The Great Purge (Russian: Большая чистка, tr: Bolshaya chistka) is the name given to campaigns of political repression and persecution in the Soviet Union orchestrated by Josef Stalin during the late 1930s. It involved the purge of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the persecution of unaffiliated persons, both occurring within a period characterized by omnipresent police surveillance, widespread suspicion of "saboteurs," show trials, imprisonment and killings. The Russian term refers to a cleansing or cleaning, and the purges were purported an attempt to remove disloyal elements from the Communist Party and high military command. However, the main motivation appears to have been Stalin's paranoid attempt to remove any potential rivals to his unbridled power. Still, Stalin's power and paranoia cannot explain why everyone went along with his program, any more than Adolf Hitler's power can explain why the German people did little and went along with the holocaust. The Purges resulted from the Marxist certainty that history was on their side, that the path chosen was the inexorably correct one, and, based on the denial the absolute value of the human being as created in the divine image, human life became cheap, easily sacrificed for the "greater good."
The term "repression" was officially used to denote the prosecution of people recognized as counter-revolutionaries and enemies of the people. The purge was motivated by the desire on the part of the leadership to remove dissident elements from the Party, orchestrated by Josef Stalin to help consolidate his power. Additional campaigns of repression were carried on against various other sectors of society and other social groups accused, for ulterior political motives, for opposing the Soviet state and the politics of the Communist Party.
Some purges were officially explained as an elimination of possible saboteurs and spies in view of an expected war with Germany. Most public attention was focused on the purge of the leadership of the Communist Party itself, as well as of government bureaucrats and leaders of the armed forces, most of whom were also Party members.
However, the campaigns affected many other categories of the society: intelligentsia, peasants and especially those branded as "too rich for a peasant" (kulaks), and professionals . A series of NKVD (the Soviet secret police) operations affected a number of national minorities, who were accused of being "fifth column" communities.
According to Khrushchev's 1956 speech, "On the Personality Cult and its Consequences"" and more recent findings, many of the accusations, including those presented at the Moscow Trials, were based on forced confessions and on loose interpretations of articles of Article 58 (RSFSR Penal Code), which dealt with counter-revolutionary crimes. Due legal process, as defined by the Soviet law in force at the time, was often largely replaced with summary proceedings by NKVD troikas .
Millions of people died in the purges. Several hundreds of thousands were executed by firing squad and millions were forcibly resettled. An incalculable number were imprisoned and tortured or sent to labor camps in the GULAG system. Many died in these labor camps due to a regime of forced starvation, disease, exposure and overwork. The Great Purge began under the NKVD chief, Genrikh Yagoda, but the height of the campaigns occurred from September 1936 to August 1938, while the NKVD was headed by Nikolai Yezhov; this period is sometimes referred to as the Yezhovshchina ("a pejorative term for the Yezhov era"). However the campaigns were carried out according to the general line, and often by direct orders, of Party politburo and its head, Josef Stalin.
In 1937, the Politburo issued an order to apply "means of physical coercion" to the accused, which translated into torture and extra-judicial murders. Towards the end of the purges, Yezhov was relieved from his post, later arrested on false charges of espionage and treason, tried, found guilty, and shot.
Repression against perceived enemies of the Bolsheviks had been continuously applied since the October Revolution as a systematic method of instilling fear and facilitating social control, although there had been periods of heightened repression, such as the Red Terror or the deportation of kulaks who opposed collectivization. A distinctive feature of the Great Purge was that, for the first time, the ruling party itself underwent repressions on a massive scale. Nevertheless, only a minority of those affected by the purges were Communist Party members and office-holders. The purge of the Party was accompanied by the purge of the whole society.
The term "purge" in Soviet political slang was an abbreviation of the expression "CPSU purges of the Party ranks." In 1933, for example, some 400,000 members were expelled from the Party. But from 1936 until 1953, the term changed its meaning, because being expelled from the Party came to mean almost certain arrest, imprisonment or even execution.
The background of the Great Purge was Stalin's and the Politburo's political desire to eliminate all possible sources of opposition to the government, and ensure that the party strictly followed the principle of democratic centralism, but the terror that they unleashed cannot be explained by rational political calculation. It is believed that Stalin's paranoia drove much of the excesses.
Vyacheslav Molotov, a member of the Stalinist ruling circle, who participated in the Stalinist repression as a member of the Politbureau and who signed many death warrants  claimed that the purges were initiated to remove any possible "fifth column" in case of a war, but this cannot be substantiated by independent sources. This is the theory proposed by The Communist Party also wanted to eliminate "socially dangerous elements," such as so-called ex-kulaks (wealthy peasants), former members of opposing political parties such as the Socialist-Revolutionary Party and former Czarist officials.
The following events are used for the demarcation of the period:
Between 1936 and 1938, three Moscow Trials of former senior Communist Party leaders were held. The defendants were accused of conspiring with the western powers to assassinate Stalin and other Soviet leaders, dismember the Soviet Union and restore capitalism.
Some Western observers who attended the trials said that they were fair and that the guilt of the accused had been established. They based this assessment on the confessions of the accused, which were freely given in open court, without any apparent evidence that they had been extracted by torture or drugging.
The British lawyer and MP Denis Pritt, for example, wrote: "Once again the more faint-hearted socialists are beset with doubts and anxieties," but "once again we can feel confident that when the smoke has rolled away from the battlefield of controversy it will be realized that the charge was true, the confessions correct and the prosecution fairly conducted."
It is now known that the confessions were given only after great psychological pressure had been applied to the defendants. From the accounts of former OGPU officer Alexander Orlov and others, the methods of torture used to extract the confessions are known: repeated beatings, making prisoners stand or go without sleep for days on end, and threats to arrest and execute the prisoners' families. For example, Kamenev's teenage son was arrested and charged with terrorism. After months of such interrogation, the defendants were driven to despair and exhaustion.
Zinoviev and Kamenev demanded, as a condition for "confessing," a direct guarantee from the Politburo that their lives and that of their families would be spared. Instead they had to settle for a meeting with only Josef Stalin, Kliment Voroshilov and Yezhov, at which assurances were given. After the trial, Stalin not only broke his promise to spare the defendants, he had most of their relatives arrested and shot. Nikolai Bukharin also agreed to "confess" on condition that his family was spared. In this case, the promise was partly kept. His wife Anna Larina was sent to a labor camp, but survived.
In May 1937, the Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials, commonly known as the Dewey Commission, was set up in the United States by supporters of Trotsky, to establish the truth about the trials. The commission was headed by the noted American philosopher and educator, John Dewey. Although the hearings were obviously conducted with a view to proving Trotsky's innocence, they brought to light evidence which established that some of the specific charges made at the trials could not be true.
For example, Georgy Pyatakov testified that he had flown to Oslo in December 1935 to "receive terrorist instructions" from Trotsky. The Dewey Commission established that no such flight had taken place. Another defendant, Ivan N. Smirnov, confessed to taking part in the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934, at a time when he had already been in prison for a year.
The Dewey Commission published its findings in the form of a 422-page book titled Not Guilty. Its conclusions asserted the innocence of all those condemned in the Moscow Trials. In its summary, the commission wrote: "Independent of extrinsic evidence, the Commission finds:
The commission concluded: "We therefore find the Moscow Trials to be frame-ups."
While some contemporary observers thought the trials were inherently fair, citing the statements of Molotov and attributing the more unlikely statements in the confessions to a devious effort to undermine the Soviet Union and its government by making dubious statements within the confession that would cast doubts on their trial. After the policy of "destalinization" more emphasis has focused on why these men would have confessed to crimes that they knew they had not committed. Arthur Koestler's famous novel, Darkness at Noon, is based on the Bukharin show trial. While torture is clearly part of the answer, others have suggested that some willingly confessed because the Party convinced them that it was needed and these men had placed Party loyalty above everything.
The purge of the Red Army was claimed to be supported by Nazi-forged documents (said to have been created by Nazi spymaster Reinhard Heydrich) which were introduced through an intermediary, President Beneš of Czechoslovakia. It was claimed that this forged evidence purported to show correspondence between Marshal Tukhachevsky and members of the German high command.
The claim is, however, unsupported by the facts, since by the time the documents were supposedly created, two people from the eight in the Tukhachevsky group were already imprisoned, and, by the time the document was purported to have reached Stalin, the purging process was already ongoing. The actual evidence introduced at trial was obtained from forced confessions. The purge of the army removed three of five marshals (then equivalent to 6 stars general), 13 of 15 army-commanders (then equivalent to 5 and 4 stars general), 8 of 9 admirals (the purge fell heavily on the Navy, who were suspected of exploiting their opportunities for foreign contacts, 50 of 57 army corps generals, 154 out of 186 division generals, 16 of 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commissars.
Some observers think this made the armed forces disorganized and devoid of experienced commanders, and left the country vulnerable to invasion. Some believe that this impression may actually have encouraged Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany to launch Operation Barbarossa after they learned of the weakness of the Red Army.
Viktor Suvorov, in his The Cleansing (Очищение), writes that the impact of the purge on the Red army was not as severe as the later communist propaganda claimed to be. Of all the victims, not more than one third were actually army officials. The second third were comissars (political supervisors), and the other third were NKVD officials, who wore military ranks. For example, one of the most senior officers executed was the minister of navy affairs, former deputy minister of internal affairs (NKVD), Mikhail Frinovsky (М.П. Фриновский) who wore the rank of "Army-commander 1st rank," although he never served in the army.
Eventually almost all of the Bolsheviks who had played prominent roles during the Russian Revolution of 1917 or in the succeeding Soviet government of Vladimir Lenin were executed. Out of six members of the original Politburo during the October Revolution who lived until the Great Purge, Stalin himself was the only one who survived. Four of the other five were executed. The fifth, Leon Trotsky, went into exile in Mexico after being expelled from the Party, murdered by an agent of Stalin in 1940. Of the seven members elected to the Politburo between the October Revolution and Lenin's death in 1924, four were executed, one (Mikhail Tomsky) committed suicide while only two,(Vyacheslav Molotov and Mikhail Kalinin), survived. Of 1,966 delegates to the 17th Communist Party congress in 1934 (the last congress before the trials), 1,108 were arrested and nearly all died.
The trials and executions of the former Bolshevik leaders were, however, only a minor part of the purges:
While kulaks were "liquidated as class," on July 30, 1937, NKVD Order no. 00447 was issued, directed against "ex-kulaks" and "kulak helpers," among other anti-Soviet elements. see NKVD troika. This order was notable in several respects, becoming a blueprint for a number of other actions of NKVD targeting specific categories of people.
A series of national operations of the NKVD was carried out during 1937-1940, justified by the fear of the fifth column in the expectation of war with "the most probable adversary," i.e., Nazi Germany, as well as according to the notion of the "hostile capitalist surrounding," which wants to destabilize the country. The Polish operation of the NKVD was the first of this kind, setting an example in dealing with other targeted minorities. Many such operations were conducted on a quota system. NKVD local officials were mandated to arrest and execute a specific number of "counter-revolutionaries," produced by upper officials based on various statistics.
By the summer of 1938, Stalin and his circle realized that the purges had gone too far, and Yezhov was relieved from his head of NKVD post (remaining People's Commissar of Water Transport) and eventually purged. Lavrenty Beria, a fellow Georgian and Stalin confidante, succeeded him as head of the NKVD. On November 17, 1938 a joint decree of Sovnarkom USSR and Central Committee of VKP(b) (Decree about Arrests, Prosecutor Supervision and Course of Investigation) and the subsequent order of NKVD undersigned by Beria cancelled most of the NKVD orders of systematic repression and suspended implementation of death sentences. This signaled the end of massive, overzealous purges.
Nevertheless, the practice of mass arrest and exile was continued until Stalin's death in 1953.
Although the trials of former Soviet leaders were widely publicized, the hundreds of thousands of other arrests and executions were not. These became known in the west only as a few former gulag inmates reached the West with their stories. Not only did foreign correspondents from the West fail to report on the purges, but in many Western nations, especially France, attempts were made to silence or discredit these witnesses; Jean-Paul Sartre took the position that evidence of the camps should be ignored, in order that the French proletariat not be discouraged. A series of legal actions ensued at which definitive evidence was presented which established the validity of the former concentration camp inmates' testimony.
Robert Conquest, a former communist and a British intelligence official and writer for the Foreign Office's Information Research Department, a department whose function was anti-communist propaganda, wrote the book The Great Terror: Stalinist Purges of the Thirties in 1968. According to Conquest, with respect to the trials of former leaders, some Western observers were unable to see through the fraudulent nature of the charges and evidence, notably Walter Duranty of The New York Times, a Russian speaker; the American Ambassador, Joseph Davis, who reported, "proof … beyond reasonable doubt to justify the verdict of treason" and Beatrice and Sidney Webb, authors of Soviet Communism: A New Civilization . According to Conquest, while "Communist Parties everywhere simply transmitted the Soviet line," some of the most critical reporting also came from the left, notably the Manchester Guardian.
Despite great skepticism regarding the show trials and occasional reports of Gulag survivors, many western intellectuals retained a favorable view of the Soviet Union. Some of them dissociated themselves from the Communist party, but not from Communist convictions, only in 1956, when the Stalinist crimes were made public within the inner communist circles in Russia. With the beginning of the Cold War and McCarthyism, supporters of the USSR were persecuted, so there were personal motives for many intellectuals to change their mind. Also, evidence and the results of research began to appear after Stalin's death in 1953 that revealed the full enormity of the Purges. The first of these sources were the revelations of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev which particularly affected the American editors of the Communist Party USA newspaper, the Daily Worker, who, following the lead of the New York Times, published the Secret Speech in full Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago followed in 1973. By the glasnost (openness) era of the late 1980s, Stalin was denounced openly by Mikhail Gorbachev as a criminal, and Soviet records were opened to Western and Soviet researchers after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Finally, in France, where the intellectual climate was most sympathetic to Soviet communism, The Black Book of Communism (1997), relying in part on revelations of the Great Purge, compared communism unfavorably to Nazism. Nevertheless, minimization of the extent of the Great Purge continues among revisionist scholars in the United States and small but passionate groups of modern day Stalinists 
The Great Purges were denounced by Nikita Khrushchev, who became the leader of the Soviet Union after Stalin's death. In his secret speech to the 20th CPSU congress in February 1956 (which was made public a month later), Khrushchev referred to the purges as an "abuse of power" by Stalin which resulted in enormous harm to the country. In the same speech, he recognized that many of the victims were innocent and were convicted on the basis of false confessions extracted by torture. To take that position was politically useful to Khrushchev, as he was at that time engaged in a power struggle with rivals who had been associated with the Purge, the so-called Anti-Party Group. The new line on the Great Purges undermined their power, and helped propel him to the Chairmanship of the Council of Ministers.
Starting from 1954, some of the convictions were overturned. Mikhail Tukhachevsky and other generals convicted in the Trial of Red Army Generals were declared innocent ("rehabilitated") in 1957. The former Politburo members Yan Rudzutak and Stanislav Kosior and many lower-level victims were also declared innocent in the 1950s. Nikolai Bukharin and others convicted in the Moscow Trials were not rehabilitated until as late as 1988, and Leon Trotsky was never rehabilitated.
The book Rehabilitation: Political Processes of 30-50th years (Реабилитация. Политические процессы 30-50-х годов) (1991) contains a large amount of newly presented original archive material: transcripts of interrogations, letters of convicts, and photos. The material demonstrates in detail how numerous show trials were fabricated.
The number of people who perished in the purges is subject to hot disputes with death toll estimates ranging from 1 to 100 million people, depending on who counts and what is counted as a "purge." The most conservative estimates are based almost exclusively on publicly available execution lists, while the largest estimates are arrived at by counting all "unnatural deaths" that occurred during Stalin's rule and include, in addition to executions and gulag deaths, deaths from artificial famines, preventable disease epidemics, and reckless military campaigns. Some place the number at about 20 million, which includes approximately five million kulaks and other peasants killed between 1929 and 1933; five million who died during the Ukrainian Holodomor, five million executed between 1933 and 1953 (including military personnel executions during the Great Patriotic War), and five million dead in gulag camps.
MVD estimates carried out by order of a special commission of the Communist Party in preparation to the 20th Party Congress, at least 681,692 people were executed during 1937–38 alone, and only accounting for the execution lists signed personally by Stalin from archives of NKVD. The exact total of persons affected remains uncertain and depends on how the count is made, especially depending on the time period considered and whether deaths related to the Gulag and transportation losses are included. Following Kirov's exploited death, it has been said that roughly 1.7 million people were arrested over the following decade, with nearly 700,000 executed.. As for gulag camps, available records indicate that approximately 1.5 million people were being held in camps in 1938 (prison inmate population in present-day Russia is approximately 1 million), but given the reportedly high death rate in those camps (only one third of all inmates survived, according to most estimates), the number of people who had gone through the camps in 20 years could be higher.
One of Russia's leading human rights groups, the Memorial Society, has released a list of 1,345,796 names of people who fell victim to Soviet political repressions.
At least two Soviet commissions investigated the show-trials after Stalin's death. The first was headed by Molotov and included Voroshilov, Kaganovich, Suslov, Furtseva, Shvernik, Aristov, Pospelov and Rudenko. They were given the task to investigate the materials concerning Bukharin, Rykov, Zinoviev, Tukhachevsky and others. The commission worked in 1956-1957. Because it included people like Molotov and Kaganovich, it couldn't have been objective, and, while stating that the accusations against Tukhachevsky, et al. should be abandoned, they failed to fully rehabilitate the victims of the three Moscow trials, although the final report does contain an admission that the accusations have not been proven during the trials and "evidence" had been produced by lies, blackmail and "physical influence." Bukharin, Rykov, Zinoviev and others were still seen as political opponents, and though the charges against them were obviously false, they couldn't have been rehabilitated because "for many years they headed the anti-Soviet struggle against the building of socialism in USSR."
The second commission largely worked from 1961 to 1963 and was headed by Shvernik ("Shvernik Commission"). It included Shelepin, Serdyuk, Mironov, Rudenko and Semichastny. The result of the hard work consisted of two massive reports, which detailed the mechanism of falsification of the show-trials against Bukharin, Zinoviev, Tukhachevsky and many others. The commission based its findings in large part on eyewitness testimonies of former NKVD workers and victims of repressions, and on many documents. The commission recommended to rehabilitate every accused with exception of Radek and Yagoda, because Radek's materials required some further checking, and Yagoda was a criminal and one of the falsifiers of the trials (though most of the charges against him had to be dropped too, he wasn't a "spy," etc.). The commission stated:
However, soon Khrushchev was deposed and the "Thaw" ended, so most victims of the three show-trials were not rehabilitated until Gorbachev's time.
Some authors, who aligned themselves politically with Stalinism, such as Ludo Martens, maintain that the scope of the purges was greatly exaggerated and the purges themselves were a necessary means of struggle against political enemies at that time. They claim that the prevailing point of view on the purges is the result of the coincidence of the interests of the post-Stalin Soviet and Western politicians and historians: the goal of the former (Nikita Khrushchev in particular, who initiated "destalinization") was to discredit Stalinist opposition, while the goal of the latter was to discredit the Soviet Union as a whole.
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