I. The Great Terror - historical background
The Bolshevik Party, as a result of the armed coup of November 1917 and the civil war that broke out in January 1918 imposed a dictatorial rule over the whole country against the opposition of all social and political groups in Russia. At the time of taking power, it was an organization of professional, disciplined revolutionaries with between 5,000 and 10,000 members so-called old bolsheviks among which the party’s greatest prestige was enjoyed by members of the party from the period of its underground activity, before the February Revolution (March 1917). Pre-revolutionary underground activity was a stuff of legends in the Bolshevik Party and the source of its cadres until the mid-1930s.
II. Taking over the Party and the State
In the common belief after the death of Lenin, Stalin became the undisputed ruler of the USSR. However, it is not true, at least not entirely. In fact, between years 1929-1934 the country and party was run by an oligarchy with Stalin as it’s leader yes, but still not as an unquestioned dictator. Most members of this oligarchy were old Bolsheviks who supported him in the factional struggles of the 1920s against successive rivals to power in the Political Bureau - constituting - until the mid-1930s, the actual center of power in the Bolshevik Party and consequently in the USSR. Partly they did it for opportunist reasons - willingness to participate in power and its privileges - partly for substantive reasons - considering Stalin a pragmatic, moderate leader, and fast industrialization beyond economic calculation and collectivization - as a desirable direction for the modernization of the USSR - transforming it into an industrialized, state inhabited by workers whom they considered at least officially as a progressive, ruling class.
Several members of this oligarchy like Valerian Kuibyshev, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Jūnis Rudzutaks, Stanisław Kosior and most importantly Sergey Kirov possessed an independent political position and their own groups of supporters in the Central Committee and in the local party organizations they led, or in the government apparatus. In no case were they Stalin’s puppets and they were ready to accept his leadership only within certain limits. The so-called. Riutin’s case of 1932 is the best proof of this situation.
In June 1932, during the famine, the old Bolshevik, former Bukharin supporter, Martemian Riutin and a group of lower activists, wrote an appeal to all party members and began disseminating it.
In the document, they wrote about the destruction of villages, the fall of genuine planning, the rule of lawlessness and terror in the party and the country held by “wicked, cunning people without rules ready to change their minds ten times, careerists, sycophants, and lackeys”. They stated that Bukharin, Rykov, and Tomski were right in economic matters and Trotsky in his criticism of the regime in the party. The conclusion of the proclamation was: “Stalin and his clique will not want to and can not voluntarily give up their positions, so they must be removed by force and should be done as soon as possible”.
Stalin recognized the proclamation as calling to murder him and demanded the execution of Riutin. On September 23, 1932, Riutin was expelled from the party and arrested (OGPU, or later the NKVD had no formal right to arrest party members without the consent of their party organization) Stalin seemed to hope that the OGPU would kill Riutin without involving the political authorities. However, the OGPU presented the case to the Political Bureau. Kirov opposed the use of the death penalty and convinced most of the Politburo members. Stalin was supported only by Lazar Kaganovich. For the first time, Stalin encountered a strong resistance from his allies. This meant that he would not get their consent to the execution of party members for purely political offenses. It took Stalin over four years to break this resistance (from September 1936 to February 1937). Also, the secret police of the OGPU still considered themselves subordinate to the Politburo - and not Stalin himself. Rutin was sentenced to ten years in prison. He was murdered in 1937, along with his defenders in 1932.
For their own misfortune, Stalin’s allies did not acknowledge that he does not know the concept of partnership and considers salami tactics as his life strategy. (Salami tactics - the practice of gradual elimination (step by step) of enemies in the party like cutting slices of salami). Stalin decided to take over the full power in the Bolshevik Party and in the USSR by murdering almost all of the old Bolsheviks. In addition, he decided to terrorize the society to levels unimaginable even in the USSR and murder all those who, even if potentially in favorable conditions like war could challenge the power of the Bolshevik Party. Such were the reasons leading to the Purge and Great Terror. All of it started with the assassination of Kirov.
Stalin directed the great purge through blindly obedient old Bolsheviks like Lazar Kaganovich, Vyacheslav Molotov, younger careerists. After the murder of Kirov, an apparent calm came about for over a year. “Behind the scenes” Józef Stalin prepared staged trials. On January 26, 1935, Valerian Kuybyshev died in circumstances unexplained to this day. May 25, 1935, the Central Committee of the Communist Party dissolved the Association of Old Bolsheviks This was an introduction to a complete revision of the history of the Bolshevik Party in accordance with Stalin’s current vision, cutting social ties, the policy of social exclusion of “old Bolsheviks” and the elimination of the party tradition in favor of the Stalinist vision.
In following years more and more Old Bolsheviks were dismissed from their positions and then accused of treason or were dying in unexplained circumstances.
Severe repressions also affected foreigners and minorities living in the USSR. Poles depicted as natural enemies of the system were the main target of the repressions. On August 11, 1937, on the order of the People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs, the so-called Polish operation of NKVD was started. In years 1937-1938 over 100 thousand Poles were murdered, another 100 thousand were deported from Belarus and Ukraine to Siberia and Kazakhstan. Around 30 thousand were sent to gulags.
Overall, 1.5 million people were arrested during the repressions against national minorities, of whom 700,000 were killed. Among particular nationalities, Poles and Germans suffered the most, followed by Koreans, Kurds, Greeks, Finns, Estonians, Latvians, Chinese, and Iranians
Ok, that would sum up the overall situation in the Soviet Union in the 30s. I skipped over few things like the Purge in Red Army since it’s rather obvious. However, if you want, I can post another short part of research about the everyday life during the Great Terror. If you want I can always post some more pieces of information if you think it is too little to make a video out of it. Anyway, I’m sure you’ll be able to pice it all it into one logical narrative.
But if we are done here then… Breaking Enigma next?
Edit: Almost forgot about the sources
R. Conquest Inside Stalin’s Secret Police: NKWD Politics, 1936–1939.
R. Conquest The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization an the Terror – Famine.
E. Ginzburg Stroma Ściana
R. Kuśnierz W świecie stalinowskich zbrodni. Ukraina w latach czystek i terroru (1934-1938) w obserwacjach i analizach MSZ oraz wywiadu wojskowego Drugiej Rzeczypospolitej (In the world of Stalinist crimes. Ukraine in the years of purges and terror (1934-1938) in the observations and analyzes of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and military intelligence of the Second Polish Republic)