MARXIST INTERNET ARCHIVE | Grover Furr

Trials, Conspiracies, Repression

     53. Plans for the new constitution and elections had been outlined during the June 1936 Plenum of the Central Committee. The delegates unanimously approved the draft Constitution. But none of them spoke up in favor of it. This failure to give at least lip service to a Stalin proposal certainly indicated "latent opposition from the broad leadership," a demonstrative lack of concern." (Zhukov, Inoy 232, 236; "Repressii" 10-11)

     54. During the 8th All-Russian Congress of Soviets meeting in November-December 1936 Stalin and Molotov again stressed the value of widening the franchise and of secret and contested elections. In the spirit of Stalin's interview with Howard, Molotov again stressed the beneficial effect, for the Party, of permitting non-communist candidates for the Soviets:

This system . . . cannot but strike against those who have become bureaucratized, alienated from the masses. . . . will facilitate the promotion of new forces . . . that must come forth to replace backward or bureaucratized [ochinovnivshimsya] elements. Under the new form of elections the election of enemy elements is possible. But even this danger, in the last analysis, must serve to help us, insofar as it will serve as a lash to those organizations that need it, and to [Party] workers who have fallen asleep. (Zhukov, "Repressii" 15).

     55. Stalin himself put it even more strongly:

Some say that this is dangerous, since elements hostile to Soviet power could sneak into the highest offices, some of the former White Guardists, kulaks, priests, and so on. But really, what is there to fear? 'If you're afraid of wolves, don't walk in the forest.' For one thing, not all former kulaks, White Guardists, and priests are hostile to Soviet power. For another, if the people here and there elected hostile forces, this will mean that our agitational work is poorly organized, and that we have fully deserved this disgrace. (Zhukov, Inoy 293; Stalin, "Draft").

     56. Once again the First Secretaries showed tacit hostility. The December 1936 Central Committee Plenum, whose session overlapped with the Congress, met on December 4th. But there was virtually no discussion of the first agenda item, the draft Constitution. Yezhov's report, "On Trotskyite and Right Anti-Soviet Organizations," was far more central to the C.C. members' concerns. ("Fragmenty" 4-5; Zhukov, Inoy 310-11).

     57. On December 5 1936 the Congress approved the draft of the new Constitution. But there had been little real discussion. Instead, the delegates -- Party leaders -- had emphasized the threats from enemies foreign and domestic. Rather than giving speeches of approval for the Constitution, which was the main topic reported on by Stalin, Molotov, Zhdanov, Litvinov, and Vyshinski, the delegates virtually ignored it. A Commission was set up for further study of the draft Constitution, with nothing fixed about contested elections. (Zhukov, Inoy 294; 298; 309)

     58. The international situation was indeed tense. Victory for fascism in the Spanish Civil War was only a question of time. The Soviet Union was surrounded by hostile powers. By the second half of the 1930s all of these countries were fiercely authoritarian, militaristic, anti-communist and anti-Soviet regimes. In October 1936 Finland had fired across the Soviet frontier. That same month the "Berlin-Rome Axis" was formed by Hitler and Mussolini. A month later, Japan joined Nazi Germany and fascist Italy to form the "Anti-Comintern Pact." Soviet efforts at military alliances against Nazi Germany met with rejection in the capitals of the West. (Zhukov, Inoy 285-309).

     59. While the Congress was attending to the new Constitution, the Soviet leadership was between the first two large-scale Moscow Trials. Zinoviev and Kamenev had gone on trial along with some others in August 1936. The second trial, in January 1937, involved some of the major followers of Trotsky, led by Yuri Piatakov, until recently the deputy Commissar of Heavy Industry.12

     60. The February-March 1937 Central Committee Plenum dramatized the contradiction within the Party leadership: the struggle against internal enemies, and the need to prepare for secret, contested elections under the new Constitution by year's end. The gradual discovery of more and more groups conspiring to overthrow the Soviet government demanded police action. But preparing for truly democratic elections to the government, and to improve inner-party democracy -- a theme stressed over and over by those closest to Stalin in the Politburo -- required the opposite: openness to criticism and self-criticism, secret elections of leaders by rank-and-file Party members, and an end to "cooptation" by First Secretaries.

     61. This Plenum, the longest ever held in the history of the USSR, dragged on for two weeks. Yet almost nothing was known about it until 1992, when the Plenum's huge transcript began to be published in Voprosy Istorii -- a process that took the journal almost four years to complete.

     62. Yezhov's report about the continuing investigations into conspiracies within the country was overshadowed by Nikolai Bukharin, who, in loquacious attempts to confess past misdeeds, distance himself from onetime associates, and assure everyone of his current loyalty, managed only to incriminate himself further. (Thurston, 40-42; Getty and Naumov agree, 563)

     63. After three whole days of this, Zhdanov spoke about the need for greater democracy both in the country and in the Party, invoking the struggle against bureaucracy and the need for closer ties to the masses, both party and non-party.

The new electoral system will give a powerful push towards the improvement of the work of Soviet bodies, the liquidation of bureaucratic bodies, the liquidation of bureaucratic shortcomings, and deformations in the work of our Soviet organizations. And these shortcomings, as you know, are very substantial. Our Party bodies must be ready for the electoral struggle. In the elections we will have to deal with hostile agitation and hostile candidates. (Zhukov, Inoy 343)

     64. There can be no doubt that Zhdanov, speaking for the Stalin leadership, foresaw real electoral contests with non-party candidates that seriously opposed developments in the Soviet Union. This fact alone is utterly incompatible with Cold-War and Khrushchevite accounts.

     65. Zhdanov also emphasized, at length, the need to develop democratic norms within the Bolshevik Party itself.

"If we want to win the respect of our Soviet and Party workers to our laws, and the masses -- to the Soviet constitution, then we must guarantee the restructuring [perestroika] of Party work on the basis of an indubitable and full implementation of the bases of inner-party democracy, which is outlined in the bylaws of our Party."

     And he enumerated the essential measures, already contained in the draft resolution to his report: the elimination of co-optation; a ban on voting by slates; a guarantee "of the unlimited right for members of the Party to set aside the nominated candidates and of the unlimited right to criticize these candidates." (Zhukov, Inoy 345)

     66. But Zhdanov's report was drowned in the discussions of other agenda items, mainly discussions about "enemies." A number of First Secretaries responded with alarm that those who were, or might be expected to be, preparing most assiduously for the Soviet elections were opponents of Soviet power: Social-Revolutionaries, the priesthood, and other "enemies."13

     67. Molotov replied with a report stressing, once again, "the development and strengthening of self-criticism," and directly opposed the search for "enemies":

"There's no point in searching for people to blame, comrades. If you prefer, all of us here are to blame, beginning with the Party's central institutions and ending with the lowest Party organizations." (Zhukov, Inoy 349)

     68. But those who followed Molotov to the podium ignored his report and continued to harp on the necessity of "searching out 'enemies,' of exposing 'wreckers,' and the struggle against 'wrecking.'" (352) When he spoke again, Molotov marveled that there had been almost no attention paid to the substance of his report, which he repeated, after first summarizing what was being done against internal enemies.

     69. Stalin's speech of March 3 was likewise divided, returning at the end to the need for improving Party work and of weeding out incapable Party members and replacing them with new ones. Like Molotov's, Stalin's report was virtually ignored.

From the beginning of the discussions Stalin's fears were understandable. It seemed he had run into a deaf wall of incomprehension, of the unwillingness of the CC members, who heard in the report just what they wanted to hear, to discuss what he wanted them to discuss. Of the 24 persons who took part in the discussions, 15 spoke mainly about "enemies of the people," that is, Trotskyists. They spoke with conviction, aggressively, just as they had after the reports by Zhdanov and Molotov. They reduced all the problems to one -- the necessity of searching out "enemies". And practically none of them recalled Stalin's main point -- about the shortcomings in the work of Party organizations, about preparation for the elections to the Supreme Soviet. (Zhukov, Inoy 357)

     70. The Stalin leadership stepped up the attack on the First Secretaries. Yakovlev criticized Moscow Party leader Khrushchev, among others, for unjustified expulsions of Party members; Malenkov seconded his criticism of Party secretaries for their indifference to rank-and-file members. This seems to have stimulated the C.C. members to stop speaking temporarily about enemies, but only in order to begin defending themselves. There was still no response to Stalin's report. (Zhukov, Inoy 358-60)

     71. In his final speech on March 5, the concluding day of the Plenum, Stalin minimized the need to hunt enemies, even Trotskyists, many of whom, he said, had turned towards the Party. His main theme was the need to remove Party officials from running every aspect of the economy, to fight bureaucracy, and to raise the political level of Party officials. In other words, Stalin upped the ante in the criticism of the First Secretaries.

"Some comrades among us think that, if they are a Narkom (=People's Commissar), then they know everything. They believe that rank, in and of itself, grants very great, almost inexhaustible knowledge. Or they think: If I am a Central Committee member, then I am not one by accident, then I must know everything. This is not the case." (Stalin, Zakliuchitel'noe; Zhukov, Inoy 360-1)

     72. Most ominously for all Party officials, including First Secretaries, Stalin stated that each of them should choose two cadre to take their places while they attended six-month political education courses that would soon be established. With replacement officials in their stead, Party secretaries might well have feared that they could easily be reassigned during this period, breaking the back of their "families" (officials subservient to them), a major cause of bureaucracy. (Zhukov, Inoy 362)

     73. Thurston characterizes Stalin's speech as "considerably milder," stressing "the need to learn from the masses and pay attention to criticism from below." Even the resolution passed on the basis of Stalin's report touched on "enemies" only briefly, and dealt mainly with failings in party organizations and their leaderships. According to Zhukov, who quotes from this unpublished resolution, not a single one of its 25 points was mainly concerned with "enemies." (Thurston, 48-9; Zhukov, Inoy 362-4)14

     74. After the Plenum the First Secretaries staged a virtual rebellion. First Stalin, and then the Politburo, sent out messages re-emphasizing the need to conduct secret Party elections, opposition to co-optation rather than election, and the need for inner-Party democracy generally. The First Secretaries were doing things in the old way, regardless of the resolutions of the Plenum.

     75. During the next few months Stalin and his closest associates tried to turn the focus away from a hunt for internal enemies -- the largest concern of the CC members -- and back towards fighting bureaucracy in the Party, and preparing for the Soviet elections. Meanwhile, "local party leaders did everything they could within the limits of party discipline (and sometimes outside it) to stall or change the elections." (Getty, "Excesses" 126; Zhukov, Inoy 367-71)

     76. The sudden uncovering in April, May and early June 1937 of what appeared to be a broadly-based military and police conspiracy caused the Stalin government to react in a panic. Genrikh Yagoda, head of the security police and Minister of Internal Affairs, was arrested in late March 1937, and began to confess in April. In May and early June 1937 high-ranking military commanders confessed to conspiring with the German General Staff to defeat the Red Army in the case of an invasion by Germany and its allies, and also to being linked to conspiracies by political figures, including many who still occupied high positions. (Getty, "Excesses" 115, 135; Thurston, 70, 90, 101-2; Genrikh IAgoda)15

     77. This situation was far more serious than any the Soviet government had faced before. In the case of the 1936 and 1937 Moscow Trials, the government took its time to prepare the case and organize a public trial for maximum publicity. But the Military conspiracy was handled far differently. A little more than three weeks passed from the date of Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky's arrest in late May to the trial and execution of Tukhachevsky and seven other high-ranking military commanders on June 11-12. During that time hundreds of high-ranking military commanders were recalled to Moscow to read the evidence against their colleagues -- for most of them, their superiors -- and to listen to alarmed analyses by Stalin and Marshal Voroshilov, People's Commissar for Defense and the highest ranking military figure in the country.

     78. At the time of the February-March Plenum neither Yagoda nor Tukhachevsky had yet been arrested. Stalin and the Politburo intended that the Constitution be the main agenda item, and were set on the defensive by the fact that most of the CC members ignored this topic, preferring to stress the battle against "enemies." The Politburo planned that the Constitutional reforms be the central agenda item at the upcoming June 1937 Plenum also. But by June the situation was different. The discovery of plots by the head of the NKVD and most prominent military leaders to overthrow the government and kill its leading members, entirely changed the political atmosphere.

     79. Stalin was on the defensive. In his June 2 speech to the expanded session of the Military Soviet (which met June 1-4) he portrayed the series of recently uncovered16 conspiracies as limited, and largely successfully dealt with. At the February-March Plenum too, he and his Politburo supporters had minimized the First Secretaries' overriding concern with internal enemies. But, as Zhukov notes, the situation was "slowly, but decisively, getting out of his [Stalin's] control." (Stalin, "Vystuplenie"; Zhukov, Inoy Ch. 16, passim; 411).

     80. The June 1937 Central Committee Plenum17 began with proposals to exclude, first, seven sitting C.C. members and candidates for "lack of political trustworthiness," then a further 19 members and candidates for "treason and active counterrevolutionary activity." These last 19 were to be arrested by the NKVD. Including the ten members expelled on similar charges before the Plenum by a poll of the C.C. members (including those military commanders already tried, convicted, and executed), this meant that 36 of the 120 C.C. members and candidates as of May 1 had been removed.

     81. Yakovlev and Molotov criticized the failure of Party leaders to organize for independent Soviet elections. Molotov stressed the need to move even honored revolutionaries out of the way if they were unprepared for the tasks of the day. He emphasized that Soviet officials were not "second-class workers." Evidently Party leaders were treating them as such.

     82. Yakovlev exposed and criticized the failure of First Secretaries to hold secret elections for Party posts, relying instead on appointment ("cooptation"). He emphasized that Party members who were elected delegates to the Soviets were not to be placed under the discipline of Party groups outside the Soviets and told how to vote. They were not to be told how to vote by their Party superiors, such as the First Secretaries. They were to be independent of them. And Yakovlev referred in the strongest terms to the need to "recruit from the very rich reserve of new cadre to replace those who had become rotten or bureaucratized." All these statements constituted an explicit attack on the First Secretaries. (Zhukov, Inoy 424-7; Tayny, 39-40, quoting from archival documents)

     83. The Constitution was finally outlined and the date of the first elections was set for December 12, 1937. The Stalin leadership again urged the benefits of fighting bureaucracy and building ties to the masses. However -- to repeat -- all this followed the equally unprecedented, summary expulsion from the C.C. of 26 members, nineteen of whom were directly charged with treason and counter-revolutionary activity. (Zhukov, Inoy 430)

     84. Perhaps most revealing is the following remark by Stalin, as quoted by Zhukov:

At the end of the discussion, when the subject was the search for a more dispassionate method of counting ballots, [Stalin] remarked that in the West, thanks to a multiparty system, this problem did not exist. Immediately thereafter he suddenly uttered a phrase that sounded very strange in a meeting of this kind: "We do not have different political parties. Fortunately or unfortunately, we have only one party." [Zhukov's emphasis] And then he proposed, but only as a temporary measure, to use for the purpose of dispassionate supervision of elections representatives of all existing societal organizations except for the Bolshevik Party. . . . The challenge to the Party autocracy had been issued. (Zhukov, Inoy 430-1; emphasis added; Tayny 38)

     85. The Bolshevik Party was in severe crisis, and it was impossible to expect that events would unroll smoothly. It was the worst possible atmosphere during which to prepare for the adoption of democratic -- secret, universal and contested -- elections. Stalin's plan to reform the Soviet government and the role within it of the Bolshevik Party was doomed.

     86. At the end of the Plenum Robert Eikhe, First Secretary of the West Siberian Krai (region of the Russian republic) met privately with Stalin. Then several other First Secretaries met with him. They probably demanded the awful powers that they were granted shortly afterward: the authority to form "troikas," or groups of three officials, to combat widespread conspiracies against the Soviet government in their area.18 These troikas were given the power of execution without appeal. Numerical limits for those to be shot and others to be imprisoned on the sole power of these troikas were demanded and given. When those were exhausted, the First Secretaries asked for, and received, higher limits. Zhukov thinks that Eikhe may have been acting on behalf of an informal group of First Secretaries. (Getty, "Excesses" 129; Zhukov, Inoy 435)

     87. Who were the targets of these draconian trials-by-troika? Zhukov believes they must have been the lishentsy, the very people whose citizenship rights, including franchise, had recently been restored and whose votes potentially posed the greatest danger to the First Secretaries' continuance in power. Zhukov largely discounts the existence of real conspiracies. But archival documents recently published in Russia make it clear that, at the very least, the central leadership was constantly receiving very credible police accounts of conspiracies, including transcripts of confessions. Certainly Stalin and others in Moscow believed these conspiracies existed. My guess at this point, pace Zhukov, is that some, at least, of the conspiracies alleged actually existed, and that the First Secretaries believed in them. (Zhukov, KP Nov. 13 02; Inoy, Ch. 18; "Repressii" 23; Lubianka B)

     88. A further hypothesis is that anyone who was currently, or had ever been, involved in any kind of opposition movement was likely to be viewed as an "enemy," and subject to arrest and interrogation by the NKVD, one of whose members always made up part of the troika. Another group were those who openly expressed distrust or hatred towards the Soviet system as a whole. Thurston cites evidence that such people were often arrested immediately. However, those who simply expressed criticisms of local Party leaders, especially at criticism meetings called for this purpose, were not arrested, while those whom they criticized, including Party leaders, sometimes were. (Thurston, 94-5)

     89. Contrary, then, to those who argue that the conspiracies were phantoms of Stalin's paranoid mind -- or worse still, lies concocted to strengthen Stalin's megalomaniac hold on power -- there is a lot of evidence that real conspiracies existed. Accounts of conspirators who were later able to get out of the USSR agree. The sheer volume of police documentation concerning such conspiracies, only a little of which has yet been published, argues strongly against any notion that all of it could have been fabricated. Furthermore, Stalin's annotations on these documents make it clear that he believed they were accurate. (Getty, "Excesses" 131-4; Lubianka B)

     90. Getty summarizes the hopeless contradiction in this way:

Stalin was not yet willing to retreat from contested elections, and on 2 July 1937 Pravda no doubt disappointed the regional secretaries by publishing the first installment of the new electoral rules, enacting and enforcing contested, universal, secret ballot elections. But Stalin offered a compromise. The very same day the electoral law was published, the Politburo approved the launching of a mass operation against precisely the elements the local leaders had complained about, and hours later Stalin sent his telegram to provincial party leaders ordering the kulak operation [vs. the lishentsy -- GF]. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in return for forcing the local party leaders to conduct an election, Stalin chose to help them win it by giving them license to kill or deport hundreds or thousands of "dangerous elements." ("Excesses" 126)

     91. Whatever the history of these purges, extra-judicial executions, and deportations, Stalin appears to have believed that they were creating preconditions for contested elections. Yet all of this activity really sabotaged any possibility for such elections.

     92. The Politburo at first tried to limit the campaign of repression by ordering that it be completed within five days. Something convinced, or compelled, them to permit the NKVD to extend the period for four months -- August 5-15 to December 5-15. Was it the large numbers of those arrested? The conviction that the Party faced a widespread set of conspiracies and a huge internal threat? We don't know the details of how, and why, this mass repression unfolded as it did.

     93. This was exactly the period during which the electoral campaign was to take place. Even though the Politburo continued preparation for the contested elections, with rules about how voters were to indicate their choices, and how officials should handle runoff elections, local officials actually controlled the repression. They could determine what opposition, if any, to the Party -- which meant, in great part, to themselves -- would be considered "loyal," and what would lead to repression and imprisonment or death (Getty, "Excesses," passim.; Zhukov, Inoy 435)

     94. Primary documents show that Stalin and the central Politburo leadership were convinced that anti-Soviet conspirators were active and had to be dealt with. This is what the regional Party leaders had asserted during the February-March Plenum. At that time the Stalin leadership had minimized this danger and had kept focusing attention back to the Constitution, and the need to prepare for new elections and the replacement of "bureaucratized" and old leadership with new.

     95. By the June Plenum the First Secretaries were in a position to say, in effect: "We told you so. We were right, and you were wrong. Furthermore, we are still right -- dangerous conspirators are still active, ready to use the electoral campaign in their attempt to raise revolt against the Soviet government." Was this how it happened? It seems plausible. But we can't be certain.

     96. Stalin and the central leadership had no idea how deep these conspiracies extended. They did not know what Nazi Germany or fascist Japan would do. On June 2 Stalin had told the expanded Military Soviet meeting that the Tukhachevsky group had given the Red Army's operational plan to the German General Staff. This meant that the Japanese, who were bound in a military alliance (the "Axis") and an anti-communist political alliance (the "Anti-Comintern Pact" -- really, an anti-Soviet pact) with fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, would no doubt have it too.

     97. Stalin had told the military leaders that the plotters wanted to make the USSR into "another Spain" -- meaning, a Fifth Column within coordinated with an invading fascist army. Given this horrendous danger, the Soviet leadership was determined to react with brutal decisiveness. (Stalin, "Vystuplenie")

     98. At the same time much evidence suggests that the central (Stalin) leadership wanted both to restrain the "troika" repressions demanded by the First Secretaries, and to continue to implement the new Constitution's secret and contested elections. From July 5 to 11 most First Secretaries followed Eikhe's lead in sending in precise figures of those whom they wanted to suppress -- by execution (category 1) or imprisonment (category 2). Then,

suddenly on 12 July, Deputy NKVD Commissar M.P. Frinovskii sent an urgent telegram to all local police agencies: "Do not begin the operation to repress former kulaks. I repeat, do not begin." (Getty, "Excesses" 127-8)

     99. Local NKVD chiefs were recalled to Moscow for conferences, after which was issued Order No. 00447. This very long and detailed instruction both expanded the kinds of people subject to repression (basically including priests, those who had previously opposed Soviet power, and criminals), and -- usually -- lowered the "limits" or numbers requested by the provincial secretaries.19 All this vacillation suggested disagreements and struggles between the "center" -- Stalin and the central Politburo leadership -- and the First Secretaries in the provincial areas. Stalin was clearly not in charge. (Order No. 00447; Getty, "Excesses" 126-9).

     100. The Central Committee Plenum of October 1937 saw the final cancellation of the plan for contested elections. A sample ballot, showing several candidates, had already been drawn up; several of them have survived in various archives.20 Instead, the Soviet elections of December 1937 were implemented on the basis that the Party candidates would run on slates with 20-25% of nonparty candidates -- in other words, an "alliance" of sorts, but without a contest. Originally the elections were planned without slates; voting was to be only for individuals -- a far more democratic method. Zhukov has managed to locate in the archives the very document that Molotov signed, on October 11 at 6 p.m., canceling contested elections. This represented a huge but inevitable retreat for Stalin and his supporters in the Politburo. (Zhukov, KP 19 Nov. 02; Zhukov, Tayny. 41; Inoy 443)

     101. It was also at the October C.C. Plenum that the first protest against the mass repressions was uttered by Kursk First Secretary Peskarov:

"They [the NKVD? The troika? -- GF] condemned people for petty stuff . . . illegally, and when we . . . put the question to the C.C., comrades Stalin and Molotov strongly supported us and sent a brigade of workers from the Supreme Court and Prosecutor's office to review these cases. . . . And it turned out that for three weeks' work of this brigade 56% of the sentences in 16 raiony were set aside by the brigade as illegal. What's more, in 45% of the sentences there was no evidence that a crime had been committed." (Zhukov, Tayny, 43; emphasis added)

     102. At the January 1938 Plenum Malenkov delivered a blistering criticism of the huge numbers of Party members expelled and citizens sentenced, often without even submitting a list of names, but only of the numbers sentenced! Postyshev, First Secretary of Kuybyshev, was removed as candidate member of the Politburo for insisting that there was "scarcely a single honest man" among all the Party officials.

     103. It seems that the NKVD was out of control, at least in many local areas. No doubt the First Secretaries were too. (Zhukov, KP 19 Nov. 02; Tayny, pp. 47-51; Thurston 101-2; 112) However, the Politburo leadership was still concerned that there were real conspirators that had to be dealt with. The full extent of NKVD abuses was not recognized. As Zhukov notes, Malenkov's report, blaming careerists within the Party for massive expulsions and arrests, was followed by Kaganovich and Zhdanov who stressed the struggle against enemies and gave only slight attention to "naivetÈ and ignorance" in the work of "honest Bolsheviks."

     104. Pravda, under the direct control of the Stalin leadership, was still calling for removing the Party from direct control over economic affairs and for the need to promote non-party people into leading roles. (Zhukov, Tayny 51-2) Meanwhile Nikita Khrushchev, who had in 1937 called for power to execute 20,000 unnamed people when Party head in Moscow, was transferred to the Ukraine from where, within a month, he asked for authority to repress 30,000 people. (Zhukov, Tayny 64, and see n. 23 below)

     105. Nikolai Yezhov, who had taken over the NKVD from Genrikh Yagoda in 1936, seems to have been in close alliance with the First Secretaries.21 The mass repression of 1937-38 has become so associated with his name that it is still called the "Yezhovshchina." Yezhov was talked into resigning on September 23, 1938 22 and in November 1938 was succeeded by Lavrentii Beria.

     106. Under Beria many of the NKVD officers and First Secretaries responsible for thousands of executions and deportations were tried and often executed themselves for executing innocent people and using torture against those arrested. Transcripts of the trials of some of these policemen who used torture have been published. Many people convicted and either imprisoned, deported, or sent to the camps were freed. Beria reportedly said later that he had been called on to "liquidate the Yezhovshchina." Stalin told aircraft designer Yakovlev that Yezhov had been executed for killing many innocent people. (Lubianka B, Nos. 344; 363; 375; Mukhin, Ubiystvo 637; Yakovlev)

     107. Incalculable damage had been done to Soviet society, the Soviet government, and the Bolshevik Party. This, of course, has been long known. What has not been understood until now is that the setting up of the troikas, and large quotas for executions and deportations, was initiated at the insistence of the First Secretaries, not of Stalin. Zhukov believes that the close connection between this and the threat of secret, contested elections, and the fact that the Central Committee succeeded in forcing the Stalin leadership to cancel contested elections, suggests that getting rid of the "threat" of contested elections may have been a major reason for the mass arrests and executions of the "Yezhovshchina."23 (Zhukov, KP)

     108. Nothing can absolve Stalin and his supporters of a large measure of responsibility for the executions -- evidently, several hundred thousand24 -- that ensued. If these people had been imprisoned rather than executed, almost all would have lived. Many would have had their cases reviewed and been released. For our purposes here, however, the key question is: Why did Stalin give in to the First Secretaries' demands that they be given the life-and-death "troika" powers? Though there are no excuses, there were certainly reasons.

     109. No government can ever be prepared against simultaneous treason by the highest-ranking military commanders, high-ranking figures in both the national and important regional governments, and the head of the secret and border police.

     110. A serious set of conspiracies, involving both current and former high-level party leaders who had ties all over the vast country, had just been uncovered. Most ominous was the involvement of military figures at the very highest levels, with the disclosure of secret military plans to the fascist enemy. The military conspirators had had contacts all over the USSR. The conspiracy also involved the very highest levels of the NKVD, including Genrikh Yagoda, who had headed it from 1934 till 1936 and had been second-in-command for some years before 1934. It simply could not be known how widespread the conspiracy was, and how many people were involved. The prudent course was to suspect the worst.25

     111. The Politburo and Stalin himself were at the apex of two large hierarchies, of both the Bolshevik Party and the Soviet government. What they knew about the state of affairs in the country reflected what their subordinates told them. Over the course of the next twelve months they repressed many of the First Secretaries, over half of whom were arrested. For the most part, the precise charges against most of these men, and the dossiers of their interrogations and trials, have yet to be declassified, even in post-Soviet, anti-communist Russia. But we now have enough of the investigative evidence that reached Stalin and the Politburo to get some idea of the alarming situation they faced. (Lubianka B)

     112. The Bolshevik Party was set up in a democratic centralist fashion. Despite his status and popularity in the country, Stalin (like any Party leader) could be voted out by a majority of the Central Committee. He was in no position to ignore urgent appeals by a large number of C.C. members.

     113. To illustrate Stalin's inability to stop the First Secretaries from flouting the principles of democratic election Zhukov quotes one incident from the still unpublished transcript of the October 1937 C.C. Plenum.

I.A. Kravtsov, First Secretary of the Krasnodar kraikom [regional committee -- GF] was the only one to acknowledge, and in detail, what his colleagues had been doing on the sly for some weeks already. He outlined the selection of only those candidates for deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR who suited the interests of the 'broad leadership'.

"We put forth our candidates to the Supreme Soviet," Kravtsov stated frankly. "Who are these comrades? Eight are members of the Party; two are non-Party members or members of the Komsomol [Communist Youth Organization]. That way we held to the per centage of non-Party members indicated in the draft decision of the CC. By occupation these comrades are divided in this way: four Party employees, two Soviet employees, one kolkhoz chairman, one combine driver, one tractor driver, one oil worker . . .
Stalin: Who else, aside from the combine drivers?
Kravtsov: Among the ten is Yakovlev, the First Secretary of the kraikom, [and] the chairman of the krai executive committee.
Stalin: Who advised you to do this?
Kravtsov: I must say, comrade Stalin, that they advised me here, in the CC apparatus.
Stalin: Who?
Kravtsov: We in the C.C. assigned our krai executive committee chairman, comrade Simochkin, and he got the approval in the C.C. apparatus.
Stalin: Who?
Kravtsov: I can't say, I don't know.
Stalin: A pity that you don't say, you were told wrong." (Zhukov, Inoy 486-7)

     114. Evidently all the First Secretaries were doing what only Kravtsov openly stated -- ignoring the principle of secret Soviet elections, a principle they themselves had voted for at previous Plenums, but clearly never agreed to. This marks Stalin's final defeat on this issue, the Constitutional and electoral system reforms he and his central leadership had been championing for over two years.

     115. Democratic reform was defeated. The old political system remained in place. Stalin's plan for contested elections was gone for good. "Thus the attempt of Stalin and his group to reform the political system of the Soviet Union ended in total failure." (Zhukov, Inoy 491)

     116. Zhukov believes that, if Stalin had refused the appeals of the First Secretaries for the extraordinary "troika" powers, he -- Stalin -- would have most likely been voted out, arrested as a counter-revolutionary and executed. ". . . [T]oday Stalin might be numbered among the victims of the repression of 1937 and 'Memorial' and the commission of A.N.Yakovlev would have long since been petitioning for his rehabilitation." (Zhukov, KP 16 Nov. 02)

     117. In November 1938 Lavrentii Beria effectively replaced Yezhov as head of the NKVD. The "troikas" were abolished. Extra-judicial executions stopped, and those responsible for many of the terrible excesses were themselves tried and executed or imprisoned.26 But war was approaching. The French government refused to continue even the very weak version of the Franco-Soviet alliance they had agreed to (the Soviet Union wanted a much stronger one). The Allies yielded Czechoslovakia to Hitler and the Polish fascists piecemeal, without a struggle. Nazi Germany had a military alliance with fascist Poland aimed at an invasion of the USSR. The Spanish Civil War, which the Soviets had done so much to support, was lost. Italy invaded Ethiopia, and the League of Nations did nothing. France and Britain were clearly encouraging Hitler, with most of Eastern Europe behind him, to invade the USSR. (Lubianka B, No. 365; Leibowitz)

     118. Japan, Italy and Germany had a mutual defense treaty and an "Anti-Comintern" pact, both directed expressly against the USSR. All the European border countries -- Poland, Rumania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- were fascist-style military dictatorships. A 1938 Japanese attack at Lake Khasan cost the Red Army about 1,000 dead. The next year a far more serious Japanese assault was repelled by the Red Army at Khalkin-Gol. Soviet casualties were about 17,000, including almost 5,500 killed -- no small war. As it turned out, this war was decisive, and the Japanese never messed with the Soviets again. But the Soviet government could not know this in advance. (Rossiia I SSSR v Voynakh)

     119. After 1938 the Stalin government did not try again to implement the democratic electoral system of the 1936 Constitution. Did this failure reflect a continued stalemate between the Stalin leadership and the First Secretaries on the Central Committee? Or an estimate that, with war rapidly approaching, further efforts towards democracy would have to await more peaceful times? The evidence available so far does not permit a firm conclusion.

     120. However, once Beria had replaced Yezhov as head of the NKVD (formally, in December 1938; in practice, perhaps a few weeks earlier) a continuous stream of rehabilitations took place. Beria liberated over 100,000 prisoners from camps and prisons. Trials followed of NKVD men accused of torture and extra-judicial executions. (Thurston 128-9)

Notes, Bibliograpy part One