09 — Stalin’s political policies

Study Overview

  1. The state of the USSR in 1924: the power struggle after Lenin’s death, and Stalin’s victory
  2. Economic policies: collectivisation and the Five Year Plans
  3. State control: the purges and the cult of personality
  4. Daily life in Stalin’s USSR
  5. The Soviet experience of WW2, and how it shaped the USSR after the war

The Purges and Political Control

In this unit

  1. Red Tsar (The reasons for the purges)
  2. Key features of the purges
  3. Results of the purges

Questions to ask yourself

  1. How and why did Kirov’s murder become a seminal point in political development in Stalin’s USSR?
  2. Why did Stalin want to purge both the Party and wider society?
  3. How valid would it be to firmly distance Lenin’s use of terror from Stalin’s?
  4. How did Stalin put the USSR under a reign of terror, and keep her there?
  5. To what extent did the purges weaken the USSR?


Left: Stalin standing by the Moscow Canal. To his right is his croney Molotov, and to his left NKVD chief Yezhov 
Right: Stalin and Molotov by the Moscow Canal 
Left: Stalin with Antipov, Kirov, and Shvernik in 1926.
Right: Stalin alone

The Politburo in 1917, and the fates of its members
Hearing that his mother Geladze was ill, Stalin visited her for the final time on 17th October 1935. According to an unpublished memoir of her doctor, the two had a short discussion where she asked Stalin how his career was going. He said: “Mama, do you remember our Tsar? Well, I’m something like the Tsar,” to which Geladze replied “You’d have done better to become a priest.” Stalin then asked, “Why did you dream so much of me becoming a priest?”, with Geladze replying “I saw how little they worked and how well they lived. They were also greatly respected. So I thought that there was no better occupation for a man, and I would have been proud that I was a priest’s mother. But I confess, even about that I was wrong.”
— anecdote on Stalin’s mother Keke Geladze

Red Tsar

Though Stalin was paramount leader of the Party and the USSR, cracks were beginning to show by 1932. The Five Year Plans and collectivisation had indeed set the country on the path to modernisation, but they had also caused much disruption and suffering; the Great Famine was particularly worrying to many in the Party. Stalin started to fear the possibility of united opposition against him. Thus began one of the darkest aspects of his reign.

Sergei Kirov was a popular, handsome, Russian official — Stalin could only be the first and last of those four things — who had made the fatal mistake of showing enough talent and spirit to attract Stalin’s jealousy. When he was shot dead under highly suspicious circumstances on 1st Dec 1934, the evidence pointed to an organised assassination.

– Long career as a Bolshevik, and an accomplished officer during the RCW
– Appointed head of the Leningrad Communist Party in 1926
– Loyal friend of Stalin, but had shown some independent thinking: had defended Ryutin from Stalin in 1932, and had refused Stalin’s order to transfer one of his close colleagues
– Popular: widely applauded at the 1934 17th Party Congress, and even won more Central Committee votes than Stalin had; even been asked to stand for General Secretary

Though never conclusively proven, it is likely that Stalin, fearful of Kirov as a possible rival, had ordered his assassination. This moment might well have become a uniting moment for Stalin’s opponents, but Stalin had judged the situation well: by striking the figurehead he had silenced the opposition. And since the murder was advertised as a counterrevolutionary plot, Stalin now had an excuse to purge the Party of all remaining opponents, both real and imaginary

These purges soon spread to the government, the military, and even the common people, putting the USSR under a reign of terror. These purges would continue, on and off, until the death of Stalin.

Why did Stalin want to carry out the purges?

Securing total controlKirov’s popularity had unnerved Stalin, and by arranging his assassination and then blaming it on counterrevolutionaries, Stalin now had the perfect excuse to remove all remaining critics in the Party (Bukharin, Kamenev, and Zinoviev were high on the list, even if they’d long since fallen silent). Stalin had also found out that local Party bosses were willing to defy Moscow’s orders, especially over harsh policies such as dekulakisation; carrying out the purges would terrorise the entire Party into obedience. And if many of them were in fact innocent, so much the better, since the climate of fear would keep everyone in line. 
Purging wider society would also strengthen Stalin’s control: the FYPs had quickly increased the rate of urbanisation, throwing up squalid slum towns full of overworked, embittered people, including many ex-peasants. Stalin used the purges to terrorise the working population into obedience, ensuring their productivity and the USSR’s continued industrialisation
Stalin’s paranoiaStalin had always been a distrustful man, willing to use extreme violence to achieve his goals; as he achieved greater preeminence as General Secretary, he became increasingly withdrawn, bitter, and possibly paranoid. Stalin’s personal relationships suffered, becoming estranged from his oldest son Yakov, and possibly driving his wife to suicide in 1932. He easily felt offended and betrayed, exacerbating his suspicious personality and leading him to see imaginary plots and enemies. This paranoid, vengeful streak helped drive the Purges
Economic reasonsEven as collectivisation supported the FYPs, so too could the purges. The state had become ever more reliant on forced labour to complete the FYPs’ high quotas and Grand Projects, and forced labour was useful for difficult, dangerous, and unpleasant tasks. Stalin knew that the purges would supply an ever growing number of prisoners to the Gulag, which would provide the state with vital forced labour. 
The purges would also power the FYPs through threats of arrest: workers were encouraged to report their bosses as ‘wreckers’ if they showed signs of resisting the FYPs, ensuring obedience. Stalin also used the idea of ‘wreckers’ to divert attention away from the problems of the FYPs, blaming their failures on the ‘wreckers’’ counterrevolutionary sabotage instead of on poor state planning and execution.
Even if his critics did not buy this, the threat of arrest kept them quiet. Stalin needed ever more productivity and obedience from 1933, when Hitler came to power, since Hitler loathed communism and saw a Soviet-German war as inevitable
Following Lenin’s footstepsUnderwriting all this was the precedent set by Lenin himself: coercive control had been a key part of communist Russia since its birth.
Lenin had tasked the Cheka with violently enforcing the Red Terror during the RCW, terrorising the population into obedience; he had also enforced the 1921 ban on factions, allowing no dissent in the Party. It was Lenin who had set up the forerunner to the Gulag. Though Stalin used terror on a much larger scale than Lenin, and was much less careful about whom to target, he was still very much following established procedure

Key Features of the Great Purge

Purges were not a new development, and the Communist Party saw its first purge in 1921. Stalin carried out two major purges in 1929 and 1932, and though many were found guilty of being counterrevolutionary and then shot, most people caught up in the purges could expect at most to lose their jobs. This changed under the Great Purge (1936-38), when nearly all arrestees — which now included not only Party members but also all sorts of state officials, military men, and even ordinary civilians — could expect to be exiled, sent to the Gulag, or shot. Less intense purges continued until Stalin’s death in 1953.

The apparatus of the purges
The Great Purge was carried out officially by the NKVD (secret police), under the leadership of Nikolai Yezhov, who reported directly to Stalin. He tasked the NKVD with hunting down and arresting counterrevolutionary threats to the Communist Party, a job which NKVD officers carried out efficiently, ruthlessly, and often with great brutality; NKVD officers became infamous for extracting forced confessions through torture. Those found guilty (and it mattered little whether or not the arrestee was actually guilty) could expect to be sent to the Gulag or shot; this created a climate of fear and paranoia which terrorised people into obedience, solidifying Stalin’s authority in the Party and in the country. 

As the purges intensified and included ever more groups to target, methods became more indiscriminate; from 1937 the NKVD operated on a quota system similar to those of the FYPs, and one way for NKVD officers to hunt down ‘foreign threats’ was to simply look for foreign-sounding names in telephone books. In this way ethnic minorities made up 36% of the victims of the Great Purge, though only making up less than 2% of the Soviet population, terrorising nationalist groups into obeying the Soviet government. Other groups lumped into the ‘counterrevolutionary’ category include ‘kulaks’, ‘wreckers’, artists and intelligentsia who had somehow angered Stalin, and immigrants accused of being spies. The vagueness of the charges served to terrorise and paralyse people into obedience, since nobody could be sure of their ‘guilt’.

To be sent to the Gulag (run by the NKVD) could well be a death sentence: prisoners feared the unrelenting, dangerous, back-breaking labour, the meagre, miserable rations (no food for underperforming prisoners), violence and abuse from the guards and from other prisoners (especially career criminals, whom the guards encouraged, and sometimes even put in charge over the other prisoners), and the squalid living conditions. Above all, prisoners feared the Kolyma camps, there to be forced to mine gold and platinum, building miserable fires in the freezing cold just to partially melt the permafrost before the day’s exhausting work could even begin. Stalin found this forced labour very useful however, since it could support the quotas of the Five Year Plans. This only incentivised Yezhov to look for ever more victims — by 1941 some eight million people had been sent to the Gulag.

Not even the secret police were safe from the purges however. By 1939 Stalin decided to end the Great Purge with one last purge; he declared that a fascist conspiracy had consumed the secret police, and so purged the NKVD. Yezhov (like his predecessor, as well as his successor Beria) was charged with treason and counterrevolutionary activity, found guilty, and shot. Both Yezhov and Beria died struggling against their guards and wailing hysterically

“We have to squeeze everything out of a prisoner in the first three months — after that we don’t need him anymore.”
— secret police official Naftaly Frenkel, around 1937 (as quoted by Solzhenytsin)
The Moscow Show Trials
Just as he had (probably) removed Kirov because he was a threat, Stalin now moved to eliminate all possible remaining rivals within the Party; It didn’t matter that Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Bukharin were now broken men (and Trotsky in exile abroad), Stalin needed to publicly make an example of them to cow the rest of the Party into submission. And by creating a climate of fear and suspicion full of possible spies and counterrevolutionaries, Stalin would isolate everyone and turn them only to himself for any hope of protection and security. Stalin’s own paranoia would now become a reality for the Communist Party.

Trial of the Sixteen (1936) → sixteen Old Bolsheviks, including Kamenev and Zinoviev, were arrested on charges of ‘wrecking’, aiding Kirov’s murder, and plotting with Trotsky to overthrow the government (‘Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Center’); all found guilty and shot

Trial of the Seventeen (1937) → targeted right wing Party leaders, all arrested on charges of plotting with Trotsky against the government, of being ‘semi-Trotskyites, quarter- Trotskyites, and one-eighth- Trotskyites’. Most were shot. The writing was on the wall for Bukharin

Trial of the Twenty-One (1938) → targeted all remaining possible opponents, including Bukharin, former NKVD chief Yagoda, and all remaining Old Bolsheviks. Charges were noticeably more absurd than in the previous two trials. All found guilty, most shot, including Bukharin

It is difficult to assess how genuine the Moscow Show Trials were. On one hand they were obviously meant as spectacles to cow the Party and the country into obedience, many of the confessions were forced through torture, and many of the charges were ludicrous; on the other hand some defendants seemed to genuinely believe they had betrayed the Party and therefore deserved to die. It is unclear whether this was self-delusion brought on by torture or earnest conviction — and some foreign observers seemed to think the latter.
In any case the Show Trials were much more about securing Stalin’s position than doing justice.
“I Kamenev, together with Zinoviev and Trotsky, organised and guided this conspiracy. My motives? I had become convinced that the Party’s — Stalin’s — policy was successful and victorious. We, the opposition, had banked on a split in the Party; but this hope proved groundless. We could no longer count on any serious domestic difficulties to allow us to overthrow Stalin’s leadership .We were driven by boundless hatred and by lust of power.”
— Kamenev’s final confession, 1936
“They arrested Radek and others whom I knew, people I used to talk to, and always trusted… But what happened next surpassed all my expectations of human baseness. It was all there: terrorism, treason, the Gestapo, theft, sabotage, subversion… All out of careerism, greed, and the love of pleasure, the desire to have mistresses, to travel abroad, together with some strange desire to seize power by a palace revolution. Where was their patriotism, of love for their motherland? These moral freaks deserved their fate… My soul is ablaze with anger and hatred. Their execution will not satisfy me. I should like to torture them, break them on the wheel, burn them alive for all the vile things they have done.”
— Maria Svanidze, writing in her diary about the Trial of the Seventeen. She and her husband were both purged by Stalin in 1941
Adapted from a court transcript concerning Krestinsky, an Old Bolshevik tried in 1938, the only defendant who initially refused to plead guilty:
Court official: Accused Krestinsky, do you plead guilty to the charges brought against you?
Krestinsky: I plead not guilty. I am not a Trotskyite. I was never a member of the bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites, of whose existence I was not aware. Nor have I committed any of the crimes with which I am charged, in particular I plead not guilty to the charge of having had connections with the German intelligence service.
CO: Do you corroborate the confession you made at the preliminary investigation?
K: Yes, at the preliminary investigation I confessed, but I have never been a Trotskyite.
CO: I repeat the question, do you plead guilty?
K: Before my arrest I was a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and I remain one now.
CO: Do you plead guilty to the charge of participating in espionage activities and in terrorist activities?
K: I have never been a Trotskyite, I have never belonged to the bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites and have not committed a single crime.
[One day and one dislocated shoulder later]
K: Yesterday, under the influence of a momentary keen feeling of false shame, evoked by the atmosphere of the dock and the painful impression created by the public reading of the indictment, which was aggravated by my poor health, I could not bring myself to tell the truth, I could not bring myself to say that I was guilty. And instead of saying, “Yes, I am guilty,” I almost mechanically answered, “No, I am not guilty.”
CO: Mechanically?
K: In the face of world public opinion, I had not the strength to admit the truth that I had been conducting a Trotskyite struggle all along. I request the Court to register my statement that I fully and completely admit that I am guilty of all the gravest charges brought against me personally, and that I admit my complete responsibility for the treason and treachery I have committed.
“For three months I refused to say anything. Then I began to testify. Why? Because while in prison I made a reevaluation of my entire past. For when you ask yourself: “If you must die, what are you dying for?” – an absolute black hole suddenly rises before you with startling vividness. There was nothing to die for, if one wanted to die unrepented. And, on the contrary, everything positive that glistens in the Soviet Union acquires new dimensions in a man’s mind. This in the end disarmed me completely and led me to bend my knees before the Party and the country… The monstrousness of my crime is immeasurable, especially in the new stage of the struggle of the USSR. May this trial be the last severe lesson, and may the great might of the USSR become clear to all.”
— Bukharin’s final plea before he was shot, 1938. There is evidence that this was part of a deal struck with Stalin, that a confession would guarantee the safety of his wife and child. It did not.
Purging the wider Communist Party
The Trial of the Sixteen set the tone for the purges: no one in the Party, no matter how senior, influential, or respected, was safe. Out of 1996 Party delegates who had attended the 1934 Party Congress, 1108 were dead by 1937; and of the 193 members of the 1934 Central Committee, only 41 survived the Great Purge. All told, about one in three Party members were purged. Some of them were seen as such a threat by Stalin that he ordered all traces of them removed: all their literature, even photographic evidence, was destroyed.

Most of them, of course, were replaced by fawning yes-men (thanks to Stalin’s patronage powers as General Secretary). This secured, as one historian put it, ‘Stalin’s victory over the Party.’ And even as new yes-men joined they looked for ever more ways to prove their loyalty, often by denouncing those around them even without any direct orders to do so. This kept up the momentum of the purges within the Party, and helped create a climate of fear and paranoia where total obedience to Stalin was the best way to stay alive.
Purging the military
One of Stalin’s most bizarre decisions was to purge the military. His decision to remove and execute tens of thousands of military officers seemed to contradict his desire to modernise and strengthen the USSR in a world of hostile foreign powers. It seems that when push came to shove, Stalin prioritised securing his own political position over that of the USSR on the world stage.

From Stalin’s perspective the military might pose as much a threat as his opponents within the Party: top generals in command of hundreds of thousands of armed soldiers could possibly overthrow the government, and many of them, having served in the Russian Civil War, had proven themselves to be resourceful, tough, and occasionally headstrong men — much like Kirov had been. Some, like Marshal Tukhachevsky, were admired as war heroes, making them potential rivals. Moreover, many had been appointed by Trotsky himself, which damned them in Stalin’s paranoid worldview.

Stalin gutted the military during the Great Purge: 
– In 1937 Marshal Tukhachevsky along with seven other top generals was arrested, found guilty of treason, and shot
– By 1939 most of high command had been purged: all War Commissars, three of five Grand Marshals, 90 out of the 101-strong Supreme Military Council, all Navy admirals, and all but one senior Air Force commanders purged, most of them shot
– About half of the Red Army’s junior officers (around 35,000 men) were purged (though some historians argue that 35,000 men made up less than 10% of the Army’s officers, and that many of the purged were later allowed back into the Army)

This may have made Stalin’s position seem more secure, but it would have terrible consequences for the USSR in the coming few years, when she went to war first with Finland, then Germany

Adapted from records of Tukhachevsky’s trial and execution:
Stalin: What were Tukhachevsky’s last words?
Yezhov: The snake said he was dedicated to the Motherland and Comrade Stalin. He asked for clemency. But it was obvious that he was not being straight, he hadn’t laid down his arms.
Purging wider society
As the Great Purge built up momentum it consumed wider society as well. In 1937 Stalin gave the directive to hunt down ‘anti-Soviet elements’ in society; over the next few years the NKVD would purge the common people, making arrests and even carrying out executions based on a quota system (as the FYPs were doing).

Though Stalin was directly involved in much of this — he reviewed and signed hundreds of lists of arrestees’ names before handing them to Yezhov, and reportedly even gave him direct instructions on torture — the Great Purge reached such terrifying momentum thanks to a lot of bottom-up initiative. In other words the common people policed and terrorised each other: people were encouraged to denounce each other for the good of the state, since it was filled with traitors, spies, and anti-Soviet, counterrevolutionary elements. Some obeyed because they genuinely bought into this propaganda, while many more did so as a way to settle old grudges, or as a way to seize their neighbours’ job or property, or simply as a way to divert NKVD attention away from themselves.

Again this created a climate of fear and paranoia where nobody felt safe: informants were everywhere, and telling the truth could cost you your life. The best way to survive was to openly pledge loyalty to Stalin, and point fingers at those who weren’t doing so

Results of the Great Purge

The pace of the Great Purge slowed from late 1938, claiming in 1939 even the life of Stalin’s top executioner, the NKVD chief Yezhov. Nevertheless the years 1937-38 became a seminal moment in Soviet history, setting precedents that would last for decades.

Political effectThe Great Purge secured Stalin’s preeminence over the entire Party and the entire nation beyond any question. Whatever opposition that may or may not have existed before Kirov’s death was now dead and gone, or terrorised into complete submission. The Old Bolsheviks had been liquidated, leaving Stalin as the sole political giant, while the Red Army had been cowed into total obedience.
Legacy of terrorThe Great Purge may have been the most spectacular of the purges, but it was far from the last. Nor should we forget the purges carried out as part of collectivisation and dekulakisation.

The Great Purge did, however, set a precedent for terrorising the general population, and creating among them a lasting climate of suspicion and fear. Later purges included the 1949 Leningrad Affair and the ‘Doctors’ Plot’ in 1953.
Weakening the USSRThough Stalin believed the purges would strengthen the Party and the country, in many ways they grievously weakened it. Many of the victims of the purges — professionals, intelligentsia, Party officials, skilled farmers, and trained specialists — had carried out important work before their arrest, and their removal only weakened the Soviet system. Many of their replacements had gotten the job because they had denounced their predecessors, or had openly fawned over Stalin, or both — in any case these replacements were often far less qualified and capable than the men they replaced.

The Soviet military also suffered greatly. The purges had paralysed it, removing much of the vital talent and spark of initiative, as well as decades of experience; officers learned that blind obedience was more important than thinking on one’s feet or even getting the job done. As a result the Red Army fought very poorly when it invaded Finland in 1939, which only further convinced Hitler that the USSR would be an easy target, leading to the eventual 1941 German invasion. The weakened Red Army struggled to repel this, though it had become a much more effective fighting force by 1942.
Human costThe purges (including the Great Purge, the purges of the countryside, and dekulakisation) traumatised and brutalised an entire generation. All told perhaps one in eight people were arrested from 1936-38; between 1.2 to 1.5 million people died, either from execution or abuse, and some 8 million people were sent to the Gulag between 1929-53 (high-end figures point to 18 million). Deaths in the Gulag are harder to pin down because of unreliable figures, but possibly some 1.6 million people died in the Gulag from 1930-53.

All this is to say nothing of the mental and psychic scars. People learned first and foremost not to tell the truth, not to trust anyone. This not only strained personal relations, but fundamentally weakened Soviet society. By the 1970s a common working-class joke was: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us”

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