What historical fact would shock most people if they found out?

About ten years ago, a very unique set of photographs was unveiled to the world by an amateur historian.

It contained hundreds of portraits of innocent men and women, who had just been sentenced to death for imaginary, and generally utterly absurd crimes. Their faces marked with incomprehension, they stare at the camera and are immortalized one last time by their executioners.

Arrested from their homes in the middle of the night by armed men in black coats, and taken before their helpless family; beaten and tortured in jails, sometimes for months, until they confess to crimes they never committed; tried hastily, without a lawyer and without the right to attend their own trial; summarily shot in the back of the neck, sometimes just hours after conviction; thrown into a mass grave in a classified area, their relatives not being informed of their fate – their very existence being relegated to the “dustbins of history”, this famous Bolshevik expression of the time.

Forgotten individuals who are just a sample of the many victims of the greatest mass slaughter ever committed in peacetime , an unrecognized event sadly absent from European collective memory: the Great Stalinist Terror of 1937-1938 .

Alexei Grigorievitch Yeltikov

Russian, born in 1890 in the village of Demkino in the Riasan region. Elementary education, former Party member. Locksmith in a workshop of the Moscow metro.

Arrested July 8, 1937. Sentenced to death October 31, 1937. Executed the following day.

In less than 16 months, from late July 1937 to mid-November 1938, in a violent initiative of social engineering, the Soviet Union condemned to death and executed 750,000 individuals – an average of 1,500 per day – and imposed 800,000 sentences. 10 years in hard labor camps in the Gulag.

These second condemnations, veritable arbitrary and renewable sentences of slavery, were not very different from a death sentence; between 80% and 90% of the so-called “political” convicts arrested during this period will die in the camps before their release.

“…Many inmates are so infested with lice that they pose an infectious threat to others. These detainees have lost all human aspect. Reduced to starvation, they eat rubbish, rats and dogs. […] these detainees are particularly emaciated, while others suffer from frostbite in all extremities.

In the infirmary, the prisoners are lying naked on planks, packed like herrings in a barrel. For weeks, they are not taken to the baths, in the absence of body linen and sheets. Men and women are mixed, syphilis rub shoulders with tuberculosis. [….] You should know that detainees in rags and without shoes continue to arrive every day, the guards take these people out barefoot by -20 to -50°C. »

– Report on the inspection of a series of Siberian camps by the services of the General Prosecutor’s Office of the USSR, addressed to the NKVD, February 19, 1938.

They track down, they torture, they deport, they shoot – anyone, anywhere, anytime… and no one, not even the highest Soviet politicians, is safe. This is the Great Terror ; a mixture of ethnic purges, political liquidations, anti-religious repressions – but also of chance, within the framework of a bureaucratic monstrosity which, in a climate of collective hysteria, arbitrarily imposed on cities and entire regions unrealistic quotas of individuals to be executed, while leaving carte blanche to the executioners to fulfill them.

This answer aims to recall this sinister event, singular even within the framework of the totalitarianisms of the 20th century, which happened a few years before the barbarism of the Nazis swept over Europe. A necessary reminder, by duty of memory.

The beginning of the terror

It all started on July 2, 1937, when Stalin himself sent a secret directive to the regional and republican leaders of the Soviet Communist Party:

“It is noted that a large part of the ex-kulaks [*] and criminals, exiled in the northern regions and Siberia and subsequently returned to their homes at the end of their sentence, are the main instigators anti-Soviet crimes in kolkhozes, transport and in certain branches of industry […]

The Central Committee proposes to all regional and republican Party secretaries, as well as to all regional officials of the NKVD to file all kulaks and criminals who have returned to their homes so that the most hostile can be immediately arrested and shot at the end of their ‘a simplified administrative procedure before a troika [**] […] the others, less active, being exiled to remote regions of the country […]

The Central Committee invites you, within five days, to propose the composition of the troikas, the number of elements to be shot as well as the number of elements to be exiled.

The Secretary of the Central Committee, J. Stalin »

* The “kulaks” were – in theory – well-to-do peasants, very badly seen by the Soviet authorities. In practice, any individual from a rural background who opposed the regime was called a “kulak” and repressed accordingly.

** The troika (“triplets”) were exceptional regional jurors who had the right to life and death over the accused. They were composed locally of three prominent Party members: the regional director of the NKVD, the regional secretary of the Communist Party and the regional prosecutor of the USSR.

Nikolai Vasilievich Abramov

Russian, born in 1890 in the village of Loukerino. Non-party, brigadist at the Kolkhoz of Loukerino.

Arrested October 5, 1937. Sentenced to death October 17, 1937. Executed October 21, 1937.

The same day, Nikolai Yezhov, sadistic director of the fearsome Soviet political police, the NKVD, sends a duplicate of Stalin’s recommendations to his high-ranking subordinates.

-Nikolaï Yezhov, director of the Soviet secret services, the NKVD (the “armed wing of the proletariat”, an institution which will later become the KGB).

Unsurprised by the orders, the casual shooting of criminals, “kulaks” and even political opponents being a common thing in the 1930s, but caught off guard by the short deadline and the filing to be sent, the officials regional authorities hastily cobble together lists of “suspects” and communicate the figures to Moscow.

Approved by the Politburo (the restricted circle of the ten highest leaders of the USSR, chaired by Stalin), the composition of the “troikas” as well as the numbers of individuals to be suppressed were known less than 10 days later.

The composition of these all-powerful jurors and the scheduled executions of thousands of individuals are reduced to minimalist lines:

“For the Kursk region, comrades Peskarev, Nikitin, Simanovskii. Agreement to shoot 1798, deport 2986.

For the Sverdlosk region, cam. Aboliaev, Dmitriev, Grachev. Agreement to shoot 4700 kulaks, 300 criminals, deport 5800 kulaks, 1200 criminals.

[…] »

Vassili Semionovitch Kourenkov

Russian, born in 1886 in the village of Faleleyevo. Non-party, unskilled agricultural worker.

Arrested August 10, 1937. Sentenced to death August 19, 1937. Executed August 21, 1937.

For a few weeks, it’s the calm before the storm; 10 days after Stalin’s message, on July 12, 1937, the regional leaders of the NKVD are called, by a circular, to wait patiently for orders before taking action, and are summoned to Moscow on July 16 for a final meeting. of organization.

This crucial interview will seal the fate of hundreds of thousands of individuals . The Director of State Security (the NKVD), Nikolai Yezhov, addressing his subordinates, will declare that the scale of the operations about to begin would be extraordinary, and will excuse in advance the abuses of his men: he will note ” [that] we will not be within 1,000 executions ”, and that it was “ inevitable that a certain number of innocent individuals would be annihilated in this operation which will definitively eradicate the enemies of the Soviet regime ”.

The leader of the NKVD does not stop there, and explains that the categories of “criminals” and “kulaks” were going to be extended to “any anti-Soviet element” , a vague formulation leaving in fact to the agents the right to arrest absolutely anyone. Who. He also notes that the operation and its investigations will certainly reveal other “counter-revolutionary elements” hidden in the people, implying that the quotas could be revised upwards with Moscow’s approval.

Finally, he plays with the carrot and the stick; N.Yejov calls on his men to be zealous, claiming that ” those who fill the quotas first would be considered the best and the most vigilant “, but he also issues a thinly veiled threat to them, recalling that many NKVD members have -also a “suspicious” past, and that it is likely that enemies of the people have infiltrated the services, thus paving the way for the liquidation of underperforming civil servants…

NB . The director of the political police N.Yejov had himself arrived at his post in 1936, after having personally participated in the arrest and then the torture of his predecessor and hierarchical superior, Genrikh Yagoda, also accused of being an “enemy of the people” as part of an internal NKVD purge.

It was in the era of Stalinist times; G.Iagoda had himself come to power after the probable poisoning of his predecessor V.Menjinski, and N.Iejov, his murderer, will later also be prosecuted and sentenced to death by his own successor, L.Beria- who will end up shot in his turn in 1953. The only Soviet police chief who died a natural death during the Stalin era was its founder, Felix Dzerzhinsky- an early heart attack.

Vasily Lovitch Vassiliev

Russian, born in 1891 in Peterhof. High school, party member. Colonel and Head of Security at the Kremlin Commandant’s Office in Moscow.

Arrested January 26, 1938. Sentenced to death March 2, 1939. Executed the following day.

The start of operations

Each regional NKVD official returns home with quotas transmitted orally (to keep the “state secret”), and mobilizes his men locally while awaiting orders from Moscow. They put the papers in order, and carefully list the individuals mentioned in their archives for various crimes, misdemeanors, membership of banned political parties, for having worked in “capitalist” professions (trader, craftsman…) and others – sometimes for decades previously.

A certain weariness emerges among the agents during this period, after more than 10 years of acute political repression, as evidenced by the rare testimonies: “There is no longer any solid basis for the counter-revolution. We have already liquidated all the counter-revolutionaries a long time ago ”, “ No one threatens Soviet power any more, there are only a few remnants of Trostskyist Zinovetist bands left ”.

But Moscow had made its decision, and on July 30, 1937 the ball was on; Nikolai Yezhov transmits to his close subordinates an ultra-secret directive, order n°00447 , which decrees the start of the so-called “kulak” operation, the deadliest of the Great Terror (800,000 condemned alone, half to death, half to deportation).

The order gives regional officials quotas of individuals to be “repressed”, who must be sentenced according to two categories: “category 1” being the death penalty, “category 2” corresponding to 10 years in prison.

In part, the quotas are beginning to be filled by convicting various individuals arrested earlier in the year and still in prison at the start of the operations, but there are not enough of them; more “anti-Soviet elements” must be found.

Marfa Ilinitchna Riazantseva

Russian, born in 1866 in the village of Kosafort, Dagestan. Illiterate, non-party, retired.

Arrested August 27, 1937. Sentenced to death October 8, 1937. Executed October 11, 1937.

State security then goes into action, and the services, their suspect files in hand, get to work. In their black coats, in groups of 3 or 4, the NKVD agents go in search of “suspicious” individuals to fill the quotas. They systematically come at night, between one and four in the morning. The officially secret character of the operations, although rather illusory, was appropriate.

They knocked, and the door was always opened to them. The still drowsy victim was torn from his sleep, and asked to dress in front of his mortified family; even if the reason for the intervention was not known, everyone knew that a visit from the NKVD had serious consequences.

Keeping the suspect in sight, officers would then search the apartment for any ‘incriminating’ documents or items; books, letters, weapons… Thus, a work by Trotsky was direct proof that the accused was a “counter-revolutionary”, a letter to a relative living abroad was proof that the accused was a “spy in the pay of a foreign power”, an old rusty rifle in the attic showed that the individual “wanted to take up arms to overthrow the Soviet regime”…

In reality, it didn’t matter, because the lack of evidence didn’t help either – people liked to say at the time that Soviet law was based on the principle “that there were no innocent people “.

Timofeï Nikolaïevitch Iessimov

Russian, born in 1906 in the village of Borok-Olcha. Party member, militia political assistant.

Arrested June 18, 1937. Sentenced to death August 25, 1937. Executed August 28, 1937.

The searches were almost systematically accompanied by the looting of the victim’s property ; jewellery, money, precious objects, etc. At the farms, after taking the prisoner away, officers sometimes returned to pick up the animals in chartered vehicles; cows, pigs, chickens…

Some time later, the accommodation was usually itself confiscated; sentences of 10 years in prison and the death penalty legalized the confiscation of the victim’s property by the state. Protesting against the NKVD was not an option for the remaining family members anyway, who were then thrown out on the streets – if there were any, because it happened that everyone was arrested.

The children, if they were young teenagers, were left to fend for themselves, and if they were smaller, were sent to state orphanages where they lived in catastrophic conditions (infant mortality in the USSR in peacetime was 120 per 1000 in 1940 – in orphanages it was even higher).

If the teenagers were a little older (being then qualified as “socially dangerous children”), the NKVD sometimes arrested them too; as early as 1935, the age of penal majority in the USSR was set at 12 years. Moreover, wandering orphans living on the streets were sometimes rounded up to “make numbers” and fill the quotas.

Ivan Alekseïevitch Belokachine

Russian, born in 1921 in the village of Novoye Selo […] Elementary studies, no party, no definite occupation and no fixed address.

Arrested in 1937 on an unknown date […] Sentenced to death on March 8, 1938. Executed on March 14, 1938.

In parallel with the so-called “Kulak” operation, other large-scale operations were launched by Stalin and N.Iejov, the most tragic being probably the ” national operations of the NKVD “, veritable ethnic purges of populations designated according to police terminology into force of “ethnically suspicious”.

In his well-known paranoia, Stalin transposed with conviction to the Soviet Union the famous expression of the Francoist general E. Mola concerning the existence of a “fifth column” of collaborators infiltrated among the Spanish Republicans, which undermined their movement of interior.

Convinced that not only immigrants, but also all individuals of foreign origin (however distant) constituted a breeding ground for hostile and dangerous spies in the context of a second world war which was already shaping up to be inevitable, he decided to arbitrarily purge their communities in “pre-emptive strikes”.

“ Arrest in all regions all Germans working in our military, semi-military and chemical factories, in our power stations and construction sites”

-Note written during a Politburo meeting on July 20, 1937 by Stalin. Formalized a few days later by operational order n°00439, the categories to be decided upon will be extended to ” all German agents, saboteurs, spies, terrorists […] whether they are Soviet citizens or foreign nationals, and whatever their place of work ”.

Dorothea Wilhelmovna Fridlender

Jewish, born in 1894 in Beuthen, Germany. Secondary education, member of the German Communist Party (KPD), teacher in Moscow.

Arrested December 3, 1937. Sentenced to death April 25, 1938. Executed the same day.

The most affected individuals were nationals of countries bordering the USSR, considered “at risk” in the context of a conflict; the Poles, the Germans, the nationals of the Baltic countries, the Finns, the Japanese, the Turks, the Chinese…

The Polish community was by far the most repressed ( order n°00485); an individual of Polish origin was about 20 times more likely to be arrested during the Great Terror than the Soviet average (against 5 times more for individuals of German origin, 3 times more for Finns).

Out of an estimated 700,000 individuals of Polish origin in the Soviet Union in 1937, 140,000 were arrested, including 110,000 condemned in the 1st category – to the death penalty. Knowing that 90% of those convicted of the Great Terror were men, it can be estimated that approximately one in three men living in the Soviet Union and being of Polish origin (near or distant) was shot in the space of these few month.

“Cam. Yejov. That is excellent! Keep digging, cleaning, and eradicating all that polish dirt. Liquidate it completely in the name of the interests of the USSR. J.Stalin 14.X.1937. »

-J.Stalin’s response to N.Yejov’s first report about the arrests of the Polish operation.

Tomasz Janowicz Rozalski

Polish, born in 1902 in Ćmielów. Member of the Polish Socialist Party, then of the Polish and Canadian PCs. Locksmith in Moscow.

Arrested September 10, 1937. Sentenced to death December 1, 1937. Executed December 10, 1937.

Finally, from October 23, 1937, all immigrants will be targeted by mass arrests under a new operational order, No. 00693, ” whatever the reasons, dates and circumstances of their passage in the USSR “.

Interrogations and torture

Once arrested, the individuals were taken to the local NKVD center, where they were imprisoned as part of their “investigation”. The modalities varied according to the services, but the purpose was the same; sooner or later the suspect had to sign a report attesting to his counter-revolutionary activity, sabotage, espionage, anti-Soviet agitation or other, and possibly denouncing accomplices.

In some centres, the reports are printed and pre-filled before the arrival of the accused. The NKVD interrogator only has to put the identity and the date of arrest in the holes, and ask the accused to sign the confession.

“The instructor presented me with an interrogation protocol already ready to sign, in which it was written that I had admitted having communicated to agents of the foreign services information on the production […] of the factory where I had worked in 1935. The instructor did not let me continue reading, saying to me: “what is the point of continuing, it will scare you”.

When I told him that all this was a tissue of lies, he answered me: we know it well in the NKVD, and we have nothing against you personally, but you must sign the protocol, you do not you won’t escape it, you are arrested simply because you are of Polish origin and we have to fill the line.

-Evguenia Breivinskaia, engineer arrested in February 1938, describing her only meeting with Inspector Solovyov.

Unsurprisingly, the first reaction of the defendants – who knew very well that these crimes were punishable by heavy penalties – even death – was to refuse. Confessions therefore had to be taken by force.

“… we arrested people without any evidence against them, then we extracted confessions of guilt from them without knowing whether the defendant is guilty or not (…) Krassikov beat brutally with the swab of his rifle the defendant Konstantinov stretched out, his hands tied (…) In the end, Konstantinov went mad.”

-Excerpt from the report of the interrogation of the head of the 3rd municipal section of the UNKVD – Rogova, Ulyanovsk, 1939

Mikhail Ivanovitch Alatyrtsev

Russian, born in 1884 in Pavlovo, Gorki region. Non-party, accountant in Moscow.

Arrested March 23, 1938. Sentenced to death May 28, 1938. Executed the same day.

Olonkin, chief engineer of Savernye Kommunar Enterprises, was on his feet for more than 10 days in a row […] until he started saying nonsense things. Her legs swelled up. After such a stoika, he sat down to write a confession, but he did not know what to write. […] Michaïlov answered me: “Then help him”.

-Archives of the memorial association.

“[…] In room 50, ten detainees were standing in a row; near the window, there were three or four officials […] A man was lying on a stool in the middle of the room, two others were holding his feet and head while a third, standing, stick in hand, stopped hitting the inmate […] he had started to confess […]

Yuvanov then asked the other inmates if anyone else wanted to confess. The next one [in line] said he was confessing and started talking about his fault […] I went to see Nadejdine, the head of the 2nd section, and I told him what I had just seen saying it was perversion.

Nadezhdin listened to me and said with a smile that it was normal, that an interrogation was being carried out as “troika material” (that was his expression) and that he had to provide 70 reports a day with confession of guilt.”

-Excerpt from the testimony of NKVD agent V. Voloshin, July 19, 1939.

The defendants are beaten, sometimes have their fingernails pulled out, teeth smashed in their mouths with pliers or their eyes gouged out. Deprived of sleep for days or even weeks, fed salty food then deprived of water, placed in jails for 2-3 individuals with more than 20 people… Suicides take place, despite special measures dictated to the agents to avoid them.

Many individuals die during the “investigation”; the agents transmit their files to the troikas (or sometimes to the “dvoïka” – composed of just the regional prosecutor of the USSR and the regional director of the NKVD – or even to other exceptional courts, responsible for the cases according to the operation associated with sentencing) by passing them off as alive, then bury their bodies once the death sentence has been handed down.

Rapes of arrested women also appear to have been commonplace; testimonies are by nature almost non-existent, but we know that the bodies of young women unearthed from the first mass graves discovered in Bykovnia in 1941 (by German troops advancing in Ukraine during the Second World War) were systematically naked, unlike the bodies of older women.

Maria Petrovna Agapova

Russian, born in 1907 in the city of Harbin, China. Non-party, industrial designer in a factory.

Arrested March 22, 1938. Sentenced to death May 9, 1938. Executed May 26, 1938.

One by one, the defendants confess. Once the report is signed, the documents are sent to the troikas, special courts, or dvoïka concerned. Files are processed in groups of several dozen or even hundreds. In the meantime, sometimes for months, the defendants remain imprisoned.

For the dvoikas, their own verdicts had to be accepted in a higher place in Moscow by the Prosecutor General of the USSR A.Vyshinsky, by N.Iejov, or even by their closest associates. To do this, the NKVD prepared “albums” with the photos of the defendants, accompanied by a few lines explaining the crimes committed and the sentence pronounced, then sent them by special courier to Moscow for validation:

“During his tour of the Far East in July 1938, Frinovski[NKVD No. 2] took with him stacks of albums for thousands of convicts asking [his associates] Listenburg, Lulov and Ushakov to take a look at them.

The reading of the albums was done around watered tables and to the sound of the gramophone. Listenbourg, Lulov and Ushakov competed – it would be who would lock out the most records. Generally, the instructions were not even read, the persons in charge contented themselves with putting “R” everywhere. [for “Rasstreliat” in Russian, which means “To shoot”]”

-Report on the commission of the Praesidium of the CC (February 18, 1963, published in Rehabilitatsia. Kak eto bylo )


Once convicted by the courts, the defendants are executed on the spot. Usually in NKVD cellars, in “death cells” (called ” spetzkamera “), with a bullet to the back of the head, from where their corpses will be placed on trucks; or similarly directly above the mass grave where they were ultimately to be brought.

The corpses are stripped without scruples, as in the Nazi extermination camps: the executioners remove jewels, gold teeth, quality clothes from the victims. During the Great Terror, they went so far as to open special shops for NKVD agents and various Party members in which the stolen property of the victims was sold at knockdown prices.

Fiodor Leontievitch Arkhipenko

Ukrainian, born in 1890 in the city of Borzna. Secondary education, non-party, accountant.

Arrested September 10, 1937. Sentenced to death October 8, 1937. Executed October 9, 1937.

Many other killing methods were applied; the executions becoming too numerous in certain operational sectors of the NKVD (as in Yamal-Nenets in Khakassie or in Barnaoul in the Altai), the condemned were shot on the head with stones to save the bullets.

In Belozersk, in the Volgoda region, the drunken executioners prefer to decapitate the shackled victims with axes, or smash their skulls with clubs. In Dagestan and Siberia, hundreds of detainees are simply strangled or shot with iron bars.

In Moscow, many individuals are gassed . The NKVD designs special trucks for this purpose, the exhaust pipes of which are connected to the sealed rear compartment, where the condemned are kept. On the way to the pit, they are poisoned by carbon monoxide emitted by the moving vehicle, and die. By tragic coincidence, the inventor of the Soviet gas truck was Jewish-born NKVD agent Isai Berg – who would himself be executed in 1939 as part of a “purge after purge” of the NKVD.

In Kouïbychev, for entertainment, civil servants of the political police and militiamen ask condemned prisoners to have sexual intercourse in front of them, promising to release them, then, at the end of the “spectacle”, strangle them. In NKVD jargon, the executions are called “ weddings ” (“svabdas” in Russian), events to which some agents even invite communist militiamen or other collaborators…

Although the practice does not seem to be particularly widespread, we have found traces of annoyance, in particular a directive from AMPetrov, head of the NKVD in Tobolsk, who on April 22, 1938 ordered his subordinates “to stop inviting executions of Party comrades ” by directive.

Soviet concentration camps also receive death sentence quotas for criminals and political opponents as part of the Great Terror – and some, like the Serpantinka, occasionally become veritable extermination camps – which also leads to mass shootings there.

Alexander Kouzmitch Lachkov

Russian born in 1882 in Pskov. Higher education, non-party, laboratory director of the Moscow Aviation Institute.

Arrested November 1, 1937. Sentenced to death January 10, 1938. Executed the same day.

The machine is racing

The red wheel crushes everything in its path, the quotas set by Moscow are quickly pulverized, and the local leaders of the NKVD, either out of careerist zeal (especially for the youngest), or out of fear of underperforming and being self- same arrests, begin to ask for “increases in quotas” in surrealist telegrams addressed to Stalin and N.Iezhov. A murderous spiral begins, and the number of convicts explodes.

Thus, in the Omsk region, which had initially been granted a quota of 1,000 individuals in category 1, the head of the local NKVD asked N.Yejov for an endorsement of… 7,000 other individuals to be sentenced to death – after ten days of operation only! His request was immediately transmitted to Stalin, who approved it with a simple telegram. For the “kulak” operation which was supposed to last only 5 months, the activity will finally continue for 15 months – the initial quota of deportees will be multiplied by two, and that of those sentenced to death, by five…

The NKVD itself is quickly overwhelmed with its own arrests. In some centres, there is a lack of photographers to take turns and take pictures of the condemned 24 hours a day; in others, all the mass graves are full, and they begin to hide the heaps of corpses in ravines or in abandoned mines, as in Zolotaïa Gora.

How did senior officials react to these arrests, which were obviously abusive and faked? By support, by silence, and sometimes by light criticism in the most aberrant cases.

“The distribution of the elements in these lines appeared to us to be completely unsatisfactory […] In the German operation, you arrested 4142 individuals. However, of this number, there are only 390 German names. […] As for German immigrants, there are only 8. […]”

-Letter from M.Frinovskii, n°2 of the NKVD, addressed to Dmitriev, chief of the NKVD of the region of Sverdlosk.

Very rarely are prosecutions for “undermining socialist legality” brought against sadistic NKVD agents immediately after the Great Terror, but mostly these are alibis to condemn them to death and purge them in turn, in the macabre political game of Stalinism.

Sergueï Ivanovitch Vassiliev

Russian, born in 1909 in the village of Triakhinkino. Illiterate, non-party, carpenter in the Siblovo cardboard factory. Resident in Moscow.

Arrested December 2, 1937. Sentenced to death February 4, 1938. Executed March 8, 1938.

Where did this generalized lack of humanity come from, accompanied by sadism, wielded on a large scale by the agents of the political police? On the one hand, the biographical sketches of the leading cadres of the NKVD at the time show that the majority were hardened agents, often having had a difficult childhood (orphans, street children, young people from broken families or having had an interrupted education ), and having participated over the past 20 years in the various massacres of bourgeois and other class enemies as members of the political police.

On the other hand, the executioners themselves are in reality in a very tense situation, being the pawns of a dystopian game whose rules are dictated by generalized hysteria, permanent lying (to the hierarchy as well as to the condemned), by pervasive suspicion and violence. Very quickly, they too develop a real paranoia in the face of the risk of being accused of the same imaginary crimes as their victims – and rightly so.

“I worked like everyone else for the extermination of enemies, but the thought never left me that I could at any moment be arrested, disarmed and taken down to a cellar […] Every day I was under a strain of all my nerves (execution and expectation of my own arrest), and I began to apply the methods that everyone applied”

-Letter to Andrei Zhdanov by an NKVD official just before his own arrest in 1939.

Stanislaw Rytchardovitch Budkiewicz

Polish, born in 1887 in Łódź. Higher education, political officer attached to the intelligence service of the army, scientific secretary of the editorial staff of the Soviet military encyclopedia.

Arrested June 9, 1937. Sentenced to death September 21, 1937. Executed the same day.

“With us, it sometimes happened that the officials refused to give blows and inflict the stoikis , but then they were accused of not supporting the class struggle.”

-Excerpt from the report of the interrogation of Piotr Minaïev, official of the OUNKVD in Belozersk.

In this true psychological hell, the executioners become particularly cynical, sink into alcoholism, even commit suicide. Others, including senior officers, defected and managed to flee the USSR to go to the West, China or the Middle East.

The real psychopaths, who kill the prisoners in the chain without scruples, are for their part handsomely rewarded, receiving apartments in Moscow, financial compensation and various medals. But they often did not keep them very long; nearly 2,000 political police executives and many agents were also eliminated during a “purge after purge” of the NKVD in 1939.

The hunted elites

Since the individuals on file are all arrested, month after month, the explosion of quotas accompanied by the pressure of numbers leads to a veritable hunt for the innocent. Although the victims belonged to all strata of the population, certain categories of individuals are particularly martyred.

Intellectuals are extremely affected: any link with the West (travel, possession of foreign books, epistolary links, etc.) are suspect, and any position of responsibility lends itself perfectly to accusations of “sabotage” in companies, factories or transport , or to the various “plots” that the NKVD was striving to unmask, which was ordered to find conspiracies linking the suspects together rather than making isolated victims.

Thus, intellectuals pay a heavy price, and are overrepresented by a factor of three compared to the average Soviet citizen in the victims of the Great Terror. The last strongholds where senior civil servants managed to keep a certain autonomy vis-à-vis the Soviet power, such as the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, were hit hard by repression.

In 1937, the voices of the last statisticians who still dared to publish data invalidating triumphalist political discourses on the development, wealth and security of the Soviet Union gave way to silence. The surviving elites of the old regime of the tsar, falling into the category of “Byvchie” (very eloquent terminology, meaning “people of the past”) are liquidated.

Dmitry Ivanovitch Chakhovskoi

Russian, born in 1861 in Moscow. Higher education, non-party, former founding member of the Democratic Constitutional Party, man of letters, retired philologist.

Arrested July 26, 1938. Sentenced to death April 14, 1939. Executed the same day.

The military elites , accused of being lairs of spies going to turn against their homeland at the slightest conflict, are duly destroyed (their purge begins slowly several weeks before the start of Operation Koulak).

The military high command is violently liquidated; the figures seem to vary slightly according to the sources, but are executed 3 marshals out of 5, approximately 85% of the approximately 250 generals, all the admirals of the navy, all the political commissars of the army (11 out of 11), etc. Further down the hierarchy, 35,000 officers were also arrested or dismissed (i.e. 1/5 of the officer corps).

Coupled with a rapid increase in the size of the Red Army, the purges of the Great Terror decapitated Soviet military command before World War II. At the dawn of the conflict, nearly 75% of Soviet military officers and commissars in service had less than two years of experience…

Mikaïl Ivanovitch Alafouzo

Russian, born in 1891 in Nikolayev. Higher education, non-party […] dean of the Academy of the General Staff of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army (corps commander – corps general equivalent).

Arrested April 15, 1937, sentenced to death July 13, 1937. Executed the same day.

After being subjected to deportations, arbitrary death sentences and various persecutions during the last 20 years by the USSR, the religions and “sects” are dealt a deathblow during the Great Terror.

The priests also falling into the category of “people of the past” (“byvchie”), the clergy are naturally annihilated; about 90% of its membership (already much reduced in previous decades) was terminated, and 95% of the churches still operating in 1936 were closed by the start of World War II in 1939.

In the Islamic republics, to fill the quotas, the NKVD does not hesitate to arrest peasants with long beards and arbitrarily accuse them of being “Muslim mullahs”. In any case, under torture, the defendants admitted all the identities attributed to them.

Vladimir Nikovich Volkov

Russian, born in 1878 in the village of Male Polytki. Non-party, Orthodox priest from the village of Islavskoye.

Arrested February 27, 1938. Sentenced to death March 7, 1938. Executed March 25, 1938.

Finally, it is the political elites who are themselves purged with extreme brutality. Partly in a public way – notably within the framework of the famous trials of Moscow , very publicized events which shocked the communists of the whole world, and which inspired G.Orwell in his famous novels 1984 and The Farm with Animals .

For these great trials, eminent Bolsheviks and revolutionaries, comrades of Lenin from the start, figures beyond suspicion, are suddenly accused of improbable counter-revolutionary crimes in fabricated cases, and condemned to death at the outcome of parodies of trials – hosted by the USSR General Prosecutor A.Vyshinsky himself, who showered the defendants with torrents of insults each time he spoke:

“Shoot those rabid dogs. Death to this band which hides from the people its ferocious teeth, its eagle claws! […] Down with these abject animals! Let’s put an end once and for all to these miserable hybrids of foxes and pigs, to these stinking corpses! Let us exterminate the mad dogs of capitalism, who want to shred the flower of our new Soviet nation!”

-A.Vyshinsky reading the indictment of the trial Anti-Soviet Trotskyist Reserve Center, January 1937.

In parallel with the Moscow trials, hundreds of trials of local Party leaders and their associates (sometimes called “agricultural trials”) took place, to which the media, activists and residents were invited.

Stalin, hating most of these senior executives, according to him ” great lords always satisfied with themselves, who wash the dirty linen with their families, congratulate each other and send stupid and nauseating reports to the Center “, closely follows some of these trials, scribbling angry and insulting notes towards the defendants on the transcripts of the proceedings.

All these trials of powerful politicians, veritable “rites of annihilation of the enemies of the people”, were particularly used by the state to occupy media space and divert the attention of Soviet citizens (and of the international community ) Great Terror operations in full swing.

Tens of thousands of communist executives were tried and executed after rigged trials. Furthermore, uncooperative prosecutors and judges were often themselves arrested and sentenced. This phenomenon was not uncommon, local judicial cadres having often been chosen by cronyism, being in cahoots with local Party leaders and trying to defend them (in 1930, only 4% of Soviet magistrates had had training in right…).

The purge was spectacular: in 1939, 80% of the 33,000 senior officials of the Central Committee had been in office for less than a year, as had 293 of the 333 regional Party secretaries.

Aleksandr Ivanovitch Dogadov

Russian, born in 1888 in Kazan. Worker, member of the central committee of the Party. Plenipotentiary of the Central State Control Commission for the Sverdlovsk region.

Arrested July 21, 1937. Sentenced to death October 26, 1937. Executed the same day.

These top officials were executed throughout the Great Terror, sometimes while issuing death sentences in the hundreds in the Troika days before their arrest. The individuals participating in the purges are thus themselves caught up in the infernal machine; the revolution devours its children .

Stanislas Kossior, prominent Bolshevik and member of the politburo, General Secretary of the Communist Party in Ukraine who implemented the terrible measures that led to the great famine of 1932-1933 ( Holodomor) which cost more than 4 million lives, was suddenly arrested in 1938, yet at the peak of his career.

Tortured, he is asked to confess to being a Polish spy, but he holds on. NKVD agents then arrest his 16-year-old daughter, and gang-rape her in front of him, forcing him to watch the scene; he gives in, signs the confession, and is sentenced to death. His daughter, released, commits suicide two weeks later by throwing herself under a train.

Robert Eikhe , great Latvian Bolshevik, regional secretary of Western Siberia, who condemned individuals to death by the hundreds in his troika a few days earlier, was suddenly arrested with his wife at the end of April 1938. Tortured, they both confessed to counter-revolutionary crimes without tail or head . His wife is sentenced to death and executed a few months later, but he is kept alive longer, and tries to retract her confession; but he will again be tortured, beaten, and will have an eye gouged out by the infamous NKVD torturer Boris Rodos.

This time he will hold his ground and will no longer confess, but his executioners will execute him anyway. His ordeal will be cited as an example of Stalinist crimes by Nikita Khrushchev, in his famous secret report of de- Stalinization.

Michael Elisseievitch Khriapenkov

Russian, born in 1897 in the village of Strogovo. Higher education, Party member, Head of the Main Fire Protection Bureau of the NKVD of the USSR, rank of Major/Brigadier General.

Arrested September 21, 1938. Sentenced to death May 4, 1939. Executed the same day.

This list goes on endlessly, but one final name needs to be remembered; it is that of the director of the NKVD and organizer of the Great Terror, Nikolai Yezhov himself .

Very quickly dismissed by Stalin at the end of the operations, he was forced to resign from his duties on November 23, 1938. Having understood what his fate was going to be, he fell into alcoholism, before being himself arrested by the NKVD a few months later, in April 1939. He will simply ask the Military College judging him to be “calmly shot, without torture”.

La Pravda wrote that Nikolai Yezhov had “left office for health reasons”. In the jails, he will be accused of plots to assassinate Stalin, espionage in the pay of Poland, Germany and Japan, as well as sodomy (homosexuality) – in particular having had sexual intercourse with another great Bolshevik leader, Filipp Goloshchyokin, a former close friend of Stalin and first secretary of the Party of Kazakhstan, who had among other things organized the Kazakh famine of 1932-1933 (famine which killed more than a third of the Kazakh population in about a year).

N.Yejov will be sentenced to death with several members of his family (and lovers) after an investigation lasting several months, which will also lead to the execution of dozens of NKVD officials and their families – for example M.Frinovskii , his former right-hand man, with his wife and son.

At the announcement of his sentence, N.Yejov gave an awkward speech, in which he pleaded guilty to ” not having killed enough enemies of the people “, and ensured ” to die with Stalin’s name on his lips “. In a few days, all the (numerous) public mentions of his name will be erased, and official photos retouched to completely erase his memory.

– N.Yejov, nicknamed “the bloodthirsty dwarf”, standing to the left of Stalin (on the right of the image), during a trip on the Moscow Canal.

The end of operations

The Great Terror ends as it began ; by a secret Politburo directive dated November 17, 1938, signed by Stalin on behalf of the Party, and by his right-hand man V. Molotov on behalf of the government.

This immediately put an end to all mass operations, abolished special jurisdictions, and castigated certain “abuses of socialist legality” in the work of the NKVD, attributing these defects to “anti-Soviet undermining” caused by enemies of the people and foreign spies who supposedly infiltrated the state body. This crude accusation would be used a few months later to purge the NKVD and kill thousands of agents who took part in the Great Terror, sealing their lips forever.

The remaining NKVD torturers, with very few exceptions, will never be prosecuted. Stalin indeed gave them his support a posteriori, “in the name of the Central Committee”, by sending a telegram justifying the use of torture during the Great Terror:

“The Central Committee of the Communist Party recalls that the use of methods of physical pressure in the practice of the NKVD was authorized in 1937 […] It is known that all the intelligence services of the bourgeoisie use methods of physical pressure in the against the representatives of the socialist proletariat, and that they use it in the most scandalous way possible. The question arises as to why the socialist intelligence services should show humanity towards the fanatical agents of the bourgeoisie, towards the mortal enemies of the working class and the kolkhoz peasantry.

-Stalin’s telegram addressed to all district, regional, federated and autonomous republic officials of the Communist Party and the NKVD, January 10, 1939.

The rehabilitations of certain former convicts of the Great Terror will begin after the death of Stalin (1953), with the process of de-Stalinization started by N.Khrouchtchev. The families of the executed in “category 1”, they will not really be informed of the fate of their loved ones until after the fall of the USSR.

During Stalinism, they were told that their relatives had been condemned “to 10 years in a camp without the right to correspond”; after de-Stalinization, they were simply told that their relatives had died in a camp.

In reality, the leaders taking part in de-Stalinization in the 1950s had mostly gotten their hands dirty during the Great Terror (N. Khrushchev first, having personally managed the purges in the Moscow Oblast), and preferred never to reveal the whole truth.

Vassili Ananievitch Kapranov

Russian, born in 1891 in the Moscow region. Higher education, non-party, deputy director of Glavkonditer sugar establishments.

Arrested July 7, 1937. Sentenced to death October 28, 1937. Executed the same day.

The collateral victims – the families of the condemned

This answer, very long, still requires a last tribute, dedicated to the hundreds of thousands of “collateral victims” of the Great Terror.

At the same time as the great Moscow trials and the “small agricultural trials” were going on publicly, the state launched a vast campaign of veritable “hate propaganda ” against the “enemies of the people.”

Boosted by the popularity with the Soviet people of the figure of the conspiracy, this central theme of Stalinism (any delay, accident or non-fulfillment of the Plan in the factories and state industries was attributed to “sabotage” or “diversion” – the system being perfect, the problems were necessarily due to traitors), this propaganda operation met with great success.

Thousands of meetings were organized in factories, administrations, enterprises and higher educational establishments, during which the participants were summoned to approve, in advance, the guilt of the accused, and to condemn their potential collaborators.

After diatribes in which the defendants were called “filthy beasts”, “mad dogs” and other dehumanizing insults, we organized votes by a show of hands, completely symbolic, for or against the execution of the suspects – or more generally, for that of “all spies, traitors to the country, enemies of the people”.

The denunciation of any “suspicious” individual was also encouraged; one denounced one’s neighbors and sometimes even one’s relatives for any deviation. Doing a noisy activity during a speech by Stalin on the radio could, after complaints from neighbors, lead to an intervention by the NKVD.

-The workers of the dynamo factory in Moscow vote the death penalty for the defendants of the first major trials (1936). On the banner: ” Erase from the face of the earth the gang of Trotskyist-Zinovievist murderers – this is the verdict of the working people “.

This hateful ideology spread, by crime of proximity, to the families and relatives of individuals arrested during the Stalinist purges of the Great Terror (and the purges that were to follow!). Thus, they were victims of a particularly violent social ostracism.

By the hundreds of thousands, families not only lost an innocent relative to the hands of the NKVD, but soon also part of their civic rights, being filed as “wife/child of an enemy of the people”. Would-be orphans were brainwashed and encouraged to reject their own parents.

-Photos of children of “country traitors” placed in an OGPU/NKVD orphanage in the 1930s. The teachers encouraged them to denounce their parents, whether they were dead or still alive (imprisoned) .

Relatives of the tortured were thus banned from entering certain universities, were automatically rejected from the vast majority of jobs in state organizations, but also deprived of participating in many social events or the right to travel abroad. ‘stranger.

The wife of the famous Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn notably had to divorce him (while he was imprisoned in the Gulag) to find a job. But for the victims, the hardest thing was to bear the hatred of their fanatical fellow citizens:

[…] After my father’s arrest […] Mom didn’t have a job, we didn’t want to accept her anywhere, she planted potatoes in the garden next to the house so that we could have something Something to eat. One day, when I was returning from school, I saw the following scene: the new tenant was uprooting the potato plants. My mother was shouting, “What are you doing, I won’t have anything left to feed my children!” And he replied: “ Spy bitch! […] It was typical behavior of that time.

-Nelli Konstantinovna Kalinina, born in 1926, daughter of the famous aircraft manufacturer Konstantin Kalinin. An oceanologist, she was only able to leave the Soviet Union in 1972, being until then listed as a “suspicious element” because of her father being shot, and consequently prohibited from leaving the country.

[…] The judge read the verdict: death penalty by shooting, execution within twenty-four hours. I looked at dad, he staggered […] “Your last wishes?” My father replied that he was asking that we take care of his minor daughter who was left alone without the means to live. The judge answered him: “We do not help the children of the enemies of the people”.

-Irina Kirillovna Odinstova, born in 1928. Her mother and father were deported in 1938; his mother was shot the same year, during the Great Terror, but his father was shot later, in 1941, hence the trial.

“When they arrested my father, people suddenly started hating us, it was not a life but a nightmare. We couldn’t go anywhere [as children]… They made fun of us, insulted us, beat us… We couldn’t go on the street, because sometimes they threw stones at us.”

-Adela Zygmuntowa Brzezinska, born in 1930, daughter of a Polish cellist shot in February 1938.

As long as it is, this article never gives more than a partial vision of the Great Terror, this terrible programmed operation of elimination of all the elements judged as “unreliable” by the Soviet state; it is a small window on the horror of the totalitarianisms of the 20th century. I invite curious readers to delve into the resources listed below to learn more.

Perhaps if we can learn from this tragic event, these individuals will not all have died in vain.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top