Joseph Stalin's Reign of Terror

Instructor: Michelle Penn

Michelle has a J.D. and her PhD in History.

Stalin's reign was full of terror but especially so in the years 1936-1938 when many loyal members of the Communist Party were arrested and sent to labor camps or killed. In this lesson, you'll learn some details about Stalin's terror and some of the historical debates about the terror.


Imagine you live in a Moscow apartment in the late 1930s. In the middle of the night, the police come and arrest the entire family that lives in the apartment above you, including the children. Another night, one of the men who lives in the apartment below you disappears. You assume he has been arrested, too, but are too afraid to ask any questions. Soon, many people have disappeared, hundreds of thousands of them from around the country. Only decades later may you find out what happened to them. They were shot or sent to a labor camp where they died. Or perhaps they were sent to a labor camp and survived to tell the horrible tale.

This is what happened in the Soviet Union during the Great Terror, also known as the the Great Purge. The Great Purge refers to the political terror and repression that engulfed the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin from 1936 to 1938.

Joseph Stalin around 1936
Stalin picture

Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin had served as the People's Commissariat of Nationalities, a job with a lot of power regarding the non-Russian population of Russia in the new revolutionary state of Soviet Russia. He became general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1922. General secretary might not sound like a fancy title, but in reality, Stalin was the leader of the entire Soviet Union.

Stalin didn't use his newfound power kindly. Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s he persecuted a number of groups including prosperous peasants he called kulaks, and permitted famine to kill millions in Ukraine and Kazakhstan. While the causes of the Kazakh famine are disputed, many believe the Ukrainian famine was a man-made attempt to break any attempts at Ukrainian independence. The Great Terror would continue this ruthless consolidation of power.

Kirov's Assassination

Historians usually point to the assassination of Sergei Kirov in 1934, a prominent Communist leader, as an important precursor to the Terror. Stalin used Kirov's assassination to point to conspiracies within the Soviet Union that threatened the country's existence. While a few historians think that Stalin was genuinely frightened by Kirov's murder, many believe that Stalin himself organized the murder as an excuse for political repression (and to kill off a possible political rival in Kirov).

Sergei Kirov
Sergei Kirov picture

Show Trials

The Great Purge began with a number of show trials of high level political leaders. A show trial is one in which the outcome is already determined in advance, rather than a fair trial, and used for political propaganda purposes. The show trials charged many Bolshevik party leaders with counter-revolution, and many were charged with killing Sergei Kirov. Devout Communists, such as Nikolai Bukharin--one of Stalin's main political rivals-- were charged with absurd crimes and executed. This allowed Stalin to both eliminate any potential political opposition to his rule and to make people think that there really were serious conspiracies around them. These alleged conspiracies were used to explain any failures of the Soviets. Instead of Stalin being held responsible for not achieving their goals, the victims of the show trials became scapegoats. Many people often believed that the individuals who were arrested were guilty, sometimes up until the moment they themselves, or someone very close to them, were arrested.

Show trials, however, usually were just for high-level figures. Ordinary people were unlikely to face a show trial. Many people were shot without a trial, their guilt determined by a troika, or a group of three individuals from the NKVD. The NKVD stood for the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs and was the name for the secret police at the time. The members of the troika were different secret policemen acting under Stalin's direction who acted like judges. However, the ''trials'' held by the troika were no such thing; they simply found you guilty.

The arrests and executions were often fairly random; your neighbor was arrested and, under torture and duress, named you and anyone else he could think of as a counter-revolutionary.

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