"... it was unusual for political offenders to be put on trial or even publicly denounced. The great purges involving thousands of people, with public trials of traitors and thought-criminals who made abject confession of their crimes and were afterwards executed, were special show-pieces not occurring oftener than once in a couple of years. More commonly, people who had incurred the displeasure of the Party simply disappeared and were never heard of again. One never had the smallest clue as to what had happened to them."
"There was a long range of crimes -- espionage, sabotage, and the like -- to which everyone had to confess as a matter of course. The confession was a formality, though the torture was real.... His sole concern was to find out what they wanted him to confess, and then confess it quickly, before the bullying started anew. He confessed to the assassination of eminent Party members, the distribution of seditious pamphlets, embezzlement of public funds, sale of military secrets, sabotage of every kind. He confessed that he had been a spy in the pay of the Eastasian government as far back as 1968. He confessed that he was a religious believer, an admirer of capitalism, and a sexual pervert. He confessed that he had murdered his wife, although he knew, and his questioners must have known, that his wife was still alive. He confessed that for years he had been in personal touch with Goldstein and had been a member of an underground organization which had included almost every human being he had ever known. It was easier to confess everything and implicate everybody."
1937-1939 - The Great Terror
Stalin killed more communists than Hitler and Mussolini combined.
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.
Although Stalin had expelled his major opponents from the political arena by the end of the 1920s, their physical extermination took place in the period 1936 through the beginning of 1938. Andrei Vyshinsky presided over the worst of the purge trials of the late 1920s and 1930s, dispatching his victims with the command "Shoot the mad dogs!" The Moscow “trials” were public spectacles reported on by journalists and broadcasters from the West, and observed by representatives of foreign governments and various organizations. With the outcomes preordained, one of Vyshinsky’s tasks was to ensure that it appeared to the foreigners in the courtroom’s gallery that the people on trial were guilty and deserved their sentence, which was often death.
In the first show trial, which took place in Moscow August 19-24, 1936, Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, and fourteen other purported members of the "Left Opposition" were sentenced to capital punishment. M.N.Riutin, who earlier had had the audacity to challenge Stalin's growing power, and his allies were shot on January 10, 1937. They were followed on January 23-30 by the show trial of the "Parallel Anti-Soviet Trotsky Center," in which Grigory Piatakov, Grigory Sokol'nikov, K.B.Radek, and L.P.Serebriannikov were executed. June 11,1937 was marked by the executions of M.N.Tukhachevsky, I.P.Uborevich, I.E.Yakir, V.M.Primakov, A.I.Egorov, Y.K.Berzin, and other leading Red Army commanders. Stalin's final blow was directed against the "Rightist-Trotsky Coalition" in rhe show trial of March 2-13, 1938, which produced the death sentences of Nikolai Bukharin, Aleksei Rykov, N.N.Krestinsky, and eighteen other alleged participants. Stalin's purges left behind few key players from the October 1917 events and the unfolding history of Bolshevik rule thereafter. The slate was clean for a new history of Soviet communism.
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.
The Politburo sessions of October 11 and 12, 1938, which were devoted to the publication of the Short Course of the History of the Ail-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks), took place at a time when the official end of the Great Terror lay one month ahead. The party had already been purged from top to bottom as a new and younger party leadership replaced the Old Bolsheviks who had perished in the purges. The Short Course was written by and approved by a committee of the Central Committee, but Stalin was its principal author. Between 1938 and 1953, over 42 million copies of the Short Course were issued, in 301 printings and 67 languages.
Stalin only wrote one chapter of Short Course, but he edited the full text five times. The Short Course was regarded throughout the communist world as the most authoritative source on Soviet Marxism until de-Stalinization began in 1956. Stalin's revision of party history after the Great Terror of the 1930s included his reorientation of propaganda towards the Soviet intelligentsia. A new "party history" was born along with a "renewed" party that reemerged after the Great Terror. Stalin used depersonalized history to blot out the memory of other Old Bolsheviks as a convenient foundation for his own "cult of personality."
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.
In 2003, Kamchatka regional governor Mikhail Mashkovtsev said in one of his interviews on television that Stalin was his most respectable politician and statesman. As far as Stalin’s terror is concerned, he said that there was no way to avoid innocent victims. The governor added that the victims of the recent hostage crisis in Moscow was an example of innocent victims. Speaking about other victims of Stalin’s terror, Mashkovstev said that “it served them right.”
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