The Great Terror

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The Great Terror, a retrospective term which historians have borrowed from the French Revolution, refers to the paroxysm of state-organized bloodshed that overwhelmed the Communist Party and Soviet society during the years 1936-38. Also known as the Great Purges or Ezhovshchina (after the People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs, Nikolai Ezhov, who oversaw the process before himself becoming one of its casualties), it has been a major subject of debate concerning its origins, extent, and consequences. Recent archival-based research has resolved some issues, but there remains much that is elusive about the Terror. For the sake of clarity, it is worth noting that the Soviet government did not describe the arrests and executions of party and state personnel as terror but rather as part of its response to alleged terrorist plots and actions.

The Great Terror was punctuated by three elaborately staged show trials of former high-ranking Communists. In July-August 1936 Lev Kamenev, Grigorii Zinoviev, and fourteen others were convicted of having organized a Trotskyite-Zinovievite terrorist center that allegedly had been formed in 1932 and was held responsible for the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934. Still dissatisfied with the efforts of the police to investigate and liquidate such nefarious plots, Stalin replaced Genrikh Iagoda with Ezhov as head of the NKVD in September 1936. A second show trial followed in January 1937 with Iurii Piatakov and other leading figures in the industrialization drive as the chief defendants. At a plenary session of the party’s Central Committee in February-March 1937, Nikolai Bukharin and Aleksei Rykov, the most prominent party members associated with the so-called Rightist deviation of the late 1920s and early 1930s, were accused of having collaborated with the Trotskyite-Zinovievite terrorists as well as with foreign intelligence agencies. They along with Iagoda and others eventually were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in March 1938.

Between the second and third show trials, the upper echelons of the Red Army were decimated by arrests and summary executions, and the same fate befell provincial party secretaries, party and state personnel among the national minorities, industrial managers, and other officials. The process fed upon itself, as the accused under severe physical and psychological pressure from their interrogators, named names and confessed to outlandish crimes. Millions of others became involved in the frenzied search for “enemies of the people.” In addition, the Politbiuro ordered Ezhov on July 3, 1937 to conduct “mass operations” to round up recidivist criminals, ex-kulaks, and other “anti-Soviet elements” who were prosecuted by three-person tribunals. Ezhov actually established quotas in each district for the number of arrests. His projected totals of 177,500 exiled and 72,950 executed were eventually exceeded.

What had begun as bloody retribution against the defeated political opposition developed as a self-induced pathology within the body politic. Its psychic consequences among the survivors were long-lasting and incalculable.

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