Extraordinary even by the standards of the Stalinist regime, the Great Terror was not a routine wave of mass arrests, such as those that swept across the country throughout Stalin's reign, but a calculated policy of mass murder. No longer satisfied with imprisoning his real or imagined 'political enemies', Stalin now ordered the police to take people out of the prisons and labour camps and murder them. In the two years of 1937 and 1938, according to incomplete statistics, a staggering total of at least 681,692 people, and probably far more, were shot for 'crimes against the state' (91 per cent of all death sentences for political crimes between 1921 and 1940, if NKVD figures are to be believed). The population of the Gulag labour camps and colonies grew in these same years from 1,196,369 to 1,881,570 people (a figure which excludes at least 140,000 deaths within the camps themselves and an unknown number of deaths during transport to the camps). Other periods of Soviet history had also seen mass arrests of 'enemies', but never had so many of the victims been killed. More than half the people arrested during the Great Terror were later shot, compared to less than 10 per cent of arrests in 1930, the second highest peak of executions in the Stalin period, when 20,201 death sentences were carried out. During the 'anti-kulak operation' of 1929-32, the number of arrests was also very high (586,904), but of these victims only 6 per cent (35,689 people) were subsequently shot.
The origins of the Great Terror are not easy to explain. Nor is it immediately clear why it was so concentrated in these two years. To begin to understand it, we must look at the Great Terror not as an uncontrolled or accidental happening, a product of the chaos of the Stalinist regime that could have erupted at almost any time – a view occasionally put forward – but as an operation masterminded and controlled by Stalin in response to the specific circumstances he perceived in 1937....
The key to understanding the Great Terror as a whole lies perhaps in Stalin's fear of an approaching war and his perception of an international threat to the Soviet Union. The military aggression of Hitler's Germany, signalled by its occupation of the Rhineland in 1936, and the occupation of Manchuria by the Japanese, convinced Stalin that the USSR was endangered by the Axis powers on two fronts. Stalin's fears were reinforced in November 1936, when Berlin and Tokyo united in a pact (later joined by Fascist Italy) against the Comintern. Despite his continuing support of 'collective security', Stalin did not place much hope in the Soviet alliance with the Western powers to contain the Axis threat: the Western states had failed to intervene in Spain; they appeared committed to the appeasement of Nazi Germany; and they reportedly gave Stalin the impression that it was their hidden aim to divert Hitler's forces to the East and engage them in a war with the USSR rather than confront them in the West. By 1937, Stalin was convinced that the Soviet Union was on the brink of war with the Fascist states in Europe and with Japan in the East. The Soviet press typically portrayed the country as threatened on all sides and undermined by Fascist infiltrators – ‘spies’ and ‘hidden enemies’ – in every corner of society.
'Our enemies from the capitalist circles are tireless. They infiltrate everywhere,' Stalin told the writer Romain Rolland in 1935. Stalin's view of politics – like many Bolsheviks' – had been profoundly shaped by the lessons of the First World War, when the tsarist regime was brought down by social revolution in the rear. He feared a similar reaction against the Soviet regime in the event of war with Nazi Germany. The Spanish Civil War reinforced his fears on this account. Stalin took a close interest in the Spanish conflict, seeing it (as did most of his advisers) as a 'valid scenario for a future European war' between Communism and Fascism. Stalin put the military defeats of the Republicans in 1936 down to the factional infighting between the Spanish Communists, the Trotskyists, the Anarchists and other left-wing groups. It led him to conclude that in the Soviet Union political repression was urgently required to crush not just a 'fifth column' of 'Fascist spies and enemies' but all potential opposition before the outbreak of a war with the Fascists.
20 March 2008
On the Origins of Stalin's Great Terror
From The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin's Russia, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2007), pp. 234-236: