Russia’s “Reign of Terror”: The Great Purges of 1936-38

Boris Efimov: Der Faterland (1938) Efimov was the leading satirist of purge victims. Here he lampoons Trotsky, Rykov, Bukharin, Radek and Chernov.


The great purges of 1936 through 1938 mark one of the darkest times in Soviet history.  What originated as simple rumors of counter-revolutionary factions in government turned into a society-wide purge of whoever was labelled as a dissident.  Reminiscent of the “reign of terror” during the French Revolution, this period was one of mistrust, greed, and unprecedented violence.

The beginning of the purges are marked with the 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov, a party boss from Lenningrad.  The blame for the assassination was then placed on a “Trotskyite-Zinovievite terrorist center” (Siegelbaum).  Whether or not any such group or plot existed, the fear of counter-revolution and government subversion that spread through the state was all too real.  Lev Kamenev, Grigorii Zinoviev (both opposition leaders in the government), and fourteen others were convicted of organizing the Kirov assassination.  Stalin, who was displeased with previous efforts to root out subversion, appointed Nikolai Ezhov as the head of the NKVD, the Soviet police, in 1936 (Siegelbaum).  Ezhov was ruthless in his search for political subversion.  He widened the scope of the purge to include almost anybody who spoke out against the stalinist regime.  In 1937 most of the Red Army general staff either disappeared or were executed, which hampered the army’s goal of modernization (Freeze 365).

The purges did not end there however, as Lewis Siegelbaum says, “the same fate befell provincial party secretaries, party and state personnel among the national minorities, industrial managers, and other officials.”  The general public then became involved, which created a veritable witch hunt throughout Soviet society.  The most liable to be turned in were remnants of the old guard, such as military officers, and those who were seen as taking advantage of others, such as the party elite and high-ranking economic officials (Freeze 369).  Siegelbaum goes on to say, “The process fed upon itself, as the accused under severe physical and psychological pressure from their interrogators, named names and confessed to outlandish crimes. Millions of others became involved in the frenzied search for ‘enemies of the people’.”  These “enemies” were for those who were better-off than most, one of the biggest examples being the former Kulaks.  By the end of the purges in 1938, over one million political-prisoners were interned in labor camps and nearly as many were documented to have been executed (Freeze 368-369).

To this day there remains little consensus as to the true motives of the purges.  The common story is that Stalin himself initiated the purges by orchestrating the Kirov assassination in order to rid himself of a political rival and the opposition leaders at the same time.  Others claim that the evidence shows that Stalin had no involvement in the assassination, and that the impetus for the purges came not from the government at the top, but rather the proletarian bottom .  Others still, point to Stalin being threatened by a burgeoning bureaucracy, made up of old-guard bureaucrats and party eiltes, that was quickly gaining power (Freeze 366-367).

The fall of the Soviet Union has led to new insight into the soviet past, however the topic of the great purges remains in question.  As Freeze writes, “[the purges] seem to have been so arbitrary in victimization, so elusive in motivation as to defy explanation.  Access to long-closed archives of the NKVD, while clarifying some issues, has not yet yielded a satisfactory explanation… even what hitherto were assumed to be incontrovertible, basic facts are now in question” (Freeze 364).  What is undeniable, however is that following the great purges Stalin was undoubtedly the supreme leader (or dictator) of the Soviet Union.  With the persecution of opposition leaders, party elites, and anti-communist members of society, Stalin assumed near-total control over the government and gained much adoration and support from the proletariat.


Works Cited

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Siegelbaum, Lewis. Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. n.d. (accessed October 11, 2014). NKVD. n.d. (accessed October 11, 2014).