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  • James Houser

June 11, 1937 - Stalin's Great Purge

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

June 11, 1937. In a dark room in Moscow, some of the most senior generals of the Red Army stand trial for conspiring against Stalin. The charges are all bunk, of course, but Stalin is in the middle of his Great Purge and nothing will stand in his way. More months of murder will result in over a million dead at the hands of Stalin’s cronies – and a fatally weakened Red Army on the verge of its greatest test.

Joseph Stalin vies only with Adolf Hitler for the title of the 20th Century’s most infamous dictator – though Mao Zedong should probably be mentioned in the same breath. Stalin’s influence on the Soviet Union, which he ruled virtually unchallenged from 1924 to his death in 1953, was dramatic and formative. He came to embody, as opposed to Hitler’s racial, passionate and personal form of tyranny, the bureaucratic, quiet, paranoid style of Communist autocracy.

Stalin secured power through terror and the manipulation of his possible enemies within the Communist party. After Lenin’s death in 1924, he schemed and manipulated a middle course between the various factions of the party, outmaneuvering and disposing of people as he saw fit. His prime opponent in the early years was Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s right-hand man and a hero of the Revolution. Trotsky made the smart choice and fled the Soviet Union in 1929, and Stalin would spend the next decade trying to get at him – though he settled for murdering most of Trotsky’s family and political allies. Trotsky, then, ended up being the prime source of Stalin’s paranoia. Stalin began seeing Trotskyite plots everywhere – especially in the Red Army.

Trotsky had been the founder of the Red Army, and had led it through most of the Russian Civil War. Trotsky’s politics were to the left of Stalin. Stalin favored the promotion of “socialism in one country” – the development of Communism with the Soviet Union while waiting to take advantage of socialist movements elsewhere. Trotsky was the disciple of “international communism,” the desire to expand leftist policies abroad by force if necessary. This implied a globalist, outward-looking policy, while Stalin would end up being both protective, nationalist, and regressive. “International communism” also implied a strong, aggressive military, which was why Stalin became so suspicious of the Red Army’s officer corps.

Of course, Stalin was suspicious of everyone, and prejudiced to boot. The global economic downturn of the 1930s ran head-on into Stalin’s attempts to finally transform the Soviet Union into the ideal of communal ownership. The policy of forced collectivization, by which the peasants of the Soviet Union would be removed from their ancestral lands and centralized under direct state control, turned out to be a total disaster since it provoked widespread resistance from the peasantry. This was especially true in the Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe.

Stalin, of course, saw this as evidence of a subversive plot and acted accordingly. The result was the 1932-1933 famine, known in Ukraine as the “Holodomor”, which was deliberately exacerbated by Stalin’s cronies as a way of “punishing” the Ukraine for its treason. The result was almost 3,000,000 dead and great social disorder across the Soviet Union, resulting in mass migration from the zones of hunger. This upheaval caused Stalin to descend into further suspicion, and he began to lay the groundwork for the preventive elimination of a “fifth column of wreckers, terrorists, and spies.”

The use of terror and execution had been a Soviet tool since the Revolution. Lenin had famously instituted the Red Terror in 1918, and this single action probably did more than any other historical event to discredit Communism in most of the West. Lenin’s terror, however, had always fallen on “enemies of the state”: nobles, bankers, nationalists, White leaders, and conservatives. Stalin’s terror would, instead, focus on the ranks of the Communist Party. His main targets were past and possible opposition groups – especially former allies of Trotsky, as well as his own former allies on the right wing of the Communist Party, who had now coalesced around Nikolai Bulganin. With Stalin assuming complete control, there was no room for dissenting versions of Communism within the Party.

The murder of Stalin’s ally Sergey Kirov in 1934 ended up being Stalin’s pretext to launch what became known as the Great Purge. There is some evidence that Stalin himself arranged Kirov’s assassination, since his popularity made him a potential rival. Kirov’s murder was penned on a “Trotskyite plot,” but Stalin’s obsession would not just target Trotsky’s old allies. They would encompass ethnic groups like the Poles, peasants deemed “too rich,” the intelligentsia, old Bolshevik veterans – and the Red Army. The purge of the Party ended up expanding to the purge of Soviet society, which would lose many of its brightest lights at the hands of Stalin’s NKVD.

The organ of Stalin’s repression would be the NKVD, the secret police of the Soviet Union. Its leader, Nikolai Yezhov, implemented the Purge all across the Soviet Union. On Yezhov’s instructions, based on Stalin’s orders, NKVD groups would storm apartment buildings or houses, snatch individuals of all ages and genders, and bundle them off to offices where they would be brutally tortured until a “confession” was obtained. From there the prominent ones would be put on trial; the vast bulk would be shot without ceremony and burned, or transported to the Gulags of Siberia.

Between 1936 and 1938, the public face of the purge were the large Moscow trials, where the vast bulk of former senior Communists would be confronted with their “crimes.” These trials were highly publicized and covered by the outside world. Many of the Revolution’s early leaders and Lenin’s old party comrades all confessed to the charges of assassinating Kirov and trying to assassinate Stalin, along with being part of the “Trotskyite-Kamenevite-Leftist-Counter-Revolutionary Bloc” and being in the pay of foreign powers to destroy the Soviet Union. All this was bull, of course, since everyone so “convicted” had been mercilessly beaten, waterboarded, drugged, deprived of sleep or threatened with the death of their families. Lev Kamenev’s teenage son was tortured in front of him. Even after these prominent Communists had been killed on the promise that their families would be spared, Stalin usually had their families killed anyway.

Of the six original members of Lenin’s original inner circle, four were executed in 1937-1938. Stalin himself still lived, and so did Trotsky, but Stalin’s agents would finally catch and kill Trotsky in Mexico in 1940. The Old Guard had died at the hands of their old comrade.

Then it came to the Red Army. The Red Army, of course, had won the Civil War, and in 1937 stood a fair chance of being the world’s most modern military. A great deal of this was due to Marshal of the Soviet Union Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who could be compared with Heinz Guderian or Adna Chaffee for his long-term impact on military theory and operations in the Soviet Union. (Marshal is roughly equivalent to a four-star general.) Tukhachevsky had led enormous cavalry forces in the Civil War that carried out sweeping operations deep into the rear of the Revolution’s enemies. Based on these experiences, and the work of men like Brusilov in the First World War, Tukhachevsky and other brilliant minds of the Red Army had pioneered a doctrine known as “deep battle.” This required large-scale mechanization of the military, with enormous tank armies and motorized forces that would punch deep into the enemy’s rear areas. Although it sounds like a Soviet version of Blitzkrieg, deep battle was significantly more modern than German theories and tailored to the Russian military situation.

Tukhachevsky and other high-ranking officers had, due to their presence at the founding of the Red Army, been closely linked with Trotsky, though all had denounced him when he fled. This would not save them. Stalin was also suspicious of the “deep battle” idea, since it implied offensive warfare – an implicit link to Trotsky’s ideas of “international communism.” There was no need, Stalin and his favorite generals thought, for large-scale offensive operations if the goal was “socialism in one country.” The theory’s similarities to German military thought made it even more suspect. In February and March 1937, Stalin’s Politburo made the decision that the Red Army was full of possible traitors and had to be purged.

Yezhov’s NKVD produced forged German documents, allegedly revealing Tukhachevsky and his officers’ secret correspondence with Nazi Germany. While historians once believed the Germans had provided the documents as part of a secret plot to get rid of the Soviet Army’s best leaders, the opening of the Soviet archives in 1990 revealed that Stalin himself ordered the forgery as a means of getting rid of famous, brilliant generals who might threaten his power.

On May 22, 1937, Tukhachevsky and seven other generals were arrested and charged with a “right-wing Trotskyist” military conspiracy and spying for the Nazis, based on confessions obtained from previously arrested and tortured officers. Stalin was afraid of the political consequences of a public trial for such well-known war heroes, and unlike the Moscow Trials, the Red Army courts-martial were kept secret. Almost all of the arrested generals were among the most modern and forward-thinking officers in the Red Army, and all of them were forced to confess after repeated torture.

On June 11, 1937, the seven generals were brought before a panel of their own, including the great war hero Marshal Vasily Blyukher. They rasped out their painfully extracted confessions before being taken outside and summarily shot.

This was only the beginning. The Great Purge spread. In 1938, Blyukher himself was put on trial in the same room where he had had denounced Tukhachevsky and killed. He was followed by another Marshal, Alexander Yegorov. In all, the vast majority of the Soviet Union’s senior officers would be executed in the Red Army Purge of 1937-1938, including three out of its five Marshals – Tukhachevsky, Blyukher and Yegorov. In addition to these leading lights, 13 out of 15 three-star generals, 50 out of 57 two-stars, and 154 out of 186 one-star generals would be Purged. Not all would be executed; many were merely thrown in the Gulags – though life expectancy there was not exactly high, either. One of World War II’s best generals, Konstantin K. Rokossovsky, was thrown in the Gulag primarily for his Polish heritage. He was unceremoniously yanked out in 1941 to take command of Red Army forces fighting for their lives against the Nazis, but had to wear dentures for the rest of his life – most of his teeth had been yanked out by the NKVD’s torturers.

The Red Army Purges pretty much beheaded what had once been one of the most innovative and skilled fighting forces in the world. The remaining generals were almost all Stalin’s cronies, such as Kliment Voroshilov, truly one of the most incompetent men to carry a general’s rank in modern history. They rejected modern military theories, preferring to build an army based on political theories and party loyalty. The armored divisions that had been Tukhachevsky’s babies were broken up, useless cavalry divisions reformed, and all of these units left in the hands of men who had never been trained to command them.

It should be remembered that the trials and executions of these high-ranking officials were only a drop in the pool of lives lost in the Great Purge. The wider purge consumed the entirety of society. Yezhov actually set provincial quotas for arrests and executions in the Soviet Union, just as in all other activities of the command economy. The NKVD organ in Kiev, Leningrad, Siberia or Armenia would go out and find people to meet the quota. The most common targets were the intelligentsia. Twenty-seven astronomers were killed for sunspot theories that were deemed insufficiently Marxist. Poets, pianists, authors, botanists, theatre directors, paleontologists, doctors and philosophers were rounded up and executed by local NKVD cells. The deadening bureaucracy of the Soviet Union saw these people as numbers, warm bodies to fill a quota.

But there was more. American immigrants, usually idealistic believers in socialism who had come to the Soviet Union to join the great experiment? Obviously foreign spies. Kill them. People of Polish origin? Spies for capitalist Poland. Dead. Asians? Spies for Japan. Kill them. Priests? Tools of the Papacy. Kill them. Jews? Capitalists. Kill them.

For the vast majority of the Purge’s victims, Stalin signed no order. He simply instituted the expectation of Terror. He created the situation where the unfeeling gears of Soviet bureaucracy ground the greatest minds of the magnificent socialist experiment to powder beneath its machinery. Possibly around 1.2 million people died in Stalin’s Great Purge.

Fittingly, one of the last victims of the purge was its enforcer. Nikolai Yezhov had gained an enormous amount of power and influence through his leadership of the NKVD. Stalin decided that he had served his purpose, but had seen too much and become too powerful to be allowed to live. By 1940, Stalin had divested Yezhov of his offices, and finally ordered him to be killed. The deed was done by Yezhov’s successor, a man who would make his former boss look positively kind by comparison – the Georgian NKVD head, Lavrenty Beria. According to one account, Beria personally choked Yezhov to death in a cell of the NKVD prison.

His power finally secure, Stalin wound down the Great Purge in 1939. With anyone who could possibly have the power and influence to overthrow him stamped out, there was nothing to fear. Certainly not from the German dictator – after all, they had just signed a Non-Aggression Pact. With Hitler occupied with the capitalists in the west, there would be no need for a competent Soviet military for a long time to come, right?

Stalin’s purges would be revealed to terrible effect two years later, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of the Soviet Union. It would take the handful of Tukhachevsky’s proteges that had survived the Purge, men like Georgy Zhukov and Konstantin Rokossovsky, to turn the situation around and reintroduce “deep battle” into the Soviet lexicon. But it would be a long, hard road to get there.

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