Stalin ordered the arrest, summary trial and subsequent execution of millions of people in Communist Russia, particularly between the years 1936 – 8. His aim was simply to put potential or actual opponents out of the way, and imprisoning or killing them seemed the best way. When his fellow leader of the Revolution Kirov was murdered in 1934, Stalin used the crime as a convenient excuse.
Looking closely at revolutions during the last six hundred years, it is clear they follow the same pattern. In Stalin’s purges he arranged three show trials in Moscow. In them especially chosen judges simply ate up most of the Russian Revolution’s creators, in just the same way as the ‘Committee of Public Safety’ and ‘The Terror’ (q.v.) had done towards the end of the French Revolution.
The first part of the ‘trials’ started in August, 1936, with Zinoviev, Kamenev and others of Stalin’s age and convictions – his erstwhile colleagues in fact – being accused of taking orders from Trotsky to murder Stalin and some of his followers. It was nonsense of course, but all were tried and executed. In their ‘confessions’ they had implicated Bukharin, but even the wily Stalin had to release him for lack of evidence. The Georgian then became angry with his Head of the Secret Police (NKVD) Yagoda, accusing him of incompetence He was found guilty but not killed, merely replaced by Yezhov, who was put in charge of the second show trial (January, 1937). Now it was Radek’s turn to ‘confess’ to having secret links to foreign intelligence services. Most of his companions were killed but Radek was sentenced to 10 years in a labour camp, where he died, as was the intention.
In the last show trial Stalin’s accomplices had done their homework: Bukharin and Rykov ‘confessed’ to planning with foreign powers the downfall of the Soviet and were duly executed. Yezhov prepared the sentences in advance of the trial, and Stalin approved them. He did the same with four hundred more sentences in 1937/8. It should be noted that of the fifteen members of the original Bolshevik government, ten had been executed, four died – and only Josef Stalin remained. In the trials the sole evidence produced were ‘confessions’ signed by the accused, many of which had required much hard work by the secret police to obtain. The NKVD often kept prisoners awake all night for weeks while they were interrogated. Eventually they broke and would sign anything, even if they understood that after a brief stretch of ‘liberty’ they would be shot. They were told their families would be hurt if they did not confess, and that they (the families) would be unharmed once the accused had signed a confession.
Very few of the accused were tried in public, perhaps seventy; most were tried secretly, especially those who had had the highest positions as colleagues of Stalin. 70% of the Central Committee of 1934 were executed in the next five years. 1,108 out of 1,966 ordinary delegates at the 1934 Party Congress were arrested, confined or killed. At the next Congress in 1939 only 59 appeared.
The armed forces, which had always backed Stalin, suffered the worst: Three out of five Marshals, fourteen out of sixteen army commanders, 169 out of 229 corps and divisional commanders disappeared. One third of all officers were arrested. In the navy and air force only one senior officer survived. Even foreign Communist leaders who had run to Russia for protection, such as Bela Kun, were also executed.
As in the Great Terror in France, the horrors developed as the number of victims doubled and tripled. Officials who wanted the jobs of their seniors were encouraged to denounce them even without evidence, and woe betide any NKVD officer who ignored the accusations, because then he would be arrested for lack of vigilance. Now he must extract confessions using whatever method he chose. Stalin had started something with his wholesale denouncements of best friends, former acquaintances, relatives, schoolmates and colleagues. Potential defenders of the accused became suspects too. Members of the NKVD suffered equally, becoming victims of the purges they had been encouraged to start. Again, the resemblance to the Terror in France is startling. A KGB/Politboro Report from 1960 claims that between January, 1935 and June, 1941, 19.8 million people were arrested, of whom ‘7 million’ were shot, but the report is suspected of being far from accurate.
Stalin’s great purges succeeded, in that they crushed all opposition and produced a climate of suspicion and fright. It was impossible to criticise, even mildly, the régime. The worst of the purges came in 1939, but then Beria replaced Yezhov, and slaughter of those who had ‘confessed’ grew less, though it continued. Beria was himself purged, and Stalin sent a Communist Spaniard to Mexico, where he dispatched Trotsky with an ice axe. He was the last of the great instigators of the Russian Revolution, except, of course, for Stalin himself. After his death by natural causes, he was denounced by Kruschev.