The Great Terror

Stalin's Russia

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Causes of the Terror

Congress of Victors

  • Kirov won over Stalin many times
  • Kirov was a lot more popular within the Party
  • Stalin discovered Kirov's plan and purged the Party


  • Trotsky, Zinoviev and Bukharin held strong Party positions
  • Stalin had many enemies - he felt unable to trust some people within the Party and did not believe they converted to socialism

Terror economics

  • Lasting issues with the Five-Year Plans 
  • Stalin's opponents were purposefully causing problems for him - 'wreckers' in the workforce were set out to sabotage the economy and cause more problems for Stalin's government

The murder of Kirov

  • Stalin wanted Kirov excluded from Politboro 
  • Stalin believed that he was betrayed by the Party when they argued against him - execution of those who disagreed with him was justified
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The Trial of the Sixteen - 1936

  • Main participants were Zinoviev and Kamenev - they had been in prison for over a year before the trial
  • They were charged with the murder of Kirov, plotting to disrupt the Five-Year Plans and conspiring with foreign powers in order to overthrow the government
  • Zinoviev and Kamenev pleaded innocent whilst in jail - they were persuaded to plead guilty despite Zinoviev's letter to Stalin claiming innocence and begging forgiveness
  • It is said that Zinoviev and Kamenev were promised by Stalin that they would be pardoned if they fully confessed, however, he broke that promise
  • Zinoviev and Kamenev were sentenced to death and shot, despite their begging for mercy
  • They were carried to execution
  • Forty three of their former allies and high-ranking Communists disappeared around the same time
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The Trial of the Seventeen (1937)

  • Dealt with former allies of Trotsky - charges were plotting with foriegn powers, terrorism, sabotage and contact with Trotsky
  • Trial was Nicolai Yezhov's first product of 'conveyer belt system' of interrogation
  • Defendants were tortured, questioned and deprived of sleep until they confessed
  • Thirteen were executed and four were sent to gulags where they perished
  • Evidence provided in first trial was forged and concocted by NKVD - however, deceit was more apparent
  • One defendant 'confessed' to Kirov's murder whilst already in prison
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Doctorine of 'sharpening class struggle'

  • People within the Communist Party were reluctant to try Zinoviev and Kamenev
  • When Bukharin became Stalin's next victim, reluctance became opposition
  • Stalin dealt with it by persuading opponents Bukharin would not be a defendant at trial
  • Pravda published an article informing that Vyshinsky closed investigation on Bukharin
  • Stalin continued to plan the trial and execution of Bukharin
  • Proposed a new theory to persuade Party of further terror - he argued that class struggle intensified as socialism advanced
  • Theory ideologically justified ever-decreasing terror
  • Doctorine of 'sharpening class struggle' was officially adopted by Communist Party is Central Committee meeting of February - March 1937
  • 70% present at meeting would be executed within three months despite loyalty
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The Trial of Twenty One

  • Trial of Bukharin, Rykov and accomplices - accused of attempting to overthrow socialism and Kirov's murder
  • Bukharin was personally charged by Stalin with an attempt to assasinate Lenin
  • Bukharin attempted to prove loyalty to Stalin before trial - effects were poor
  • Bukharin was never tortured - Stalin threatened to execute his wife and baby instead
  • He confessed to 'political responsibility for crimes' 
  • Refused to acknowledge guilt and never confessed to attempting to assasinate Lenin
  • Bukharin was called a 'foul-smelling heap of human garbage' and 'damnable cross of a fox and a swine' by Vyshinsky
  • Despite receiving a death sentence, Bukharin hoped for mercy
  • He wrote to Stalin volunteering to track down Trotsky in America and 'smash his face in'  - this did not work and Bukharin was shot
  • Stalin showed that there would be no mercy for those who opposed him
  • Trials got rid of Communists who were claiming to be close to Lenin and were seen as a threat
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Party purges

  • Memos were sent out demanding that Party officials make more efforts to pick out spies and traitors
  • Targets for arrest numbers were set
  • 330,000 Party members were convicted as enemies between 1934 and 1938
  • Stalin never completely trusted the Red Army - majority of senior officers were appointed by Trorsky so Stalin feared they may try to seize power
  • Generals were tried and tortues before confessing to treason
  • 34,000 soldiers were purged from the army
  • Trials provided evidence of anti-Soviet conspiracy involving large number of Russians
  • Order number 00447 was issued by Politboro demandin 'anti-Soviet' elements to be removed
  • List was produced by NKVD of over 250,000 people believed to be involved
  • Assumed that NKVD kept people under surveillance and chose victims 
  • Russian people collaborated with state-sponsored persecution
  • Many denounced friends and neighbours to secret police - this was a survival strategy and an attempt to prove loyalty or get promotion
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  • Nicolai Yezhov replaced Yagoda as head of organisation
  • Stalin announced organisation was 'four years behind' 
  • Arrest, execution and exile targets were set to speed it up
  • NKVD was purged because some members felt loyalties to Bukharin and Rykov
  • Changes achieved correct result - 'enemies of the people' were persecuted and NKVD was newly radicalised
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Consequences of the Great Terror


  • Production fell - coal mines were purged which left a shortage of trained workers
  • Economic havoc - Party members lied about economic facts to say targets had been reached


  • Families targeted and terrorised - parents arrested and children humuliated in front of entire school or university before being expelled
  • Violence and punishments - 10% of adult males were executed and sent to labour camps
  • Forging identities - daughter of a kulak moved to Moscow, married a working man and enrolled in a factory school to avoid being exiled to Siberia


  • Rivals removed - Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin exposed as traitors and were executed
  • Populist terror - people encouraged to expose their bosses
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Purging the Red Army

What happened?

  • Execution of almost 39,000 army officers and 3,000 naval officers
  • Generals who performed badly were shot

Why did Stalin attack this group?

  • Russia was suffering heavy defeats
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The enemy within

What happened?

  • List was drawn up of people who could be sympathetic to the Germans
  • Groups were exiled to Siberia

Why did Stalin attack this group?

  • Russia was under threat from Germany
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Prisoners of war

What happened?

  • Soviet soldiers who were returned home were interrogated and exiled

Why did Stalin attack this group?

  • He accused them of spying and disobeying his direct orders
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Purge of the Jews

What happened?

  • Jews were victimised
  • 12% of senior managers in 1945 were Jewish
  • This fell to 4% in 1951

Why did Stalin attack this group?

  • Suspicious of those with contacts in the outside world
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The Leningrad Affair

What happened?

  • Over a thousand Party members were sacked
  • Two hundred were arrested and charged for being traitors

Why did Stalin attack this group?

  • Concerned he never stamped his authority on Russia's second city
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