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Under the Stalin-ruled Soviet Union, the winter of 1932-33 proved to be a time of “severe economic dislocation both in industry as well as agriculture.”1 Ironically, at the same time that the Soviets struggled to support and preserve their own production of goods, news of Adolph Hitler’s rise to power in Germany exacerbated the already anxious
Suny, p. 258.
Bolsheviks who did not feel the nation could properly fight the Germans, considering their own devastated economy. 2 In order to prevent the Soviet citizens from growing tired of toiling under Communism and turning to the new German fascism that loomed on the political horizon, the Communist Party slowly shifted to more moderate social and economic policies. By lowering required production rates for the Second Five-Year [Agricultural Production] Plan, reducing the state’s high number of arrests and deportations, and enthusiastically proclaiming the Soviet’s 1933 harvest as fecund and prosperous, the Soviet leadership created enthusiasm among the people and increased the populous’ loyalty to Stalin by once again making it seem as though “there were no one to take [Stalin’s] place, that any change of leadership would be extremely dangerous.” 3 The Soviet state held onto this premise of an economically thriving nation until December 1, 1934, when Sergei Kirov’s murder “changed the atmosphere in the Soviet Union from the prevailing moderation to a frenzy of mass terror suddenly and unexpectedly.” 4 Rumors of Stalin’s possible involvement in Kirov’s murder immediately swirled around the populous, but the government shifted that focus back toward those oppositionists who otherwise allegedly planned Kirov’s assassination and were thought to be planning other “active military uprisings” in conjunction with foreign nations
Suny, p. 258. Suny, p. 258. 4 Suny, p. 260.
like Germany and Japan. 5 Infuriated by the fact that true and loyal Soviets were likely “surrounded by imagined enemies and real hostilities throughout Soviet society,’ Joseph Stalin chose to execute a great purge, whereby those people suspected of disloyalty to the state would be removed from positions of power and participation in the party itself. 6 Unlike the state purge of 1929 during which government officials forcibly stripped purportedly oppositionist Academy of Science members of their titles, or 1926’s purge of the German-populated Shakhty engineering company which lost a group of German engineers during the pro-Soviet purge, the Terror of 1937 remained so successful at terrorizing suspects that the movement’s leaders even exceeded the goal execution and exile quotas (72,950 and 177,500 respectively). Further differentiating the earlier purges from 1937’s Great Terror is the fact that unlike the earlier attempts which only targeted party members, the terror targeted many outside the party—military, intelligentsia, and common peasants—in addition to murdering political leadership. 7 In regards to the terror of 1937, the question remains “why?”. Why would Stalin and his powerful comrades in the Politburo incorporate concentration camps, GULag exiles, firing squads, and interrogation tortures into the purported “purging” of the nation from those who were responsible for events like Kirov’s murder and “wrecking?”.
McLoughlin and McDermott, p. 105. Suny, p. 257. 7 Getty, p. 38. Consequently, the Terror of 1937 qualifies as a “terror” rather than a “purge.” Suny, p. 264.
After all, in the Soviet Union of 1937, “there [was] nothing to indicate that officials perceived a growing threat from [internal] social disorder, or a threat in any significant way greater than in previous years.” 8 Diverging from the accepted pattern of the previous purges, the Terror of 1937 occurred during first: a time when the threat of global war from international forces like the Germans or Japanese felt imminent (and rightly so considering WWII occurred just two years later); and second: in which “[Soviet] leaders were convinced that oppositionists, working with foreign agents, were actively organizing socially disaffected populations into a fifth column force [within the Soviet army].” 9 More than he did in any previous purges, the inherently aggressive Stalin adopted a truly war-like mentality to dealing with all anti-Bolshevik oppositionists: having studied the “rear-guard uprisings against the Republican regime in Spain during that country’s civil war,” Joseph Stalin felt as though insurgents and foreign powers (e.g. Germany and Japan) were slowly closing in on his rule just as they had done in Spain, and the only way to keep those anti-Soviet forces controlled within the Soviet Union was to violently attack before those forces could sufficiently barrage the Soviet Union in the unavoidable war. 10 -
McLoughlin and McDermott, p. 104. McLoughlin and McDermott, p. 112. 10 McLoughlin and McDermott, p. 105.
Unlike the domestic purge issues which were dealt with during the earlier, more bureaucratic Soviet purges of 1926 and 1929, the terror of 1937 responded to an internal and foreign, more war-like threats from Germany and Japan, both countries that appeared headed straight for war in the mid-1930s. In the early purges, such as 1918’s clean-cut purge of the Mensheviks and Right Social Revolutionaries from the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets (VTsIK), the dominant Bolsheviks rallied behind Lenin’s cry, “Those who are not with us are against us,” and were able to easily take control and remove people affiliated with the other political parties from office.11 Similarly, in 1929’s major purge of the Soviet oppositionists in the Academy of Sciences, Bolshevik bureaucrats faced little more than pockets of mild protestors among the Soviet scientists. 12 During the years between these two relatively easy purges, however, the year 1926-1927 provided “a cascade of events … [which] stirred the deepest sources of Soviet paranoia about the West.” 13 In 1926, the Soviets had been allowing the Germans to train secretly on Soviet soil, but the Germans refused to reciprocate by helping the Soviets build a modern weapons industry in the USSR.14 Growing “suspicious of Western intentions,” the Soviet foreign ministers began escalating the “rhetoric of fear” during the summer of 1926 by talking about the “capitalist
Suny, p. 69. Suny, p. 211. 13 Suny, p. 164. 14 Suny, p. 164.
encirclement and the danger of war, more specific [than] threats of military attack.” 15 With a “panicked sense of impending war” corroborated by the anti-Soviet, Nationalist movements in Georgia, Ukraine, and Poland that fueled the assassination of the Soviet minister to Poland, the Soviets began to see internal monarchists and not Western nations as the pressing threat. As a result, the Bolsheviks dealt with the quietly subversive counterrevolutionary forces within their homeland first. By arresting a group of Shakhty engineers, the Bolsheviks enacted their first retaliation against internal groups like the Shakhty who had essentially already declared war on the Bolshevik Revolution by thwarting production.16 Extracting similarities among the various purges of the 1920s, one sees that when the Soviets experienced a “moment of perceived domestic and foreign crisis,” as they did with the 1926 purge and resultant Shakhty Trial, the Bolshevik leaders and the party were more likely to take aggressive action like arresting workers for subversion than when the threat existed within statecontrolled entity like the Academy of Sciences or the VTsIK. 17 Although the Soviet approach remained aggressive to a certain degree in the instances in which the state was “attacked” from one side—either internally or externally but not both—the most combustible Soviet approach consistently occurred whenever Stalin and the state perceived that they were fighting a
Suny, p. 164-165. Suny, p. 165. 17 Suny, p. 165.
two-front battle. Similarly, in 1937, when Stalin sensed the shadow of a looming Nazi Party eyeing the Soviet Union and worried about in-party, Nazi-sympathizing wreckers to damage the Soviet cause, the traditionally aggressive Soviet approach became devastatingly violent. The result was the Great Terror. In the years preceding the Great Terror, it became evident that Western nations would soon infringe upon and probably someday attack Soviet-controlled lands. After Sergei Kirov’s murder at the end of 1934, and Hitler’s overtly imperialistic occupation of the Rhineland in 1936, Stalin “foresaw the coming war [WWII] and wanted to guarantee that there would be no fifth column behind the Soviet line and that his orders would be carried out unquestionably by a totally loyal staff.” 18 Ever since the SovietGerman fighting during WWI, Joseph Stalin had never particularly trusted the West, instead believing that a Western country (probably Germany) would attempt to use subterfuge to convince a cohort to attack the Soviet force from within its ranks. Additionally, records show the president of Czechoslovakia, Eduard Benes, fueled Stalin’s paranoia by channeling supposedly covert anti-Soviet information retrieved from German diplomats that implicated many of Stalin’s highest officials in an alleged German-antiSoviet alliance. Unfortunately for Stalin, these documents were actually forged; however, that did not prevent Stalin from believing in them and
Getty, p. 3.
killing “more Soviet generals than would be killed in World War II. Fifteen out of the 16 army commanders, 60 of the 67corps commanders, and 136 of the 199 divisional commanders were executed.” 19 This resulted in “the grandest of the show trials, with its fabricated plots and forced confessions, [and] warned the Soviet people that their country was the target of vicious forces conspiring internally and from abroad.” 20 Throughout the trials of Zinoviev and Kamenev, who were both accused of soliciting and encouraging the murder of Sergei Kirov, the imprisoned defendants suffered under the NKVD’s traditionally brutal interrogation process. Although Zinoviev and Kamenev eventually struck a deal and confessed, Bukharin refused to do so. In response to Bukharin’s pleas of innocence, Stalin spoke words which essentially served to agitate the masses into fearing Nazi-Bolshevik alliances even within the upper echelons of the Bolshevik party. Responding to Bukharin, Stalin says, “Trotsky and his pupils Zinoviev and Karmenev had at one time worked with Lenin and now these people have made an agreement with Hitler.” 21 With this type of inflammatory language, Stalin excited the people’s thirst for revenge against likely traitors, and this meant that Bukharin’s case only lasted through March 1938, at which point he was executed alongside comrade Aleksei Rykov and former police chief Iagoda. 22
Suny, p. 264. Suny, p. 263. 21 Suny, p. 263. 22 Suny, p. 263.
Not only did Stalin’s language choice incite many of the already inflamed militarists to war against the remaining, anti-Soviet cliques, but it was “a language that tied socially suspect populations to active military uprisings. This was a threat more dangerous than that of social disorder.” 23 The language being used in 1937 was “consistent with Stalin’s rising concern about the prospects of land, and the domestic consequences of war.”24 He even described the countryside as a ‘haven’ for oppositionists when he said: Through passportization and clearing operations in the mid1930s, groups which the regime deemed anti-Soviet had been sent into exile or had been driven out of the regime cities and border areas had taken refuge in non-regime towns and in the countryside. There they had stayed. whie many others had fled exile and camps, or had been released. 25 Similarly, another of Stalin’s public comments also created an atmosphere of suffocative fear for those who heard it. During the Kirov murder hearings, Stalin felt the need to call Zinoviev, Bukharin, and Kamenev “traitors,” “spies,” and “saboteurs,” even claiming those three men “plotted with the Grman Gestapo to overthrow the [Soviet] party leadership in a bloody coup that was timed to coincide with the invasion of the USSR by one or more fascist states.” 26 As a result of the language of rebellion and the paranoid beliefs (ideas fed to the masses by propagandists like the Czechoslovakian president) that the “threat of war” was real, the more
Suny, p. 105. Suny, p. 105. 25 McLoughlin and McDermott, p. 106. 26 Getty, p. 1.
‘foreign’ residents of Soviet Union who had “national or ethnic ties beyond the borders” gradually became dangerous outsiders. 27 This simply led to the deportation of non-Soviet nationalists in the two years immediately preceding the Great Terror. A recently published secret memorandum reflects this Soviet fear of foreigners when its author, L.N. Bel’skii, writes, “It has been established…that the overwhelming majority of foreigners living in the Soviet Union provide the organizing basis for spying and diversionary activities.”28 Therefore, “the repressions of the late 1930s combined with a merging xenophobia among Soviet leaders with traditional fears of political opposition and social disorder” served as the so-called ingredients for 1937’s Great Terror during which the party members utilized repressive violence as a means of rooting out those latently subversive persons who threatened to leave the Soviet state vulnerable to foreign threats. 29 The inculcated fear of the outsider eventually translated into a fear of the entirety of one’s surroundings, which in turn created a fear-fueled war zone in which Stalin led a “whirlwind of 1937 and 1938 [during which] the party and state were decapitated.” 30 This whirlwind targeted the political leadership, army, and the intelligentsia so strongly that by 1939, 60 percent of those who had been party members in 1933 had been driven out by the
McLoughlin and McDermott, p. 112. McLoughlin and McDermott, p. 112. 29 McLoughlin and McDermot, p. 112. 30 Getty, p. 2.
party; civil war heroes like Marshal Tukhachevskii and most of the Red Army leaders were arrested and shot for treason, and other free thinkers who dared to contradict or question the state were exiled to the GULag. 31 Although most scholars agree that the Great Purges were systematically planned by Stalin, it is quite difficult to ascertain the transition between purge and terror during which a total of 177,500 people were exiled and 72,950 were executed. 32 When one examines this period in Soviet history using a larger scope, however, it elucidates the fact that in this one-party system, the single male leader, Joseph Stalin, exerted an immense impact on the course programs like the Great Terror took. With the opening of the incomplete Soviet archives in recent years, new information about the leader of this terrifying period come to the foreground. Operating using a binary warlike mentality in which a person was either an enemy of the Soviet state or a friend, Joseph Stalin translated his fear of opposition (both latent within the Soviet community and from outside the nation) into a dogmatic rule during which ‘war preparations were under way” even if that war consumed an entire continent. 33
Suny, p. 265. Getty, p. 2. 32 Suny, p. 264. 33 Suny, p. 267.
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