Lenin and Dzerzhinskii, not Stalin, organized the first Soviet institutions
of police coercion and terror. It happened not long a after
the October Revolution. During the Civil War the Cheka made widespread use
of torture and execution squads to deal with counter-revolutionaries,
speculators, liberal and socialist politicians, and other alleged "enemies
of the people."
A large number of such ''enemies'' were placed in concentration camps or
executed between 1918 and 1920. Under NEP such drastic methods were no
longer required, but the Soviet authorities still relied on the secret
police, which was known as the GPU between 1922 and 1923 and the OGPU
between 1923 and 1934. The secret police was used to prevent priests,
non-Bolshevik socialists, White Guardists, and dispossessed landowners and
bourgeois from trying to regain for themselves some of the influence over
Russian affairs that they had just lost in the course of the Revolution and
the Civil War.
In addition, the Soviet state refused to tolerate work stoppages or
violations of its economic regulations by kulaks, private traders, and
entrepreneurs. A considerable number of such kulaks, Nepmen, and
''instigators'' of discontent among workers were arrested and put in
concentration (i.e., ''corrective labor'') camps during the twenties.
The decision to collectivize agriculture and to hasten industrialization in
the late twenties almost necessarily led to rapid expansion of the secret
police and prison camp apparatus. The most immediate problem of police
control naturally concerned the peasantry, which desperately resisted
collectivization. The Soviet state not only used police intimidation, class
warfare, and the army to deal with particularly serious cases of peasant
resistance to collectivization but it also deported millions of members of
peasant families (especially those labeled as kulaks) to forced settlements
and concentration camps. As early as 1930 the rapidly growing prison-camp
population required the creation of a special Main Administration of
Corrective Labor Camps headed by G. G. Iagoda, who had worked for the secret
police since the Civil War and was soon to become the chairman of the NKVD.
The technical intelligentsia also posed a problem, for in the late twenties
a large proportion of them still questioned the wisdom of forced
industrialization. It was apparently in an effort to cow and intimidate such
technical experts that the Soviet secret police staged the first of its
famous ''show trials'' during the early years of rapid industrialization. In
these trials, the first of which took place in 1928, a number of Russian and
foreign engineers and technical specialists were tried, convicted, and, in
many instances, executed for having allegedly attempted to ''wreck'' and
sabotage the First Five-Year Plan under the orders of French, Polish,
German, or British capitalists.
In almost all cases the accused were convicted not on the basis of evidence
but on that of confessions obtained through torture, continuous
interrogations over extended periods of time, and threatened reprisals
against the wives and children of the accused. It seems to have been
especially the experience gained in the course of these trials that enabled
the Soviet secret police to perfect the torture and inquisitorial methods
that it was to use so effectively in the ''Great Purge'' of the second part
of the thirties.
At the beginning of the thirties Stalin still had not achieved complete
control over the secret police as a reliable instrument of his own personal
dictatorship. Thus in 1932, when Old Bolshevik M. N. Riutin circulated in
party circles a 200-page anti-Stalin document demanding the abandonment of
forced collectivization, the reduction of investment in industry, and the
removal of Stalin, "the grave digger of the Revolution and of Russia," from
his post at the head of the party, Stalin failed in his efforts to have
Riutin shot. Indeed, the matter was referred by the secret police to higher
party authorities, and Stalin experienced the humiliation of being unable to
obtain a Politburo majority in favor of Riutin's execution. At the beginning
of 1933 he experienced another setback when he could not obtain from the
Politburo approval of the death penalty for A. P. Smirnov, a party member
since 1896, for having advocated ideas similar to those of Riutin among a
small number of old Bolshevik workers in Moscow. Both episodes illustrated
that there were limits beyond which many normally pro-Stalin police
officials and Politburo members still were not willing to go.
The years 1933-1934 were relatively quiet and peaceful one in a decade of
Soviet history generally characterized by brutal police terror and radical
social and economic change. For Stalin the most trying year of that decade
was certainly 1932, when the outcome of his desperate struggle with the
peasantry was still uncertain and when Nadezhda Allilueva, his second wife,
committed suicide after having dared to criticize him for the suffering
collectivization had caused countless Soviet peasants. However, senior-level
party leaders, including his former left-wing and right-wing opponents,
sided with Stalin and against the peasants, while hundreds of thousands of
less prominent Communists, especially Ukrainians and members of other
national minorities who had shown insufficient zeal during the
collectivization campaign, were expelled from the party during 1933 and the
first months of 1934.
As for the peasants themselves, their will to resist Collectivization was
broken after millions of them died during the terrible and man-made famine
of the winter 1932-1933. Having won this major battle, certain party leaders
decided that the extreme and often cruel methods employed during the period
of the First Five-Year Plan were no longer necessary. In the Politburo a
''liberal'' faction appears to have spoken out in favor of easing pressures
on the population and forgiving some of the sins of opposition leaders.
In mid-1933 Zinoviev and Kamenev were allowed to return from Siberia, where
they had been sent in 1932 in connection with the Riutin affair, and (as
they had already done on previous occasions) to confess their various
errors. At the Seventeenth Party Congress early in 1934, party members
forgot many of their previous differences and united in extravagant praise
of Stalin's leadership; but a majority of those present endorsed
Ordzhonikidze's proposal that the party should scale down the rate of
economic growth projected for the Second Five Year Plan. Such a reduction in
the rate of industrial growth was clearly contrary to the wishes of Stalin,
who, as early as 1931, had warned against the dangers of Russia's
"We are fifty to a hundred years behind the
advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either
we do it, or we will be crushed."
The brief period of relaxed tension and good feeling ended abruptly in
December 1934 with the murder of S. M. Kirov, the head of the Leningrad
party organization and a full member of the Politburo since 1930. Kirov, a
brilliant orator and an extremely popular figure in party circles,
reportedly had supported Politburo ''liberals'' in opposing Riutin's
execution and favoring a reduction of the tempo of industrialization. Stalin
may well have resented Kirov's popularity. The circumstances of Kirov's
death, as Khrushchev remarked in his secret speech of 1956, have never been
fully explained. It seems clear that the assassin, an emotionally unstable
individual and a party member since 1920, could never have reached Kirov's
normally carefully guarded office without assistance from someone within the
secret police. Stalin's personal responsibility for the murder of Kirov is
probable but not certain.
Stalin used Kirov's murder as a pretext to exorcise the spirit of
reconciliation and relaxation that had prevailed in party Circles during
1933 and 1934 and to create a new atmosphere of fear, tension, and terror.
Stalin's insistence in 1932 that Riutin, who had committed no crime other
than that of agitating against Stalin, should be shot was one indication
that he had been thinking along these lines for at least several years. In
July 1934 OGPU was abolished and its functions transferred to a new police
organization, the Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD), headed by Iagoda,
a loyal Stalinist and until then chief of the Main Administration of
Corrective Labor Camps. This reorganized and expanded Soviet police
apparatus went into action immediately after Kirov's assassination.
In December 1934 and in January 1935 tens of thousands of people were
arrested and deported to Siberia and the Arctic region. A number of people
were also executed, very few of whom had even the remotest connection with
the Kirov case. Included among those arrested were Zinoviev, Kamenev, and
sixteen other members of an alleged ''Moscow Center,'' whom a special
Military Collegium found guilty of ''moral'' responsibility for Kirov's
murder. Although the confessions obtained from the preliminary
interrogations and at the public show trial were not very convincing, the 18
defendant were found guilty and sentenced to terms of 5 to 10 years of
Between early 1935 and mid-1936 Stalin's agents carefully prepared for the
great ''Trotskiite-Zinoviev Terrorist Center'' trial of August 19-24, 1936.
One probable Politburo opponent of the execution of prominent old Bolsheviks
disappeared when Kuibyshev suddenly died under mysterious circumstance on
January 26, 1935; and the scruples of other reluctant Politburo members seem
to have been overcome through a combination of persuasion and thinly veiled
At the same time, Iagoda's NKVD apparatus worked indefatigably and
successfully to induce prominent old Bolsheviks to admit that they had
committed treason against and betrayed the cause of Marxist revolution in
Russia. One particularly effective threat used by NKVD after April 1935 was
the reminder that the death penalty could be legally applied to children
from ''traitors''' families down to the age of 12. Others, as Khrushchev put
it in 1956, were unable ''to bear barbaric tortures'' and ''charged
themselves (at the order of the investigative judge-falsifiers) with all
kinds of grave and unlikely Crimes.'' But all majority of the old Bolsheviks
arrested between 1935 and 1938 seemed to have had sufficient strength of
mind, body and character to withstand NKVD torture, threats, and
uninterrupted interrogations well enough to be rejected as unsuitable
material for display at the public show trials that were staged during this
Between 1936 and 1938 an estimated 850,000 members, or 36% of the total
membership, were purged from the party. The exact fate of these hundreds of
thousands of party members is not known, but it is certain that all large
proportion of them perished in Concentration camps. Well-known and veteran
Communists were particularly vulnerable to brutal treatment by the NKVD. Of
the 1956 delegates to the Seventeenth Party Congress (the so-called
''victors' Congress'') of 1934, a majority of 1108 were arrested on charges
of counterrevolutionary activities.
According to Khrushchev, 98 of the 139 members and candidate members of the
Central Committee elected by this same Congress were shot. Special efforts
were made by the NKVD and public prosecutors to discredit old Bolsheviks who
had stood close to Lenin at the three great show trials held between August
1936 and March 1938. In the first of these trials, that of the ''Trotskiite-Zinoviev
Terrorist Center,'' Kamenev, Zinoviev, and 14 others confessed either fully
or partially to having conspired with Trotskii to assassinate party leaders
and were found guilty and shot.
Between the first and the second trials NKVD chief Iagoda incurred Stalin's
displeasure by failing to display proper zeal and persistence in pressing
charges against the Chairmen of the Council of People's Commissars Rykov and
party theoretician Bukharin. In Sept. 1936 Iagoda was replaced by N. I.
Ezhov, whose first important victims consisted of a mixed group of economic
administrators and one-time supporters of Trotskii. They were accused of
having attempted to carry out a conspiracy organized by Trotskii and by
German and Japanese Fascists to ''wreck'' the Soviet economy and overthrow
the Soviet government.
Tried and found guilty as the ''Anti-Soviet Trotskiite Center'' in January
1937, 13 of the accused were shot and 4 received prison sentences varying
between 8 and 10 years. Most noteworthy among the accused was the assistant
to Heavy Industry Commissar Ordzhonikidze, G. L. Piatakov. Ordzhonikidze,
who attempted to save the life of this man whose organizational talents had
been an important factor in the development of Soviet heavy industry during
the thirties, either committed suicide or was murdered by the secret police
in February 1937.
During the period of more than a year that separated the second and third
major show trials, Stalin and Ezhov purged the army of its best officers and
the NKVD of Iagoda's closest associates. At the same time, they conducted
mass terror against the entire Soviet population, paying particular
attention to such groups as professional people, national minorities,
priests, the Komsomol, and the families of alleged ''enemies of the
It was only toward the latter part of 1938 that the number of those in
concentration camps reached its maximum of a probable 8 to 10 million. But
as early as the summer of 1937 the Soviet urban population lived in constant
fear of being denounced by malicious neighbors or empty-headed chatterboxes,
which usually led to arrest and deportation to the arctic region or Siberia.
Once in a concentration camp their chances for survival were not good. The
annual mortality rate in these camps seems to have been in the neighborhood
of 20 per cent during the years Ezhov headed the NKVD. Ex-NKVD chief Iagoda
himself was arrested in March 1937, and 3,000 of his most trusted former
NKVD assistants reportedly were executed in the course of that same year.
In May and June the arrest of Marshal Tukhachevskii, who more than anyone
else was responsible for the development of the Red Army into an effective
fighting force, and of other senior-level military officers followed that of
Iagoda. Charged with espionage and treason on the behalf of foreign powers.
Tukhachevskii and the other military ''conspirators'' were tried by all
special and secret court, found guilty, and shot. Tukhachevskii and his
immediate associates denied these charges; and the only ''real'' evidence to
establish their guilt was all falsified dossier that had been planted with
the NKVD by the German Gestapo.
Their execution marked the beginning of all general purge of the army that
was to eliminate 3 of the 5 marshals, 14 of the 16 army commanders, and
approximately half of the 70 to 80,000 men in the entire officer corps.
Needless to say, this purge necessarily had an extremely deleterious effect
on the effectiveness of the Red Army's military leadership.
The third great trial, that of the ''Anti-Soviet Bloc of Rightists and
Trotskiites,'' took place in March 1938 and involved party theoretician
Bukharin, ex-chairman of the Council of People's Commissars Rykov, former
NKVD chief Iagoda, and 18 others. On this occasion the accused were not only
charged with having carried out espionage for Germany and Japan and with
conspiracy against the leaders of the USSR but also with having planned in
the past the murder of Kirov, Lenin, Maxim Gorkii, and others. In regard to
Iagoda, it is of course possible that some of the charges may have contained
more than a grain of truth.
On the other hand, Rykov and Bukharin probably acted with all clear
conscience when they denied their complicity in murder plots and espionage;
but they admitted--apparently in an effort to protect their families or out
of loyalty to the party--their general responsibility for the various crimes
allegedly committed by the ''Anti-Soviet Bloc of Rightists and Trotskiites.''
At the trial all 21 of the accused delivered one form or another of all
confession for the prosecution and, on this basis alone, were found guilty.
Three of the defendants received sentences of 15 to 25 years; the others,
including Bukharin, Rykov, and Iagoda, were sentenced to death.
In the latter part of 1938 the Soviet leadership decided to lessen the
intensity of the purge in the army and party and to reduce the rate of
inflow of new prisoners into concentration camps. By that time the
uncontrolled expansion of the forced labor and settlement camps (which then
contained approximately 10 per cent of the total Soviet labor force
according to one estimate) and the decline of morale in the party and army
made the continuation of Ezhov's extreme methods seem undesirable.
In December 1938 Ezhov was replaced as NKVD head by L. P. Beria, all
Georgian party official and servile flatterer of Stalin; in February 1939
Ezhov disappeared from the scene and died or was shot at an undisclosed
later date. Under Beria the number of mass arrests declined, and many people
in prison or awaiting trial were released.
Terror was, however, by no means abandoned as an instrument of political
rule; indeed, four of the six executed members of Stalin's Politburo
perished between 1939 and 1941. Ezhov's former NKVD associates and
additional party and army figures were also purged during these years, and
many ordinary citizens continued to be arrested. But the number of
concentration camp inmates declined during 1939-1940; it again climbed after
1940 as millions of Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Germans, and
other non-Russians were deported to the Soviet Arctic region and Siberia.