(PURGES and HYSTERIA in the SOVIET UNION – continued)

home | 1901-WW2 Index


previous | next

Hysteria, More Purges, and German Tricks

On September 10, 1936, it was announced that the charges against Bukharin and Rykov had been dropped due to lack of evidence. Neither had been willing to make the confessions demanded of them. On September 26 the head of the NKVD, Genrikh Yagoda, was replaced by someone who would take a tougher approach to the fight against counter-revolution. This was Nikolai Yezhov, a Bolshevik from before the revolution, a former industrial worker, a former Secretary of the Central Committee, and someone who enjoyed a reputation as an agreeable and conscientious man. People in the Soviet Union would call the Great Terror "The Time of Yezhov" (Yezhovshchina). Yezhov began his new reign by rooting out NKVD commissars that he saw as not fit to serve under him. In 1937, it is estimated, around 3,000 of them were shot.

In January 1937, more Bolsheviks stood trial. They confessed and were executed for participating with anti-Soviet "Trotskyites" and for having spied for Germany and Japan. Trotsky, it was said, had met Rudolf Hess and had agreed to a plan to sabotage Soviet industry and a plan to frustrate the Soviet Union's military. Trotsky had moved to Mexico that month, having been booted out of Norway for violating his agreement not to make political statements. And Trotsky was to continue his attempt to expose the fraudulent nature of the accusations against him. Publicly he offered to submit to a trial if the Soviet government published actual details supporting the accusations.

Unwittingly, it was actually the Soviet regime that was in complicity with the fascists doing damage to the Soviet Union's defense establishment. Hitler's regime was happy to help the Soviet Union damage itself. The chief of staff of the Soviet army was Tukhachevsky, an able man. Stalin had reason to fear him, for it was the army that had the power to overthrow Stalin and his entire regime. Some people were to claim that such a plot against Stalin was actually being hatched by high-ranking military people, although no conclusive evidence of this exists. What is known conclusively is that in early 1937 the Germans forged a letter that Tukhachevsky was supposed to have sent to friends in Germany telling of plans to overthrow Stalin's regime. These documents were well planted by the Germans. The documents were found and passed on to Stalin. The Soviet government put Tukhachevsky and other top army men on trial in June, and they were quickly executed. Then purges began among others in the Army officer corps and in the Navy. Including Tukhachevsky and those executed with him, before it was over the Soviet Union had lost 3 army marshals, 14 of the Soviet Union's 16 army commanders, 65 of 67 corps commanders, 136 of 199 division commanders, 221 of 397 brigade commanders, and all eight of the Soviet Union's admirals. In all, about 35,000 military officers had been shot or imprisoned.

The purging spread to the masses. It was worse than the anti-German hysteria during World War I in the U.S. It was more like the Cultural Revolution that was to take place in China in the 1960s. A society that is intense in its struggle for change has a flip side to its idealism: intolerance. People saw enemies everywhere, enemies who wanted to destroy the revolution and diminish the results of their hard work and accomplishments, enemies who wanted to restore capitalism for selfish reasons against the collective interests of the nation. If those at the top of the Communist Party and an old revolutionary like Trotsky could join the enemy, what about lesser people. In factories and offices, mass meetings were held in which people were urged to be vigilant against sabotage.

It was up to common folks to make the distinction between incompetence and intentional wrecking, and any mishap might be blamed on wrecking. Denunciations became common. Neighbors denounced neighbors. Denunciations were a good way of striking against people one did not like, including one's parents, a way of eliminating people blocking one's promotion, and denunciations were a means of proving one's patriotism. Many realized that some innocent people were being victimized, and the saying went around that "when you chop wood the chips fly." As with Lenin, it was believed some who were innocent would have to be victimized if all the guilty were to be apprehended.

Yezhov established denunciation quotas. Labor camps were in need of more people for their enterprises, as they were losing people through expirations of prison terms, and from death. Some in the camps whose terms expired were given second terms without interrogation or hearings. Re-supplying labor for the camps was an unruly business in 1937 and 1938. NKVD prison cells were stuffed with new candidates, and NKVD interrogators were swamped.

The last show trial opened to a packed house on March 2, 1938. Bukharin and Rykov were two of the defendants. The former head of the NKVD, Yagoda, was included among the defendants – getting a taste, it would be said, of his own medicine. Two Uzbek Communists were also included, charged with Bourgeois nationalism, reflecting a clamp down on nationalistic tendencies. Twenty-one Bolsheviks in all were tried, accused of belonging to a rightist Trotskyite bloc. They were accused of having killed Gorky (who would have opposed the trials and had conveniently died in 1936). They were accused of attempting to kill Lenin in 1918 and of trying to give away the Ukraine, Byelorussia, the Far East, Central Asia and Turkestan during the early days of the revolution. To historians today, the charges appear ridiculous. But people then in the Soviet Union accepted the charges as valid.

Again those standing trial confessed. Bukharin confessed to having been one of the leaders of the "rightist Trotskyite bloc." Their goal, he said, was in essence to restore capitalism in the USSR, although some of the Trotskyites might not have been aware of the consequences of their positions. Bukharin denied direct participation in any espionage or in the murder of Kirov and others, including Gorky, and he denied charges that he had tried to give away the Ukraine and other territories. Bukharin went to his death believing the Cheka under Dzerzhinsky had been heroic in its ruthless fight against counter-revolutionary terror but that it had degenerated into an organization of well-paid bureaucrats living off the reputation of the Cheka.

The year ended with Yezhov's demotion, marking the end of his campaign against Trotskyite subversion. Then Yezhov was himself arrested. In conversations that were recorded when Molotov was in his seventies, Molotov described Yezhov as having exceeded his authority and as having been overzealous. In these conversations, Molotov denounced Yezhov for having set quotas – no fewer than two thousand "liquidated in such and such region," he said, and "no fewer than fifty in such and such district." Yezhov, claimed Molotov, was shot when he was "unmasked."  And, when asked whether the politburo had placed too much trust in security agencies, Molotov said "No. There were deficiencies." The main problem he said was that "oversight was inadequate." note45

Yezhov recognized that he was on the way out as head of the NKVD. He would be replaced in November 1938 by Stalin's old friend and fellow Georgian, Lavrenti Beria – the man Stalin's dead wife had disliked and had not wanted in her house. Yezhov spent his last days in office drunk and slovenly. Beria was to claim that "NKVD fascists" had been responsible for excesses, and, striking against those guilty of these excesses, Beria arrested and executed nearly all senior NKVD officers and sent many NKVD officers to labor camps, where they were to join some of those they had interrogated or tortured. Yezhov was to be executed in 1940.

It was a general rule, claim some historians, for Stalin to eliminate those who knew too much. Molotov was to describe it differently. Late in his life, Molotov believed that Stalin would be rehabilitated. He denied that Stalin was behind Kirov's murder, and he blamed others for what he called excesses. He claimed that Stalin knew little about the purges – although Stalin had signed death warrants sometimes numbering more than a thousand per day, in the presence of Molotov.


Copyright © 2010-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.