The Great Terror

Robert Conquest, the leading authority on the Terror wrote
in The Great Terror that it was distinguished by its immense scale, its extraordinary
methods (confession > evidence,) and its secrecy (11).

"The Red Terror" from Biography series < >
contains interesting insights and commentary from Robert Conquest, Stephen Cohen,
and other Sovietologists--worth a look. Begin here < >

In the late 1920s, Sergei Kirov emerged as a rising star and possible successor to Stalin. Personable, popular, attractive, an effective orator, Kirov had impeccable Party, revolutionary, and Stalinist credentials: he sided with Lenin in 1903; he supported Stalin in 1922 in the succession crisis, again in 1926-7 against Zinoviev and Kamenev, and again in 1930 with the ouster of Bukharin. He replaced Zinoviev as head of the Leningrad Party, earned a seat on the Politburo, and ruthlessly directed the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal with convict labor (Gottfried 65). Born in 1886, Kirov represented a younger cohort than that of the Old Bolsheviks, and Stalin seemed to like him. With a base in Leningrad and Stalin's friendship, Kirov had the temerity to disagree with Stalin, even to argue with him. He appeared less thuggish than Kaganovich, Beria, Molotov, Yezhov, Zhdanov, Yagoda and the rest of Stalin's frightening entourage. For some, he might seem a likely candidate to succeed Stalin, though recent scholarship suggests that he did not have sufficient Party backing to do so.

Kirov was more charming and charismatic than his boss, which turned out to be, in the long run, a bad thing rather than a good thing. Although Kirov did not explicitly support Ryutin in 1932, he, along with Ordzhonikidze, opposed Stalin's demand for the death penalty over the issue of the Ryutin Platform. For the increasingly paranoid Stalin, "opposed" = treason. Kirov's assassination in December 1, 1934, probably stage-managed by Stalin, Yagoda, and complicit members of the OGPU/NKVD, marked the beginning of a reign of terror in Stalin's USSR.

image source < >

On the fateful December day, Kirov's guards were mysteriously absent from the Party offices at the Smolny Institute (image left.) Leonid Nikolyaev shot Kirov and then collapsed on top of him in a dead faint. Stalin, Molotov, Voroshilov, and Yagoda quickly boarded a train for Leningrad. Stalin took personal control of the investigation into the dastardly murder of his dear friend. One of his first responses was to issue a Terror Decree: arrests, investigations, and executions began with confessions (!) replacing evidence. The purge began in the Party itself.

image source < >
Go to 6:40 for staged murder of Kirov
Onset of the Great Terror < >
Begin here < >

The 1992 movie, Stalin, provides of version of the murder and its outcome
< >
Begin here < >

Stalin as mourner-in-chief at Kirov's funeral; to Stalin's left is Voroshilov and behind Voroshilov is Molotov.

image source Koenker < >
Kirov's funeral/newsreel < >
Ordzhonikidze delivered the eulogy and Bukharin spoke as well
After Kirov's assassination in December, 1934, Stalin put on a magnificent funeral starring himself--Stalin. Within days, streets, towns, and a class of battleships were named after Kirov. Simultaneously, Stalin and the inner circle that felt threatened by Kirov, began a round up of real and suspected enemies. Nikolayev, the guards, the original investigators into the murder were either all shot or died in questionable accidents. By the end of the month (December, 1934,) hundreds had been shot, thousands arrested.

image source/Koenker < >

Stalin used the occasion of Kirov's murder and funeral to make a public display of affection and support for his murdered comrade; an elaborate ceremony, with Stalin as one of the pallbearers, was quickly followed by a witch hunt for perpetrators that made Ivan IV's Oprichnina (or Robespierre's Reign of Terror) pale by comparison. Stalin went on to rename the ballet company of the Maryinsky Theatre after Kirov (hence, the Kirov Ballet.) Later investigations and revelations implicated Stalin himself in the death of his so-called favorite and heir-apparent. Khrushchev, at the XX Party Congress in 1956 implicated Stalin and reiterated the accusations at the XXII Congress in 1959.

image source
For more on Kirov, visit < >

Unlike the Night of the Long Knives, when Hitler eliminated his perceived
enemies (Ernst Roehm and the Brown Shirts/storm troopers) in one
fell swoop without recourse to niceties such as arrests or trials,
the Great Terror proceeded over a five year period, wreaking a swath
of destruction on the Party, the NKVD, the military, and reaching
down into the masses.
There were four major trials, three public, one secret.

In 1935, Kamenev and Zinoviev were arrested, interrogated by Yagoda, and convicted on a series of charges, punishable by death according to the Terror Decrees. Stalin wanted to use their "confessions" for propaganda purposes and staged the Trial of the Sixteen in the summer of 1936, when Prosecutor Vyshinsky demanded that they be shot like "mad dogs." Evidence suggests that Kamenev and Zinoviev confessed based on explicit threats to their families and promises that their loved ones would be spared. Both were shot in August, 1936; their families were not spared. Their credentials as Old Bolsheviks and sometime ideological allies of Trotsky did not help their cause.

image source/Kamenev/left < >
image source/Zinoviev/right < >
their execution, as portrayed in the 1992 movie, Stalin, < >
The Moscow Show Trials < >--gone/forbidden?

In January, 1937, it was the turn of the "Trotskyite Center," which brought to the dock Old Bolsheviks such as Radek and sixteen others. Vyshinsky again presided and let Radek off when he implicated Bukharin and Civil War hero General Tukachevsky ("Moscow Trials"). Radek escaped execution and was sentenced to ten years in a penal camp; rumor has it that he was murdered there on orders from Beria.

image source < >

Later that year, General Mikhail Tukhachevsky (and eight other generals) was tried by a secret military tribunal. The charges against him were fantastic! Defense attorneys were forbidden, as was appeal ("Mikhail Tukhachevsky") in the proceedings. A purge of the army followed that left the Soviets vulnerable and unprepared for the growing threat from Hitler. Tukhachevsky's brothers, wife, children were either shot or sent to the Gulag. He was rehabilitated during Khrushchev's "thaw" ("Mikhail Tukhachevsky").

image source < >
newsreel footage of Tukhachevsky < >
< >
Begin here < >
View above to see how Stalin got rid of Tukhachevsky, the great hero of the Civil War
and creator of the Soviet air force.

The death toll on the military was staggering: 3 out of 5 Soviet marshals;
110 out of 195 division commanders;
220 out of 406 brigade commanders;
75 out of 80 members of the Supreme Military Council;
90% of the generals;
75% of the colonels;
8 admirals (
Ascher 191, Gottfried 71)

"...Stalin had wiped out the most experienced commanders in the USSR
military" (
Gottfried 71). Thousands of other officers were "repressed."
The purge of the military occurred simultaneously with Hitler's re-armament
campaign and Japan's invasion of China ("double seven" incident, 1937).

You already know the fate of Ordzhonikidze. Friendship dating to before the Revolution could not guarantee survival. "Sergo" Ordzhonikidze, a fellow Georgian, a loyal Stalinist whose ties to Stalin (then Djugashvili) dated back to 1907, allegedly committed suicide on Stalin's orders in 1937. Popular with the rank and file and known to stand up to Stalin at the time of the Ryutin Plantform in 1932, Sergo was doomed.

For more on Sergo < >
Death of Sergo Ordzhonikidze < >

The most famous of the "show" trials took place in 1938, "The Trial of the Twenty-One." All of the accused confessed to a fantastic array of charges of spying, plotting, attempted murder, "wrecking," sabotage, etc., etc. It featured Bukharin, Tomsky, Rykov, and, oh yes, Yagoda, replaced by the terrifying Yezhov in 1936, himself to be replaced by Beria in 1938. You will remember Bukharin as the popular architect of NEP. He was well-liked and a great favorite of Nadezhda and Svetlana (Stalin's wife and daughter.) Lenin's "Testament" described Bukharin as not tough enough and a flawed theoretician. He was rehabilitated in the 1990s.

image source < >
For a list of the "Twenty-One," < >
For an interesting, Marxist, spin on the show trials, < >
Bukharin's speech < >
text from Bukharin's trial < >
70th anniversary of the great show trials < >
For a fascinating, eye-witness account of the Trial of the Twenty-One, see
Fitzroy Maclean's Eastern Approaches. I have, if you want to borrow.

Bukharin trial < > (no)
Begin here < >
clip from 1992 movie Stalin of execution of Bukharin <>

The Trial of the Twenty-One effectively completed the purge of the Party and the NKVD.
"The number of people in high positions in the civilian sphere who were charged with
crimes against the state is...astonishing: 1,100 out of 1966 delegates to the
1934 XVIII Congress of Victors were shot" (
Ascher 191).
A British cartoonist offered his observation on the travesty of the Show Trials.

image source < >


Before the Terror, Stalin had removed the major threat to his power: Lev Davidovitch Trotsky (né Bronstein) had already been expelled from the Politburo and the Party by 1927, from the nation shortly thereafter, to die at the hands of a Stalinist assassin in his Mexican exile in 1940, a kind of post-script to the Terror. By the end of the Terror almost all of the Old Bolsheviks had either been "repressed," to repeat the euphemism. Ascher writes that at the time of Stalin's death in 1953, more than 5,000,000 Soviet citizens were in "various camps, colonies, and 'special settlements'" (191). Conquest estimated twice that figure.

image source/left < >
image source/right <,28804,1964842_1964844_1964796,00.html >
The Assassination of Trotsky (starring Richard Burton) < >
ice pick < >

Those who survived the first, second, third waves of arrests, trials, imprisonments, exiles, and executions lived in fear of the night-time knock on the door. The secret police favored two o'clock a.m. Survivors of this era describe the terror that engulfed an entire apartment building when they heard the elevator creak into motion in the wee hours of the morning. The March, 1919, Politburo included Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Krestinski, Bukharin; of these, only Lenin and Stalin died of natural causes. The same was true of less well known Old Bolsheviks such as Tomsky and Rykov. Ryutin, of course, would not survive and had to be punished for his Platform's criticism of Stalin in 1932.
It is difficult to determine with statistical exactitude the numbers "repressed" during the Great Terror. Recent scholarship, especially since the opening of Soviet archives, is re-estimating and re-calibrating the number of the "repressed." One estimate suggests:
Peasant dead: 1930-1937 11,000,000
Arrested (1930-1937)--died in camp later 3,500,000
TOTAL 14,500,000

To Put it another way:

Dead as a result of "dekulakization" 6,500,000
Dead in Kazakh 1,000,000
Dead in the 1932-1933 Famine 7,000,000
--In Ukraine--an additional 5,000,000  
--in North Caucasus--an additional 1,000,000  
--elsewhere--1,000,000 TOTAL: 14,500,000 site has flown away--alas

Another source suggests:

Arrests, 1937-1938 7,000,000
Executed, 1937-1938 1,000,000
Died in Camps, 1937-1938 2,000,000
In prison, late 1938 1,000,000
In camp, late 1938 8,000,000

(Jones 6) For more,

The tentacles of the Terror penetrated into every facet and aspect of Soviet life: intellectual luminaries such
as Osip Mandelstahm, Isaac Babel, the dramatist Meyerhold faced arrest, imprisonment, sentences
in the Gulag, and in some instances death. For some reason, Boris Pasternak, who showed
considerable courage in speaking up for Mandelstahm and Shoshtakovitch, escaped the net/noose
of the Purge. As well, Stalin attacked the Orthodox establishment. Follow link fo
archival black-and-white footage of the destruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior

< >

The graphic (right) shows the demolition of the Cathedal of Christ the Savior, 1931, during the First Five Year Plan, de-kulakization, and the anti-religion campaign. Kaganovich carried out Stalin's instructions enthusiatically! In 1991, the Russian Orthodox Church received permission to rebuild the cathedral.

image source < >


In March, 1939, at the XVIII Party Congress Stalin blamed the "excesses" of the preceding years on subordinates and promised an end to mass killings. The Terror had purged the Party, the military, the police apparatus of all but the most servile apparatchiks. Stalin called a halt to the "wild slaughter" (Wesson 157) and turned his attention to his external enemies. The catalyst may have been the Munich Conference in the fall of 1938, when Britain and France handed the Sudetenland over to Hitler. Stalin, if not Chamberlain and Daladier, knew that Poland was next.

The cast of characters above = Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini.
Fearing that President Benes might be willing to fight to keep the Czech territory,
and that Stalin would support him militarily, neither was invited to the conference.

image source < >




Ascher, Abraham. Russia: A Short History. Oxford: Oneworld, 2011.

Classic Russian Idylls, edited by Proctor Jones. San Francisco: Proctor Jones Publishing Co., 1985.

Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties. New York: The Macmillan Co./Collier Books, 1968.

Conquest, Robert. Stalin and the Kirov Murder. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Gottfried, Ted. The Stalinist Empire. Brookfield: Twenty-First Century Books, 2002.

Koenker, Professor Diane. "History 328: The Soviet Union Since 1917." Department of History, University of Illinois.
Online available. < >

Riasanovsky, Nicholas and Mark Steinberg. A History of Russia, 7th ed. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Roberts, Michelle. "State Terror: Stalin 1930-1938." Online available.
< >

Wesson, Robert. Lenin's Legacy: The Story of the CPSU. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1978.

Wikipedia contributors. "Moscow Trials." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.
Online available. < >

Wikipedia contributors. "Trial of the Twenty-One." Wikipedia, the Free Encycloipedia. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.
Online available. < >


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