Stalin’s Great Purge: Gulags, Show Trials, and Terror

In the late 1930s, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin feared the rise of political rivals and so began a terrifying wave of political purges, which were devastatingly lethal.

Apr 14, 2023By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA
stalins great purges


In the late 1930s, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin feared the rise of political rivals. To ensure complete loyalty within the top-down administration of the Soviet Union, he presided over waves of deadly political purges that saw government figures removed from power and, most often, executed. The Great Purge had a horrifying ripple effect as government members accused their own rivals of treason or working against the state. The Soviet state’s dread secret police, the NKVD, arrested thousands of accused government officials, including military officers, and any trials were merely for show (hence the term “show trial”). Unfortunately for the USSR, the execution of thousands of experienced leaders shortly before World War II hurt its military performance.


Setting the Stage: Creation of the USSR (1917-22)

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A 1922 map showing the creation of Soviet Russia, which formed the majority of the Soviet Union, via the Library of Congress, Washington DC


In April 1917, Russia was in turmoil due to World War I. Tsar Nicholas II was growing increasingly unpopular and had already been forced to make some reforms a decade earlier after the Russian Revolution of 1905. Germany, Russia’s primary foe and leader of the Central Powers, seized on the turmoil in Russia and sent a group of socialist exiles, led by Vladimir Lenin, back to Russia. Lenin’s return to Petrograd led to the Bolshevik Revolution, also known as the Communist Revolution, Russian Revolution, and October Revolution. In Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) and Moscow, communist revolutionaries seized control of the government.


However, the Bolshevik’s initial control in Russia was limited to only a few urban centers, giving anti-communist “Whites” plenty of opportunity to plan a counter-attack against the communist “Reds.” The resulting Russian Civil War saw the Whites, although supported diplomatically and materially by the Allied Powers of World War I, lose ground to the unified Reds over time. In 1922, the Reds finally took the last White stronghold, the far eastern city of Vladivostok, and formally created the Soviet Union on December 30. Vladimir Lenin had created a new nation under the banner of communism.


Setting the Stage: The Rise of Joseph Stalin

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A photograph of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin working at his desk, via Foreign Affairs


One of Lenin’s followers, who had also been exiled to western Europe by imperial Russia, was Joseph Dzhugashvili. He later adopted the surname Stalin as a combination of “stal” (Russian for “steel”) and Lenin, who had become a socialist hero to many Russians. After the Communist Revolution, Stalin became the Secretary General of the Communist Party and began amassing power. In 1922, as the Reds were on the verge of winning the Russian Civil War, Lenin began suffering from a series of strokes. Stalin quickly took advantage of Lenin’s waning health and began taking on more governing responsibilities.

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Lenin worried about Stalin’s growing power and recommended that Stalin be removed from office in January 1923. An incident that March even led Lenin to threaten to disown Stalin completely, but worsening health kept the ailing lead from acting on it. Upon Lenin’s death in January 1924, other prominent communist leaders kept Stalin around as a hedge against Leon Trotsky, an ideological rival of Lenin. Once Trotsky was politically isolated, thanks to Stalin’s control of party elections in his role as Secretary General, Stalin turned on his rivals and isolated them as well. In late 1927, Stalin was able to remove Leon Trotsky, Grigori Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, with Trotsky going into exile. By 1929, Stalin had emerged as the sole executive leader of the Soviet Union.


Challenges to Stalin’s Leadership

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Socialist philosopher and Bolshevik Revolution leader Leon Trotsky, who was later assassinated in Mexico, via WNYC Studios


Stalin’s leadership was stricter and more aggressive than Lenin’s and featured forced collectivization of agriculture and forced intensification of industry. The forced collectivization of agriculture in the early 1930s was a failure in terms of food output, resulting in mass starvation in Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The forced collectivization and resulting starvation, known as the Holodomor, ended in 1933 with complete government control of all agriculture. It also resulted in some political dissent against Stalin, who many now saw as ruthless.


The Seventeenth Party Congress in early 1934 allegedly saw many party members vote for Sergei Kirov as a replacement for Joseph Stalin as leader of the party, which effectively meant the leader of the Soviet Union. Although no hard record of the vote remains, a majority of those who voted later fell prey to the Great Purge. That December, Kirov was killed by an assassin under suspicious circumstances. Stalin blamed his political rivals for Kirov’s death, including Leon Trotsky, who was later assassinated in Mexico City. Modern historians believe that Stalin, who likely ordered Kirov’s murder, had planned the whole thing to justify his upcoming political purges.


The Growth of the Secret Police

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A photograph of Joseph Stalin (center) with Nikolai Yezhov (right), whom he named head of the NKVD, or Soviet secret police, in 1936, via the Hoover Institution


The political tumult of 1934 coincided with the creation of a powerful new secret police agency in the Soviet Union–the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or NKVD. This nebulous agency was in charge of many internal security agencies, including border troops. In 1936, Stalin named Nikolai Yezhov the second head of the NKVD, replacing Genrikh Yagoda (who was executed after a show trial in 1938). Yezhov was considered especially bloodthirsty and eagerly pursued any who might be accused of being “enemies of the state.”


One motivation for expanding the NKVD during the mid-to-late-1930s was the use of political prisoners as forced labor. Prisoners were used in mining and construction, providing the Soviet state with infrastructure benefits. The NKVD was also allegedly used for assassinations, with many high-ranking government officials suffering maladies like “heart attacks,” especially while alone. The NKVD often operated in direct violation of existing laws, essentially creating its own.


Targets of the Great Purge

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A photograph of Red Army cadets in 1933, similar to many Red Army officers who would be purged in the late 1930s, via Foreign Affairs


The Great Purge, which is considered to have begun in 1936, essentially targeted anyone who could be accused of undermining or threatening Joseph Stalin and his regime. This largely meant political opponents, but the highly political nature of the Soviet government (with the Communist Party being the only official party) allowed any figure to be considered a political opponent. Any potential rival of Stalin was accused of counter-revolutionary behavior, which could mean anything from being a spy for foreign governments to not working hard enough on projects (a charge of parasitism or sabotage).


The Purge also became known as the Great Terror, for nobody was immune from sudden prosecution. Even allegedly nonpolitical institutions like the military came under attack. While initial targets of the Purge were mostly intelligentsia, like artists and writers, who might have partisan disagreements with Stalin, 1937 saw senior military officers accused of being foreign spies. Between 1937 and 1939, thousands of Red Army officers were executed for allegedly colluding with foreign governments, typically Nazi Germany. One theory as to why Stalin targeted the military is that he feared the rise of popular marshals, such as Mikhail Tukhachevskii, who might one day compete for power.


The Great Purge & Show Trials

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An image showing the crowded gallery of a show trial where those accused of crimes against the state in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany were tried without fair defense, via Frieze


Few of those subject to the Great Purge ever received any amount of due process, much less a fair trial. Some, however, were subject to show trials, often known as the Moscow trials, that put on a show of providing evidence of criminality. These trials were intended to justify Stalin’s purges by showing that the state was indeed “under attack” by counter-revolutionary forces, spies, and saboteurs. Instead of hard evidence, these trials typically featured “confessions” that were made under extreme coercion, including beatings and threats of harm to defendants’ families.


The judges in these trials–there were no juries–invariably declared all defendants guilty. Execution was typically swift, even being conducted the same day. Observers sometimes quietly noted the absurdity of the trials, which included outrageous charges of espionage and sabotage. Ultimately, Joseph Stalin himself remained the only original Bolshevik revolutionary leader who was not put on trial for something. Both foreign and domestic observers realized that the trials were mere shams, but the terror of Stalin and the NKVD kept any domestic dissent quiet.


The Great Purge & the Gulags

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An image of prisoners of the Soviet Union’s infamous Gulags, often used to hold political prisoners, performing forced labor in the 1930s, via Gulag Online


Those accused of counter-revolutionary behavior faced either execution or imprisonment, with the latter often leading to death in the Soviet Union’s brutal Gulags. Although Gulag prisons existed across the USSR, the largest were built in remote parts of Siberia, far from observation…or the easy ability to escape. In these camps, political prisoners were forced to perform hard labor under terrible conditions. Many died from exposure to harsh elements, lack of nutrition, and unsanitary conditions. To bolster this involuntary labor force, Gulags also included common criminals instead of just political prisoners.


Due to the politicized nature of life in the Soviet Union, even something as trivial as being late to work could be considered a crime against the state and result in a trip to the Gulag. Prisoners who did not meet work quotas received fewer rations, resulting in starvation. Ultimately, fear of the Gulags kept almost all political dissent quiet throughout the Soviet Union. Any political prisoners who went to the Gulags and were later considered future threats to Stalin could be easily eliminated.


Results of the Great Purge: Military Struggles

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A photograph of German troops in western Russia during Germany’s Operation Barbarossa invasion of the USSR in 1941, via the World Jewish Congress


Between 1937 and 1938, some 35,000 Red Army officers were removed from their posts. Although a sizable minority eventually returned before the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, a consensus view is that the Great Purge substantially damaged the USSR’s defensive capabilities at a time when Nazi Germany was clearly re-militarizing. With fascism and communism vehemently opposing each other, Stalin’s attack on his own military apparatus during fascism’s rapid growth in western Europe is considered a terrible mistake.


The disorganization of the Red Army became apparent in 1939 with the outbreak of the Winter War between the USSR and Finland. Although Soviet leaders predicted an easy victory over the much smaller Finland, the protracted war had brutal costs for the Red Army. The underperforming Red Army would suffer even worse at the hands of Nazi Germany and its allies during the summer and autumn of 1941 after Operation Barbarossa. Only at the outskirts of Moscow did the Red Army, greatly aided by a terribly cold winter, stop the German advance. By then, Stalin had realized that he needed to trust the expertise of his military leaders, eventually leading to the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.


The Aftermath of the Great Purge: Denunciation of Stalin

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A photograph of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, who succeeded Joseph Stalin in the 1950s after Stalin’s death in 1953, via Radio Free Europe


Although the Great Purge ended in November 1938, additional political purges would continue until Stalin’s death in 1953. Purges re-emerged during World War II, with Red Army officers accused of “treason to the Motherland” for various reasons. Attempting to retreat, even under overwhelming enemy firepower, could result in execution for treason. Even after victory in the War, the USSR still faced Stalin’s purges: the infamous Doctor’s Plot of 1953 was a fabrication by Stalin that nine doctors working at the Kremlin had murdered two of his associates. Seven of the doctors were Jewish, and it was alleged that Stalin was preparing a new purge focused on Jewish people in the USSR.


Fortunately for Soviet Jews, many of whom would likely be persecuted or deported, Stalin’s death on March 4, 1953 prevented this political purge. Although Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s NKVD director, briefly emerged as the national leader, it was Nikita Khrushchev who became the singular leader of the USSR by 1956. On February 26, 1956, the new premier launched a blistering attack on Stalin as a bloodthirsty tyrant. The speech, entitled On The Cult of Personality and its Consequences, criticized the excesses of the violent purges of the 1930s and the destruction of all other members of the Bolshevik “Old Guard” aside from Stalin himself. The sudden denunciation of Stalin was so alarming and surprising that, allegedly, some members of the party congress even fainted.


The Aftermath of the Great Purge: De-Stalinization

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A toppled statue of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in Russia after the collapse of the USSR, via the National Geographic Society


Following his denunciation of Stalin, which was unthinkable previously, Khrushchev embarked on a liberalization of policies. This Khrushchev Thaw saw Soviet citizens enjoy greater freedoms than in the past, including access to non-communist poetry and foreign artists and literature. Thousands of political prisoners from the Stalin era (1925-53) were released. Much of this had actually begun in 1953, right after Stalin’s death. Lavrentiy Beria, who had been feared as NKVD director, began this liberalization by granting amnesty for many prisoners and freeing those implicated in the trumped-up Doctor’s Plot.


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Joseph Stalin, who presided over the Great Purge of the late 1930s, via the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC


Across the USSR, statues of Stalin were removed as part of reversing the cult of personality the dictator had encouraged during his reign. Beria, who had been named NKVD director in November 1938 at the end of the Great Purge, was executed for his own bloodthirstiness, including personally raping and torturing those he ordered arrested and brought to him. Stalin’s most ruthless henchmen were disposed of by the new Khrushchev regime, although Khrushchev himself was allegedly complicit in at least some of Stalin’s purges. Despite the Khrushchev Thaw of the mid-to-late-1950s, a harder edge would re-emerge during the Cold War when the USSR and United States clashed over aerial spying, the Berlin Wall, and missiles in Cuba between 1960 and 1962.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.