Stalin Begins the Purge Trials

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin undertook a brutal campaign of terror against those he believed to be his political enemies in the Communist Party.

Summary of Event

The murder of Sergey Mironovich Kirov, the Communist Party Communist Party;Soviet Union leader in Leningrad and a member of the Soviet Politburo (policy-making committee), gave Joseph Stalin an excuse to begin a reign of terror similar to those carried out by earlier Russian leaders Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. Scholars have engaged in debate for some time concerning what motivated Stalin to embark on such a destructive course. Some have argued that he was disappointed by the failure of his First Five-Year Plan First Five-Year Plan (Soviet Union)[First Five Year Plan] (1928-1933) to achieve all the goals he had set, whereas others have suggested that his intent was to centralize power in his own hands at the expense of the Communist Party. More than a few have contended that the purging stands as proof of Stalin’s unstable and unbalanced state of mind. [kw]Stalin Begins the Purge Trials (Dec., 1934)
[kw]Purge Trials, Stalin Begins the (Dec., 1934)
[kw]Trials, Stalin Begins the Purge (Dec., 1934)
Great Purge
Purge trials (Soviet Union)
Communist Party;Soviet Union
[g]Russia;Dec., 1934: Stalin Begins the Purge Trials[08750]
[c]Atrocities and war crimes;Dec., 1934: Stalin Begins the Purge Trials[08750]
[c]Government and politics;Dec., 1934: Stalin Begins the Purge Trials[08750]
Stalin, Joseph
[p]Stalin, Joseph;Great Purge
Kirov, Sergey Mironovich
Trotsky, Leon
Yezhov, Nikolay Ivanovich
Kamenev, Lev Borisovich
Zinovyev, Grigory Yevseyevich

Although the Great Purge began in December, 1934, there were harbingers of what was to come during the period from 1927 (when Stalin consolidated his power) to 1934. On several occasions, the party, at Stalin’s urging, had removed hundreds of local Communist leaders from their posts. They were charged with falling under capitalist influence or not pushing hard enough to fulfill Stalin’s drive to collectivize the countryside. The areas most affected were Odessa, Kiev, and the Urals. These “preliminary purges,” widespread as they were, paled by comparison to what occurred after the murder of Kirov in December, 1934.

Kirov was shot by Leonid Nikolayev, a Communist Party member described by some at the time as disgruntled. Stalin immediately blamed the assassination on his principal political enemies, Leon Trotsky (in exile at the time), Lev Borisovich Kamenev, and Grigory Yevseyevich Zinovyev. It is now generally agreed by scholars that Stalin himself arranged the murder of Kirov, his friend and ally, to generate an excuse to eliminate his rivals.

On the day of Kirov’s murder, Stalin asked the party to issue a decree eliminating civil and legal rights for all persons accused of “terroristic acts.” This made it possible for the government to arrest, detain (for the purpose of gaining forced confessions), or execute anyone it wished. In January, 1935, Kamenev, Zinovyev, and two others were tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison for their alleged roles in the Kirov murder. The length of the sentences was irrelevant, as none of those arrested was ever released. This was the beginning of what became known as the “purification” of the Communist Party. Stalin began with Kamenev and Zinovyev because he perceived them as especially treacherous. They had once worked closely with him in the 1920’s but then had turned against him and given their loyalty to Trotsky. After the January convictions, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of party members came under suspicion. Many were shot, detained, or sent to distant regions of the Soviet Union. Although some in the Politburo were uneasy with this development, Stalin insisted that it was necessary to protect the country from those who wished to “wreck” his great drive for full communization.

The first victims when Stalin began purging the party were those considered to be “Old Bolsheviks,” party members who had been associated with Vladimir Ilich Lenin and Trotsky during the 1917 revolution and in the formative days of the Soviet state. Many had been supporters of Lenin’s moderate New Economic Policy begun in 1921. The greatest number of those purged in 1935 were individuals who, after Lenin’s death in 1924, had supported Trotsky’s claim to succeed Lenin as head of the party and the state. Between 1924 and 1927, Trotsky and Stalin competed for control. Stalin was ultimately successful, and Trotsky went into exile for the remainder of his life. Stalin continued to insist, however, that Trotsky’s followers (“Trotskyites”), guided by their leader from abroad, were working to remove him from power. Having been established as his enemies, they became convenient scapegoats to explain every failure that Stalin experienced. He could simply say that the Trotskyites had wrecked his plans.

In 1936, Stalin intensified the purging. Public trials (“show trials”) Show trials, Soviet Union were held in which those accused were expected to confess their misdeeds and to implicate others involved in plots against Stalin. Kamenev and Zinovyev, already in prison, were among sixteen Old Bolsheviks put on public trial in August, 1936. All were charged with conducting a terrorist campaign at Trotsky’s bidding, and all were sentenced to death. From that point, the purging began to mushroom. After a second round of show trials in January, 1937, there was no way to brake the terror that Stalin had instigated in 1935. No one except Stalin was insulated from the possibility of being charged as a Trotskyite.

For the first eighteen months after Stalin started the purges, the country at large remained relatively unaffected. That changed in 1937. Nikolay Ivanovich Yezhov, the new chief of the NKVD (secret police), understood that Stalin expected him to dispatch all of the Soviet leader’s political opponents as quickly as possible. With Yezhov in charge, the purging became much better organized. The NKVD NKVD;Great Purge began to arrest people by the thousands, usually in the predawn hours. Anyone accused of disloyalty to Stalin was presumed to be guilty of “wrecking.” Desperate to prove their loyalty to the regime, officials and ordinary citizens began to accuse others of treason. Neighbors denounced neighbors, fellow workers denounced one another, subordinates denounced their superiors, and relatives denounced relatives. In each instance, the person denounced to a local official was arrested and charged as an “enemy of the people.” Falling victim to the purge was largely a matter of chance for those outside the party, but those most frequently denounced were persons of foreign birth or members of minority groups, especially Ukrainians, Jews, and Armenians. All who were accused were expected to confess (the NKVD used torture when persuasion failed) and to implicate others.

There is evidence that Stalin was aware of the effect on the country of the expanded purge, but by the middle of 1937 even he was powerless to slow it down. The general hysteria in the country made the terror an unstoppable force. Citizens throughout the Soviet Union lived in fear of a late-night or early-morning knock on the door. The terror reached its peak in 1937 and early 1938; thereafter, the NKVD no longer had sufficient resources to respond to the huge number of accusations it received. Yezhov, architect of this worst phase of the purging, was himself charged with “Trotskyite” leanings in 1938 and purged. The coming of World War II in the late summer of 1939 finally brought the purging to an end, as internal enemies were replaced by external enemies and capitalist powers became temporary allies of the Soviet Union.


Stalin’s purging of political opponents created great problems for the Communist Party and, ultimately, for the country at large. Those officials and party leaders who were purged had to be replaced, and the replacements were frequently ill equipped to handle their new responsibilities. The dimensions of the purging serve to illustrate this point. More than one-half of the Communist Party’s Central Committee (78 of 139 members) were purged, and more than one-third of those who sat in the Politburo between 1927 and 1938 were expelled. The army and the government suffered staggering losses: Thirteen of the fifteen commanders of the Soviet Army were purged between 1935 and 1938, as were fourteen of the eighteen ministers of state. Thus, throughout the ordeal, the purgers were themselves always subject to being purged.

As the purging expanded beyond the confines of the party, the effect on the country became devastating. Business and industry came virtually to a standstill, as workers and supervisors were afraid to make an error, lest they be charged with “wrecking.” In the major cities—Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev—there was little activity, as residents tried to limit their associations. The Moscow telephone directory was not published in 1938 because most people wanted to keep their telephone numbers and street addresses secret. Artists, writers, and intellectuals dared not express themselves freely. All were expected to produce works that somehow glorified the Stalinist state and reflected negatively on what had existed before Stalin. Stalin wanted paintings of tanks and factories, not romantic sunsets or anything that might be considered bourgeois. Writers of history were to make it clear that Stalin’s regime represented the culmination of all that had gone before in Russia’s past.

The most important political consequence of the Great Purge was that Stalin obliterated all political debate and discussion. Members of the Politburo no longer raised questions during their meetings with Stalin. He had succeeded in creating one-person rule, or, as Nikita S. Khrushchev Khrushchev, Nikita S. called it, “the cult of personality.” Although World War II made Stalin a hero in the Soviet Union, the legacy of fear that he instigated was not seriously challenged until three years after his death, when Khrushchev, who had risen to prominence as Stalin’s ally during the purge, addressed the Communist Party Congress. In that February, 1956, speech, Khrushchev—before an astonished group of party leaders—condemned Stalin as a murderer and Stalinism as a misguided formula for a successful Communist state. Great Purge
Purge trials (Soviet Union)
Communist Party;Soviet Union

Further Reading

  • Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: A Reassessment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. An expanded and revised edition of Conquest’s pioneering 1968 work on the subject.
  • _______. The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1973. This is the most popular, most readable, and perhaps most thoroughly documented account of the Great Purge. Conquest, an English political writer, provides a comprehensive discussion of all aspects of the purge. His epilogue on the “Heritage of the Terror” is especially valuable. Scholars have questioned some of Conquest’s conclusions. Appendixes, bibliographical note, select bibliography, and index.
  • _______. Stalin and the Kirov Murder. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. This small book investigates Stalin’s probable responsibility in causing Kirov’s death.
  • _______. Stalin: Breaker of Nations. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. This psychological study emphasizes Stalin’s paranoia and his desire to achieve massive power.
  • Crowley, Joan Frances, and Dan Vaillancourt. Lenin to Gorbachev: Three Generations of Communists. Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1989. A very useful introduction to Communist leaders from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to Gorbachev. Crowley and Vaillancourt write in a style that is clear and without jargon. The section on Stalin is excellent. Suggestions for further reading and index.
  • Getty, J. Arch, and Oleg V. Naumov. The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. This detailed account of Stalin’s campaign is the first to utilize formerly secret Soviet documents. Includes appendixes.
  • Levytsky, Boris. The Stalinist Terror in the Thirties: Documentation from the Soviet Press. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1974. Includes more than two hundred biographies of purge victims, plus the later Soviet rehabilitation campaign of some of those unjustly accused and punished.
  • _______. The Uses of Terror: The Soviet Secret Police, 1917-1970. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1972. Broad survey of the topic includes a description and assessment of the purges of the 1930’s.
  • Potok, Chaim. The Gates of November: Chronicles of the Slepak Family. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Biography of a family who survived Stalin’s purge.
  • Radzinsky, Edvard. Stalin: The First In-Depth Biography Based on Explosive Documents from Russia’s Secret Archives. New York: Doubleday, 1996. Provides more details on specific cases and Stalin’s role during the purges, based on previously classified files.
  • Thurston, Robert W. Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia: 1934-1941. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996. A controversial account of Stalin’s purges, proposing an alternative interpretation of the terror campaign. Illustrated, includes maps.
  • Volkogonov, Dmitri. Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991. This substantial biography by a noted Russian historian provides a post-Communist perspective of Stalin.
  • Von Laue, Theodore. Why Lenin? Why Stalin? 2d ed. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1971. This may be the single best essay written about the formative years of the Communist Revolution. Von Laue’s grasp of Russian history and its application to early twentieth century events is impressive. Highly recommended for all readers. Suggestions for further reading and index.

Russian Communists Inaugurate the Red Terror

Lenin Establishes the Comintern

Shakhty Case Debuts Show Trials in Moscow

Stalin Introduces Central Planning

Great Famine Strikes the Soviet Union

Soviets Open the White Sea-Baltic Canal

United States Recognizes Russia’s Bolshevik Regime

Stalin Suppresses the Russian Orthodox Church

Koestler Examines the Dark Side of Communism