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The Purges of Joseph Stalin


Stalin (1879-1953)  has been referred to as a dictator, a tyrant, a monster, and one of the figures most prominent in the history of the former U.S.S.R. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a state that existed from 1922 to 1991.  He assumed power in the late 1920’s and led the USSR until his death.  In 1928 he was responsible for introducing the concept of collective farming and subsequently transformed the soviet union from a peasant society into an advanced industrialized super power.  Stalin’s rule was chiefly responsible for the deaths of millions of his own countrymen. 


In 1929 to 1930 he defeated the “right wing deviationists”, as well as leaders from the political left like Trotsky, who he later had assassinated in Mexico City. Stalin’s methods of consolidating his power were varied, but initially mainly resulted in the exile of his opponents.  He did not achieve total power over soviet society until after 1936, when he instituted the purges.  The Stalin purges began in December 1934, after a popular Leningrad politician ,Sergei Kirov, was assassinated.  Although no proof has yet surfaced to connect Stalin with the assassination, it is uniformly accepted by historians that Stalin was probably the architect of the plot, thereby ridding himself of an important opponent to his designs on the reigns of control of the communist party.  


Stalin’s ensuing propaganda identified the assassins as enemies of the people, as counterrevolutionaries who were attempting to destroy the soviet union.  As a consequence, Stalin led a witch hunt and purged hundreds of thousands of party officials and other individuals in positions of power throughout society.  One of Stalin’s allies during this period was Nikolai Yezhov who headed the NKVD, the soviet secret police.  Yezhov operated from 1936 until 1938, when he himself was a victim of the purge mentality, was called overzealous and forced to meet a firing squad.                                                                  


The rise of the purge was exhibited in the Moscow Trials which led many of its victims into exile or deported to Siberia, to slave away in dismal labor camps situated in the artic tundra.  Its victims were well known men in prior positions of power who were accused of being disloyal to the state. Most of those accused ‘confessed’ in open court and provided the state with an air of ‘fair trials and justifiable prosecution.’ However, we now know that confessions were exacted after great psychological pressure was applied to those accused inclusive of;  repeated beatings, torture, prisoners were forced to stand or go without sleep for days on end, and threats of violence to execute family members were used to force 'confessions'.  Many of those accused were called ‘terrorists.’                                 


After 1936, the purges followed a different scenario. These later purges were mainly conducted in secret, aimed at purging the military, industry, and cultural organizations of young and effective leaders.  During this time, the secret police also targeted the populace, seeking to quiet critics, if not through fear, then thereafter by imprisonment or by assassination.


Within the years from 1936-1938, millions of soviet citizens were executed, imprisoned or exiled.  This period known as the Great Terror, achieved a two pronged aim; to remove perceived threats and to create a cheap inmate workforce for the country’s industrialization drive.  The soviet leadership, headed by Stalin developed the idea of mass arrests, fed by a frenzy of fear that propagated the false idea that spies, subversives  and disloyal citizens were a grave threat to society.  At the same time in 1936, Stalin created the illusion of democratization through the approval of a new Soviet constitution which replaced that of 1924, it stipulated free and secret elections.  The constitution also stipulated that soviet society would be led by the communist party, in turn led by a central committee which Stalin headed.  The constitution although touted as a cornerstone of universal suffrage and democracy, could not be amended or altered without approval by the central committee.                                                   


Political purges and control of societies are achieved in several ways, rarely in an open manner where the victims are hardly if ever labeled dissidents or perceived as threats to those who hold the reigns of power.  The Stalin purge was one such historical example.                         


By the late 1980’s  Mikhail Gorbachev, who led the USSR into its ultimate dissolution, openly referred to Joseph Stalin as a criminal. During the Great Terror, those persecuted were labeled as ‘terrorists’, referred to as anti-soviet, and enemies of the people. Today we know they were innocent victims.                                                                   


A very important and often overlooked aspect of the ‘success’ of the purges, is the fact that although Stalin instituted them, and mandated the policy, it was carried out by thousands of NKVD agents.  Most followed those ‘policies to the letter’, others quietly resisted, some openly defied Stalin and as a consequence either disappeared or were executed.  One such officer, Yakov Vizel, then head of the NKVD’s Primorye branch, forbid his agents from arresting innocent people.  He was in turn, arrested within a month of that decision, and committed suicide rather than be executed.

Other nations have conducted their own variations of political purges, some less well known, than others.  One such nation is China.  We turn our attention to the Chinese variation of political control through a much more insipid and subtle form of control over society in an accompanying article published this month in our newsletter. Entitled  Dangerous Minds.’,  it relates events which have been documented occurring in  China, and which may have parallels to current events unfolding in the United States, we hope you read our article.


V.S. / Editor


Posted  November  12, 2004

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