Persecution and Control

The purges, terror, cult of personality, Stalinism 

HideShow resource information


  • Historians talk about Stalin's Russia being a totalitarian state, where the Party srt out to control every aspect of life
  • There is increasing evidience that however much it might have liked to give the impression of being totalitarian, Stalin's government did not quite succeed. 
  • People did hold counter opinions, even if they largely kept them to themselves, or grumled in a crowd where it was hard to be picked out
1 of 11

How did Stalin establish control over the Soviet U

  • First of all he had to make sure he controlled the party, he did this with a combination of terror and delivering what the party wanted. 
  • The same can be said about his control over the country, over people who didn't conform was mostly by force and cult of the individual and propaganda played a part in sustaining Stalin's popularity in the country 
  • Even prisoners in the Gulags were reported to cry when Stalin's death was announced 
2 of 11

The Terror

  • Used to describe a whole series of events in Russia from 1928 to 1938 
  • No one quite knows how many people died in the purges; but Stalin once told Churchill that collectivisation alone cost 10 million lives
  • Millions were either deprived of Party membership, arrested with or without trial, sent to the gulags or shot! 
  • Usual figure given is 7,000,000 but this has been revised upwards in recent years as mass graves discovered in Kolyma. True figures may be as high as 20,000,000
  • Most high profile cases were the Old Bolsheviks who were accused at the show trials
  • Some confessed of the most unlikely crimes, killing Lenin, working for the Nazi's and so on. Others maintained innocence throughout.
  • One technique was to guarantee that the accused family would be left alone after a guilty plea
3 of 11

Chronology of the Terror 1930 - 38

1930 - 1 - A first purges concentrated upon technical experts, who Stalin blamed for failures of the First Five Year Plan 'Wreckers Trials'                                             1932 - More than 800,000 members of party were expelled. Stalin trying to ensure his control of the party machinery                                                           1934 - Some party members tried to persuade Kirov to take over Stalin's post of General Secretary. Kirov did refuse. Real purges began in 1934.                            

1934 - Elections for Central Committee at party congress some delegates did not vote for Stalin, its rumoured Kirov gets more votes. Ballots destroyed.                    

 1934 - Dec 1st, Kirov assassinated by Nikolayev, a party member. Kirov's bodyguard mysteriously absent. Stalin passes a decree giving NKVD power to arrest and detain suspects.                                                        1935 - Society of Old Bolshevik's is abolished, all members required to exchange their membership cards for new ones, an attempt to improve membership records. Another 9% of members removed from the party    1936 - New democratic constitution is announced, guaranteeing freedom of speech and first show trial, Zinoviev, Kamenev and others begins in Moscow                                  

1937 - Second show trial, purge of the army begins, torture is legalised              

1938 - Third Show Trial begins in Moscow, Bukharin, Rykov, Tomsky and Yagoda star names

4 of 11

NKVD and arrests

The period 1936 - 1938 is known as the high point of terror

Target figures for arrests and executions were set for each district

Kulaks and returning political prisoners were to be the main category, but priests, formers members of political parties, nationalists, ex-whites were all added to the list 

In all nearly 3 million people were arrested at this time, with about 700,000 being executed

5 of 11

Was there serious opposition to Stalin within the

Were the purges planned? 

  • One explanation is events of the Terror largely targeted at the Party and bureaucracy seemed to coincide with the changes in policy or problems with industrialisation 
  • This is certainly true of the early purges 1930 -32. They were excuses for failures of the First Five Year plan! 
  • Events tied in with Stalin's personal battle over leadership
  • All his opponents in struggle for power were in Show trials and confess to all manner of crimes 
  • The purge of the army seems to be linked with Trotsky and there is evidence still in the 1930s some leading Communists were maintaining links with Trotsky
  •  Trotsky had been Head of the Red Army and the army was really the only other possible source of power. 
6 of 11

Or were the purges simply random?

  • Some historians argue that the Terror was really quite arbitrary, the frightening about the terror was that it could strike anybody, anywhere, at any time
  • The victims never really knew why they were caught up in the system. Often they had been implicated by previous victims order torture, in an effort to save themselves. 
7 of 11

How much was Stalin involved in the Terror?

  • Stalin closely involved in setting the terror in progress, or in key decisions during the show trials. He personally signed death warrants for thousands of the victims
  • Also made key speech in March 1939 at the Party Congress that brought the full force of the Terror to an end
  • Debate is how much of terror came from the Centre and how much was due to local forces getting out of control

To put the Terror into context 

  • Extraordinary time in Russia, great economic and social changes taking place
  • Was the Terror the result of Stalin's imagination, paranoid personality which saw the opposition behind every change? 
  • Or just a result of party members trying to protect their own skins 
  • No doubt that Stalin, along with all Bolsheviks, wanted to use every means in his power to turn Russia into a strong industrial power. Essential to the survival of Socialism in a hostile world
8 of 11

Summary - who was purged?

  • Bolshevik leaders who Stalin had forced out in 1925-7 
  • Poets, writers, artists, musicians, anyone creative who might have ideas which Stalin did not like
  • Managers of industries who did not meet their targets for production
  • Scientists, engineers, experts of any kind who Stalin did not trust or understand. Only loyal party officials, who accepted Stalin's decision without any question were safe
  • Army and Navy officers, every Admiral of the Soviet fleet, three of the five Marshals of the Red Army, 90% of the generals and more than half of the officers of the Red Army 
  • Millions of ordinary Soviet citizens, who often did not know what they had done to anger Stalin
9 of 11

What effects id the purges have?

  • The Red Army lost all its experienced officers. In 1941 it stood no chance against the German army. 
  • Science and technology suffered as new inventions were stopped. Stalin actually prevented development in some areas by clinging to outdated ideas
  • Industry suffered because managers were unwilling to try anything new
  • Literature, art and music were all stifled. Only Stalin's favourite form of art, Socialist Realism was accepted. This showed workers striving to create the Soviet Union. 
  • By eliminating older figures, Stalin was able to promote younger men who owed their success to him. This made them completely loyal. 
  • Lavrenti Beria became the head of the NKVD and Georgia Malenkov, who was expected to be Stalin's successor. 
10 of 11

What effects did the Terror have on family life? .

  • Huge impact on families, whole families might be arrested and deported children left behind with friends and family
  • Men might be sent to work many miles away from their wives and children and not return for years. You often did not know if your spouse was alive or dead
  • Many children had to live on their wits. At first juvenile crime was treated leniently, being blamed on society and social disruption. 
  • Education and car were regarded as 'appropriate' punishments. This changed in 1935 when new law classed offenders aged 12 or above as adults, liable even to the death penalty
  • Parents were made responsible for behaviour and had to pay their children's fines. Difficult young people could be taken away from their parents and put into state orphanages, where the parents had to pay the cost of keeping them there. 
11 of 11


No comments have yet been made

Similar History resources:

See all History resources »See all Russia - 19th and 20th century resources »