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The Great Purge or the Great Terror was a series of campaigns of political repression in the Soviet Union which occurred from 1936 to 1938. It involved large-scale purges, with mass imprisonment in the Gulag camp system and mass executions, of military officers, government officials, Communist Party members, influential ethnic minorities, and individuals who had previously lost influence but who had not yet been imprisoned/killed, among other groups.
In the Western world, Robert Conquest's 1968 book The Great Terror popularized that phrase. Conquest's title was in turn an allusion to the period called the Reign of Terror (French: la Terreur, and, from June to July 1794, la Grande Terreur—the Great Terror) during the French Revolution.
Number of arrests and deaths
According to the declassified Soviet archives, during 1937 and 1938, the NKVD secret police detained 1,548,366 persons, of whom 681,692 were shot – an average of 1,000 executions a day (in comparison, the Tsarists executed 3,932 persons for political crimes from 1825 to 1910 – an average of less than 1 execution per week).
In addition, many died in the Gulag system. Other methods of dispatching victims were used on an experimental basis, such as killings by gas van.
However, the reliability of the Soviet archives has been disputed. An estimate based on the serial numbers of the (numbered) receipts received for personal belongings by the people arrested during 1936-38 period estimates the number arrested to be between 5.5% and 6% of the total Soviet population, making it about 8 million arrested. Robert Conquest estimates the number of deaths to be two and a half times that stated in the archives. He believes that the secret police was often covering its tracks by falsifying the dates and causes of death.
Purges of the Communist party and influential ethnic minorities
Besides the mass persecutions of non-far leftists, Lenin had also persecuted non-Bolshevik far leftists, such as social anarchists. Stalin had for a long time conducted relatively small scale purges of claimed Trotskyists. However, a distinctive feature of the Great Purge was that, for the first time, members of the ruling Communist party themselves on a massive scale became victims of a Communist repression.
Another distinctive feature was a partial purge of Jews and other ethnic minorities, who had had a disproportionate influence since the Communist revolution and a corresponding increase of influence of ethnic Russians.
Causes and motivations
The causes and motivations of the Great Purge have been debated. One suggestion is irrational paranoia by Stalin. This view may be associated with the belief the Great Purge contributed to the early catastrophic defeats against National Socialist Germany, by purging the military of many experienced officers.
Another view is that the persecutions were rational in the sense of being necessary for Stalin in order to maintain power, due to increasing dissatisfaction with his dictatorial rule and Communist failures, such as the catastrophic mass starvation during the Holodomor.
Those arguing that Stalin was always planning for a new World War of conquest for Communism (see Soviet offensive plans controversy) have seen the Great Purge as a preparation for this planned future war, replacing army leaders and others seen as inefficient and possibly disloyal, and reducing the influence of Jews and other ethnic minorities and increasing Russian influence in order to increase the support of the Russian people for the regime during the coming war. This view may be associated with the belief that the Great Purge helped the Soviet Union survive World War II.
Show trials and concealment
The persecution of fellow Communists was a sensitive issue for the many foreign Communist sympathizers. This contributed to the creation of a series of widely publicized trials (the "Moscow Trials") in order to justify the persecutions of well-known leading fellow Communists. Today, these trials are seen as obvious show trials with the "confessions" obtained through torture. However, this is not how they were often seen at the time when the trials occurred. Many foreign Communist supporters accepted the trials as fair and just. Foreign non-Communists were often more suspicious and critical of the trials. Regarding the much more extensive persecutions of not well-known lower ranking individuals, these were not publicized at all. The true scale of the Great Purge and the deceptions involved were only (partially) revealed as some former Gulag prisoners reached the West, after the death of Stalin, and more completely only after the fall of Communism.
Influence on the Nuremberg trials
The success of these show trials has been argued to have influenced Stalin to insist on the Nuremberg trials, as discussed in the article on this topic.
The main Soviet judge at the main Nuremberg trial, the International Military Tribunal, Iona Nikitchenko, even presided over some of the most notorious of the show trials during the Great Purge, as also discussed in the article on the Nuremberg trials.
World War II purges and deaths
Communist purges, Communist persecutions, and deaths of Soviet citizens due to Communism during WWII have been argued to have been even more extensive than those during the "Great Purge", with some estimates even stating that the Soviet Union was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of its own citizens during the war. However, these purges and deaths are much more disputed and unknown than the "Great Purge", with various parties often preferring to blame National Socialist Germany for deaths during the war.
- ↑ Communism: A History (Modern Library Chronicles) by Richard Pipes, pg 67
- ↑ Wielka czystka by Alexander Weissberg-Cybulski, ISBN 83-07-02122-7
- ↑ Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia: 1934–1941. – book reviews by Robert Conquest, 1996, National Review
- ↑ Stalin's War: Victims and Accomplices, Book Reviews http://codoh.com/library/document/2076/