The goal of these mass arrests and executions was to wipe out domestic enemies on the eve of the anticipated war with Germany. The operations conducted in 1937-1938, which later became known as the Great Terror, had three clear dimensions.
The so-called "personnel revolution," or political crackdown, is the best known. It started in the fall of 1936 with the infamous Moscow Trials, in which industrial ministers, party functionaries, military leaders, writers and scientists were convicted of trumped-up charges of anti-Soviet activities. These trials shaped the world's initial idea of who the victims of the terror were.
The second key dimension of the terror was linked with what is often called "the kulak operation" because it was directed against the kulaks, or rich peasants. In its Order #00447 of July 30, 1937, approved by the Bolshevik (Communist) Party Central Committee on July 31, the NKVD (Soviet secret police) defined the groups to be targeted and described them in detailed lists. A new category - criminal offenders (bandits, robbers, thieves, smugglers and swindlers) - was added to the traditional list of hostile elements (ex-kulaks, members of anti-Soviet parties, rebels, fascists, spies and the clergy).
In this way, the political leaders criminalized protests and other manifestations of social discontent, while at the same time politicizing routine crimes, regarding them as opposition to Soviet law and order. The NKVD specified the punishment (death for the former and eight to 10 years in prison or a concentration camp for the latter), and established quotas for the number of people to be imprisoned and executed in each region, territory and republic. All in all, 767,397 people were sentenced under this monstrous order, of whom, according to the latest estimates, 386,798 were shot.
The third and least studied dimension of the terror deals with the elimination of "counter-revolutionary national contingents" between February and November 1938. Initially, these purges were eclipsed by the main operation against the kulaks. But the purge of Germans (NKVD Order #00439) was launched simultaneously in late July 1937 (NKVD Order #00439); the liquidation of "Polish subversives and spies" followed in August (Order #00485); and in September the NKVD launched an operation against the so-called "Harbin expatriates" - mostly Russians who had worked on the Chinese Military Railroad and returned home only to be blacklisted as "Japanese spies" (Order #00593).
The biggest "ethnic" operation was the deportation of the entire Korean population from the Far East to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
These four actions were spearheaded against the Soviet Union's main foes: Germany, Poland and Japan. The NKVD and the Central Committee associated the purges with stepped-up efforts to counter enemy intelligence operations, above all in border areas and at defense installations; the "enemy" was also suspected of provoking insurgencies.
In 1938, the purges spread en masse to the Afghans, Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Greeks, Iranians, Chinese, Romanians, and finally Bulgarians and Macedonians residing on Soviet territory. A total of 335,513 people were convicted under NKVD "ethnic" orders; an estimated 244,925 of them - 73% - were sentenced to death.
The Great Terror's main operation (Order #00447) also had an ethnic dimension. This is often the subject of informed discussions, but it is also sometimes exploited for political purposes. Historians often quote Ukrainian People's Commissar of the Interior Alexader Uspensky as saying that all Ukrainian Poles and Germans were engaged in spying and subversion and that 75%-80% of Ukrainians were "bourgeois nationalists."
People's Commissar Lavrenty Beria was fighting against "counter-revolutionary nationalists" in Georgia, while NKVD officer Vladimir Mikhailov was doing the same in Tatarstan. In Turkmenistan, the authorities were worried about the activities of the armed nationalist forces (former Basmachi, or counter-revolutionary robbers in Central Asia, and emigre religious leaders who were ostensibly trying to establish a "Turkic-Tatar state"). The republican communist parties showered the Kremlin with requests to raise death quotas for ethnic and other operations.
However, now the purges of nationalists are often blamed not on Stalin and his government, but on the Jews or Russians in the regime. The Nazis were the first to make such an allegation when, after losing the battle of Stalingrad, they emphasized the ethnic side of the terror in order to mobilize armed detachments of ethnic minorities. Later on, various emigre circles began to play the terror's ethnic card. These efforts began to wear away at the essence of the Great Terror, that horrific tragedy of the 20th century. Today, the victims of the purges are exploited in political battles and election campaigns. Sooner or later, the public will realize the futility of this dangerous gambling with the past and will return to an honest discussion in order to prevent such a calamity from ever happening again.
Tens of thousands of Soviet citizens willingly denounced their colleagues, neighbors and even families, whereas some NKVD members sacrificed themselves and blocked these reports to save total strangers. In neither case did their conduct have anything to do with ethnic identity. But we must treat this question with candor if we are to guarantee that the terror will remain a thing of the past.
Gennady Bordyugov is a research project manager with the Association of Researchers of Russian Society and a member of the RIA Novosti expert council.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.