and killings were often covered up, an exact death toll is impossible to determine. To further complicate the matter, prisoners in the labor camps commonly died of exhaustion, disease or starvation.
The Great Terror officially ended around 1938, but many believe Stalin wasn’t truly finished until his long-time rival Leon Trotsky was eliminated.
Trotsky was sentenced to death in absentia during the Moscow Trials. Living in exile in Mexico, Trotsky was assassinated in 1940 with an ice pick by a Spanish communist.
Even after this assassination, mass murders, arrests and exiles continued until Stalin’s death in 1953. During World War II, Stalin was responsible for the executions of war prisoners and traitors, especially Polish nationals.
Legacy of the Great Terror
Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, condemned the cruel violence of the Great Terror. In a 1956 secret speech, Khrushchev called the purges “an abuse of power” and acknowledged that many of the victims were, in fact, innocent.
Stalin’s acts of terror and torture broke the Soviet people’s spirit and effectively eliminated certain groups of citizens, such as intellectuals, scientists and artists. His reign as dictator also made his people completely dependent on the state.
Surprisingly, the legacy of the Great Terror, and Stalin himself, is lined with mixed reactions. While most Russians regard the event as a horrific incident in history, others believe Stalin helped strengthen and propel the Soviet Union to greatness, despite his murderous, barbaric tactics.
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The Great Terror. Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Michigan State University.
Stalin’s Great Purge: Over A Million Detained, More Than Half A Million Killed, War History Online.
New research reveals misconceptions about Joseph Stalin and his “Great Purge,” Business Insider.
Sentenced to Death in Stalin’s Great Purge, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
The Great Terror: Seventy Years Later, Stalin’s Image Softening, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.