Stalin`s Purges

     Less than a month before Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and
started World War II, he signed a non-aggression pact with Stalin. Less than two
years later, he broke the pact and invaded the Soviet Union in the early morning
hours of June 22, 1941. There were plenty of evidence for German aggression
before the war broke out, yet Stalin nevertheless signed the pact which
contained the secret protocol that divided Poland between Germany and the Soviet

Union. The reason for signing the pact were complex, yet one of the most
important ones were the domestic factors. Among them, the terrible effect of the
purges during the 1930s on the population, economy and especially the army. The
purges were set off on December 1, 1934 with the murder of Sergei Kirov. He was
a member of the Politburo, leader of the Leningrad party apparatus and had
considerable influence in the ruling elite. His concern for the workers in

Leningrad and his skill as an orator earned him considerable popularity. Stalin
used his murder as a pretext for launching a broad purge that would claim
hundreds of thousands of victims and have lasting repercussion felt to this day.

Stalin never visited Leningrad again and directed one of his most vicious
post-War purges against the city -- Russia's historic window to the West. No
segment of the society was left untouched by the purges. Anyone who caused the
slightest suspicion was removed and numerous legislature was enacted to help
enforce them. In 1935 a law was passed which lowered the age of criminal
responsibility. That meant the death penalty could be applied to twelve-year-old
children (McCauley, p.93). There was also a panic response in the primary party
organizations to expel and "expose" people in order to protect oneself
and to show "vigilance" (Getty, p.213) The slaughter of armed forces
began on 12 June 1937 when Tukhachevsky and some top army men were executed,
then spread to lower ranks and then to political comissars. The nave was
completely decapitated, all eight admirals perishing. Here's a grave list of the
top dead: " 3 out of 5 marshals, 14 out of 16 Army commanders Class I and

II, 8 out of 8 Admirals, 60 out of 67 Corps Commanders, 136 out of 199

Divisional Commanders, 221 out of 397 Brigade Commanders" (McCauley, p.95)

In November 1939, Stalin ordered an attack on Finland to move the frontier
further away from Leningrad after the Finns did not agree to the concessions

Soviets offered. This expedition was a complete fiasco. It cost the already
decimated Red Army around 200,000 dead and more were wounded, while only 23,000

Finns died (McCauley, p.101). A peace treaty was signed on 12 March, 1940, but
the incompetence and weakness of the Red Army was revealed to the rest of the
world. This is something Hitler filed it away for future use. After that, and
faced with increasing German aggression, Stalin could not risk being embroiled
in a war. Hitler was in a great hurry. An attack on Poland was scheduled for
late August. By the end of July the Nazis realized that they must reach
agreement with the Soviets very soon if these plans were to be safely
implemented. Hitler agreed to pay the Soviet price for a pact. The public text
of the Nazi-Soviet Pact was simply an agreement of nonaggression and neutrality,
referring as a precedent to the German-Soviet neutrality pact of 1926 (Berlin

Treaty). The real agreement was in a secret protocol which in effect partitioned
not only Poland (along the line of the Vistula), but much of Eastern Europe. To
the Soviets were allotted Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Bessarabia; to the

Nazis, everything to the West of these regions, including Lithuania. Each of the
two signatories was to ask the other no questions about the disposition of its
own ''sphere of interest." This nonaggression pact, coupled with the trade
treaty and arrangements for large-scale exchange of raw materials and armaments,
amounted to an alliance. Appeasement in Eastern Europe would deflect German
aggression to the west. Taking into account the disastrous condition of Russian
forces brought about from within and the severe problems of the economy, this
was necessary for Stalin. In a way, by signing the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression

Pact, he was buying as much time as possible to try prepare for the inevitable.

The inevitable happened on June 22, 1941. Molotov broke to the Russian people
the grim news about the German attack. Stalin, as if embarrassed by the
disastrous collapse of his hopes, shunned the limelight. He did not utter a
single word in public for almost two weeks. He apparently waited to see what the
results of the first battles would be, what the attitude of Great Britain and
the United States would be, and what the feeling in his own country would be.

Locked up with his military leaders, he discussed measures of mobilization and
strategic plans. In the first years of the war, Soviet losses were much higher
than necessary. The true cost of the purges had now to be paid. Morale was not
very high in the army. About two million prisoners were taken in the first year
of the war. The total reached five million in November 943, and there was
widespread defeatism among the public (McCauley, p.113). However, not all Soviet
casualties were due to the Germans. Many senior officers were court-martialed
during this period. "Colonel-General D.G.Pavlov, commander of the Western

Front, his chief of staff and some other officers were called to Moscow,
court-martialed and shot on 30 June, 1941 for incompetence. They were unfairly
treated, as was later admitted. Stalin loosed the NKVD on the military,
reminiscent of 1937, and the political police exacted savage retribution on
anyone who did not fulfil orders or who had carried out his orders
unsuccessfully"(McCauley, p.129). Only at Stalingrad, in 1943, did the tide
of war turn in favor of the Soviet Union. There are all indication that Hitler
could have easily taken Moscow and Leningrad had he continued north and not
turned his attention south towards Ukraine. Although there is no dispute as to
the horror and losses brought on by Stalin's paranoid decisions in the 1930s,
the actual number of casualties remains uncertain. Only recently have some of
the most significant archives been declassified and allowed a new wave of
research to start up. In addition, many of the records were destroyed at the
time, presumably those with the most sensitive information. Some researchers
claim that "in its worst year approximately only 7.7% of the Red army's
leadership was discharged" (Getty, p.213). Another factor complicating
ascertaining the actual casualties is political. Subject of Stalin is
inextricably linked to ideology, communism, and socialism, topics that hardly
leave anyone without strong emotions on one or the other side. Thus, many works
even with the best intentions of unbiased research can be subconsciously marred
by political bias. There's hope that with the continued declassification more
documents will appear from the archives that will be able to shed more light on
this very dark subject. The dispute as to the exact toll of the purges will
probably never be settled. The final count may never be known. However, it will
always remain undisputed that the purges during the 1930s initiated by Joseph

Stalin brought massive repercussion in all sectors of the society and greatly
endangered Soviet Union's sovereignty and viability.


Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives, edited by J. Arch Getty and Roberta T.

Manning, Cambridge University Press, 1993 William R. Keylor, The Twentieth

Century World: An International History, Oxford University Press, New York, 1996

Martin McCauley, The Soviet Union Since 1917, Longman Group Limited, New York,

1981 Revelations from the Russian Archives, Library of Congress, 1996