Periodic purges were not unheard of in Soviet Russia after the Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917. Most were directed at subordinate officials and low-ranking party members, who bore the brunt of policy failures. The Great Purges ( Yezovshchina in Russian) were characterized by their focus on party and state elites, mass terror, and dramatic public "show trials" and "confessions" by the accused.
The Great Purges began in earnest with the assassination on 1 December 1934 of Sergei M. Kirov, Stalin's chief lieutenant in Leningrad. Kirov, it is alleged, received more votes than Stalin in the Central Committee elections during the Seventeenth Party Congress of 1934, and many party members desired Stalin's removal from his post as general secretary. Kirov's assassin, Leonid V. Nikolaev, and 13 so-called accomplices were arrested, given a sham trial, and executed on 30 December. Eventually, 49 people were directly implicated in the plot and were shot. Supposedly these individuals implicated others, who implicated still others. Although never proven, it has been suggested that Stalin arranged Kirov's murder and then had those who carried out the deed executed to cover his tracks. In any case, Kirov's assassination now became the justification for the Great Purges.
Beginning in 1936, in a series of show trials held in Moscow, numerous leading Communists and old Bolsheviks—members of the former left and right oppositions—were tried, convicted, and sentenced either to execution or to hard labor in the gulags. The spillover effect on the general population was horrendous. The purge soon extended to the Red Army.
In June 1937, the secret summary arrest and trial of several Red Army leaders took place. Charged with Trotskyism and with conspiring with Germany and Japan, three of the five marshals of the Soviet Union—Michael N. Tukhachevsky, chief of the Soviet General Staff; Alexander I. Yegorov; and Vasily K. Bluecher—were summarily tried and executed. Immediately thereafter, the purges descended to the lower echelons of the Soviet armed forces. Before ending, they claimed, in addition to the marshals, 14 of 16 army commanders, all 8 admirals, 60 of 67 corps commanders, 136 of 199 division commanders, and 221 of 397 brigade commanders. All 11 vice-commissars of defense and 75 of 80 members of the Supreme Military Council, all military district commanders, and all air force commanders also were murdered.
This devastating decapitation of the Soviet armed forces eliminated more than 50 percent of the senior officer corps. Those lost included the most aggressive, outspoken, and capable. Some observers consider the purge of the officer corps the chief cause of the near-disastrous performance of the Red Army early in the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Not all were executed or died in the gulags, however. Many survived to be rehabilitated in the wartime emergency. Some, such as Konstantin Rokossovsky, later a marshal of the Soviet Union, became national heroes. For others, the path to prominence previously closed was opened. A little-known regional commander, Georgii K. Zhukov, rose to become chief of the Soviet General Staff in three years; during the same period, Nicholas G. Kuznetsov rose from cruiser commander to chief of the Soviet navy.
At the same time that the great show trials were going forward, millions of ordinary Soviet citizens simply disappeared without benefit of trial in what became known as the "Deep Comb-Out." Approximately 8 million people were arrested; 1 million were executed, and the rest were sent to the gulags.
Arthur T. Frame
Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: A Reassessment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.; Deutscher, Isaac. Stalin: A Political Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.; Dmytryshyn, Basil. USSR: A Concise History. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978.; Dziewanowski, M. K. A History of Soviet Russia. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979.; Medvedev, Roy A. Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.