Following Sergei Kirov’s murder in December 1934, Joseph Stalin instituted a law giving the NKVD power to try and execute suspected terrorists without recourse to defense lawyers or appeals. In 1936 Stalin made Nikolai Yezhov head of the NKVD, citing the security service’s lax work in rooting out traitors. In 1936–1937 he urged Yezhov to begin a massive purge of three suspected enemy elements: Poles and other foreign communists; men and women arrested during the previous decade; and suspected Trotskyites and other dissidents within the Communist Party. The initial planning called for the arrest of 250,000 men and women.
   Yezhov and his immediate subordinates drove regional security officers into a frenzy of arrests, torture, and execution. The Yezhovshchina seemed to take on a life of its own as the controlled media called for greater vigilance and more arrests, and public denunciations of innocent citizens filled the prisons. The NKVD fabricated hundreds of thousands of cases, torturing millions into confessions of spying for foreign states, planning terrorist acts, and wrecking the Soviet economy. The guilty—there were few found innocent— were tried and convicted, often after 15-minute trials. Executions usually took place immediately following conviction.
   There is no full accounting of the casualties, but statistics provided to the Communist Party Central Committee by the KGB in the 1960s indicate more than 1.5 million arrests and 750,000 executions in less than 15 months. Five of 15 members of the ruling Politburo were shot, as were 98 of 134 members of the Central Committee. The Komsomol was equally devastated, with over half its ruling central committee executed in 1937–1938. Arrests and executions in the provinces claimed tens of thousands of party officials. In Byelorussia only three of 100 senior Communist Party officials survived 1937–1938. Arrests put almost a million men and women in the forced labor camps, and recent research suggests that another 100,000 men and women perished in the gulag in 1937–1938. In Leningrad approximately 40,000 were executed. In Moscow 21,000 were shot between August 1937 and September 1938 at Butovo. Asurvey by the Memorial organization found that 24–28 percent of those executed were manual workers and peasants, while 12 percent were professional workers. Especially vulnerable were men and women who had been previous targets of repression, kulaks (rich peasants), and Russian Orthodox clergy. Moreover, 18,000 wives of enemies of the people were imprisoned and 25,000 children dispatched to orphanages. Yezhov also purged the army and the police, sending 34,000 military officers to the camps or the firing squad. The military leader Mikhail Tukhachevskiy and other senior officers were tried by a special military court and then shot. Several thousand NKVD officers were arrested, as officers in Moscow and the provinces followed their victims to Siberia and execution cellars. In 1938 Leningrad had six different NKVD chiefs. The NKVD’s foreign intelligence section was particularly devastated, and five men served as its chief in less than 18 months. The purges ravished the corps of people serving overseas under diplomatic cover and as illegals. The rezidenturas in both London and Berlin suspended operations for several months. Theodore Mally was recalled from England, arrested, tortured, and shot. A major target of the NKVD was the leadership of foreign communist parties and the Comintern. In 1938 the Polish Communist Party was liquidated. All 12 members of its Central Committee living in exile in Moscow were shot. The Hungarian and German parties were also purged: Bela Kun, the leader of the Hungarian party since 1919, was shot after a 15-minute trial, as were many members of the German communist leadership. The only communists who were safe in Moscow were those from the Western democracies. There is no consensus as to why Stalin gave Yezhov his head to terrorize Soviet society. Was it to cleanse society of potential traitors; a political inquisition driven by popular demand for scapegoats or personal vengeance; or did it have more to do with Stalin’s personality? Speaking to Comintern leaders in late 1937, Stalin threatened: “We shall destroy every enemy, even an Old Bolshevik, we shall annihilate his kith and kin.” Revisionist scholars believe that the purge took on a life of its own—much like the witch hunts of the 16th century. Whatever the root cause, the Yezhovshchina traumatized Soviet society, and it stripped the society, party, and Red Army of many of the leaders who would have made defeating Adolf Hitler less costly.

Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. . 2014.

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