Stalin and Purges

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A: Plan of the Investigation

How were the Purges of 1934-1938 successful in helping Stalin maintain his autocratic power? The aim of this investigation is to assess how the purges of 1934-38 helped Stalin preserve his power in the Soviet Union. In order to evaluate this, the investigation assesses Stalin’s role in relation to the purges, as well as their purpose. An analysis of this should indicate the extent to which the purges were successful, and their contribution to Stalin’s power. In the section entitled Evaluation of Sources, two sources used for this investigation (The Great Terror: A Reassessment, and Origins of the great purges: the Soviet Communist Party reconsidered, 1933-1938) are evaluated according to their values, limitations, origins, and purposes. The investigation does not assess other tools Stalin used to maintain power, such as the Constitution of 1936, nor does it centre on the time period before 1934, but is focused to only the purges.

B: Summary of Evidence

Although Stalin had been able to defeat the Left, the United, and the Right Opposition by 1929 and become sole leader; dissent still existed in the Communist Party[1]. Despite the fact that any opposition was not open, Stalin feared losing power, and felt drastic action was required to maintain power (the purges)[2]. Up until 1934, Stalin was mainly in a state of unrest, and hints of what would later be the purges began. December 1st 1934 marked the assassination of S. M. Kirov outside of his office in the Smolny Institute[3]. Although Nikolaev, a party member shot Kirov, it is believed that Stalin was behind the murder. Nevertheless, the death of Kirov proved to be Stalin’s scapegoat for rushing out a new (unsigned) decree ordering the death sentence on anyone accused of a terrorist act (specifically involved in the alleged plot to overthrow Stalin and the rule of the Communist Party, which had links with Trotsky)[4]. Through the decree, the NKVD (communist secret police), headed by Yagoda (ultimately under Stalin), had extended powers, with arrests and executions extending to the party bureaucracy, military, and intelligentsia, as well as ordinary workers[5]. In a few weeks time, many party members were shot and thousands of Zinovievists and Trotskyists were arrested[6]. The Great Purge, however, officially began in 1936 after the Stalin Constitution was approved and came into effect.[7] In the summer of 1936, the new purges began, when not only the NKVD itself, but also 1108 delegates of the Congress of Victors were arrested and purged.[8] Zinoviev, Kamenev, and a large group of Old Bolsheviks were tried in the first of the three great Moscow trials and shot[9]. At the trial of August 16th, 16 Trotskyists, including Zinoviev were accused of organizing a conspiracy and plotting to kill Stalin. NKVD interrogations (based on sleep deprivation, beatings, family threats) resulted in 14 of them confessing, and all 16 executed[10]. At the same time, 43 other members of the party disappeared without trials. The second show trial was in January of 1937, of 17 communist leader accused of plotting with Trotsky to carry out assassinations, terrorist activities, and spying[11]. Once again, these interrogations produced confessions and 13 were sentenced to death[12]. The last show trial was March 21st, 1938, focused on Bukharin, Rykov, and Rakovsky, all of whom confessed to their cries, were found guilty and shot[13]. Anybody that Stalin believed as a possible threat to his power was to be purged. The purges also spread to the Red Army. In 1937, Marshal Tukhachevsky, chief on the general staff and Gamarnik, head of the Red Army’s political commissars were arrested and sentenced to death[14]. By 1938, those executed of the Red Army included 3 of 5 marshals, 14 of 16 commanders, 8 admirals, 60 of 67 corps commanders, 136 of 199 divisional commanders, and 221 brigade commanders (in total about 50% of the entire officer...
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