Soviet purges were Joseph Stalin's systematic elimination of dissenters and potential opponents when he was general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) during the 1930s.
Stalin and the Politburo sought to ensure the adherence of the members of the Communist Party to the orders of the Central Committee by eliminating divergent ideologies within the party, creating a monolithic Communist ideology.
The Communist Party had regularly used repression against perceived enemies to increase a state of fear in order to establish a pretext for increased social control, yet it had not used this strategy on itself on a massive scale while it was the established governmental authority in the country. The purges resulted in Stalin's complete subjugation of the Communist Party and the Soviet regime, monolithic unity, and loss of intellectualism, leadership, and millions of lives.
After the Russian Revolution, which overthrew the monarchy, the Bolsheviks, or Communists, eventually seized control of the country during a brutal civil war and established the Soviet Union. Vladimir Lenin emerged as the leader of the new regime and began the suppression of non-Bolshevik socialist parties.
Following the elimination of rival political parties, Lenin expelled and purged opponents of his own party, using terror as state policy to establish a totalitarian state. He introduced a decree on party unity to thwart future deviations in every possible manner and forbade members to enter factions advocating policies different from those of the established leadership.
The Party Central Control Commission was established to maintain political discipline. Lenin did not favor the parliamentary system and created the Orgburo to allocate forces and the Politburo to decide policy to bypass the larger and less manageable Central Committee.
In 1917 Stalin was elected to the Central Committee, retaining the position for the rest of his life. Stalin worked to establish the myth that he and his Party Center directed the October Revolution, which resulted in the Communists' rise to power. In 1922 Stalin became general secretary, a position whose influence he increasingly expanded.
Lenin's death in 1924 created a power vacuum for control of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union. Stalin continued Lenin's methods of consolidating power. As general secretary, he kept in touch with Communist officials throughout the country.
Stalin removed threats to his power base from within the party. He formed a moderate coalition with Grigori E. Zinoviev (1883–1936) and Lev B. Kamenev (1883–1936), both prominent Communists, to govern the party and maneuvered against Leon Trotsky, his major rival and the leader of the left-wing Communists.
Stalin favored establishing communism in the Soviet Union first, rather than the theory of permanent revolution favored by both Lenin and Trotsky. Trotsky was soon expelled from the Communist Party and was exiled in 1929.
Stalin then established an alliance with the right-wing members of the Communist Party, led by Nikolai Bukharin (1888–1938), against Kamenev and Zinoviev, who unsuccessfully attempted to counter Stalin.
Those opposed to Stalin favored Leningrad party chief Sergei Kirov (1886–1934), one of Stalin's close associates and advocate of a moderate policy toward the peasantry. Kirov's assassination in 1934 initiated a purge of the local Leningrad party and mass deportations to hard labor camps, known as gulags, in Siberia.
Zinoviev and Kamenev, former allies of Stalin, were arrested and executed for their alleged participation in Kirov's murder. The further announcement of the discovery of an alleged plot by the exiled Trotsky to overthrow the Stalinist regime initiated a series of purges in the Soviet Union that reached their peak during 1936–38.
Stalin destroyed the upper echelon of the original committed Communists, replacing them with loyal appointees. Stalin had an effective secret police force, known as the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). Through intense surveillance provided by a network of informers, the NKVD claimed to uncover numerous anti-Soviet conspiracies.
All allegedly dissident persons were accused of crimes, usually fabricated, and were forced to sign confessions that led to sentences of death or to long terms of hard labor. Many of the arrests and sentences were carried out in secret, although some of those charged with crimes received public "show trials," which were trials meant to provide an illusion of justice but in fact had predetermined outcomes.
In 1937, the Politburo issued an order allowing physical coercion, which was used to justify torture and extrajudicial executions by the NKVD. Although the NKVD chief was Genrikh Yagoda (1891–1938) when the purges began, Nikolai Yezhov (1895–1940), nicknamed the "Bloody Dwarf," was chief of the NKVD during the height of the purges; consequently, this period is sometimes called the Yezhovshchina, or Yezhov Era. Toward the end of the purges, Yezhov, arrested on charges of espionage and treason, was executed and soon replaced by Lavrenty Beria (1899–1953), who became a longtime associate of Stalin.
During the height of the purges, three trials of former senior Communist Party leaders were held; they were accused of participating in conspiracies to assassinate Stalin and other Soviet leaders and of attempting to dismantle the Soviet regime. The first trial in 1936 involved 16 defendants, chief among them Zinoviev and Kamenev. All of the accused were convicted and executed.
Zinoviev and Kamenev granted confessions under the condition that their lives and the lives of their family members would be spared. Although Stalin relayed assurances to both men that the conditions would be granted, not only were Zinoviev and Kamenev executed, but most of their family members were arrested and executed as well.
The second trial, held in 1937, involved 17 defendants, including Karl Radek (1885–1939) and Grigori Sokolnikov (1888– 1939); 13 of the defendants were executed, and four received sentences of hard labor.
The third trial, in 1938, included 21 defendants, including Bukharin, former head of the Communist International, former prime minister Alexei Rykov (1881–1938), Christian Rakovsky (1873–1941), Nikolai Krestinsky (1883– 1938), and Yagoda. Bukharin agreed to confess under the condition that his wife would be spared; after his execution, she was sentenced to hard labor.
The purges conducted of the military resulted in the execution or incarceration of more than half of all officers. A group of military generals, including Mikhail N. Tukhachevsky (1893–1937), were tried in secret in 1937. The military was left weak, leaving the Soviet Union vulnerable to attack, as demonstrated in the German invasion during World War II (1939–45).
The purges spread to the general population, and the NKVD charged countless commoners with alleged crimes. Amid the Great Terror, Stalin introduced a new Soviet constitution in 1936. Promoted as an instrument of democracy, the constitution stipulated free, secret elections based on universal suffrage. It also guaranteed all citizens a range of civil and economic rights. However, other provisions within the constitution nullified these new rights.
Purges in the non-Russian republics were particularly brutal. The NKVD carried out a series of national operations during 1937–40, targeting specific minority groups and members accused of attempting to destabilize the country. NKVD local officials were assigned quotas for arrests and executions.
In 1938, legislation was passed to halt NKVD operations of systematic repression and executions. However, such actions did not completely end Stalin's use of mass arrest and exile, for he sporadically continued such practices until his death in 1953. Trotsky, the last of Stalin's enemies, was murdered with an ice pick in Mexico in 1940, presumably by the NKVD.
By 1939, all power rested with Stalin and his inner circle. Millions of people had died in the purges. Several hundred thousand had been executed, and millions had been exiled, tortured, and sent to hard labor camps, where they died from starvation, disease, and overwork.
Stalin's exact reasoning for initiating the purges is unclear. Although the purges succeeded in consolidating Stalin's control over the Communist Party and the Soviet regime, they severely weakened the country's military, cultural and intellectual accomplishments, and leadership ability.
Party congresses met with increasing infrequency, and state power increased. A cult of personality developed around Stalin. During his lifetime, the adoration and reverence among the common people toward Stalin eclipsed that shown toward Lenin.