Stalin Purges

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Stalin's purges ( Russian Чистка Tschistka , Чистки Tschistki (Pl.)) Is the name for a period in Soviet history during the reign of Josef Stalin , which was characterized by massive persecution and murder of politically "unreliable" and opposition persons from a Stalinist point of view . The total number of victims from this period is unknown and difficult to verify, with historians' estimates ranging from at least about 3 million dead to well over 20 million.

As early as the mid-1920s, Stalin began to exclude real or supposed political opponents from the Communist Party (CPSU). Later, those affected were often sentenced to death or to camp imprisonment and forced labor in the Gulag with false accusations in show and secret trials, and corresponding confessions were regularly extorted under torture .

In the so-called Great Terror from 1936 to 1938, which is also known as the "Great Purge", the political purges reached their climax: during this time around 1,000 people were murdered every day. This steady loss of functionaries began to endanger the elementary functions of the party, administration and army. In some areas, all party functionaries of the CPSU had been arrested. For this reason, the intensity of the persecution was reduced in 1938 on the orders of Stalin, but without being stopped.

A second wave of purges began in early 1948. It was mainly directed against Jews who were denounced as " rootless cosmopolitans ". The campaign initially led to the dissolution of the Jewish Antifascist Committee and the execution of Yiddish intellectuals, known as the Night of the Murdered Poets , culminating in the so-called doctors' conspiracy and ending abruptly with Stalin's death in March 1953.

There are in some cases very different approaches to explanations for the backgrounds and motives of this politically motivated mass murder , which are controversially discussed.


The background was different conspiracy theories , inter alia against the Trotskyists . Just like a large part of the founders of the III. Internationally , almost all important theorists of the CPSU (B) fell victim to these purges . The chief prosecutor of the Moscow trials from 1936 to 1938 was the Prosecutor General of the Soviet Union Andrei Vyshinsky .

In addition, a large part of the military leadership around Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky was accused of conspiracy and killed. Many foreign communists who had emigrated to the Soviet Union also fell victim to the persecution.

In 1940, Nikolai Yezhov (after him the period is also called Yezhovshchina ), who was head of the NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs) and candidate of the Politburo of the CPSU (B), became the main person responsible for carrying out the purges . just like his predecessor Genrich Jagoda himself a victim of the Stalinist terror . His successor was Lavrenti Beria on November 24, 1938 , who continued the purges together with Ivan Serov . Beria was executed in 1953.

Stalin's propaganda often of communist parties was represented abroad later justify the purges as a preventive elimination of political opponents who otherwise with the Nazi state , with Japan , with Poland , with Finland or other external enemies adopted collaborated could or as " Class enemies ”would have become dangerous. Some of Stalin's crimes were revealed in Khrushchev's secret speech on the XX in 1956 - a good three years after Stalin's death . CPSU party conference revealed and condemned. In the course of de-Stalinization , victims were also partially rehabilitated.


Stalin not only had his supposed political opponents, including numerous foreign communists who lived in the Soviet Union or who had emigrated there before persecution, tried, but also whole peoples of the Soviet Union, ethnic minorities such as Chechens , Ingush , Crimean Tatars or the Volga Germans in Camp ( Gulag ) and exile regions deported . “ Kulaks ” ( large farmers ) and those who were arbitrarily declared as such, priests and monks as well as church laypeople also fell victim to the purges. Even the relatives of those arrested were not spared. Even apolitical people were regularly arrested in order to fulfill the planned target and thus to fill prisons and penal camps. Residents of the areas occupied by the Red Army were also among the victims - Balts , Poles , Hungarians , Romanians , Germans .

Penal camp

The victims of Stalin's arbitrariness were taken to labor camps (gulag), where they had to do forest work, road construction, canal construction, railroad construction, town planning, work in mines and earthworks under inhumane conditions. For example, the White Sea-Baltic Canal , parts of the Trans-Siberian Railway and parts of the Baikal-Amur Mainline were built by prisoners . The living and working conditions were extremely bad. Some of the prisoners received only 300 grams and also moist black bread and a plate of nettle soup a day, only had light summer clothing in winter and lived in wooden barracks . The planned target decided on the length of the working day, which was often more than 12 hours.

Many people were executed after being tortured.

Number of victims

The number of people who perished in the purges is the subject of much controversy. Early historians could only guess at them, and so estimates ranged from one to sixty million depending on who counted them and what counted as purges.

For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was possible to obtain information from the archives there. They found that around 800,000 prisoners were executed under Stalin , 1.7 million died in the gulag , and 389,000 kulaks died during the resettlement - a total of around three million victims.

However, the debate will continue as long as some historians find these officially released data unreliable. It is now certain that the data are incomplete, as no careful data was collected about some groups of victims. These include the victims of ethnic deportations and the expulsion of the German population after the Second World War .

Therefore, some scholars argue that Stalin's casualties do not exceed four million, while others believe that the number is much higher. For example, the Russian writer Vadim Erlikman made the following estimate:

  • 1.5 million executed,
  • 5 million died in the gulag,
  • 1.7 million lost their lives during the deportation (of the 7.5 million deportees),
  • 1 million killed prisoners of war and German civilians .

This results in a total of approximately 9 million victims of the purges.

Stalin's biographer Dimitri Volkogonow , on the other hand, estimates that 19.5 to 22 million people died from the so-called purges between 1929 and 1953 .

Gunnar Heinsohn gives a number of at least 20 million victims, of which 4.4 million in the years of the "Great Terror" 1936–1939.

On August 13, 1990, the total of around four million people affected by the repression between 1920 and 1950 were officially rehabilitated.

Some of the prominent victims

The purges fell victim to:

Attempts to explain

How the Stalinist purges came about and what function they had in the ruling system of Stalinism is controversial in scholarship. On the one hand, it is considered possible that Stalin was really convinced of the conspiracy theories on which the charges were based - that is, the cause was the personal paranoia of the "leader " of the Soviet Union, as he called himself at the time. This opinion depends e.g. Consider, for example, Oleg Gordijewski  and Christopher Andrew who write in their study of the KGB that it cannot be doubted that “Stalin believed in his own conspiracy theories. This applies, in one way or another, to most of the party hierarchy . ”The British historian Simon Sebag-Montefiore , author of a biography of the young Stalin, believes that the mentality of Stalin and other Bolsheviks through their years in illegality 1917 was deeply shaped. " Conspiracy as an attitude and as a practice, ... thinking in terms of conspiracies, secret intentions and conspiracies" never gave up Stalin.

Dimitri Volkogonov, on the other hand, doubts that Stalin really wanted to fight Trotskyist conspirators and agents of capitalism. The purges and the conspiracy theories on which they are based were originally an essentially rational calculation for the external stabilization of the Soviet Union and for securing personal rule, but then gained momentum and had an effect on the consciousness of their author:

“The machinery of persecution, which Stalin raged with full force in the 1930s, obsessed not only lower-ranking officials, but also Stalin himself. It is conceivable that the slide to the idea of ​​violence went through a series of stages. First it was a fight against real enemies, then the annihilation of personal opponents followed, and finally violence was used as a token of personal devotion to the 'Führer'. "

- Dimitri Volkogonov : Stalin. Triumph and tragedy. A political portrait

Volkogonov mentions another interesting aspect about the background of the purges. Industrial production had grown, and great successes in all areas were reported in the press everywhere. In fact, there was a noticeable shortage everywhere, the quality of the products was poor, and the technical level was generally low. The gap between this reality and the propaganda in the press widened. In order to be able to meet the constantly growing standards, the existing, often poorly maintained equipment and machines as well as a disproportionately large number of workers were required. There was almost inevitably a lot of accidents and accidents. In the press, sabotage was usually blamed for this. This process also developed its own dynamic, suddenly there were saboteurs, divers and “ enemies of the people ” everywhere .

The German historian Ingeborg Fleischhauer sees the mass terror of the purges as a function of the international situation of the Soviet Union: It can only be explained against the background of the growing threat from National Socialist Germany , which destroyed the balance of power in Eastern Europe through its non-aggression pact with Poland in January 1934 have. Stalin - not unlike the leading politicians of the Western powers - was concerned about the increase in German power between 1936 and 1938 and therefore tried at the same time to create the greatest possible homogeneity in the party and in Soviet society by subordinating himself to his will. From this perspective, “Stalin's measures could primarily have taken place from a preventive and defensive point of view”.

The American political scientist and historian Rudolph Joseph Rummel, on the other hand, believes that the purges were neither caused by a delusional conspiracy theory nor by a rational calculation. Rather, the cause is the ideology of Marxism , which considers itself to be in possession of absolute truth and knows no compromises . He names the good ( communism ) and the bad ( capitalism , feudalism ) and shows the way to change society, the socialist dictatorship of the proletariat . The state had to be in possession of and exercise absolute power in order to achieve a “better world”. Whoever threatened to hinder this had to be eliminated according to Marxist teaching.

See also: Great Terror (Soviet Union)


  • Wolfgang Leonhard : The revolution releases its children. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne a. a. 1955, (16th edition: ibid. 1996, ISBN 3-462-01463-3 , ( KiWi 119)).
  • Heinz-Dietrich Löwe : Stalin. The unleashed revolutionary . 2 volumes. Muster-Schmidt, Göttingen a. a. 2002, ISBN 3-7881-0153-9 , ( Personality and History 162).
  • Reinhard Müller : "We'll all get it". “Purges” among the German political emigrants in the Soviet Union (1934–1938). In: Hermann Weber, Ulrich Mählert (Ed.): Terror. Inner communist “cleansing” before and after World War II. Paderborn 1998, ISBN 3-506-75336-3 , pp. 121-166.
  • Reinhard Müller: The Case of the Anti-Comintern Block - a fourth Moscow show trial? in: Jahrbuch für Historische Kommunismusforschung, Vol. 4, 1996, pp. 187–214.
  • Norman M. Naimark : Stalin and the Genocide. Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin 2010, ISBN 3-518-74441-0 .
  • Theo Pirker (Ed.): The Moscow Show Trials 1936–1938 . Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, Munich 1963.
  • Vadim S. Rogovin : The Party of the Executed . Arbeiterpresse Verlag, Essen 1999, ISBN 3-88634-072-4 , ( Was there an alternative? 5).
  • Vadim S. Rogovin: 1937th year of terror . Workers Press , Essen 1998, ISBN 3-88634-071-6 .
  • Rudolph J. Rummel : "Demozid" - The commanded death. Mass murders in the 20th century . With a preface by Yehuda Bauer . Lit Verlag, Münster [u. a.] 2003, ISBN 3-8258-3469-7 , ( Scientific Paperbacks 12).
  • Mikhail Kuzmich Ryklin : Life thrown into the fire - The generation of the Great October. A research. From the Russian by Sabine Grebing and Volker Weichsel, Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin 2019, ISBN 978-3-518-42773-6 ( reading sample )
  • Hans Schafranek : Contingent "enemies of the people" and "agency work". Persecution mechanisms of the Stalinist secret police NKVD using the example of the fictional "Hitler Youth" in Moscow (1938) and the "anti-Soviet group of children of repressed parents" (1940) . In: International scientific correspondence on the history of the German labor movement 1, 2001, ZDB -ID 3256-6 , pp. 1–76.
  • Show trials under Stalin. 1932-1952. Creation, background, sacrifice . With a foreword by Horst Schützler. Dietz Verlag, Berlin 1990, ISBN 3-320-01600-8 .
  • Hermann Weber : "White spots" in history. The KPD victims of the Stalinist purges and their rehabilitation . 2nd revised and expanded edition. isp-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1990, ISBN 3-88332-176-1 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  2. Alexander Solzhenitsyn : The GULAG archipelago . Scherz, Bern 1974, ISBN 3-502-21001-2 .
  3. ^ Source List and Detailed Death Tolls for the Primary Megadeaths of the Twentieth Century .
  4. ^ Anne Applebaum: The GULAG . Siedler, Berlin 2003, ISBN 3-88680-642-1 .
  5. Wadim Erlikman: Poteri narodonaseleniia w XX weke: sprawotschnik . Moscow 2004, ISBN 5-93165-107-1 .
  6. Dimitri Volkogonow: Stalin. Triumph and tragedy. A Political Portrait , Econ, 1993, ISBN 3-612-26011-1 .
  7. Gunnar Heinsohn: Lexicon of Genocides . Reinbek 1998, ISBN 3-499-22338-4 .
  8. Russia History: Persecuted Rehabilitated , in Russia News, 2012.
  9. Oleg Gordievsky, Christophe Andrew: KGB: The Inside Story . Hodder & Stoughton, 1990, p. 114
    similarly also Daniel Pipes, Conspiracy. The fascination and power of the secret . Gerling Academy, Munich 1998, p. 166 u. ö.
  10. Simon Sebag Montefiore: The young Stalin. The early life of the dictator , S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2007, ISBN 3-10-050608-1 ; quoted here from “He loved playing with mysteries” , interview with Simon Sebag-Montefiore, in: taz , December 4, 2007, p. 17.
  11. ^ Econ Taschenbuch Verlag 1989. p. 18.
  12. ^ Ingeborg Fleischhauer: Soviet foreign policy and the genesis of the Hitler-Stalin pact . In: Bernd Wegner (Ed.): Two ways to Moscow. From the Hitler-Stalin Pact to Operation Barbarossa , Piper, Munich and Zurich 1991, p. 20ff, the quotation p. 22.
  13. Rudolph Joseph Rummel: Demozid - The commanded death , Lit Verlag, Münster 2003, ISBN 3-8258-3469-7 .