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Great Purge
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Great Purge

The Great Purge was a period of mass repression in the Soviet Union in the late 1930s, during which the Communist Party leadership under Joseph Stalin used execution and mass imprisonment to eliminate existing and potential political opposition among its members.


The term purge in Soviet political slang was an abbreviation of the expression purge of the Party ranks, the Party being, of course, the Communist Party. In itself, the term was innocent enough, until the time came when being expelled from the Party was a short notice for possible imprisonment or even execution.

After the Great Purge, described below, the term "purge" gradually ceased to be a synonym of death warrant, especially after Stalin's death, but the consequences still remained unpleasant. For a party functionary it meant being delisted from the nomenklatura, and the loss of numerous perks. Rank-and-file members were left with no chance of future advancement. A wife's threat to complain to her husband's Party Committee was therefore a serious weapon in family quarrels.

Great Purge

Anyone perceived as a potential threat to the regime's authority—including some of its strongest political supporters, and most senior army officers—were systematically identified and either executed, incarcerated in the Gulag prison system, or sent into forced labour or internal exile in Siberia and other remote regions.

Many of those accused and imprisoned during this time were accused of "wrecking" (economic sabotage), of affliation with Trotskyism and acting as agents of foreign subversion. Many local party leaders were denounced and accused of abuses of power.

The most intense period of the Purge was from 1936 to 1938, while Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov was head of the ministry of internal affairs (NKVD).

In Moscow, several show trials were held, to convince domestic and foreign opinion of the existence of a vast anti-Soviet conspiracy and to serve as examples for the trials that local courts were expected to carry out elsewhere in the country.

Almost all of the Bolsheviks who had played prominent roles during the 1917 Russian Revolution, or in Lenin's Soviet government afterwards, were executed or exiled during this period. Leon Trotsky went into exile in Mexico, but was murdered by a Soviet agent in 1940. Of the senior revolutionary Bolsheviks, only Molotov and Stalin himself survived the Great Purges unscathed.

There were four key show trials from 1936 to 1938, known as Moscow Trials: the Trial of the Sixteen (August 1936); the Trial of the Seventeen (January 1937); the trial of Red Army generals, including Marshal Tukhachevsky (June 1937); and finally the Trial of the Twenty One in March 1938.

These trials, however, were only a minor part of the purges, and one of their purposes was to divert the world's attention from what was going on in the rest of the country. Nearly a million people were executed in the period from 1936 to 1939, and millions more were arrested and sent off to prison or labour camps, where many of them died.

Estimates on the total death toll vary greatly; some historians have argued that the death toll of the Purges reached as high as 20 million.

By the summer of 1938, everyone in power realized that the purges had gone too far, and Yezhov was relieved from his head of NKVD post (remaining People's Commissar of Water Transport) and eventually purged. Lavrenty Beria succeeded him as head of the NKVD. This signaled the end of the Great Purge, although the practice of mass arrest and exile was continued until Stalin's death in 1953.

Among those victimized by the Great Purge were large numbers of experienced Red Army officers and even high-ranking generals. This left the armed forces incompetent and leaderless, and left the country vulnerable to invasion, and may actually have encouraged Hitler and Nazi Germany to launch Operation Barbarossa after they learned of its weakness.

Robert Conquest in his book The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties exposed to Western readers the scale, inner works and the psychology of the events of these times, dubbed by him The Great Terror.

One of Russia's leading human rights groups, the Memorial human rights group, released a list of 1,345,796 names of people who fell victim to Stalin's purges.

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