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The 1937--1938 Purge

The actual purge was decided upon after the revelation of the Tukhachevsky  military conspiracy. The discovery of such a plot at the head of the Red Army, a plot that had links with opportunist factions within the Party, provoked a complete panic.

The Bolshevik Party's strategy assumed that war with fascism was inevitable. Given that some of the most important figures in the Red Army and some of the leading figures in the Party were secretly collaborating on plans for a coup d'état showed how important the interior danger and its links with the external menace were. Stalin was extremely lucid and perfectly conscious that the confrontation between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union would cost millions of Soviet lives. The decision to physically eliminate the Fifth Column was not the sign of a `dictator's paranoia', as Nazi propaganda claimed. Rather, it showed the determination of Stalin and the Bolshevik Party to confront fascism in a struggle to the end. By exterminating the Fifth Column, Stalin thought about saving several million Soviet lives, which would be the extra cost to pay should external aggression be able to profit from sabotage, provocation or internal treason.

In the previous chapter, we saw that the campaign waged against bureaucracy in the Party, especially at the intermediate levels, was amplified in 1937. During this campaign, Yaroslavsky  harshly attacked the bureaucratic apparatus. He claimed that in Sverdlovsk, half of the members of the Presidiums of governmental institutions were co-opted. The Moscow Soviet only met once a year. Some leaders did not even know by sight their subordinates. Yaroslavsky  stated:

`This party apparat, which should be helping the party, not infrequently puts itself between the party masses and the party leaders, and still further increases the alienation of the leaders from the masses.'


Getty,  op. cit. , p. 137.

Getty  wrote:

`(T)he center was trying to unleash criticism of the middle-level apparat by the rank-and-file activists. Without official sanction and pressure from above, it would have been impossible for the rank and file, on their own, to organize and sustain such a movement against their immediate superiors.'


Ibid. , p. 155.

The bureaucratic and arbitrary attitude of the men in the provincial apparatuses was reinforced by the fact that the latter had a virtual monopoly on administrative experience. The Bolshevik leadership encouraged the base to struggle against these bureaucratic and bourgeois tendencies. Getty  wrote:

`Populist control from below was not naive; rather, it was a vain but sincere attempt to use the rank and file to break open the closed regional machines.'


Ibid. , p. 162.

In the beginning of 1937, a satrap like Rumiantsev,  who ran the Western Region, a territory as large as a Western European country, could not be dethroned by criticism from the base. He was expelled from above, for having been linked to a military plot, as a collaborator of Uborevich. 

`The two radical currents of the 1930s had converged in July 1937, and the resulting turbulence destroyed the bureaucracy. Zhdanov's  party-revival campaign and Ezhov's  hunt for enemies fused to create a chaotic ``populist terror'' that now swept the party ....

`Antibureaucratic populism and police terror destroyed the offices as well as the officeholders. Radicalism had turned the political machine inside out and destroyed the party bureaucracy.'


Ibid. , pp. 170--171.

The struggle against Nazi infiltration and against the military conspiracy therefore fused with the struggle against bureaucracy and feudal fiefs. There was a revolutionary purge from below and from above.

The purge started with a cadre decision, signed on July 2, 1937 by Stalin and Molotov. 

Yezhov  then signed the execution orders condemning to death 75,950 individuals whose irreconcilable hostility to the Soviet régime was known: common criminals, kulaks, counter-revolutionaries, spies and anti-Soviet elements. The cases had to be examined by a troika including the Party Secretary, the President of the local Soviet and the Chief of the NKVD. But starting in September 1937, the leaders of the purge at the regional level and the leadership's special envoys were already introducing demands to increase the quota of anti-Soviet elements to be executed.

The purge was often characterized by inefficiency and anarchy. On the verge of being arrested by the NKVD in Minsk, Colonel Kutsner  took the train to Moscow, where he became Professor at the Frunze  Academy! Getty  cited testimony by Grigorenko  and Ginzburg,  two of Stalin's adversaries: `a person who felt that his arrest was imminent could go to another town and, as a rule, avoid being arrested'.


Ibid. , p. 178.

Regional Party Secretaries tried to show their vigilance by denouncing and expelling a large number of lower cadres and ordinary members.



Opponents hiding within the party led conspiracies to expell the greatest possible number of loyal Communist cadres. About this question, one opponent testified:

`We endeavored to expel as many people from the party as possible. We expelled people when there were no grounds for explusion (sic). We had one aim in view --- to increase the number of embittered people and thus increase the number of our allies.'


Ibid. , p. 177.

To lead a giant, complex country, still trying to catch up on its backwardness, was an extremely difficult task. In many strategic domains, Stalin concentrated on elaborating general guidelines. He then gave the task to be effected to one of his adjuncts. To put into application the guidelines on the purge, he replaced the liberal Yagoda,  who had toyed with some of the opponents' plots, by Yezhov,  an Old Bolshevik of worker origin.

But only three months after the beginning of the purge led by Yezhov,  there were already signs that Stalin was not satisfied by the way the operation was being carried out. In October, Stalin intervened to affirm that the economic leaders were trustworthy. In December 1937, the twentieth anniversary of the NKVD was celebrated. A cult of the NKVD, the `vanguard of party and revolution', had been developing for some time in the press. Stalin did not even wait for the next central meeting. At the end of December, three Deputy Commissars of the NKVD were fired.


Ibid. , p. 185.

In January 1938, the Central Committee published a resolution on how the purge was taking place. It reaffirmed the necessity of vigilance and repression against enemies and spies. But it most criticized the `false vigilance' of some Party Secretaries who were attacking the base to protect their own position. It starts as follows:

`The VKP(b) Central Committee plenum considers it necessary to direct the attention of party organizations and their leaders to the fact that while carrying out their major effort to purge their ranks of trotskyite-rightist agents of fascism they are committing serious errors and perversions which interfere with the business of purging the party of double dealers, spies, and wreckers. Despite the frequent directives and warnings of the VKP(b) Central Committee, in many cases the party organizations adopt a completely incorrect approach and expel Communists from the party in a criminally frivolous way.'


On Errors of Party Organizations in Expelling Communists from the Party, on Formal Bureaucratic Attitudes toward the Appeals of Those Expelled from the VKP(b), and on Measures to Eliminate These Short-comings (18 January 1938). McNeal,  op. cit. , p. 188.

The resolution shows two major organizational and political problems that made the purge deviate from its aims: the presence of Communists who were only concerned about their careers, and the presence, among the cadres, of infiltrated enemies.

`(A)mong Communists there exist, still unrevealed and unmasked, certain careerist Communists who are striving to become prominent and to be promoted by recommending expulsions from the party, through the repression of party members, who are striving to insure themselves against possible charges of inadequate vigilance through the indiscriminate repression of party members ....

`This sort of careerist communist, anxious to curry favour, indiscriminately spreads panic about enemies of the people and at party meetings is always ready to raise a hue and cry about expelling members from the party on various formalistic grounds or entirely without such grounds ....

`Furthermore, numerous instances are known of disguised enemies of the people, wreckers and double dealers, organizing, for provocational ends, the submission of slanderous depositions against party members and, under the semblance of `heightening vigilance,' seeking to expel from the VKP(b) ranks honest and devoted Communists, in this way diverting the blow from themselves and retaining their own positions in the party's ranks ....

`(They) try through measures of repression to beat up our bolshevik cadres and to sow excess suspicion in our ranks.'


Ibid. , pp. 190--192.

We would like now to draw attention to Khrushchev's  criminal swindle. In his Secret Report, he devoted an entire chapter in the denunciation of the `Great Purge'.

`Using Stalin's formulation, namely, that the closer we are to socialism the more enemies we will have ... the provocateurs who had infiltrated the state-security organs together with consciousless careerists began to protect with the party name the mass terror against ... cadres'.


Khrushchev,  Secret Report, p. S26.

The reader will note that those are precisely the two kinds of hostile elements that Stalin warned against in January 1938! In fact, `Stalin's formulation' was invented by Khrushchev.  Yes, some Communists were unjustly hit, and crimes were committed during the purge. But, with great foresight, Stalin had already denounced these problems when the operation had only been running for six months. Eighteen years later, Khrushchev  would use as pretext the criminal activities of these provocateurs and careerists, denounced at the time by Stalin, to denigrate the purge itself and to insult Stalin!

We return to the January 1938 resolution. Here are some of its conclusions:

`It is time to understand that bolshevik vigilance consists essentially in the ability to unmask an enemy regarless of how clever and artful he may be, regardless of how he decks himself out, and not in discriminate or `on the off-chance' expulsions, by the tens and hundreds, of everyone who comes within reach.

`(Directions are) to end mass indiscriminate expulsions from the party and to institute a genuinely individualized and differentiated approach to questions of expulsion from the party or of restoring expelled persons to the rights of party membership ....

`(Directions are) to remove from their party posts and to hold accountable to the party those party leaders who do not carry out the directives of the VKP(b) Central Committee, who expel VKP(b) members and candidate members from the party without carefully verifying all the materials, and who take an arbitrary attitude in their dealings with party members.'


Ibid. , p. 194.

Tokaev  thought it probable that anti-Communist opponents had provoked excesses during the purge to discredit and weaken the Party. He wrote:

`The fear of being suspected of lack of vigilance drove local fanatics to denounce not only Bukharinists,  but also Malenkovists,  Yezhovists,  even Stalinists. It is of course not impossible that they were also egged on to do so by concealed oppositionists ...! Beria  ... at a closed joint session of the Central Committee and the Central Control Committee of the Party, held in the autumn of 1938 ... declared that if Yezhov  were not a deliberate Nazi agent, he was certainly an involuntary one. He had turned the central offices of the NKVD into a breeding ground for fascist agents.'


Tokaev,  op. cit. , p. 119.

`Gardinashvili,  one of my close contacts, (had a) conversation (with Beria)  just before Beria  was appointed Head of the police. Gardinashvili  asked Beria  if Stalin was blind to the dismay caused by so many executions --- was he unaware that the reign of terror had gone so far that it was defeating itself; men in high positions were wondering whether Nazi agents had not penetrated the NKVD, using their position to discredit our country.

`Beria's  realistic reply was that Stalin was well aware of this but was faced with a technical difficulty: the speedy restoration of `normality' in a centrally controlled State of the size of the U.S.S.R. was an immense task ....

`In addition, there was the real danger of war, and the Government therefore had to be very cautious about relaxations.'


Ibid. , p. 101.

next up previous contents index
Next: The rectification Up: The Great Purge Previous: A clandestine anti-Communist

Fri Aug 25 09:03:42 PDT 1995