Stalin’s “Surgery”

29 August 2012, 16:49

The second half of the 1930s in the Soviet Union went down in history as a period of large-scale internal upheavals caused by the unfolding of state terror which was the climax of Stalin’s totalitarianism. This metamorphosis accompanied large-scale repression and permanent purges among the party, military and cultural elites. These two waves of persecution came at the same time but had different objectives.


Mass repressions of the period, according to Stalin’s design, were to complete the 20-year-long fight against “socially hostile elements” and a potential “fifth column” in the Soviet Union. Bolshevik leaders were unable to clearly identify the features of this “enemy”: they vacillated throughout the 1930s in line with tactical, political and economic considerations. The entire logic of red terror correlated with the USSR’s foreign policy. Stalin’s morbid imagination painted the Soviet Union in the 1930s as surrounded by international imperialism – in a kind of German-Poland-Japan triangle. These countries were allegedly active in forming a “fifth column” inside the USSR from among anti-communist groups with the intent of using them in the case of war.

Internally, the terror was an integral part of building the Soviet totalitarian regime, the so-called top-down revolution. Stalin’s “cadre pedagogy” was aimed at forming a new elite composed of young, politically and ideologically trained people who would be at the beck and call of the party and its leader. In this context, French historian Nicolas Werth is right in saying that repression against the Soviet party elite shaped the kind of social perception of terror the Kremlin leaders sought. Show trials in Moscow and hundreds of their counterparts in other cities and places were played out according to a strict script. Soviet officials were the victims, and this was meant to teach a lesson to their successors. By intensifying fear, this terror sent a clear signal to the Soviet bureaucracy and society: you need to reconsider your actions, behaviour and thinking under the Bolshevik dictatorship.


The NKVD regulations that provided the foundation for the “Great Terror” were clearly in line with the methodology laid down by Stalin. Operation instructions and directives in Soviet security bodies outlined social and national groups that were to be isolated or physically eliminated.

Despite general instructions, mass operations in the Ukrainian SSR were special in that they were ethnically oriented. Charges of “Ukrainian chauvinism”, “nationalistic deviations”, sympathy for the “national counterrevolution” became the universal labels Cheka officers attached to innocent people as they invented criminal cases. It was not accidental that in his speech at the “congress of winners” (the 27th Communist Party congress) in 1934, Stalin emphasised the need to step up the struggle against Ukrainian nationalism as the main threat to the republic.

The August 1936 trial of the United Trotsky-Zinoviev Terrorist Centre led to another wave of purges among the Ukrainian leadership. Several high-ranking party members were arrested in this case and charged with the intent to assassinate Stalin and two leaders of the Ukrainian SSR, Stanislav Kosior and Pavel Postyshev.

Later, Kosior and Postyshev themselves fell victim to the purges. On 13 January 1937, another blow was delivered against Ukraine’s party and government structures. Postyshev, one of the instigators of the 1932-33 Holodomor and Stalin’s former comrade-in-arms, was accused of “losing Bolshevik vigilance” and surrounding himself with “enemies”. He was fired from the position of the First Secretary of the Kyiv Region Party Committee. Postyshev was later arrested in Moscow and executed by shooting for allegedly participating in a right-wing Troskyist organisation in Ukraine, which supposedly also included other Ukrainian party and government bosses (Kosior, Vlas Chubar, Vsevolod Balytsky, Iona Yakir and Yevgeny Veger). Postyshev was replaced by Sergey Kudriavtsev. First Secretary of the Kharkiv Region Party Committee Mykola Demchenko yielded his office to Mykola Hykalo. On Stalin’s orders, the new appointees led the campaign of political accusations aimed against other Ukrainian leaders. On 3 and 4 July 1937, the plenum of the CC CP(B)U expelled three repressed members and two candidates from its Politburo.

The purges in the party and government nomenklatura were overwhelming: 100 out of the 102 members and candidates of the CC CP(B)U elected by the 13th congress in July 1937 were repressed. As of 24 January 1938, a mere 20 out of the 62 members and five out of the 40 candidates of the CC CP(B)U were unharmed.


The 2 July 1937 Soviet Politburo decision “On Anti-Soviet Elements” started the “Great Terror” in the form of large-scale operations in the USSR. It sanctioned repressions against “kulaks” who had returned from exile and criminal delinquents. The “kulak operation” was launched under NKVD operation order 00447 and was one of the biggest components of the “Great Terror”. It further “purged” Ukraine after collectivisation and the 1932-33 Holodomor had already decimated the population.

The links in the chain of terror were regional troikas. Following party orders, each troika was made up of the regional party boss, NKVD chief and prosecutor. All defendants were divided into two categories: “the most hostile elements” (to be arrested and shot) and “less active hostile elements” (to be exiled).

The key part in arrests and investigations was played by 45 interregional operational Cheka groups. Activists from the Soviet Communist Party and border troops, which had been put on alert, were also involved.

Party leaders sitting in the Kremlin did not forget about the families of those convicted. On 15 August 1937, NKVD operation order 00486 “On Operations to Repress Women and Children of the Traitors of the Fatherland” was issued. Under this order, these family members were to be arrested starting from 1 August 1936, i.e., almost a year before the “Great Terror”. The document was vivid proof of the efforts taken by Stalin and his circle in preparation for a future war though elimination of a potential threat coming from one component of the possible “fifth column”, i.e., families of the repressed.

The ethnic punitive actions were aimed at both carrying out “social surgery/sanitisation” of ethnic communities and “reducing” the internal threat to the USSR in the case of war. Members of national minorities who were born, studied or worked abroad, had once been members of “counterrevolutionary organisations”, or who were active in forming the national-cultural policy of the Bolsheviks during the “indigenisation” period in the 1920s were all to be arrested. The slightest criticism or discontent or any comparison drawn between the Bolsheviks' policy and the successful performance of any neighbouring country was sometimes enough to earn a person an arrest. Population lists, arranged by settlement, were also used to this end, and people were thus counted as “enemies” simply because of their foreign-sounding surnames.

At the same time, all kinds of “socialist competitions” were practiced in repressions. Among other things, higher quotas of the arrested were set. From the second half of 1937 until November 1938, mass repressions against various national minorities were carried out in Ukraine. The starting point for the ethnic component of the “Great Terror” was the 25 July 1937 order to persecute Germans suspected of espionage. Several weeks later, one of the biggest ethnic operations – against Poles – was launched. Under an NKVD order dated 11 August, members of the Polish Military Organisation, POWs of the Second Polish Commonwealth who found themselves on Soviet territory, defectors from Poland, political émigrés and former members of Polish parties were to be arrested. Separate operations targeted Romanians, Latvians, Chinese, Japanese, Afghans, Greeks, Iranians and so on.

In December 1937, an anti-Zionist campaign was launched. In the first half of 1938, 279 “members of the underground” were arrested, and “Bund committees” were eliminated in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Dnipropetrovsk, Vinnytsia and the Moldovan Autonomous SSR.

Mass operations came to an end with the directives of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Council of People's Commissars of the Soviet Union. The first, published on 15 November 1938, discontinued the practice of case reviews by troikas, while the next one, on 17 November 1938, banned “mass arrest and exile operations”.

The results of the “Great Terror” are hard to put in numbers. According to the Memorial society, in November 1936 through November 1938, at least 1.71 million people were arrested in cases opened by the NKVD, 1.44 million were convicted and 724,000 were shot. Additionally, “police troikas” convicted around 400,000 citizens as “socially harmful elements”. Moreover, 200,000 people were deported and no less than two million were convicted by courts under various articles of the criminal code, including 800,000 who were sent to the GULAG. In Ukraine, 198,918 people fell victim to Stalin’s terror in 1937-38, including 123,421 (62 per cent) who were shot. In analysing these horrible statistics, it should be kept in mind that every figure signifies not just one individual but an entire family.

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