What was the Great Terror Two – The Yezhovshchina

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  • 1.What was the Great Terror? Part Two – The Yezhovshchina L/O – To identify and describe the key features of the Great Terror
  • 2.What was the Yezhovshchina? After the first show trial in September 1936, Nicholai Yezhov replaced Yagoda as head of the NKVD. Yagoda was criticised for not finding enemies of the state quick enough. The was a clear sign from Stalin that he wanted to advance the terror. Yezhov was about to initiate a period of terror – called the Yezhovshchina – which reached its height in mid-1937 and lasted until late 1938.
  • 3.Purging the party In spring of 1937, Stalin made it clear that he thought traitors and spies had infiltrated the party at all levels in every locality. He encouraged lower-ranking party members to criticise and denounce those in higher positions. This resulted in a flood of accusations. Party members were ‘unmasked’ by colleagues and accused for being an ‘enemy of the people’.
  • 4.Purging the party The accused were usually invited to confess before mass meetings and were dragged in. Some denounced fellow members in order to get their jobs or settle old scores, others to deflect criticisms from themselves. Denunciations were also directed downwards by Party secretaries and higher officials anxious to find the counter-revolutionaries in their local party network, if only to show how loyal they were to the regime. So they denounced people below them.
  • 5.Mass Terror Accelerates In July 1937, the Politburo passed a resolution condemning ‘Anti-Soviet Elements’. Yezhov passed NKVD Order 00447 – detailing the categories of people to be dealt with and quotas of people to be arrested in each region of Russia. Quotas were always over fulfilled by the NKVD, with over 800,000 from summer 1937 to November 1938. Scientists, historians, artists, writers, musicians, criminals, and kulaks formed the bulk of those repressed.
  • 6.Mass Terror Accelerates In practice, anybody could be arrested as an oppositionist. From July 1937, the proportion to be shot was fixed at 28 per cent, with the rest being sentenced up to 10 years hard labour – before anyone had actually been arrested! A huge media campaign was started, encouraging people to criticise party officials, bureaucrats and managers – to seek out ‘hidden enemies’. This harnessed popular dissatisfaction with officialdom.
  • 7.Mass Terror Accelerates People were also encouraged to denounce workers and saboteurs in the workplace so the rest of the population did not escape either. Once suspects had been arrested and subjected to interrogation by the NKVD, they always came up with names of accomplices. Workmates, friends, family could all find themselves arrested because they had connections with someone who had been accused. This is why the terror spread so quickly.
  • 8.Purging the Armed Forces In 1937 Stalin became convinced that he could not trust the army to follow orders. The leaders of the army like Marshall Tukhachevsky were heroes of the Civil War and difficult to intimidate. Stalin claimed the army was plotting to overthrow him. Tukhachevsky and 7 other generals had confessions beaten out of them and were then executed. Stalin was willing to risk wiping out his best commanders when the prospect of war with Nazi Germany was looming! Who were the victims? Tukhachevsky, Chief of the General Staff, and 7 other generals – all heroes of the Civil War. All 11 war commissars and 3 out of 5 marshals. All navy admirals! All but 1 commanders of the air force 35,000 officers were shot or imprisoned.
  • 9.Arrests and Interrogation Most arrests came at night between 11pm and 3am. NKVD officers drove around in black vans called ‘ravens’. The reasons for arrest were arbitrary: criticising Stalin, telling a joke about Stalin, being a friend of someone arrested. Interrogations then followed in which victims were urged to confess crimes and opposition to Stalin. Torture was often used.
  • 10.Forced Confessions Confessions were important. They legitimised the arrests and proved that the state was right, even when there was no real evidence. The state prosecutor, Vyshinsky, thought a confession written by the accused looked more ‘voluntary’. Many died in prison, either shot or dying from torture. Vans marked ‘meat’ regularly arrived at Moscow cemeteries to deliver their loads into mass graves.
  • 11.Gulag Network Those who did not die were sent to the Gulag, the network of labour camps that infested the USSR. Freezing weather made life intolerable. Relentless hard work and inadequate food and clothing killed many. Forced labour was also used on large building projects like the White Sea Canal, where over 100,000 died due to appalling conditions.
  • 12.End of the Terror Stalin halted the terror towards the end of 1938. By this time, Yezhov had been replaced by Beria. Arrests slowed down, but purges did continue until 1939. The purges were destabilising Russian society. Admin systems were falling apart with key personnel missing which harmed industrial production. Stalin blamed Yezhov and the NKVD for the excesses of the terror. In 1940, a hitman, on Stalin’s orders murdered Trotsky. Now all the old Bolsheviks had been wiped out.
  • 13.How many were killed? It is difficult to calculate as the NKVD burned much of their archive as the Germans approached Moscow in 1941. Wheatcroft and Davis (1994) = 10 million died 1927-1938, 8.5 million from famine. Dmitri Volkogonov = 7 million executed 1929-1953, 16.5 million imprisoned.