A system that required passports for anyone wishing to move about the country was instituted. Between December 1932 and December 1933, some 27 million adults received passports. This program enabled authorities to readily identify those "undesirables" whose rights had been taken away (such as clergy, civil servants, engineers, agronomists, technicians, administrators, "ex-landowners," "ex-shopkeepers," "ex-nobles," ex-policemen," "ex-kulaks," "ex-employees or owners of private companies," ex-White [Army] officers, and "ex-members of political parties") and to banish them from the cities. Hundreds of thousands of such people were refused passports and were forced to vacate their homes within ten days. Prohibited from residing in any city anywhere in the Soviet Union, they were thus forced to carve out dwelling places where they could in the countryside. During the first two months of this operation, the population of Moscow fell by 60,000. In Leningrad, 54,000 people vanished in a single month.
In addition, police raids and spot checks for identity papers resulted in the arrest, imprisonment, and exile of hundreds of thousands. People could be arrested and deported simply for walking to the corner store to buy cigarettes without their papers.
One of the regions affected most severely by the famine was the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. An Italian consul stationed there described in horrific detail the culture of death that arose in that city: "Along with the peasants who flock to the towns because there is no hope of survival in the countryside, there are also children who are simply brought here and abandoned by their parents, who then return to their village to die. Their hope is that someone in the town will be able to look after their children. . . . [D]vorniki, attendants in white uniforms, . . . collect the children and take them to the nearest police station. . . . Around midnight they are all transported in trucks to the freight station. . . . That's where all the children who are found in stations and on trains, the peasant families, the old people, and all the peasants who have been picked up during the day are gathered together . . . A medical team does a sort of selection process…Anyone who is not yet swollen up and still has a chance of survival is directed to [a specified area]. People who are already starting to swell up are moved out on goods trains and abandoned about forty miles out of town so that they can die out of sight. When they arrive at the destination, huge ditches are dug, and the dead are carried out of the wagons."
The famine engineered by Stalin caused artificially induced death in peacetime on a scale unsurpassed in the recorded history of mankind. Mortality rates reached their apex in the summer of 1933, when the effects of the famine were compounded by deadly outbreaks of typhus. It was common for towns with populations of several thousand to be reduced to a mere two-dozen survivors or fewer. Many starving wretches resorted to cannibalism in desperate attempts to delay their inevitable demise for just another day or even a few hours. One eyewitness observer in Kharkiv wrote: "Every night the bodies of more than 250 people who have died from hunger or typhus are collected. Many of these bodies have had the liver removed, through a large slit in the abdomen. The police finally picked up some of these mysterious 'amputators' who confessed that they were using the meat as a filling for the meat pies that they were selling in the market."
The famine affected 40 million people, including those who died from it and those who suffered through it but survived. It extended throughout all of Ukraine, part of the Black Earth territories, much of Kazakhstan, and the plains of the Don, the Kuban, and the northern Caucusus. In 1933 alone, 6 million people died of famine-related causes; 4 million of these were Ukrainian peasants. The famine likely caused another million deaths in Kazakhstan, and a million more in the northern Caucusus and Black Earth. It is notable that the areas that had resisted collectivization most vigorously in 1929-1930 were, for the most part, the areas that suffered the worst effects of the famine. For example (as noted earlier), some 14,000 riots and peasant revolts protesting collectivization had taken place in 1930; more than 85 percent of these occurred in regions that were hardest hit by the famine of 1932-33. In general, the areas that were the richest agriculturally suffered most from the famine - quite simply because it was not a natural disaster but rather a calamity carefully engineered by Stalin himself.
Because the famine was official state policy, the Soviet government was entirely indifferent to the plight of the dying masses. In 1933, for example, when thousands were succumbing to starvation each day, the Soviet government continued to export huge quantities of grain abroad "in the interests of industrialization" - taking the official position that all was well in the USSR. When foreign dignitaries visited the country, the GPU led them exclusively to areas where the appalling stench of death did not fill the air, and where all signs of the human misery that permeated the land had been hidden from view.
Apart from those who were deceived, there were also many willing accomplices - particularly in the press - who were willing to ignore, or even to falsify their accounts of, the horrors they saw firsthand throughout Stalin's empire. Most notable was Walter Duranty, the New York Times Moscow correspondent in the 1930s, who concealed his knowledge of the great famine and Stalin's mass murders. In 1933, for instance, when the famine was at its height, Duranty wrote that "village markets [were] flowing with eggs, fruit, poultry, vegetables, milk and butter. . . . A child can see this is not famine but abundance." Duranty's various dispatches during this period included also the following: "There is no famine or actual starvation, nor is there likely to be" (New York Times, Nov. 15, 1931); "Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda" (New York Times, August 23, 1933); "There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition" (New York Times, March 31, 1933).
Duranty's reports were not founded in ignorance; he knew very well that they were utterly false. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting.
The great famine had an enormous effect on Soviet society and the character of the Soviet people. It fostered a proliferation of tyrants and local despots who, eager to please their superiors and ultimately Stalin himself, were prepared to resort to any measures to strip the starving peasants of every last morsel of food. It also led to the desperate abandonment of countless children and the rise of cannibalism. Coupled with these developments were the establishment of death camps and the unpredictable atrocities of Stalin's secret police. Barbarism and corruption became the defining characteristics of Soviet life. But Stalin and his henchmen cast a positive light upon this period, viewing its horrors as essential building blocks for an indomitable national character. As Politburo member Sergo Ordzhonikidze remarked in January 1934, "Our [party] members who saw the situation of 1932-33 and who stood up to it are now tempered like steel. I think with people like that, we can build a state such as history has never seen."
The Great Terror
In a famous statement, Stalin claimed that the closer the country came to achieving communism, the more intense the resistance by the revolution's enemies would be. In order to forge the "new socialist society," he ruthlessly enforced the repression of "socially alien elements," and then enemies within the revolution itself.
The elements alien to the socialist cause were "bourgeois specialists," "aristocrats," clergy, members of liberal professions, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, and craftsmen. Members of each of these groups were stigmatized, deprived of their civil rights, stripped of their jobs and homes, and in many cases exiled. Among the most common charges brought against them was "sabotage," a term used to designate the acts of anyone who demonstrated even the barest hint of indifference to, or uncertainty about, the aims of the Party. The refusal of the state to tolerate even indifference to its aims gave rise to a new term -- "totalitarianism" -- to describe a regime whose efforts to control its population reached far beyond the repressive measures of even the most despotic tyrannies and dictatorships of the past. Stalin gave voice to this repressive mentality when he stated, "Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?"
In 1933 large numbers of city dwellers were rounded up and sent, like military regiments, to the countryside to work the fields. As the Italian consul in Kharkiv wrote in July 1933: "The enforced conscription of people from the city is assuming enormous proportions. This week alone, at least 20,000 people are being sent out to the countryside every day." The rural peasants often reacted angrily to arrival of the "conscripts" and set fire to their living quarters.
By the spring of 1934, the famine, the targeted persecutions, the forced population relocations, and the resultant social breakdown had combined to give rise to a large population of vagabonds and juvenile delinquents. In an effort to crack down on them, the Politburo issued an April 1935 decree for "bringing to justice, and punishing with the full force of the law [including the death penalty], any adolescent older than 12 years who is convicted of burglary, acts of violence, grievous bodily harm, mutilation, or murder." The government also established a network of "work colonies" for minors.
But for much of 1934, Stalin's war against his own people abated somewhat as the secret police were reorganized and the GPU became a department of the new People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs -- Narodnyi komissariat vnutrennikh del, or NKVD. But December 1, 1934 marked a watershed moment in the sudden resumption of state-induced terror throughout Russia. In what came to be known as the "Law of 1 December," Stalin decreed that suspected lawbreakers, upon their arrest, had to be questioned by authorities within ten days; that they could be tried without an attorney representing them; and that they could be executed immediately if convicted, with no opportunity to appeal.
The incident that ushered in this epoch of renewed repression was the murder of Politburo member Sergei Kirov, whose political independence and outspokenness did not mesh well with Stalin's growing awareness that opposition to his brutal policies was on the rise throughout the USSR. Stain also feared Kirov's popularity with the party rank and file and had him murdered by a young assassin named Leonid Nikolaev. But Stalin gave no indication that he had either planned or approved of this killing. He feigned outrage and used Kirov's death as a pretext for introducing repressive new laws to punish political crimes and ushering in a purge of suspected enemies. Over the next four-and-a-half years (which would become known as the period of the Great Terror), Stalin had millions of innocent party members and others arrested -- many of them for their role in the alleged Kirov conspiracy. Among those executed for their presumed roles in Kirov's slaying were Stalin's former allies Zinoviev and Kamenev. They were accused of having formed a terrorist organization plotting to kill Stalin, and both were executed on the same day, August 25, 1936.
In the weeks pursuant to the passage of the "Law of 1 December" (1934), the indiscriminate accusation of suspects became customary; new procedures were put in place for prosecuting suspected "terrorists," and many of Stalin's opponents within the Communist Party were accused of the "odious crime" of belonging to a secret terrorist network allegedly directed from its "Center in Leningrad." All suspects were swiftly tried, convicted, and immediately executed. Between December 1934 and February 1935, some 6,500 people were sentenced for the crime of terrorism.
Soon, anyone who had ever voiced opposition to Stalin on any matter became a suspect. According to the Central Committee, there was a plot underway by various "anti-Party groups" to usurp Stalin's power. In May 1935 the dictator ordered that the Party membership card of every Communist be carefully checked, and the NKVD supplied files on those "suspicious Communists" who merited closer scrutiny. As a result of this campaign, fully 9 percent of all Party members, or 250,000 people, were expelled from the Party. There were mass deportations of those identified as "anti-Soviet" families and "doubtful elements." The spring of 1936 saw the deportation of 15,000 families (50,000 people) to collective farms in Kazakhstan. Between August 1937 and November 1938, hundreds of thousands were arrested in anti-espionage operations.
The heightened repression of this period was reflected in the astronomical numbers of sentences handed down by the NKVD: 267,000 in 1935, and 274,000 in 1936. Stalin's characteristic paranoia was in full swing; between January and June 1936, more than 14,000 industrial managers were arrested for the crime of "sabotage." The obsession with "saboteurs" continued to escalate and became the most distinguishing feature of Stalin's regime. In July 1937 the Politburo decreed that "all kulaks and criminals must be immediately arrested . . . and after trial before a troika (a panel of three judges) the most hostile are to be shot, and the less active but still hostile elements deported." In a single 1937 operation, more than 259,000 people were arrested and nearly 73,000 were shot.
In addition to kulaks, ex-kulaks, and "criminal elements," targets of the repression also included "socially dangerous elements," "members of anti-Soviet parties," "former Czarist civil servants," and "white Guards." These designations had no precise or definite meanings but could be applied freely and interchangeably to almost any suspect. Categories of political enemies were arbitrarily invented. If the number of arrests "warranted" by these "crimes" failed to meet the quotas prescribed by the government, then it was customary to also arrest the family members of the principal "suspects." According to Soviet nuclear physicist and academician Andrei Sakharov, more than 1.2 million Party members (a total representing more than half the Party) were arrested between 1936 and 1939; of these, at least 600,000 were killed through torture, execution, and confinement in the concentration camps called "Gulags."
Between August and December of 1937, Stalin launched at least ten operations to liquidate groups of suspected spies or "subversives" - one nationality at a time. Among these were Germans, Poles, Japanese, Romanians, Finns, Lithuanians, Latvians, Greeks, and Turks. Anyone who had ever held any contact or correspondence, however casual or infrequent, with people in foreign lands was now considered a security threat. People living in the frontier zones were particularly vulnerable to this charge, simply by virtue of their proximity to outside influences. Anyone who showed even the slightest interest in the happenings or cultures of other nations was suspect; as a result, owning a radio transmitter, collecting stamps, or speaking the Esperanto language were all grounds for questioning and possible arrest.
The terror of 1936-1939 also vigorously targeted intellectuals, who had been recognized as a distinct Russian subgroup since the mid-1800s, and who had historically been the voice of resistance against tyranny and intellectual constraint. Anyone who might have knowledge of the outside world - of ideas, values, and ways of life contrary to those promoted by Stalin - was considered a potential threat. More than 70 percent of the victims of the purges during this period had attended college. To demonize any intellectuals who might be predisposed to oppose the regime, Stalin initiated a media campaign condemning "deviationism" in economics, history, and literature. But in the final analysis, scholars in all fields of study were equally vulnerable; even those disciplines with no connection to politics, ideology, military matters, or economics felt the crushing weight of Stalin's repression. Astronomers, statisticians, linguists, biologists, and scientists of all stripes were targeted. College faculties were decimated, as exemplified by the case of the University at Byelorussia, where 87 of 105 academics were arrested on suspicion of being "Polish spies." Similarly, 27 of the 29 astronomers at Pulkovo observatory were arrested. Stalin's repression also sent thousands of writers, publishers, journalists, and theater directors to prisons, labor camps, or executioners - simply for holding the "wrong" political or philosophical views.
In this latest wave of terror, Soviet authorities sought to finally achieve the "complete liquidation" of the clergy - a mission they had begun in the late 1920s. Thousands of priests and nearly all bishops were sent to forced labor camps, but most were simply executed. Of the nearly 21,000 churches and mosques that were active in 1936, fewer than 1,000 would still be functioning as of early 1941. The number of officially registered clerics nationwide declined from over 24,000 in 1936 to a mere 5,665 in early 1941.
Stalin also conducted a massive purge of the Red Army - resulting in the execution, imprisonment, or dismissal of 35,020 officers; of the 706 highest-ranking officers, about half were similarly eliminated. The Army purge also cut loose 3 of its 5 marshals, 13 of its 15 army generals, 8 of its 9 admirals, 50 of its 57 army corps generals, 154 of its 186 division generals, all 16 of its army commissars, and 25 of its 28 army corps commissars. The defendants underwent brutal interrogation procedures and were often forced into making confessions.
Moreover, Stalin purged his Party cadres to an astonishing degree. He eliminated 98 of the 139 members of the Central Committee; 1,108 of the 1,996 delegates to the Seventeenth Party Congress; and 2,210 of 2,750 district secretaries. In addition, he ordered the nearly total re-staffing of the local and regional headquarters of the Party and Komsomol (Communist Youth Party). Of the 200 members of the Central Committee of the Ukraine Communist Party, only 3 survived. The same grisly scenario was repeated at all local and regional Party headquarters. Defendants had no chance of acquittal because their testimony was not believed and was distorted beyond recognition in the official records. Transcribers placed anti-Stalin quotes into the defendants' mouths and cited the purportedly damning testimony of non-existent witnesses. Almost invariably, this process resulted in the conviction and sentencing of the defendants. Forced confessions were common.
As the victims of Stalin's purges grew exponentially in number, the dictator tried to conceal his mass executions by removing from public awareness all traces of those who he had eliminated via exile or murder. For instance, his propagandists used airbrushing and cutting-and-pasting techniques to remove from the visual record those he had sentenced to death or the Gulags. Whenever Stalin had a former colleague executed, photographs showing that individual attending past May Day parades were redone to change or eliminate their appearance, thereby masking the fact that the person was no longer alive. Stalin further ordered that the names of those he had arrested or executed could no longer be spoken, and that their photographs could never again be displayed anywhere. Not even family photo albums were safe; people were required, on pain of arrest or exile, to cut out and destroy the images of their departed loved ones, thereby losing their final, tenuous links to the people nearest to their hearts.
In November 1937 Stalin signed an order for the "purge" of the Polish Communist Party - accusing all factions of that Party of "following the orders of counterrevolutionary Polish secret services." "Polish fascist agents have infiltrated the Party and taken up all key positions," the order explained. By the end of 1938 the Party had been completely liquidated. Stalin chose new leaders to run the organization, as he did for all purged groups. He usually chose from a rival faction of the liquidated entity.
The orders for all of these operations were handed down personally by Stalin and his closest political allies, and were carried out by local authorities. Without even a cursory knowledge of how many people in a given region might be "guilty" of the "crimes" the government was punishing, Stalin set quotas for how many sentences and executions should be carried out in each district. These quotas, high to begin with, often served only as springboards to even greater excesses by the local authorities; fearful of being perceived as too lax, and eager to please their superiors in the central government, these locals commonly went far beyond the "call of duty" in convicting and executing alleged subversives. For example, the government's quotas (for the period August 1937 through September 1938) for Turkmenistan - a republic of 1.3 million people - called for 6,227 sentences and 3,225 executions. But the zealous local authorities of Turkmenistan carried out 13,259 sentences and 4,037 executions.
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