10 Facts: Stalin’s Great Purge – Over A Million People Detained, More Than Half A Million Shot

Left: Joseph Stalin; Right; Memorial plaque with photos of victims of the Great Purge who were shot in the Butovo firing range near Moscow.

The Great Purge, also known as the Great Terror, was Stalin’s way of dealing with political opposition. Brutal and without mercy, he instigated the greatest political repression campaign in the history of the Soviet Union. The Great Purge officially lasted from 1936 to 1938, but its aftereffects included such actions as the mass murders of political prisoners by the Soviet secret political police, the NKVD, in 1941.

Since Stalin’s position in power was questioned by his former colleagues from the Party, most notably Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin, he decided to use the opportunity to get rid of the two dissidents, including all of the original Bolsheviks that participated in the Revolution of 1917.

Many others perished along the way. The purge came as a reaction to dissatisfied Communist Party members who saw Stalin as an undemocratic bureaucrat with an appetite for corruption, but it also served to cause fear among the population and break the will of anyone who posed a potential threat to Stalin’s leadership.

Josef Stalin in Moscow in 1920. Photo Credit

Stalin’s idea of wiping the slate clean after the revolution and a bloody civil war that followed led to death hundreds of thousands, for once the purge was initiated on a party level, there was no stopping it from spilling into the rest of the country. The paranoid power hungry dictator often used false accusations, forged documents, and extorted confessions in order to achieve ultimate rule. Most of the greatest minds of the Soviet Union perished in front of NKVD firing squads and under the inhumane conditions of working camps.

This is what you need to know about the infamous Great Purge.

10. The Numbers

An estimated death toll was hard to determine, for in those times people simply disappeared and the NKVD covered their tracks well. The official number stands 1,548,366 detained persons, of whom 681,692 were shot – an average of 1,000 executions a day. Various historians claim that the real number of victims could be twice as much.

9. The Targets

Stalin often used terms such as “saboteurs”, “subversives”, “fifth column”, “enemy of the people”, “reactionary” and “counter-revolutionary”. All these words were enough to land a person in jail or get them killed. The terms practically meant one thing: a wolf in sheep clothing. Stalin initiated this large-scale paranoia in which everyone represented a potential suspect (except him, of course). First, they came for the old Bolsheviks. Then it was time for the government officials and military officers.

Meanwhile, the NKVD had its eyes on the rich peasants, academics, artists, and scientists. The purge was also directed against national minorities, most often Poles who lived in USSR. Also, foreigners were often targeted, which included a number of Americans who came to the Soviet Union during the Great Depression to find work and many international communists.

8. The Moscow Trials

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=863080
Karl Radek’s action, Andrey Vyshinsky (center) reads the indictment, 1937

The Moscow Trials were a series of large-scale legal prosecutions that lasted throughout the Purge. The trials caught the attention of international press and the whole world stood amazed listening to former die-hard communists confessing that they were, in fact, traitors and spies.

It was more than obvious that the defendants were forced to confess under torture or threats to their family members. Three trials were held, and all three confirmed Stalin’s position as the one and only leader of the Soviet Union.

7. Bukharin

Nikolai Bukharin; By Unknown - Well known photo of Bukharin, published i.a. in Stephen Cohen "Bukharin" 1974, as in the international press . See: "Ilustrowany Kurier Codzienny", Kraków 1930, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3802559
Nikolai Bukharin; By Unknown – Well known photo of Bukharin, published i.a. in Stephen Cohen “Bukharin” 1974, as in the international press.

Nikolai Bukharin was an eminent Marxist theoretician before the Revolution and one of its architects. He represented the right wing of the Bolshevik Party as he advocated an alliance between revolutionaries and the rich peasants/land owners. Being one of the loudest opponents of Stalin, his fate was sealed during the third (and last) Moscow Trial in March 1938. Bukharin treated the trial as a mockery and easily outwitted his prosecutors.

Nevertheless, he was sentenced to death for he allegedly sought to assassinate Lenin and Stalin, murder Maxim Gorky by poison, partition the Soviet Union, and hand out its territories to Germany, Japan, and Great Britain. His wife, Anna Larina was sent to a labor camp but managed to survive the sentence.