Stalins Russia: The Great Terror

HideShow resource information
  • Created by: Louise
  • Created on: 13-03-13 17:25

Background on Terror

Purges and terror had been features of communist rule in the USSR since the revolution.

Lenin had used terror in the civil war period 1918-21 to crush external enemies of the Bolsheviks. After the relaxed peroid of NEP a new clampdown on freedom began as Stalin came to power. 

Three phases of the purges of 1930's:

  • The Chitska 1932-35 - over 20% of the party were expelled non-violently 
  • Show Trials - These saw prominent old Bolsheviks publicly tried and executed
  • The Yezhovshchina 1937-8 - a period of mass terror, thousands of party members, state officials, members of the armed forces, industrial directors and professionals and other sectors of society were denounced, arrested and imprisoned. Many were executed or died in Soviet labour camps.
1 of 21

The 17th Party Congress

In January 1934

  • It was announced stalins policy of "socialism in one country" had won.
  • It was clear that Stalin wanted to push ahead and not slow industrialisation
  • A split appared between Stalin and other leading members of the politburo.

Kirov - The Challange to Stalin

  • The popular Sergei Kirov suggested a stop to forcible grain seizure and increasing rations for workers, he also suggested a slow to industrialisation.
  • He recieved support from the congress
  • The title of General Secretary was removed from Stalin and Kirov and Stalin were both given the title Secretary of Equal Rank.

This showed Stalin was by no means a secure leader. He only had the loyalty of two of the politburo, so he could be removed or demoted. It was at this key point that Sergei Kirov was murdered

2 of 21

Kirov Murder Consequences

The Kirov assassination had important consequences:

  • Stalin used the event as an excuse to implement a reign of terror, first against lading party members.
  • A law in 1934 sped up the process of trying suspects and removed any right of appeal. This was soon after Kaminev and Zinoviev were arrested
  • The assassination showed nobody was safe. It became the signal for the regime to tighten its hold over the country and begin the widespread purges - The Great Terror
3 of 21

Political Motives for the Purges

Problems within the party:

  • The Central Party had problems controlling local parties
  • Local parties often didnt want to obey the central party, they didnt want to "find" Kulaks as they were valuable men in their commuinities, local parties in industrial towns didnt want to purge specialists as they wanted to reach their production targest
  • Party leaders reacted by using "show trials" to create an atmosphere of terror, people felt unsafe and were more likely to obey orders. They also encouraged lower levels of the party to criticise those higher up.

Social Instability:

  • The Five year plans had created an unstable society
  • Urbanisation had created social tension and violence, there was hostility in the cities and countryside towards the communist party. The party was worried about lack of control
  • The goverment resorted to terror, to control people, keep them working and to stifle the criticism of leadership
4 of 21

Economic Motives for the Purges

  • Five year plans were falling behind schedule
  • There was a downturn in the soviet economy, the leadership needed to find scape goats for the economic failures, workers were encouraged to identify managers and officials as the cause of their problems
  • The purges provided slave labour to carry out dangerous work in inhospitable regions (goldmining and logging) Stalin needed the money that these industries earnt from foreign exports.
  • The prospect of was looked increasingly likely. This increased pressure to develop armaments industry. Unwilling people suffering from the effects of the five year plans hat to be pushed into greater efforts and the purges was the way to do this.
5 of 21

Personal Motives for the Purges

  •  Stalin felt threatened by the growing opposition towards him. He reacted by eliminating all possible rivals. Stalin was determined to be in a position of absolute power.
  • He wanted to have total control of the party so members would carry out policies without question. Keeping the party in a constant state of insecurity was a way of keeping control.
  • He wanted to eliminate any rivals, the purges crushed opposition and critics
  • There was a good chance of war. He wanted to remove anybody who might oppose his foreign policy or attempt to slow industrialisation because the USSR would need armaments for war.
6 of 21

Position of the NKVD

  • NKVD conducted the purges with such vigour because they were in the interests of the NKVD as an institution
  • The purges would raise the NKVDs profile and allow them to become the leading institution in the soviet system
7 of 21

Genrikh Yagoda

  • Joined the Cheka and became a Stalin supporter in 1929
  • He created the slave labour camp complex and played an important part in the industrialsation programme
  • Yagoda organised 1936 show trials but ended up in the trial himself
  • In his trial he "admitted" to many crimes and was accused of trying to poison Yezhov and assasinating Kirov
  • Yagoda was shot in 1938, his family members were shot, imprisoned or exiled
  • His removal ensured Stalin had full control of the NKVD
8 of 21

Nikolai Yezhov

  • Gave his name to the period of terror "Yezhovshchina" in reference to his time in charge of the NKVD

Yezhovshchina - a great period of terror which lasted until 1938.The Yezhovshchina was when Stalin wanted to advance the terror after Yagoda had been criticized for not finding enemies fast enough

  • He was originally popular was was regarded as intelligent, hardworking and loyal
  • He was also an alcoholic, drug addicted and deviant. He personally supervised tortue after being put in charge of the NKVD
  • He was in charge of the massive expansion of terror
  • When Stalin wished to end the terror in 1939, Yezhoc was quietly removed from office and shot 
9 of 21

Lavrenti Beria

  • Equal to Stalin in ruthlessness 
  • Beria was intelligent and calculating and worked his way up to replace Yezhov
  • He was feared as much as Stalin and was brutal and sadistic
  • Beria threatened colleagues, tortured suspects and ***** countless women
  • Yet he slightly improved conditions in gulag camps because he reasoned that healthier inmates would be better for the economy
  • After Stalins death and Berias own arrest he was shot by his former officers
10 of 21

The Role of the Secret Police

The USSR was a police state. The most powerful instrument of the terror was the NKVD

  • 1917-22 Cheka -  Lenins sword for the revolution, set up to ensure Bolshevik survival with wide powers to deal with any potential opposition.
  • 1922-34 OGPU - (Department of Political Police) 
  • 1934-43 NKVD - (Peoples Commisariat of Internal Affairs) led in turn by Yagoda, Yezhov and Beria. Given extraordinary powers to carry out the purges. 1934 -ordinary police were unified under the NKVD and the national network of labour camps (Gulag) was set up under the NKVD
11 of 21

Show Trials

A particular feature of the terror was the show trials of prominent communists. These were trials in which the outcomes had already been determined because the defendants had been pursuaded or tortured into confession. 

Purpose of the trials:

  • The Stalinist leadership used Kirovs murder as a justification for the Great purges which took place over the next four years
  • There were enemies everywhere that needed to be rooted out.
  • The show trials were an oppurtunity for Stalin to demonstate to his people and the outside world that the regime meant buisness in protecting the way towards socialism

Why did they confess?

  • defendants were pursuaded or tortured into confession. Sometimes they were told that confession was in the interests of the party. Some believed it was their sole remaining purpose to the party and revolution
  • Some agreed to a deal where their families would be spared
12 of 21

Stalins Role in the Purges: Totalitarian view

  • Stalin was the architect and planner of the purges, he exercised much personal control over arrests
  • Stalin used the purges as a weapon to establish control of the party
  • Stalin used purges in 1937-8 as a terror mechanism to control the populace
  • Stalins personality was central to the way the purges were carried out
  • Stalin sought to get rid of old bolsheviks who might prevent a threat to his leadership
  • The NKVD was an instrument which carried out orders from the top (Stalin)
13 of 21

Stalins Role in the Purges: Revisionist view

  • Stalin is responsible for the terror and set it in process but his personailty alone is not sufficient explination for the scale and form of the purges
  • Stalin did not have a masterplan for the purges
  • Stalin did not exercise peron control, he himself had little idea about what was going on in some areas
  • The Machinery of the terror was not well organised. Many people were selected at random, denounced by collegues or others. Terror was generated from below as well as from above
  • The soviet state was chaotic in the mid 1930's. The centre used the purges to try and get control but the terror spiralled out of control
  • The NKVD was riven by internal divisions. Units within the organisation acted on their own initiative
14 of 21

The Impact of Terror on the USSR

Suggested Figures:

  •  7-8 million arrests (1937-8)
  • 1-1.5 million executed  (1937-8)
  • 2 million died out of the 7-8 million in camps (1937-8)
  • 7 million died of famine (1932-33)
  • Total Deaths- 20 million ( 1929-1953)

It is difficult to calculate the number of people killed and this means that the estimates largely vary. This is because soviet statistics aren't accurate. The evidence is full of gaps and inconsistancies

15 of 21

Victims of the Purges

  • Leading Party Members - 70% of members of the 17th party congress were arrested and shot
  • Senior Military Officers
  • Managers, Engineers, Scientists - A high level of specialists at all levels were purged
  • People related to those who were purged - Family, Friends, Collegues
  • NKVD
  • Peasants and industrial workers
16 of 21

Impact of the purges on the party

  • There was such a rapid growth in party membership this meant that many new members did not come up to scratch
  • Stalin made it clear that he thought traitors and spies had infiltrated the party at all levels

In 1929-33 - Frequent (non-violent) expulsions from the party, more that 1million expelled

1933-36 - Action against party membership was officially organised and was specifically aimed and members falling short of standards expected

1936-38 - Action was unofficial, was privately dictated by Stalin and affected higher levels of the party more. It was then that leading party members were affected.

  • However party leadership was less affected by terror than often supposed. Several prominent victims had already lost power and influence in the USSR.
  • Several old Stanlinists were still in the leadership after 1939
17 of 21

Impact of purges on the armed forces

  • 35,000 officers were imprisoned or shot. 
  • Many senior military officers were purged

The great majority of those purged were not killed. However 1/4 of a million new officers had to be recruited, it was a major task to find and train this number of officers. Lack of experience that was evident in the first months of the war in 1941 can be partially put down to the purges.

The impact of the terror on an ordinary soldier was no different from the rest of the population. What is significant is the lack of experience of the leaders. 

18 of 21

Impact of the purges on the soviet population

  • During the Yezhov years (1936-8) it is estimated over 7million people were arrested and over 1million were arrested. 
  • Many people suffered unjustly during the terror, it is possible to exaggerate its effects on ordinary people
  • It was mostly members of the USSRs elite that wre in most fear of arrest, white collar workers were most vunerable and most people avoided promotion in order to stay out of the limelight, ordinary workers were rarely imprisoned on political charges.
  • Most people seemed to believe Stalin, that spies were a real danger and so accepted arrest. Others were still prepared to criticise what they saw as injustice.
19 of 21

Nature of the Terror and Purges

  • Informers - were used to back up and supply information to the NKVD.  
  • Crimes - The NKVD were keen to root out those dangerous to society. Often the police simply wanted to fufil targets. Many arrests arose from denunciations or personal tensions between people. People who were connected to those already accused were often arrested. The terror was sometimes resisted successfully, defending themselves against accusations and charges were dropped.
  • Interrogation and Torture - Torture was widely used by lower ranks of the NKVD to extract confessions. Both psychological and physical torture was used. Most police took matters into their own hands, often leading figures (Beria) took part in torturing suspects personally. Torture was important in recieving confessions which was a logical stratagy when there was no real evidence to prove the accused guilty.
  • Punishments - Imprisonment, slave labour and execution. Many soviet citizens died in prison either shot or dying from torture. Those who did not die were sent to the Gulag
20 of 21

The Gulag - Labour Camps

The Gulag was the network of labour camps in the USSR. Gulag prisoners after 1937 were given no privelages.There was no possibilty of release for good behaviour. Political prisoners were often treated worse than proper criminals.

Kolyma Camps - most notorious camps in the north-east of siberia. Rich in mineral resources but one of the most inhospitable parts of the world. Stalin needed gold to exchange with the western world for technology and machinery. By 1932 there were 10,000 prisoners working there. The death rate was high. 

21 of 21




a few typos but in general a great resource! thank you :)

Similar History resources:

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