The Great Purges lasted from 1934 until 1938 during which time millions of Russians were sent to labour camps or shot. Few of these had actually committed any crime but ordinary people believed that they had. From 1936 onwards Stalin cleaned out the Communist Party of all people who might oppose his rule. Through these arrests he removed many top Communists, including Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin. These men were put on “show trials” which were broadcast to the world by radio where they confessed to absurd crimes.
They did this for the good of the Party (feeling it was better to sacrifice themselves than let their beloved Communist Party fall into disrepute) out of concern for their families’ safety and from fear of torture. These trials were a facade of legality to attempt to show the world that Stalin’s motives for killing these people were legitimate. Stalin ended the show trials when the Nazi threat increased but this does not render him any less culpable for what took place.
Not all Party members were put on show trials; thousands were just expelled from the Party and then arrested, tortured until they confessed to crimes and then sent to labour camps or shot instantly. The Purges were triggered by the murder of Sergei Kirov. Kirov was a leading Communist who favoured a deceleration in the implementation of collectivisation and the Five Year Plans as he thought the human cost of these policies was too high. Many other Communists shared these views, especially the old Bolsheviks still left in the Party.
At the seventeenth Party Congress Kirov put forward his views and suggested that rather than pursuing the current policies, the way forward would be to improve relations with the peasants. Kirov got far more applause than Stalin, who was losing popularity, and within the Party people talked of removing Stalin and replacing him with the more humanitarian Kirov. Soon after the Congress Kirov was shot in Leningrad, almost certainly on Stalin’s orders, creating fear within the Party. This allowed Stalin to commence his cleansing of the Party.
The murder of Kirov was not actually a cause of the Purges, merely a trigger that allowed Stalin to commence his mass murder. Stalin’s personality was so brutal that the Purges would probably have come about even if Kirov’s murder had not taken place. The main factor at the root of the Purges was Stalin’s violent personality and disregard for the importance of human life. To him, it was not an issue how many innocent victims were killed along with the genuinely guilty (who numbered very few) as long as those who might oppose his dictatorship in any way were removed.
Stalin would tolerate no rivals and was ruthless in removing anyone who seemed to have any ambition. People didn’t know who was guilty and so they didn’t know how to stay innocent; this encouraged people to stay out of any limelight whatsoever. The removal of the so-called “guilty”, often in the middle of night, was done so secretly that people tended to believe that they actually were guilty and carried on tolerating Stalin’s cold-blooded purging until they themselves were purged. The Purges created a great number of workers in slave labour camps.
These workers were worked incredibly hard and around twelve of the estimated twenty million sent to camps died. These camps were mostly in Siberia (the frozen north of Russia) although there were camps all over Russia. The slave labourers worked to build towns and industries in an area that was virtually empty before. In this way the Purges helped in the industrialisation of Russia. Purging large numbers of the population also complemented other areas of control; the terror created by these arrests deterred people from revolting against Stalin.
The control of information under Stalin and the censorship of the press meant that people were often unaware of the scale of Stalin’s operation. The cult of Stalin was promoted everywhere and was blindly followed by thousands of Russians. Those who hero-worshipped Stalin refused to believe that he was doing wrong in getting rid of his enemies. It is unlikely that Stalin would have been allowed to pursue his purging policy without the cooperation of the Russian people.
There were fanatics who supported every move of his and others who used purging to their advantage. Russians reported on their neighbours and associates to settle old grudges and to gain promotion. Those informing on their superiors often were appointed into their jobs and this allowed Stalin to develop a cult of devoted employees around him. Others tolerated the Purges out of support for communism; they saw the NEP as a retreat from communism and agreed with the principal of collectivisation and the Five Year Plans, seeing them as the way to move Russia forward.
Stalin’s brutal, vicious character was the main reason why the Purges took place and definitely the crucial factor. The purging of such large numbers complemented the strict system of control in Russia and at the same time provided millions of slave-labourers. The trigger to the dreadful events was Kirov’s murder but they would not have been on such a large scale if the Russian people themselves had not joined in with them.