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The actual purge was decided upon after the revelation of the
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
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,
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
`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
, p. 137.
`(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.'
, 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
`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
, p. 162.
In the beginning of 1937, a satrap
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
`The two radical currents of the 1930s had converged in July 1937, and the
resulting turbulence destroyed the bureaucracy.
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.'
, 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
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,
took the train to Moscow, where he became Professor at the
cited testimony by Grigorenko
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'.
, 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
`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.'
, 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
who had toyed with some of the opponents' plots,
an Old Bolshevik of worker origin.
But only three months after the beginning of the purge led by
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.
, 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).
, 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
`(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
`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
`(They) try through measures of repression to beat up our bolshevik cadres
and to sow excess suspicion in our ranks.'
, pp. 190--192.
We would like now to draw attention to
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'.
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
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,
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
, p. 194.
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
Stalinists. It is of course not impossible that they were also egged
on to do so by concealed oppositionists ...!
... 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
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.'
, p. 119.
one of my close contacts, (had a) conversation (with
was appointed Head of the police.
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.
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
`In addition, there was the real danger of war, and the Government therefore
had to be very cautious about relaxations.'
, p. 101.
Next: The rectification
Up: The Great Purge
Previous: A clandestine anti-Communist
Fri Aug 25 09:03:42 PDT 1995