The most notable characteristic of the Great Terror was how comprehensive it was. Few people in the Soviet Union, whatever their social status, were unaffected. It is difficult to estimate the number of deaths that occured as a consequence of the purges and historians don't agree:
- Conquest and Montefiore estimate 20 million
- Nove and Wheatcroft suggest 4-11 million
- Declassificified Soviet archives record that in 1937-38 there were 1000 executions a day, which is probably an understimate.
After Kirov's murder, the initial focus was on the Leningrad Party but was soon extended to every section of the Party, every part of the country and every group of the population. Eventually, every national population was affected: in Stalin's native Georgia 80000 were executed. Every social class was touched, but skilled workers and the intelligentsia appear to have been targeted more than workers. This shows where Stalin felt the threat would come from.
Also, the families of those arrested were targeted: Radek and Ryutin's families were executed, even when alive the children of state enemies were often excluded from universities and the professions.
In addition, attacks on the church escalated suggesting 100000 priests, monks and nuns may have died during the Great Terror.
In the workplace, Communist Party officials and factory managers lied about production levels in order to avoid arrest when targets were not met.
Purges within Gosplan removed some of the most distinguished economists and planners. Accurate economic planning was impossible and this meant that poor economic performance hindered the preparation for WWII at a time when German rearmament was well advanced. The Terror removed managers, technicians and statisticians, leading to a shortage of professional expertise. Skilled workers were also targeted, accused of being 'wreckers' or saboteurs.
The height of the purges coincided with and contributed to the economic slowdown which began in 1937.
By the end of the Great Terror in 1939, Stalin had achived unrivalled political dominance. He established a personal dictatorship, terror became routine. He had destroyed all leading political opponents with the USSR:
- older Communists with a long history in the Party.
- remaining members of Lenin's first government.
- those who competed for leadership of the USSR in the 1920s
- any who supported Trotsky, even if they confessed and conformed.
- those who opposed Stalin in the 1930s.
The Party was now an organisation that could approve Stalin's decisions but could not discuss, restrain or oppose them
By the end of the 1930s, Stalin had established a totalitarian state. He had a stranglehold on the Party. Via his purge of the military, he had cowed an institution with the potential to challenge his rule. He kept the secret police under control, changing leaders and ensuring rank and file NKVD members were loyal to him. The Terror had also protected him from the consequences of his actions as there were always scapegoats to blame for the shortcomings of his policies.
The Later Purges: Armed Forces and Enemy Within
The Terror continued up until Stalin's death in 1953, despite the fact that he had declared an end to the Great Purge. Beria was appointed as head of the NKVD after Yezhov's arrest and he oversaw all the later purges.
Armed Forces: The purge of the military continued even after the USSR entered the war in 1941, attention turned to military-intelligence officers, whom Stalin blamed for not warning him about the Nazi attack. Defeats and setbacks in the 'Great Patriotic War' were blamed on traitors, saboteurs and incompetence, several general were shot for retreating. This approach depleted the Army of vital military expertise and was eventually abandoned as it was hindering the Soviet war effort.
Enemy Within: Large numbers of non-Russian ethnic minorites were shot. Beria ordered the NKVD execution squads to double their efforts to deal with this problem by shooting victims night and day to ensure enough were being murdered. He also moved ethnic minority populations from the European West so they couldn't collaborate with the invaders.
Jews: After 1945, Stalin launched an attack on cosmoplitanism. Between 1945 and 1951, Jews held important and influential positions in government were purged.