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1937-1939 - The Great Terror

Having come to power in October 1917 by means of a coup d'etat, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks spent the next few years struggling to maintain their rule against widespread popular opposition. They had overthrown the provisional democratic government and were inherently hostile to any form of popular participation in politics. In the name of the revolutionary cause, they employed ruthless methods to suppress real or perceived political enemies. The small, elite group of Bolshevik revolutionaries which formed the core of the newly established Communist Party dictatorship ruled by decree, enforced with terror.

This tradition of tight centralization, with decision-making concentrated at the highest party levels, reached new dimensions under Joseph Stalin. As many of these archival documents show, there was little input from below. The party elite determined the goals of the state and the means of achieving them in almost complete isolation from the people. They believed that the interests of the individual were to be sacrificed to those of the state, which was advancing a sacred social task. Stalin's "revolution from above" sought to build socialism by means of forced collectivization and industrialization, programs that entailed tremendous human suffering and loss of life.

During the second half of the 1920s, Joseph Stalin set the stage for gaining absolute power by employing police repression against opposition elements within the Communist Party. The machinery of coercion had previously been used only against opponents of Bolshevism, not against party members themselves. The first victims were Politburo members Leon Trotskii, Grigorii Zinov'ev, and Lev Kamenev, who were defeated and expelled from the party in late 1927. Stalin then turned against Nikolai Bukharin, who was denounced as a "right opposition," for opposing his policy of forced collectivization and rapid industrialization at the expense of the peasantry.

Stalin had eliminated all likely potential opposition to his leadership by late 1934 and was the unchallenged leader of both party and state. Nevertheless, he proceeded to purge the party rank and file and to terrorize the entire country with widespread arrests and executions. During the ensuing Great Terror, which included the notorious show trials of Stalin's former Bolshevik opponents in 1936-1938 and reached its peak in 1937 and 1938, millions of innocent Soviet citizens were sent off to labor camps or killed in prison.

The murder of Sergei Kirov on December 1, 1934, set off a chain of events that culminated in the Great Terror of the 1930s. Kirov was a full member of the ruling Politburo, leader of the Leningrad party apparatus, and an influential member of the ruling elite. His concern for the welfare of the workers in Leningrad and his skill as an orator had earned him considerable popularity. Some party members had even approached him secretly with the proposal that he take over as general secretary.

It is doubtful that Kirov represented an immediate threat to Stalin's predominance, but he did disagree with some of Stalin's policies, and Stalin had begun to doubt the loyalty of members of the Leningrad apparatus. In need of a pretext for launching a broad purge, Stalin evidently decided that murdering Kirov would be expedient. The murder was carried out by a young assassin named Leonid Nikolaev. Recent evidence has indicated that Stalin and the NKVD planned the crime.

Stalin then used the murder as an excuse for introducing draconian laws against political crime and for conducting a witch-hunt for alleged conspirators against Kirov. Over the next four-and-a-half years, millions of innocent party members and others were arrested -- many of them for complicity in the vast plot that supposedly lay behind the killing of Kirov. From the Soviet point of view, his murder was probably the crime of the century because it paved the way for the Great Terror. Stalin never visited Leningrad again and directed one of his most vicious post-War purges against the city -- Russia's historic window to the West.

During the entire period of Soviet history, approximately four million people were accused and convicted of crimes against the state. Of those, approximately 700,000 to 800,000 were shot. Approximately half of the victims were thrown into prison during a two-year period -- 1937 and 1938. During those two years over six times more people were shot than during the entire remaining period of Soviet history. The Great Terror's major targets were communists. Of the two million people who were repressed during that two-year period, over half of them were members of the party at the time of their arrest.

By the time the terror subsided in 1939, Stalin had managed to bring both the party and the public to a state of complete submission to his rule. Soviet society was so atomized and the people so fearful of reprisals that mass arrests were no longer necessary. Stalin's complete authority is revealed in how he was able to turn various major policies on and off, for example, stopping the Great Terror with a single memorandum. Stalin ruled as absolute dictator of the Soviet Union throughout World War II and until his death in March 1953.

Although this tragic episode in Soviet history at least had some economic purpose, the police terror inflicted upon the party and the population in the 1930s, in which millions of innocent people perished, had no rationale beyond assuring Stalin's absolute dominance. By the time the Great Terror ended, Stalin had subjected all aspects of Soviet society to strict party-state control, not tolerating even the slightest expression of local initiative, let alone political unorthodoxy. The Stalinist leadership felt especially threatened by the intelligentsia, whose creative efforts were thwarted through the strictest censorship; by religious groups, who were persecuted and driven underground; and by non-Russian nationalities, many of whom were deported en masse to Siberia during World War II because Stalin questioned their loyalty.

While Stalin's successors also persecuted writers and dissidents, they used police terror more sparingly to coerce the population, and they sought to gain some popular support by relaxing political controls and introducing economic incentives. A whole wave of people, sometimes referred to as the new recruits or the newly chosen of 1937, began to rise to high posts in the party, economy, government and the military. They occupied leading posts of which they had never before dreamed. The people who occupied these positions had no ties to Bolshevism and no ideological adherence to Marxism. As a result they proved to be extremely susceptible to the crudest forms of corruption which corroded the body politic in the USSR. These people remained in power in the Soviet Union for almost 50 years.

Strict centralization continued and eventually led to the economic decline, inefficiency, and apathy that characterized the 1970s and 1980s, and contributed to the Chernobyl' nuclear disaster. Mikhail Gorbachev's program of perestroika was a reaction to this situation, but its success was limited by his reluctance to abolish the bastions of Soviet power--the party, the police, and the centralized economic system--until he was forced to do so after the attempted coup in August 1991. By that time, however, it was too late to hold either the Communist leadership or the Soviet Union together. After seventy-four years of existence, the Soviet system crumbled.




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