Military history



Stalin’s second revolution in the Soviet Union, his collectivization and the famine it brought, was overshadowed by Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. Many Europeans, distressed by the nazification of Germany, looked hopefully to Moscow for an ally. Gareth Jones was one of the few to observe the two systems in early 1933, as both Hitler and Stalin were consolidating power. On 25 February 1933, he flew with Adolf Hitler from Berlin to Frankfurt, as the first journalist to travel by air with the new German chancellor. “If this aeroplane should crash,” he wrote, “the whole history of Europe would be changed.” Jones had read Mein Kampf, and he grasped Hitler’s ambitions: the domination of Germany, the colonization of eastern Europe, the elimination of the Jews. Hitler, already chancellor, had dissolved the Reichstag and was in the midst of an electoral campaign, aiming to gain a greater mandate for himself and a stronger presence for his party in the German parliament. Jones saw how Germans reacted to their new chancellor, first in Berlin and then at a rally in Frankfurt. He felt the “pure primitive worship.”1

When Jones made for Moscow he was traveling from, as he put it, “a land where dictatorship has just begun” to “the dictatorship of the working class.” Jones understood an important difference between the two regimes. Hitler’s rise meant the beginning of a new regime in Germany. Stalin, meanwhile, was securing his hold on a one-party state with a powerful police apparatus capable of massive and coordinated violence. His policy of collectivization had required the shooting of tens of thousands of citizens and the deportations of hundreds of thousands, and had brought millions more to the brink of death by starvation—as Jones would see and report. Later in the 1930s, Stalin would order the shooting of hundreds of thousands more Soviet citizens, in campaigns organized by social class and ethnic nation. All of this was well beyond Hitler’s capabilities in the 1930s, and probably beyond his intentions.2

For some of the Germans and other Europeans who favored Hitler and his enterprise, the cruelty of Soviet policy seemed to be an argument for National Socialism. In his stirring campaign speeches, Hitler portrayed communists and the Soviet state as the great enemies of Germany and Europe. During the very first crisis of his young chancellorship, he exploited fears of communism to gather more power to himself and his office. On 27 February 1933, two days after Hitler and Jones had landed in Frankfurt, a lone Dutchman set fire to the German parliament building. Though the arsonist was caught in the act and confessed, Hitler immediately seized the occasion to demonize opposition to his new government. Working himself up into a theatrical display of rage, he shouted that “anyone who stands in our way will be butchered.” Hitler blamed the Reichstag fire on German communists who, he claimed, were planning further terrorist attacks.3

For Hitler, the timing of the Reichstag fire could not have been better. As head of government, he could move against his political opponents; as a candidate running for election, he could turn fear to his advantage. On 28 February 1933 a decree suspended the rights of all German citizens, allowing their “preventive detainment.” In an atmosphere of insecurity, the Nazis decisively won the elections on 5 March, with 43.9 percent of the vote and 288 seats in the Reichstag. In the weeks and months that followed, Hitler used German police and Nazi paramilitaries to crush the two parties he grouped together as “Marxists”: the communists and the social democrats. Hitler’s close ally Heinrich Himmler established the first Nazi concentration camp, at Dachau, on 20 March. Himmler’s SS, a paramilitary that had arisen as Hitler’s bodyguard, provided the staff. Although the concentration camp was not a new institution, Himmler’s SS meant to use it for intimidation and terror. As an SS officer said to the guards at Dachau: “Any of the comrades who can’t see blood should resign. The more of these bastards go down, the fewer of them we’ll have to feed.”4

After his electoral victory, Hitler the chancellor quickly became Hitler the dictator. On 23 March 1933, with the first prisoners already incarcerated at Dachau, the new parliament passed an enabling act, which allowed Hitler to rule Germany by decree without reference to either the president or the parliament. This act would be renewed and would remain in force so long as Hitler lived. Gareth Jones returned to Berlin from the Soviet Union on 29 March 1933, a month after he had left Germany for the Soviet Union, and gave a press conference about the starvation in Soviet Ukraine. The worst political famine in history seemed like a minor news item compared to the establishment of a new dictatorship in the German capital. Indeed, the suffering in the Soviet Union had already become, during Jones’s absence, part of the story of Hitler’s rise to power.5

Hitler had used the Ukrainian famine in his election campaign, making the event a matter of furious ideological politics before it was established as historical fact. As he raged against the “Marxists,” Hitler used the starvation in Ukraine as an indictment of Marxism in practice. To a gathering at the Berlin Sportpalast on 2 March 1933, Hitler proclaimed that “millions of people are starving in a country that could be a breadbasket for a whole world.” With a single word (Marxists) Hitler united the mass death in the Soviet Union with the German social democrats, the bulwark of the Weimar Republic. It was easier for most to reject (or accept) his entire perspective than it was to disentangle the true from the false. For people lacking close familiarity with Soviet politics, which meant almost everyone, to accept Hitler’s assessment of the famine was to take a step toward accepting his condemnation of left-wing politics, which in his rhetoric was mixed with the rejection of democracy as such.6

Stalin’s own policies made it easier for Hitler to make this case, because they offered a similarly binary view of the political world. Stalin, his attention focused on collectivization and famine, had unwittingly performed much of the ideological work that helped Hitler come to power. When Stalin had begun to collectivize agriculture in the Soviet Union, the Communist International had instructed fraternal communist parties to follow the line of “class against class.” Communists were to maintain their ideological purity, and avoid alliances with social democrats. Only communists had a legitimate role to play in human progress, and others who claimed to speak for the oppressed were frauds and “social fascists.” They were to be grouped together with every party to their right, including the Nazis. In Germany, communists were to regard the social democrats, not the Nazis, as the main enemy.

In the second half of 1932 and the first months of 1933, during the long moment of Stalin’s provocation of catastrophe, it would have been difficult for him to abandon the international line of “class against class.” The class struggle against the kulak, after all, was the official explanation of the horrible suffering and mass death within the Soviet Union. In German domestic politics, this line prevented the German left from cooperating against Hitler. The crucial months for the famine, however, were also critical time for the future of Germany. The insistence of German communists on the need for immediate class revolution gained the Nazis votes from the middle classes. It also ensured that clerks and the self-employed voted Nazi rather than social democratic. Even so, the communists and the social democrats together had more popular support than the Nazis; but Stalin’s line ensured that they could not work together. In all of these ways, Stalin’s uncompromising stand in foreign policy during collectivization and famine in the Soviet Union helped Hitler win the elections of both July 1932 and March 1933.7


Whereas the true consequences of Stalin’s economic policies had been hidden from foreign reporters, Hitler deliberately drew attention to the policies of redistribution that were among his first policies as dictator. At the very moment that starvation in the Soviet Union was peaking, the German state began to steal from its Jewish citizens. After the Nazis’ electoral victory of 5 March 1933, they organized an economic boycott of Jewish businesses throughout Germany. Like collectivization, the boycotts indicated which sector of society would lose the most in coming social and economic transformations: not the peasants, as in the USSR, but the Jews. The boycotts, although carefully managed by Nazi leaders and Nazi paramilitaries, were presented as a result of the “spontaneous anger” of the people at Jewish exploitation.8

In this respect Hitler’s policies resembled Stalin’s. The Soviet leader presented the disarray in the Soviet countryside, and then dekulakization, as the result of an authentic class war. The political conclusion was the same in Berlin and Moscow: the state would have to step in to make sure that the necessary redistribution was relatively peaceful. Whereas Stalin had achieved by 1933 the authority and gathered the coercive power to force through collectivization on a massive scale, Hitler had to move far more slowly. The boycott had only a limited effect; the main consequence was the emigration of some 37,000 German Jews in 1933. It would be five more years before substantial transfers of property from Jews to non-Jewish Germans—which the Nazis called “Aryanization”—took place.9

The Soviet Union began from a position of international isolation, and with the help of many sympathizers abroad was able with some success to control its image. By many, Stalin was given the benefit of the doubt, even as his policies moved from shooting to deportation to starvation. Hitler, on the other hand, had to reckon with international opinion, which included voices of criticism and outrage. Germany in 1933 was full of international journalists and other travelers, and Hitler needed peace and trade for the next few years. So even as he called an end to the boycott, Hitler used unfavorable attention in the foreign press to build up a rationale for the more radical policies to come. The Nazis presented European and American newspapers as controlled by Jews, and any foreign criticism as part of the international Jewish conspiracy against the German people.10

An important legacy of the March 1933 boycotts was thus rhetorical. Hitler introduced an argument that he would never cease to use, even much later, when his armies had conquered much of Europe and his institutions were killing millions of Jews. No matter what Germany or Germans did, it was because they were defending themselves from international Jewry. The Jews were always the aggressor, the Germans always the victims.


At first, Hitler’s anti-communism was more pertinent to domestic politics than his anti-Semitism. To control the German state, he would have to break the communists and the social democrats. Over the course of 1933, some two hundred thousand Germans were locked up, most of them men seen as left-wing opponents of the regime. Hitler’s terror in 1933 was meant to intimidate rather than eliminate: most of these people were released after short periods in what the Nazis euphemistically called “protective custody.” The communist party was not allowed to take up the eighty-one seats that it had won in the elections; soon all of its property was seized by the state. By July 1933 it was illegal in Germany to belong to any other political party than the Nazis. In November the Nazis staged a parliamentary election in which only their candidates could run and win. Hitler had very quickly made of Germany a one-party state—and certainly not the sort of one-party state that Stalin might have expected. The German communist party, for years the strongest outside the Soviet Union itself, was broken in a matter of a few months. Its defeat was a serious blow to the prestige of the international communist movement.11

At first, Stalin seemed to hope that the Soviet-German special relationship could be preserved, despite Hitler’s rise to power. Since 1922, the two states had engaged in military and economic cooperation, on the tacit understanding that both had an interest in the remaking of eastern Europe at the expense of Poland. The 1922 agreement at Rapallo had been confirmed by the neutrality pact of the Treaty of Berlin, signed in 1926 and extended for another five years in 1931. The clearest sign of good relations and common purpose were the German military exercises on Soviet soil. These came to an end in September 1933. In January 1934, Nazi Germany signed a nonaggression declaration with Poland. This surprise move seemed to signal a basic reorientation in German foreign policy. It seemed that Warsaw had replaced Moscow as Berlin’s favored partner in the East. Might the Germans and the Poles now fight together against the Soviet Union?12

The new German relationship with Poland likely meant more to Stalin than the oppression of the German communists. Stalin himself always conducted foreign policy at two levels: the diplomatic and the ideological, one directed at states, the other at societies, including his own. For the one he had his commissar for foreign affairs, Maxim Litvinov; for the other he had the Communist International. He probably assumed that Hitler’s approach was much the same, and thus that overt anti-communism need not prevent good relations between Berlin and Moscow. But the approach to Poland added what looked like anti-Soviet diplomacy to an anti-communist ideology. As Stalin correctly suspected, Hitler was trying to enlist Poland as a junior ally in a crusade against the Soviet Union. While the German-Polish negotiations were underway in late 1933, Soviet leaders rightly worried that the Germans were trying to buy Polish territory in the west with the promise that Poland could later annex territories from Soviet Ukraine. Poland, however, never showed any interest in Germany’s propositions to extend the accord in such a way. The German-Polish declaration did not in fact include a secret protocol on military cooperation against the USSR, despite what Soviet intelligence and propaganda claimed. Yet Hitler did wish to use the German-Polish declaration as the beginning of a rapprochement with Warsaw that would culminate in a military alliance against the USSR. He wondered aloud in spring 1934 about the necessary inducements.13


In January 1934, the Soviet Union seemed to be in a dreadful position. Its domestic policies had starved millions of its own citizens to death. Its foreign policies had contributed to the rise of a threatening anti-communist dictator, Hitler, who had made peace with the previous common German-Soviet enemy, Poland.

Stalin found the rhetorical and ideological escape route. At the Soviet communist party congress of January-February 1934, known as “The Congress of Victors,” Stalin claimed that a second revolution had been completed within the Soviet Union. The famines, the most unforgettable experience of the Soviet peoples, went unmentioned. They blurred into a general story of how Stalin and his loyal retinue had overcome the resistance of enemies to implement the Five-Year Plan. Lazar Kaganovich praised his master Stalin as the creator of “the greatest revolution that human history has ever known.” The rise of Hitler, despite appearances, was a sign of the coming victory of the Soviet system in the world. The brutality of the Nazis revealed that capitalism would soon collapse under its own contradictions, and that a European revolution was around the corner.14

This interpretation could only make sense to revolutionaries by conviction, to communists already bound to their leader by faith and fear. It took a special sort of mind to truly believe that the worse things appeared, the better they actually were. Such reasoning went by the name dialectics, but by this time that word (despite its proud descent from the Greeks through Hegel and Marx) meant little more than the psychic capacity to adjust one’s own perceptions to the changing expressions of Stalin’s will.15

For his part, Stalin knew that rhetoric was not enough. Even as he proclaimed that Hitler’s revolution was a sign of the coming socialist victory, Stalin hastened to change his domestic policy. He did not take revenge on the Ukrainian peasant year after year. The peasants had to live on, frightened and intimidated, but productive of the foodstuffs needed by the Soviet state. Soviet policy now allowed all peasants to cultivate a small plot, the equivalent of a private garden, for their own use. Requisition quotas and export targets ceased their unreasoning climb. Starvation within the Soviet Union came to an end in 1934.16


The rise of Hitler was indeed an opportunity to present the Soviet Union as the defense of European civilization. Stalin, after more than a year, finally took it in June 1934. According to the new line of the Communist International, propagated then, politics was no longer a matter of “class against class.” Instead, the Soviet Union and communist parties around the world would unite the Left in a camp of “anti-fascists.” Rather than engaging in uncompromising class struggle, communists would rescue civilization from the rising tide of fascism. Fascism, the term popularized by Mussolini in Italy, was presented by the Soviets as a general corruption of late capitalism. Though fascism’s spread signified the end of the old capitalist order, its vicious hatred of the Soviet Union (went the argument) justified Soviet and communist compromises with other capitalist forces (in the interest of defending the Soviet Union). European communists were to restyle themselves as “anti-fascists,” and to cooperate with social democrats and other parties of the Left. Communists in Europe were expected to join “Popular Fronts,” electoral alliances and win election victories with social democrats and other parties of the Left. For the time being, communists were to work within democracies, rather than toward their destruction.17

This came too late for German communists and social democrats, of course. But throughout western and southern Europe, people concerned with halting the spread of Hitler and fascism celebrated the new Soviet approach. By presenting the Soviet Union as the homeland of “anti-fascism,” Stalin was seeking after a monopoly of the good. Surely reasonable people would want to be on the side of the anti-fascists, rather than that of the fascists? Anyone who was against the Soviet Union, was the suggestion, was probably a fascist or at least a sympathizer. During the period of the Popular Front, from June 1934 through August 1939, about three quarters of a million Soviet citizens would be shot to death by order of Stalin, and still more deported to the Gulag. Most of the repressed would be peasants and workers, the people whom the Soviet social system was supposed to serve. The others would generally be members of national minorities. Just as Hitler’s rise had obscured the Soviet famine of 1933, Stalin’s response would distract attention from the Great Terror.18

The Popular Front enjoyed the greatest chances for success in the west European democracies furthest from the Soviet Union, France, and Spain. The greatest triumph was in Paris, where a Popular Front government indeed came to power in May 1936. Left-wing parties (including Herriot’s Radicals) won elections, and the socialist Léon Blum became prime minister. The French communists, part of a victorious electoral coalition, did not formally join the government, but they did provide the parliamentary majority and influence policy. The votes could thus be found for reforms—although the communists were chiefly concerned with ensuring that French foreign policy was friendly to the Soviet Union. In Paris, the Popular Front was seen as a triumph of native traditions of the Left. But many, not least the political refugees from Nazi Germany, saw it as a Soviet success, and even a confirmation that the Soviets supported democracy and freedom. The Popular Front in France made it far more difficult for some of the most impressive European intellectuals to criticize the Soviet Union.19

In Spain, a coalition of parties also formed a Popular Front, and won the elections of February 1936. There, events took a rather different turn. In July army officers, supported by far-right groups, tried to overturn the elected government in a coup d’état. The government resisted, and the Spanish Civil War began. Though for Spaniards this was an essentially domestic struggle, the ideological enemies of the Popular Front era took sides. The Soviet Union began to supply arms to the embattled Spanish Republic in October 1936, while Nazi Germany and fascist Italy supported the right-wing forces led by General Francisco Franco. The Spanish Civil War occasioned closer relations between Berlin and Rome, and became the center of attention of Soviet policy in Europe. Spain was on the front pages of major Soviet newspapers every day for months.20

Spain became the rallying cry of European socialists who came to fight for the side of the endangered republic, many of whom took for granted that the Soviet Union was on the side of democracy. One of the more perceptive of the European socialists, the English writer George Orwell, was dismayed by the struggle of Stalinists within Spain to dominate the Spanish Left. As he saw it, the Soviets exported their political practices along with their weapons. Stalin’s assistance to the Spanish republic came with a price: his right to carry out factional struggles on Spanish territory. Stalin’s greatest rival, Trotsky, was still alive (if in distant Mexican exile), and many of the Spaniards defending their republic were more attached to Trotsky’s person than to Stalin’s Soviet Union. Soon communist propaganda was presenting the Spanish Trotskyites as fascists, and Soviet NKVD officers were sent to Spain to shoot them for their “treason.”21


The enemies of the Popular Front presented it as a conspiracy of the Communist International to rule the world. The Popular Front provided Japan and Germany with a convenient pretext to solidify their own relations. On 25 November 1936, Germany and Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, which obliged the two states to consult with each other if either was attacked. An agreement between Japanese and German intelligence agencies of 11 May 1937 provided for the exchange of intelligence on the USSR, and included a plan for both to use national movements in the Soviet borderlands against the Soviet Union.22

From the Soviet perspective, the Japanese threat was more immediate than the German. During the first half of 1937, Germany appeared to be an addendum to a Japanese threat, rather than the other way around. Japanese politics was dominated by dueling visions of empire, one in the south and one in the north. An important clique in the Japanese military believed that Siberian resources were the key to the country’s future economic development. Japan’s Manchurian satellite, Manchukuo, had a long border with Soviet Siberia, and looked ever more like a launching pad for an invasion. The Japanese were toying with the idea of establishing a puppet Ukrainian state on Soviet territory in eastern Siberia, based on the million or so Ukrainians who lived there as deportees or settlers. As Tokyo understood, Ukrainians deported to the Gulag might well oppose Soviet power, given the assurance of foreign backing. Polish spies who knew of the idea referred to it as “Manchukuo Number Two.”23


The Japanese certainly seemed to have a long-term interest in Siberia. A special Japanese academy in Manchukuo, in the city of Harbin, had already trained a first generation of young, Russian-speaking imperialists, such as Chiune Sugihara. He was one of the negotiators of an agreement whereby the Soviets, in 1935, sold their rights to the railway in Manchuria to the Japanese. Sugihara was also in charge of the foreign policy office of Manchukuo. A convert to the Russian Orthodox religion and husband to a Russian wife, Sugihara called himself Sergei and spent most of his time in the Russian quarter of Harbin. There he befriended Russian exiles, and recruited them for espionage missions within the Soviet Union. The drama of the Soviet-Japanese duel in east Asia attracted the attention of Gareth Jones, who traveled to Manchuria that same year. The Welshman, with his uncanny instinct for news, was right to see this region as the crucial theater in the global conflict between “fascism” and “anti-fascism.” In somewhat mysterious circumstances, he was abducted by bandits and murdered.24

Stalin had to be concerned not only with a direct Japanese attack on Soviet Siberia but also with the consolidation of a Japanese empire in east Asia. Manchukuo was one Japanese colony taken from historically Chinese territory; perhaps more were to come. China had the longest border with the Soviet Union, and an unstable polity. China’s nationalist government had the upper hand in an ongoing civil war with the Chinese communist party. In the “Long March,” Chinese communist troops, led by Mao Zedong, had been forced to withdraw into the north and west of the country. Neither side, however, seemed able to achieve anything resembling a monopoly of force in the country. Even in regions where the nationalists had the upper hand, they were reliant upon local warlords. Perhaps most importantly for Stalin, the nationalists and communists were unable to cooperate against the advance of the Japanese.

Soviet foreign policy had to balance between support for fraternal communist parties (less important) and concerns of Soviet state security (more important). While in principle the Communist International supported the Chinese communists, Stalin armed and funded the nationalist government, in the hope of pacifying the border. In the largely Muslim Chinese province of Xinjiang, which had a long border with Soviet Kazakhstan, Stalin took an equally unideological approach. He supported the local warlord Sheng Shicai, sending engineers and miners to exploit natural resources, and NKVD men to ensure security.25

Globally, the German-Japanese rapprochement could be seen as completing an encirclement of the Soviet homeland by Japan, Germany, and Poland. These were the three most important neighbors of the Soviet Union; they were also three states that had defeated the Soviet Union (or the Russian Empire) in the wars of Stalin’s lifetime. Even though Germany had lost the First World War, its troops had defeated the Russian Army on the eastern front in 1917. Japan had humiliated the Russian Army and Navy in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Poland had defeated the Red Army as recently as 1920. Now, after the German-Polish and the German-Japanese agreements, these three powers appeared to be arrayed against the Soviet Union. If the Anti-Comintern Pact and the German-Polish nonaggression declaration had indeed included secret protocols concerning an offensive war on the Soviet Union, then Stalin would have been right about encirclement. In fact, neither did; and an offensive alliance between Tokyo, Warsaw, and Berlin was highly unlikely, if not impossible. Although Poland’s relations with Japan were good, Warsaw wished to take no step that could be interpreted as hostile to the Soviet Union. Poland declined Germany’s invitation to join the Anti-Comintern Pact.26


Part of Stalin’s political talent was his ability to equate foreign threats with failures in domestic policy, as if the two were actually the same thing, and as if he were responsible for neither. This absolved him of blame for policy failures, and allowed him to define his chosen internal enemies as agents of foreign powers. As early as 1930, as problems of collectivization became apparent, he was already speaking of international conspiracies between supporters of Trotsky and various foreign powers. It was obvious, Stalin proclaimed, that “as long as the capitalist encirclement exists there will continue to be present among us wreckers, spies, saboteurs and murderers.” Any problem with Soviet policies was the fault of reactionary states that wished to slow the proper course of history. Any seeming flaws of the Five-Year Plan were a result of foreign intervention: hence the harshest of penalties was justified for traitors, and the blame always resided in Warsaw, Tokyo, Berlin, London, or Paris.27

In these years, Stalinism thus involved a kind of double bluff. The success of the Popular Front depended on a record of progress toward socialism that was largely a matter of propaganda. Meanwhile, the explanation of famine and misery at home depended upon the idea of foreign subversion, which was essentially without merit. Atop the Soviet party apparatus and atop the Communist International, Stalin was making these two bluffs simultaneously, and he knew just how they could be called: by a foreign military intervention by a state crafty enough to enlist Soviet citizens who had suffered under his policies. The power of the combination of foreign war and domestic opposition was, after all, the first lesson of Soviet history. Lenin himself had been a German secret weapon in the First World War; the Bolshevik Revolution itself was a side effect of the German foreign policy of 1917. Twenty years later, Stalin had to fear that his opponents within the Soviet Union would use a coming war to overthrow his own regime. Trotsky was in emigration, just as Lenin had been in 1917. During a war Trotsky might come back and rally his supporters, just as Lenin had done twenty years before.28

By 1937 Stalin faced no meaningful political opposition within the Soviet communist party, but this only seemed to convince him that his enemies had learned political invisibility. Just as he had during the height of the famine, he argued again that year that the most dangerous enemies of the state appeared to be harmless and loyal. All enemies, even the invisible ones, would have to be unmasked and eradicated. On 7 November 1937, the twentieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution (and the fifth anniversary of his wife’s suicide), Stalin raised a toast: “We will mercilessly destroy anyone who, by his deeds or his thoughts—yes, his thoughts!—threatens the unity of the socialist state. To the complete destruction of all enemies, themselves and their kin!”29

Unlike Hitler, Stalin had at his disposal the tool to effect such a policy: the state police once known as the Cheka and the OGPU, and by this time called the NKVD. The Soviet state police had arisen during the Bolshevik Revolution itself, when it was known as the Cheka. Its mission at the beginning had been more political than legal: the elimination of opponents of the revolution. Once the Soviet Union was established, the Cheka (OGPU, NKVD) became a massive state police force that was charged with the enforcement of Soviet law. In situations regarded as exceptional, such as collectivization in 1930, normal legal procedures were suspended, and OGPU officers (leading troikas) in effect served as judges, juries, and executioners. This was a return to the revolutionary tradition of the Cheka, and was justified by the presence of a revolutionary situation: either an advance toward or a threat to socialism. In order to be in a position to crush the enemies of his choice in the second half of the 1930s, Stalin would need the NKVD to recognize that some sort of crisis was under way, one that required this sort of special measure.30

A dramatic murder gave Stalin the opportunity to assert control over the NKVD. In December 1934 one of Stalin’s closest comrades, Sergei Kirov, was assassinated in Leningrad. Stalin exploited the Kirov assassination much as Hitler had used the Reichstag fire the previous year. He blamed internal political opponents for the murder, and claimed that they planned further terrorist attacks against Soviet leaders. Although the assassin, Leonid Nikolaev, was arrested the day the crime was committed, Stalin would not be satisfied with a simple police action. He forced through a special law allowing for the swift execution of “terrorists.” Emphasizing the threat of terrorism, he declared that his former politburo opponents on the left plotted the murder of the Soviet leadership and the overthrow of Soviet power.31

Stalin’s interpretation of the Leningrad murder was a direct challenge to the Soviet state police. His was not a theory that the NKVD was inclined to accept, not least because there was no evidence. When the NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda dared to make inquiries of Stalin, he was told that he should beware, lest he be “slapped down.” Stalin found a confederate, Nikolai Yezhov, who was willing to propagate Stalin’s version of events. Yezhov, a diminutive man from the Polish-Lithuanian borderlands, was already known for his view that opposition was simultaneous with terrorism. In February 1935 he took charge of a “control commission” that collected compromising information about members of the central committee for the benefit of the politburo. Stalin and Yezhov seemed to reinforce each other’s beliefs in ubiquitous conspiracies. Stalin came to rely on Yezhov, even going so far, in a rare sign of intimacy, as to express concern about Yezhov’s health. Yezhov first became Yagoda’s deputy, then his replacement. In September 1936 Yezhov become commissar of internal affairs, chief of the NKVD. Yagoda was first appointed to another post, then executed two years later.32

Beginning in August 1936, Yezhov charged Stalin’s former political opponents with fantastic offenses in public show trials. The confessions of these famous men drew the attention of the world. Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, once Trotsky’s allies and Stalin’s opponents, were tried between 19 and 24 August. They confessed to participation in a terrorist plot to murder Stalin and, along with fourteen other men, were sentenced to death and executed. These old Bolsheviks had been intimidated and beaten, and were doing little more than uttering lines from a script. But their confessions, which were widely believed, provided a kind of alternative history of the Soviet Union, one in which Stalin had always been right. In the show trials to come, Stalin even followed the rhythm of the late 1920s: having dealt with his one-time opponents from the left, Kamenev and Zinoviev, he turned against his one-time opponent from the right, Nikolai Bukharin. Back when debate had still been possible, in 1928, Bukharin threatened to call Stalin an organizer of famine. Though he never fulfilled this threat, he died anyway. Trotsky, who could not be show-tried because he was abroad, was supposedly the ringleader. The party newspaper, Pravda, made the connection clear in a headline of 22 August 1936: “Trotsky-Zinoviev-Kamenev-Gestapo.” Could the three Bolsheviks in question, men who had built the Soviet Union, truly be paid agents of capitalist powers? Were these three communists of Jewish origin likely agents of the secret state police of Nazi Germany? They were not, but the charge was taken seriously, even outside the Soviet Union.33

For many Europeans and Americans, the show trials were simply trials, and confessions were reliable evidence of guilt. Some observers who were sympathetic to the Soviet Union saw them as a positive development: the British socialist Beatrice Webb, for example, was pleased that Stalin had “cut out the dead wood.” Other Soviet sympathizers no doubt suppressed their suspicions, on the logic that the USSR was the enemy of Nazi Germany and thus the hope of civilization. European public opinion was so polarized by 1936 that it was indeed difficult to criticize the Soviet regime without seeming to endorse fascism and Hitler. This, of course, was the shared binary logic of National Socialism and the Popular Front: Hitler called his enemies “Marxists,” and Stalin called his “fascists.”34 They agreed that there was no middle ground.

Stalin appointed Yezhov just as he decided to intervene in Spain; the show trials and the Popular Front were, from his perspective, the same policy. The Popular Front allowed for the definition of friends and enemies, subject of course to the changing line from Moscow. Like any opening to noncommunist political forces, it demanded great vigilance, both at home and abroad. For Stalin, the Spanish Civil War was simultaneously a battle against armed fascism in Spain and its foreign supporters, and a struggle against left-wing and internal enemies. He believed that the Spanish government was weak because it was unable to find and kill enough spies and traitors. The Soviet Union was both a state and a vision, both a domestic political system and an internationalist ideology. Its foreign policy was always domestic policy, and its domestic policy was always foreign policy. That was its strength and its weakness.35

As Orwell perceived, the public Soviet story of a clash with European fascism coincided with the blood purge of past or potential opponents at home. Soviet missions were installed in Barcelona and Madrid just as the show trials began. The encounter with fascism in Spain justified vigilance in the Soviet Union, and the purges in the Soviet Union justified vigilance in Spain. The Spanish Civil War revealed that Stalin was determined, despite the Popular Front rhetoric of pluralism, to eliminate opposition to his version of socialism. Orwell watched as the communists provoked clashes in Barcelona in May 1937, and then as the Spanish government, beholden to Moscow, banned the Trotskyite party. As Orwell wrote of that skirmish in Barcelona: “This squalid brawl in a distant city is more important than might appear at first.” He was exactly right. Stalin thought that Barcelona had revealed a fascist fifth column. The event revealed the single powerful Stalinist logic, defying geography and local political reality. It was the subject of a moving chapter in his Homage to Catalonia, the war memoir that taught at least some Western leftists and democrats that fascism was not the only enemy.36

Within the Soviet Union, the confessions of the show trials seemed to create evidence of organized conspiracies, which Yezhov called “centers,” backed by foreign intelligence agencies. In late June 1937 in Moscow, Yezhov informed the central committee of the party of the conclusions that he had drawn. There was, Yezhov announced to the party elite, one master conspiracy, a “Center of Centers,” that embraced all of the political opponents, the armed forces, and even the NKVD. Its aim was nothing less than the destruction of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism on its territories. The agents of the “Center of Centers” would stop at nothing, including the castration of prize sheep—an act of sabotage Yezhov specifically mentioned. All of this justified purges within the party, the army, and the NKVD. Eight high commanders of the armed forces were show-tried that same month; about half of the generals of the Red Army would be executed in the months to come. Of the 139 members of the central committee who took part in the party congress of 1934 (the Congress of Victors), some 98 were shot. All in all, the purification of the armed forces, state institutions, and the communist party led to about fifty thousand executions.37


During these same years, 1934-1937, Hitler was also using violence to assert his control over the institutions of power: the party, the police, and the military. Like Stalin, he revisited his own rise to power, and visited death upon some of the people who had aided him. Although the scale of the murder was far smaller, Hitler’s purges clarified that the rule of law in Germany was subject to the whims of the Leader. Unlike Stalin, who had to subordinate the NKVD to his own authority, Hitler ordered terror as a way to develop his own favored paramilitary, the SS, and assert its superiority over the various German state police forces. Whereas Stalin used his purges to intimidate the Soviet armed forces, Hitler actually drew the German generals closer to his person by killing a Nazi that the army high command regarded as a threat.

The most prominent target of Hitler’s purge was Ernst Röhm, the leader of one of the Nazi paramilitaries, the SA brownshirts. The SA had helped Hitler assert his personal authority, to intimidate opponents (and voters), and to come to power in 1933. The streetfighting of the SA was less useful to Hitler as chancellor than it had been for Hitler as politician. Röhm spoke in 1933 and 1934 of the need for a second revolution, an idea that Hitler rejected. Röhm also nurtured personal ambitions that ill fit Hitler’s plans to rebuild the German military. Röhm portrayed his SA as a better reflection of the Nazi spirit than the German armed forces, which he wished to control himself. His three million SA brownshirts far outnumbered the hundred thousand soldiers permitted to the German armed forces by the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler meant to break those treaty obligations, but by rebuilding the German army rather than by replacing or merging it with a paramilitary.38

In late June 1934 Hitler ordered the SS to murder Röhm and several dozen of his associates, as well as other rivals within the Nazi movement and a few other politicians. The SS was led by Heinrich Himmler, who emphasized racial purity, ideological training, and personal loyalty to Hitler. In what came to be known as the “Night of the Long Knives,” Hitler was using one of the Nazi paramilitaries, the SS, to master the other, the SA. He was endorsing Himmler’s work, and putting an end to Röhm—and dozens of other people. Hitler told the parliament on 14 July 1935 that seventy-four men had been killed; the true number was at least eighty-five, several of whom were (Nazi) parliamentary deputies. He claimed, naturally, that Röhm and the others had been planning a coup against his legitimate government, and had to be stopped in advance. In addition to the SA leadership, Hitler’s blood purge had reached conservatives and former heads of government. Of the three chancellors who had preceded him, one was murdered, one was arrested, and the third fled.39

Because the SS was the chosen instrument of the murder campaign, Himmler moved closer to the center of power. The SS, now separated institutionally from the SA, became the most powerful institution within the National Socialist party. After the Night of the Long Knives, its task would be to subordinate the many German police institutions to Nazi ideology. Himmler would seek to merge his SS with Germany’s established police forces by way of rotation of personnel and institutional centralization under his personal command. In 1936 Hitler named Himmler the Chief of German Police. This placed him in charge of the uniformed men of the Order Police, the detectives of the Criminal Police, and the operatives of the Secret State Police (Gestapo). The police was a state institution (or rather comprised a number of different state institutions) and the SS was a Nazi party institution; Himmler sought to bring the two together. In 1937, Himmler established the office of Higher SS and Police Leaders, regional chiefs who in theory commanded both SS and police forces, and unified the hierarchy of command.40

Just as important as the elevation of the SS over the SA was the improvement of relations between Hitler and the generals. The execution of Röhm earned Hitler a debt of gratitude from the army high command. Until 1934, the army had been the only important state institution that Hitler had not fully mastered. Once Hitler showed that he planned to rebuild the army rather than overwhelm it with the SA, this quickly changed. When the German president died a few weeks later, the military endorsed Hitler’s elevation to head of state. Hitler would never claim the title “president”; he preferred “Leader.” From August 1934, German soldiers swore an unconditional oath of personal loyalty to Hitler, and thenceforth addressed him as “My Leader.” Later that month Hitler’s titles as “Leader and Reich Chancellor” were confirmed by national plebiscite. In March 1935, Hitler publically renounced Germany’s commitments under the Versailles Treaty, reintroduced military conscription, and began to rebuild the German armed forces.41

Like Stalin, Hitler showed himself to be the master of the organs of power, presenting himself as the victim of plots, and then ridding himself of real or imagined rivals. Simultaneously, however, Hitler was creating the kinds of instruments of coercion that Stalin had inherited from Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution. The SS and the German police would never be capable of organized terror within Germany on the scale of the NKVD in the Soviet Union. The Night of the Long Knives, with its dozens of victims, was dwarfed by the Soviet purges of the party, armed forces, and NKVD, in which tens of thousands of people were executed. That was far more people than the Nazi regime would kill before the Second World War. The SS would need time and practice before it could rival the NKVD. Himmler saw his charges as “ideological soldiers,” but they would fulfill their mission of racial conquest and domination only at the backs of true soldiers: behind the lines in Poland after 1939, or in the Soviet Union after 1941.42

The logic of Hitler’s domestic terror was of a future offensive war: fought by an expanded Wehrmacht loyal to Hitler, transformed into a war of destruction by the SS and the police. In this one sense, Stalin’s fears of war were perfectly justified. The Germans, however, were not counting on help from the Soviet population in that coming war. In this respect, Stalin’s scenario of threat, the union of foreign enemies with domestic opponents, was quite wrong. Thus the still greater terror that Stalin would unleash upon his own population in 1937 and 1938 was entirely fruitless, and indeed counterproductive.


The Soviet purges within the army, party, and NKVD were the prelude to Stalin’s Great Terror, which in 1937 and 1938 would take the lives of hundreds of thousands of people for reasons of class and nation. The interrogations of tens of thousands of people during the purges generated a multitude of “organizations,” “plots,” and “groups”—categories into which more and more Soviet citizens could fall. The executions of communist party members no doubt gave rise to fears within the communist party; but the party would generally be spared, if its members followed Stalin’s lead in summer 1937 and agreed to pursue the true enemies within the mass of Soviet society. The purges also tested the loyalty of the NKVD, as its leadership was changed at the whim of Stalin, and its officers were forced to watch as their colleagues were purged. Yet in summer 1937 the besieged NKVD would be turned against social groups that many of its officers were ready to define as enemies. For months the top leadership of the Soviet Union had been plotting a blow against a group that they perhaps did fear: the kulaks.43

The kulaks were peasants, the stubborn survivors of Stalin’s revolution: of collectivization and famine, and very often of the Gulag. As a social class, the kulak (prosperous peasant) never really existed; the term was rather a Soviet classification that took on a political life of its own. The attempt to “liquidate the kulaks” during the first Five-Year Plan had killed a tremendous number of people, but it created rather than destroyed a class: those who had been stigmatized and repressed, but who had survived. The millions of people who were deported or who fled during collectivization were forever after regarded as kulaks, and sometimes accepted the classification. What Soviet leaders had to consider was the possibility that the revolution itself had created its own opponents. At the plenum of the central committee of the communist party in February and March 1937, several speakers drew the logical conclusions. “Alien elements” were corrupting the pure proletariat of the cities. The kulaks were “impassioned enemies” of the Soviet system.44

To be a kulak was not only to have suffered, it was to have survived movement across vast distances. Collectivization had forced millions of kulaks into the Gulag or into the cities. This meant journeys of hundreds or even thousands of miles. Some three million peasants, at least, had become paid laborers during the first Five-Year Plan. That, after all, was the Plan: that the Soviet Union would be transformed from an agrarian to an industrial country. Perhaps two hundred thousand people who would have been stigmatized as kulaks had made for the cities before they could be executed or deported. About four hundred thousand kulaks had managed to flee the special settlements, some for the cities, more for the countryside. Tens of thousands more had been allowed to leave concentration camps and the special settlements after serving their terms. Five-year Gulag sentences in 1930, 1931, and 1932 meant mass releases of Gulag survivors in 1935, 1936, and 1937.45

The optimistic assumption had been that the movement and the punishment would strip the kulak of his harmful social origins, and make of him a Soviet person. By the second half of the 1930s, Stalinism had shed any such expectations of progress. The very social mobility intrinsic to his policy of industrialization was now unsettling. Kulaks were rejoining the collective farms: perhaps they would lead rebellions, as other peasants had done in 1930. The kulaks were returning to a social order that was traditional in many ways. Stalin knew, from the 1937 census that he suppressed, that a majority of adults still defied the atheism of the Soviet state and believed in God. Twenty years after the Bolshevik Revolution, religious faith was perplexing, and perhaps unnerving. Could the kulaks rebuild the society that once had been?46

The kulaks sentenced later or to longer terms in the Gulag were still in exile in Siberia or Kazakhstan, in Soviet east or central Asia: might not such people support a Japanese invasion? The NKVD reported in June 1937 that exiled kulaks in Siberia constituted a “broad base on which to build an insurgent rebellion.” Surely, given the support of a foreign power and the cover of war, the kulaks would fight against Soviet power. In the meantime, they were the enemy within. One repressive policy created the foundations for another: exiled kulaks did not love the Soviet system; and their place of exile, so far from their homes, was close to a source of foreign threat, the expanding Japanese empire.47

Reports from the NKVD in the Far East provided the scenario for an alliance between internal opponents and a foreign power. In April 1937 riots had broken out against the Soviet presence in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. In the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo, the Japanese were recruiting Russian émigrés, who were making contact with kulaks in exile throughout Siberia. According to the NKVD, a “Russian General Military Union,” backed by Japan, planned to incite exiled kulaks to rebel when Japan invaded. In June 1937 the regional NKVD received permission to carry out mass arrests and executions of people suspected of collaborating with the “Russian General Military Union.” The targets of the operation were to be exiled kulaks and the former Russian imperial officers who supposedly commanded them. Naturally, the former were in much greater supply than the latter. And so began the killing of the kulaks, in their Siberian exile.48

Soviet leaders always regarded the Japanese threat as the eastern half of a global capitalist encirclement involving Poland and Nazi Germany. Preparations for a war against Japan in Asia were also preparations for a war in Europe. Precisely because many kulaks were returning home at this time from Soviet Asia to Soviet Europe, it was possible to imagine networks of enemies that extended from one end of the Soviet Union to the other. Though the shooting of peasants began in Siberia, Stalin apparently decided to punish kulaks not only in eastern exile but throughout the Soviet Union.

In a telegram entitled “On Anti-Soviet Elements,” Stalin and the politburo issued general instructions on 2 July 1937 for mass repressions in every region of the Soviet Union. The Soviet leadership held kulaks responsible for recent waves of sabotage and criminality, which meant in effect anything that had gone wrong within the Soviet Union. The politburo ordered the provincial offices of the NKVD to register all kulaks who resided in their regions, and to recommend quotas for execution and deportation. Most regional NKVD officers asked to be allowed to add various “anti-Soviet elements” to the lists. By 11 July the politburo already had a first round of lists of people to be repressed. At Stalin’s initiative, these initial numbers were rounded up, adding “an extra thousand.” This raised the stakes of the operation, sending a clear signal to the state police that they were to do more than simply sentence all of the people on whom they already had files. In order to demonstrate their diligence in a climate of threats and purges, NKVD officers would have to find still more victims.49

Stalin and Yezhov wanted “the direct physical liquidation of the entire counter-revolution,” which meant the elimination of enemies “once and for all.” The revised quotas were sent back down from Moscow to the regions as part of Order 00447, dated 31 July 1937, “On the Operations to Repress Former Kulaks, Criminals, and Other Anti-Soviet Elements.” Here Stalin and Yezhov anticipated the execution of 79,950 Soviet citizens by shooting and the sentencing of 193,000 more to eight to ten years in the Gulag. It was not that the politburo or the NKVD central office in Moscow had 272,950 particular people in mind for repression. Just which Soviet citizens would fulfill these quotas remained to be seen; the local NKVD branches would decide that.50

The killing and imprisonment quotas were officially called “limits,” though everyone involved knew that they were meant to be exceeded. Local NKVD officers had to explain why they could not meet a “limit,” and were encouraged to exceed them. No NKVD officer wished to be seen as lacking élan when confronting “counter-revolution,” especially when Yezhov’s line was “better too far than not far enough.” Not 79,950 but five times as many people would be shot in the kulak action. By the end of 1938, the NKVD had executed some 386,798 Soviet citizens in fulfillment of Order 00447.51

Order 00447 was to be implemented by the same institution that had brought terror to the Soviet countryside in the early 1930s: the three-person commission, or troika. Composed of a regional NKVD chief, a regional party leader, and a regional prosecutor, the troikas were responsible for transforming the quotas into executions, the numbers into bodies. The overall quota for the Soviet Union was divided among sixty-four regions, each with a corresponding troika. In practice, the troikas were dominated by the NKVD chiefs, who usually chaired the meetings. Prosecutors had been ordered to ignore legal procedures. Party chiefs had other responsibilities, were not experts on security matters, and were afraid that they might themselves be targeted. NKVD chiefs were in their element.52

The fulfillment of Order 00447 began with the emptying of the file cabinets. The NKVD had some sort of material on kulaks, since kulak was a category created by the state. Criminals, the second group mentioned in the order, were by definition people who had an encounter with the judicial system behind them. In practical terms, the other “anti-Soviet elements” named in the order were simply the people on whom the local NKVD had a file. Local NKVD officers, helped by police, carried out investigations in “operational sectors” within each of the sixty-four zones. An “operational group” assembled a list of people to be interrogated. Those targeted were arrested, forced to confess, and encouraged to implicate others.53

Confessions were elicited by torture. The NKVD and other police organs applied the “conveyer method,” which meant uninterrupted questioning, day and night. This was complemented by the “standing method,” in which suspects were forced to stand in a line near a wall, and beaten if they touched it or fell asleep. Under time pressure to make quotas, officers often simply beat prisoners until they confessed. Stalin authorized this on 21 July 1937. In Soviet Belarus, interrogating officers would hold prisoners’ heads down in the latrine and then beat them when they tried to rise. Some interrogators carried with them draft confessions, and simply filled in the prisoner’s personal details and changed an item here or there by hand. Others simply forced prisoners to sign blank pages and then filled them in later at leisure. In this way Soviet organs “unmasked” the “enemy,” delivering his “thoughts” to the files.54

The numbers came down from the center, but the corpses were made locally. The troikas who fulfilled Order 00447 were responsible for sentencing the prisoners, with no need for any confirmation from Moscow, and no possibility for appeal. The three members of a troika would meet at night with investigating officers. For each case they would hear a very brief report, along with a recommendation for sentencing: death or the Gulag. (Only a very few of those arrested were not sentenced at all.) The troikas would almost always accept these recommendations. They handled hundreds of cases at a time, at a pace of sixty per hour or more; the life or death of an individual human was decided in a minute or less. In a single night the Leningrad troika, for example, sentenced to death 658 prisoners of the concentration camp at Solovki.55

Terror prevailed in the Gulag, as everywhere else. It might be difficult to see how concentration camp inmates could threaten the Soviet state: but like the regions of the USSR, the Gulag system had its own death quota, to be met or exceeded. Just as people who had been defined as kulaks might be dangerous, so might people who were incarcerated as kulaks—so went the logic. The camps of the Gulag had an initial quota of ten thousand executions, though in the end 30,178 of its prisoners were shot. Omsk, a southwest Siberian city whose environs were full of special settlers deported during collectivization, was the site of some of the most vicious campaigns. Its NKVD chief had already requested an additional quota of eight thousand executions on 1 August 1937, before Order 00447 even went into effect. His men once sentenced 1,301 people in a single night.56

This kulak operation was carried out in secret. No one, including the condemned, was told of the sentences. Those sentenced would simply be taken, first to some sort of prison, and then either to a freight car or an execution site. Execution facilities were built or chosen with an eye to discretion. Killings were always carried out at night, and in seclusion. They took place in soundproofed rooms below ground, in large buildings such as garages where noise could cover gunshots, or far from human settlement in forests. The executioners were always NKVD officers, generally using a Nagan pistol. While two men held a prisoner by his arms, the executioner would fire a single shot from behind into the base of the skull, and then often a “control shot” into the temple. “After the executions,” one set of instructions specified, “the bodies are to be laid in a pit dug beforehand, then carefully buried and the pit is to be camouflaged.” As the winter of 1937 came and the ground froze, the pits were prepared using explosives. Everyone who took part in these operations was sworn to secrecy. Only a very few people were directly involved. A team of just twelve Moscow NKVD men shot 20,761 people at Butovo, on the outskirts of Moscow, in 1937 and 1938.57

The kulak operation involved shooting from the beginning to the end: Yezhov reported to Stalin, with evident pride, that 35,454 people had been shot by 7 September 1937. During the year 1937, however, the number of Gulag sentences exceeded the number of death sentences. As time passed, new allocations tended to be for executions rather than exile. In the end, the number of people killed in the kulak operation was about the same as the number sent to the Gulag (378,326 and 389,070, respectively). The overall shift from exile to execution was for practical reasons: it was easier to kill than to deport, and the camps quickly filled to capacity—and had little use for many of the deportees. One investigation in Leningrad led to the shooting (not the deportation) of thirty-five people who were deaf and dumb. In Soviet Ukraine, the NKVD chief Izrail Leplevskii ordered his officers to shoot rather than exile the elderly. In such cases, Soviet citizens were killed because of who they were.58

Soviet Ukraine, where “kulak resistance” had been widespread during collectivization, was a major center of the killing. Leplevskii expanded the framework of Order 00447 to include supposed Ukrainian nationalists, who since the famine had been treated as a threat to the territorial integrity of the Soviet Union. Some 40,530 people in Soviet Ukraine were arrested on the charge of nationalism. In one variant, Ukrainians were arrested for supposedly having requested food aid from Germany in 1933. When the (already-twice-increased) quotas for Soviet Ukraine were fulfilled in December 1937, Leplevskii asked for more. In February 1938 Yezhov added 23,650 to the death quota for the republic. All in all, in 1937 and 1938, NKVD men shot 70,868 inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine in the kulak operation. The ratio of shootings to other sentences was especially high in Soviet Ukraine during the year 1938. Between January and August, some 35,563 people were shot, as against only 830 sent to camps. The troika for the Stalino district, for example, met seven times between July and September 1938, and sentenced to death every single one of the 1,102 people accused. The troika in Voroshilovgrad, similarly, sentenced to death all 1,226 people whose cases it reviewed in September 1938.59

These tremendous numbers meant regular and massive executions, over enormous and numerous death pits. In Soviet Ukrainian industrial cities, workers with real or imagined kulak backgrounds were sentenced to death for some sort of sabotage, and typically killed the same day. In Vinnytsia, people sentenced to death were tied, gagged, and driven to a car wash. There a truck awaited, its engine running to cover the sound of the gunshots. The bodies were then placed in the truck and driven to a site in the city: an orchard, perhaps, or a park, or a cemetery. Before their work was done, the NKVD men had dug no fewer than eighty-seven mass graves in and around Vinnytsia.60

Like the show trials, the kulak operation allowed Stalin to relive the years of the late 1920s and early 1930s, the period of his true political vulnerability, this time with a predictable outcome. The former political opponents, representing the moment of political debate over collectivization, were physically eliminated. So were the kulaks, standing for the moment of mass resistance to collectivization. Just as the murder of party elites confirmed Stalin’s succession of Lenin, so the murder of kulaks confirmed his interpretation of Lenin’s policies. If collectivization had led to mass starvation, that had been the fault of those who starved and the foreign intelligence agencies who somehow arranged the whole thing. If collectivization had given rise to a sense of grievance among the population, that too was the fault of the very people who had suffered and their supposed foreign sponsors. Precisely because Stalin’s policy was so disastrous in the first place, its defense seemed to require such tortured logic and massive death. Once these measures had been taken, they could be presented as the verdict of history.61

Yet even as Stalin presented his own policies as inevitable, he was abandoning (without admitting anything of the kind) the Marxism that allowed leaders to discuss and pretend to know the future. Insofar as Marxism was a science of history, its natural world was the economy, and its object of investigation the social class. Even in the harshest of Leninist interpretations of Marxism, people opposed the revolution because of their class background. Yet with Stalinism something was changing; normal state security concerns had infused the Marxist language and changed it unalterably. The accused in the show trials had supposedly betrayed the Soviet Union to foreign powers. Theirs was a class struggle, according to the accusation, only in the most indirect and attenuated sense: they supposedly had aided states that represented the imperialist states that encircled the homeland of socialism.

Although the kulak action was at first glance a class terror, the killing was sometimes directed, as in Soviet Ukraine, against “nationalists.” Here, too, Stalinism was introducing something new. In Lenin’s adaptation of Marxism, nationalities were supposed to embrace the Soviet project, as their social advance coincided with the construction of the Soviet state. Thus the peasant question was initially linked to the national question in a positive way: people rising from the peasantry into the working or clerical or professional classes would come to national awareness as loyal Soviet citizens. Now, under Stalin, the peasant question was linked to the national question in a negative sense. The attainment of Ukrainian national consciousness by Ukrainian peasants was dangerous. Other, smaller national minorities were more threatening still. Most of the victims of Order 00447 in Soviet Ukraine were Ukrainians; but a disproportionate number were Poles. Here the connection between class and nation was perhaps most explicit. In a kind of operational shorthand, NKVD officers said: “Once a Pole, always a kulak.”62


The Nazi terror of 1936-1938 proceeded along somewhat similar lines, usually punishing members of politically defined social groups for what they were, rather than individuals for anything that they might have done. For the Nazis the most important category were the “asocials,” groups that were thought to be (and sometimes truly were) resistant to the Nazi worldview. These were homosexuals, vagrants, and people who were thought to be alcoholic, addicted to drugs, or unwilling to work. They were also Jehovah’s Witnesses, who rejected the premises of the Nazi worldview with strikingly greater clarity than most other German Christians. The Nazi leadership regarded such people as racially German but corrupt, and thus to be improved by confinement and punishment. Like the Soviet NKVD, the German police carried out organized raids of districts in 1937 and 1938, seeking to meet a numerical quota of specified sectors of the population. They, too, often overfulfilled these quotas in their zealous desire to prove loyalty and impress superiors. The outcome of arrests, however, was different: almost always confinement, very rarely execution.63

The Nazi repression of these undesirable social groups required the creation of a network of German concentration camps. To the camps at Dachau and Lichtenberg, both established in 1933, were added Sachsenhausen (1936), Buchenwald (1937), and Flossenberg (1938). By comparison with the Gulag, these five camps were rather modest. While more than a million Soviet citizens toiled in the Soviet concentration camps and special settlements in late 1938, the number of German citizens in the German concentration camps was about twenty thousand. When the difference in population size is taken into account, the Soviet system of concentration camps was about twenty-five times larger than the German one at this time.64

Soviet terror, at this point, was not only on a far greater scale; it was incomparably more lethal. Nothing in Hitler’s Germany remotely resembled the execution of nearly four hundred thousand people in eighteen months, as under Order 00447 in the Soviet Union. In the years 1937 and 1938, 267 people were sentenced to death in Nazi Germany, as compared to 378,326 death sentences within the kulak operation alone in the Soviet Union. Again, given the difference in population size, the chances that a Soviet citizen would be executed in the kulak action were about seven hundred times greater than the chances that a German citizen would be sentenced to death in Nazi Germany for any offense.65

After a purge of the leadership and an assertion of dominance over the key institutions, both Stalin and Hitler carried out social cleansings in 1937 and 1938. But the kulak action was not the entirety of the Great Terror. It could be seen, or at least presented, as class war. But even as the Soviet Union was killing class enemies, it was also killing ethnic enemies.

By the late 1930s, Hitler’s National Socialist regime was well known for its racism and anti-Semitism. But it was Stalin’s Soviet Union that undertook the first shooting campaigns of internal national enemies.

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