July 30, 1937 – The Great Purge is Ordered by Stalin

On this day in history, Stalin imposed quotas for arrests for each region in the USSR. NKVD Order 00447 entitled “About repression of former kulaks, criminals, and other anti-Soviet elements” was signed by Nikolai Yezhov (known as “Stalin’s loyal executioner”) and approved by Politburo during the Great Purge.

Kliment Voroshilov (Soviet military officer), Vyacheslav Molotov (Soviet politician and diplomat), Joseph Stalin and Nikolai Yezhov

While the document outlined which groups would be subjected to “punitive measures,” how they would be carried out, and provided execution and arrest quotas for every oblast and autonomous republic, it did not indicate who would fill the ranks of these quotas. The regions could submit further lists. This decision was left up to local authorities. As M. T. Anderson writes in Symphony For the City of the Dead:

He didn’t provide names of people to be arrested: he provided numbers. According to this schedule, a total of 259,450 people had to be arrested and sentenced to slave labor in the camps; 72,950 had to be shot. It did not matter who they were; all that mattered was that each region fulfilled its quota.”

The document split those subject to “punitive measures” into two categories. The document reads:

1 “To the first category belong all the most active of the above mentioned elements [kulaks, former Whites, criminals, Mensheviks and other anti-soviet parties, fascists, religious sectarians, etc]. They are subject to immediate arrest and, after consideration of their case by the troikas, to be shot.

2 To the second category belong all the remaining less active but nonetheless hostile elements. They are subject to arrest and to confinement in concentration camps for a term ranging from 8 to 10 years, while the most vicious and socially dangerous among them are subject to confinement for similar terms in prisons as determined by the troikas.”

Quotas for the first category totaled 50,950 and ranged from 100 (in Komi ASSR and Kalmuk ASSR, for example) to 5000 (in Western Siberia, Moscow oblast, and Azov-Black Sea). Estimates for the second category, to total 167,200, ranged from 300 (again in Komi and Kalmuk) to 30,000 (Moscow).

NKVD document issued sentencing blind “Ukrainian pensioner bandurist” Ivan Kucherenko to execution by shooting.

As Paul R. Gregory explains in Terror by Quota: State Security from Lenin to Stalin (2009), given that no crime had been committed, traditional criminal courts were ill-equipped to handle the type and quantity of prosecutions required by large-scale operations.  The solution to this problem was the troika.  These three person tribunals were composed of a member of the party, a member of the local bureaucracy, and a member of NKVD, or state security.  In practice, these “trials” were held without testimony or even the presence of the accused.  Troikas and the use of confessions made it possible to issue as many as 1,500 death sentences per day without any noticeable increase in the number of state security agents.

According to figures released by the Russian Government in 1995, troikas handed down 688,000 sentences or 87% of all criminal sentences in the USSR in 1937 and 75% in 1938. A total of 681,692 people were sentenced to be shot in 1937-38, with 92.6% of those sentences handed down by troikas.

Obviously anyone could be designated as a “hostile” element, including local rivals of the troika members. It was later determined that most of the victims of this blind terror were “regular” people, most without any political connections at all.

Simon Sebag Montefiore observed in his history Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar:

Once this massacre had started, Stalin almost disappeared from public view, appearing only to greet children and delegations. The rumour spread that he did not know what Yezhov was doing. . . .The writer Ilya Ehrenburg met Pasternak in the street: ‘He waved his arms around as he stood between the snowdrifts: ‘If only someone would tell Stalin about it.’ ” The theatrical director Meyerhold told Ehrenburg, ‘They conceal it from Stalin.’”

(As Montefiore points out, while Stalin was open about the need to “finish off” “enemies” of the Party, and while he was the mastermind, he was far from alone: “Indeed, it is neither accurate nor helpful to blame the Terror on one man because systematic murder started soon after Lenin took power in 1917 and never stopped until Stalin’s death.”)

The families of people selected to fill the quotas needed to be “taken care of” as well. As Molotov, a leading figure in the Soviet government noted, “They had to be isolated, otherwise they’d have spread all kinds of complaints.” [In an interesting side-note, Molotov was unable to prevent the December 1948 arrest of his own wife Polina for “treason” (she was Jewish) although Molotov was reportedly heart-broken over it. Polina was kept one year in Lubyanka, the notorious KGB prison, and then exiled for three years to a far-off city. She was freed only after the death of Stalin.]

Vyacheslav Molotov (left) with Joseph Stalin (right)

On July 5, 1937, even prior to enacting the quota system, the Politburo ordered the NKVD to “confine all wives of condemned traitors . . . in camps for 5–8 years” and to take under State protection children under fifteen: 18,000 wives and 25,000 children were taken away. On August 15, Yezhov decreed that children between one and three were to be confined in orphanages but “socially dangerous children between three and fifteen” could be imprisoned “depending on the degree of danger.” Almost a million of these children were raised in orphanages and often did not see their mothers for twenty years.

You can read more about these secret orders, discovered in the Soviet archives of the NKVD in 1992, here.

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