Great Purge

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Communist Party

Joseph Stalin (1879—1953) Soviet statesman, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR 1922–53

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USSR)After coming to power in 1924 against Lenin's wishes, Stalin confirmed his position as leader of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union by using terror against his opponents, through exile, imprisonment, and execution. While his position had thus become relatively secure in the late 1920s, the hardships of the first five-year plan increased opposition to Stalin, both within the party and within the country at large. At the 1934 party conference many began to turn their attention towards Kirov as an alternative, more moderate leader. Shortly afterwards, Kirov was murdered, presumably on the orders of Stalin himself. Stalin used this incident to round up many of his opponents, while placing many of his supporters in key positions: Khrushchev became Moscow party secretary, Vyshinsky was made chief prosecutor, and Yezhov became head of the NKVD. With the reorganization of the forced labour system through the formation of GULAG (Main Administration of Corrective Labour Camps) in place from 1930, everything was ready for the Great Purge itself (or ‘Yezhovshchina’ after Yezhov) to begin in summer 1936.

Brutality climaxed as Stalin put his authority beyond question. On the surface, it was marked by televised, ‘educational’ show trials of senior Communists such as Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Bukharin, all of whom were forced under torture to confess invented charges, sentenced, and executed. In this way, almost 70 per cent of the Communist Party Central Committee and 50 per cent of the Party Congress were executed or died in labour camps; 35,000 Red Army officers were tried, among them 80 per cent of its colonels, 90 per cent of its generals, and all of its deputy commissioners of war. The total number of dead is unclear, but lies probably in the middle of the range of estimates between one and ten million people. With the party, military, economy, and society completely exhausted, it ended in late 1938, though Stalin's terror continued in other forms until his death.

Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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