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    The Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center 'Peace, Progress, Human Rights' >> The Museum's Permanent Exhibit >>    

Political Repressions in the USSR

Political Repressions in the USSR

The practical steps in building communist society in the Soviet Union were not confined to efforts to implant ideological myths into the masses' consciousness. Since the first days of the new state's existence the dreadful word "terror" had entered the everyday lives of millions of people. Politically motivated violence became the main tool of realization of communist utopia. Anyone could become a victim of the ruthless mass terror that dominated all the spheres of political and ideological life. The terror was to produce fear that would preclude arising of an open opposition..

Political repressions mark a whole epoch in our country's life, a bitter and a terrible one. The time condemned the terror as the mechanism of solving crucial problems. German philosopher Karl Jaspers in his book "The Origin and Goal of History" wrote: "We cannot allow the terrors of the past be buried in oblivion. We should always remind people of the past. It happened, it was possible, and this possibility remains. Knowledge alone can prevent it from happening again. Danger lies in the refusal to know, in the tendency to forget and in the lack of belief that all this really happened…».

1. The October Revolution came true! Hurrah, comrades!
The October Revolution came true! Hurrah, comrades!

The storming of the Winter Palace inaugurated by the blank shot fired by the battleship «Aurora» on October 25, 1917, brought to successful conclusion the armed uprising organized by the Bolsheviks, opened a new chapter in the history of the former Russian Empire. In this chapter, there was no place left for the citizens' right for personal freedom.

Ironically, it was exactly the promises of "freedom, equality and brotherhood" that triggered these events: the February revolution of 1917 aroused unprecedented enthusiasm in all the strata of the society that craved for substantial changes in political and economical life of Russia. But the Provisional government proved unable to solve the main problems of the country that was exhausted by the war, hunger, confusion and anarchy. At that time, the Bolsheviks' Party won over many supporters by advancing simple and understandable slogans: «Factories — to the workers, land — to the peasants, power — to the Soviets, peace — to the peoples!». The first decrees of the Bolsheviks — «The Decree on Peace» and «The Decree on Land» — met the most cherished hopes of the people.

The Bolsheviks' success in taking over and keeping the power in the country largely depended on the personality of the Party's leader — V. I. Lenin — a determined, intelligent man, fanatically devoted to the idea of the world-wide revolution, who did not let himself be distracted by the notions of mercy and sympathy.

Having seized the power, the Bolsheviks proclaimed the «provisional government of workers and peasant until the opening of the Constituent Assembly», which was supposed to form a permanent government and pass a constitution. The elections to the Constituent Assembly were held in October and November of 1917 throughout the country, with people voting party tickets. The parties on the ballot included Constitutional Democrats (Cadets), Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries (S.R.), as well as the Bolsheviks.

When it turned out that the Bolsheviks' party received less than a quarter of the votes, they passed the decree on dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. The Bolsheviks demonstrated that they did not intend to tolerate rivals in the struggle for power.

Already beginning the spring of 1918, having established food-rationing and control over food distribution, the communist power directed the mass terror against the peasants, which provoked a large-scale civil war.

One of the terror's first victims were members of the Romanovs dynasty: without due process of law, on the morning of July 17, 1918, in the remote city of Yekaterinburg the abdicated emperor Nicolas II and his family were shot dead.

2. Let us pay back with the Red terror for the White terror!
Let us pay back with the Red terror for the White terror!

Since the first days of the new state's existence its leaders kept the country in the state of the civil war, which was, according to Lenin, a form of «dictatorship of the proletariat ». And dictatorship, as Lenin had taught, was the power based not on the law, but on brutal force: «Revolutionary violence and dictatorship are wonderful things if they are applied at the right moment and against the right people». "The right people" happened to be the nobility, merchants, clergy, army officers, but also the intelligentsia, small property owners, peasants, and even workers. But the policy of repression and extermination of whole social classes could not but generate resistance, which led Bolsheviks to the war against their own people.

In those conditions the main challenge for the Bolsheviks was to remain in power, and this could not be done without well-organized army and police.

The task of creating an efficient army and strengthening it was brilliantly accomplished by Lev Trotsky, a determined, energetic man, who supplemented threats and executions with eloquent speeches and inspired slogans. Comprised not only of volunteers, who were ready to sacrifice their lives for the revolution, but also of peasants who were tired of the war and had to be mobilized by force, as well as of former Tsar's soldiers and officers, the Red army gained the victory. The Bolsheviks used every available means in their struggle: they won over to their side the former Tsar's military commanders and leaders of the peasants' associations, betrayed their recent allies and introduced, by a special decree, executions in the army, requisitioned provisions from the peasants by force, captured and executed hostages from among civilians. On September 5, 1918 a special decree of the Council of People's Commissars declared the necessity of mass terror not just in frontline regions, but in the rear too, to fight the counterrevolution.

The white terror, as well as the red one, visited outrages on the country. The main victims of the bloody massacres were civilians.

In spite of the fact that the leaders of the White movement that opposed the Bolsheviks -Kolchak, Denikin, Wrangel, Udenich — possessed significant military experience, and the cruelty of the whites' reprisal raids equaled their enemies' ruthlessness, the Bolsheviks won the victory. More than 2 million people died at the fronts of the civil war. According to the demographists, losses among civilians were even higher.

3. Let us clean the land from fiends!
Let us clean the land from fiends!

On December 7 (20), 1917 a powerful police machine, the All-Russia Emergency Commission (Cheka) headed by F. E. Dzerzhinsky, was created. Cheka became both the prosecutor and the judge, and the executioner: it carried out surveillance, arrests, investigation, and prosecution, meted out sentences and carried them out, and acted as the tool of the red terror. «It's important to us, — Lenin instructed the chekists, — that the Cheka implements the direct dictatorship of the proletariat».

In 1922 Dzerzhinsky stated: «Now we should with particular vigilance keep an eye on the anti-soviet movements and groups, smash the internal counterrevolution, expose all the conspiracies of the overthrown landowners, capitalists, and their henchmen».

And they did start to unmask conspiracies. In June - August of 1922, there was a trial of the Social-Revolutionaries, who were very popular among the peasants. The famine that erupted in the early 1920s, especially dreadful in the Volga region, provided an opportunity to crash the church as well. V.I. Lenin cynically suggested embracing the opportunity that was offered by famine in the Volga region and confiscating the church valuables. Expropriation of the church property, which looked like plain robbery, was accompanied by arrests, court trials, executions. «The more members of the reactionary clergy and reactionary bourgeois class we manage to shoot on this pretext — the better», — Lenin wrote. In 1922, during the trials against the church in Moscow and Petrograd, 21 priests were sentenced to death on the charge of "resisting" surrender of the church valuables. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Tikhon was arrested twice as «the head of the counterrevolution».

Lenin announced: «We ignited socialism at home and in the whole world. We will fight without mercy anyone who hinders our struggle to whatever extent. He who is not with us is against us». The Report of the Joint State Political Directorate (OGPU) of 1924 gives statistics of arrests according to the social class of the arrested. The bulk of the arrested were peasants, but workers, soviet employees, and intelligentsia also figure there in significant numbers.

The intelligentsia, as one of the pre-Revolutionary social classes, was dealt with mercilessly: they would be arrested on the basis of provisions of the Constitution of the Russian Federation of 1918, were divested of civil and electoral rights, expelled from the country. Severe censorship was introduced in the country.

In the late 1920s «the Shakhtin's case» and the trial against the mythical "Industrial Party" marked the beginning of mass repressions against the so-called "technical" intelligentsia as well. Every seventh engineer in the country was put into prison.

4. Let us destroy kulaks as a class!
Let us destroy kulaks as a class!

The late 1920s saw the beginning of massive attack on the peasantry. Lev Trotsky announced: «While we have shortage of grain, peasants will have to pay the soviet economy taxes in kind, in grain, under the penalty of merciless punishment».

But terror alone was not enough to quiet the peasants who rose against predatory exactions. From the start the Bolsheviks were working towards splitting the village as an institute. The Decree of June 11, 1918 introduced the Committees of the Poor (kombed), that were created as a counterbalance to the village councils. Kombeds participated in confiscating land lots from well-to-do peasants, expropriated grain stocks.

The New Economical Policy (NEP) proclaimed in March 1921 gave the peasants a certain temporary reprieve.

In 1927 the Party determined the course toward creating collective farms — kolkhozes — in the country. The appeals to voluntarily enter kolkhozes failed to attract the propertied peasants. Violence and threats remained the main method of creating collective farms. In the first place it was necessary to deprive the village of its upper class - well-to-do peasants (kulaks), and peasants of average means, who, to the majority of the rural population, represented a counterweight to the Soviet propaganda of advantages of collective farms.

Stalin declared: «From the policy of restraining exploitative tendencies of the kulaks we arrived at the policy of liquidating kulaks as a social class». In 1930-31 nearly 2 million peasants were moved from their homes to special settlements. Fear of dispossession and ouster forced peasants to obediently enter kolkhozes and bear with the restraints of their freedom: absence of passports, penal sanctions for non-fulfillment of the norm of work-days, labor without days-off or vacations, small food rations (200 to 500 grams of grain were given for one work-day).

In 1932-33, famine erupted even in the most fertile grain producing regions: Ukraine, Northern Caucus, Volga region, Kazakhstan, Western Siberia, the south of the Central Black Earth region and the Urals. Since the autumn of 1932 to the April — May of 1933 the country's population was reduced by more than 6 million people, predominantly at the expense of rural population. "Golodomor" (mass starvation) was a result of the general policy of the authorities towards the peasantry as a whole, and not only towards the kulaks.

5. Soviet power does not punish, it reforms!
Soviet power does not punish, it reforms!

In the early 1930s a network of prisons, camps, and colonies — what later А.I. Solzhenitsyn called «archipelago GULAG» — was created to house the convicted. It started with creation of the Solovki Special Purpose Camp (SLON), established in the Solovetsky monastery in 1923, where, at first, priests and monks, soldiers and officers of the White army, political opponents of the Bolsheviks and intelligentsia were imprisoned. In 1930, concentration camps of the OGPU were given the name of «reformatory labor camps», and the Main Directorate of Camps (GULAG) was created. In 1934, the OGPU was reorganized and became People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD). Mass repressions in the 30s were theoretically justified by Stalin's thesis that class struggle intensifies as the country progresses towards socialism, as well as by the need for industrialization and development of remote regions in a short period of time and at the smallest cost.

The slogan advanced at the time: «The Soviet power does not punish, it reforms! » became a concise expression of the idea of «re-forging» consciousness of criminals put into camps. Consciousness of «hostile class elements» was reformed not only by labor but also by use of the press, education and arts. For example, the Dmitrov camp, created for the purpose of constructing a canal between Moskva River and Volga, had been publishing a few dozens of papers and magazines for the inmates. The most popular were the papers «Re-forging» and «Moskva -Volga».

The idea of «re-forging» was propagandized in every possible way. A group of writers headed by Maxim Gorky visited the Belomor Canal built by labor camps inmates to connect the White and the Baltic Seas, and later published the book «The Stalin Canal» that pictured the successes in both construction work and reforming of the criminals.

The list of construction projects where the slave manual labor of hundreds of thousands of prisoners was used is enormous. It includes the Belomor Canal, that was constructed in less than two years, the Volga -Don Canal connecting the rivers Volga and Don; Moscow — Minsk highway; Kuybyshev and Ust-Kamenogorsk hydroelectric power stations. The GULAG prisoners built the cities of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Magadan, Norilsk, Vorkuta, Severodvinsk, Bratsk, and Taishet. They also built the Northern and Siberian railways, manufacturing plants, almost every nuclear industry plant; they mined gold in Kolyma, Chukotka and Yakutia, mined ore, coal, radioactive elements, and cut timber.

6. Death to the enemies of the people!
Death to the enemies of the people!

In the 20s and the 30s the members of the Party elite themselves became victims of the repressive machine. The first one removed from the political scene was the ex-chief of the Red army, Lev Trotsky: he was expelled from the country. In 1940, he was assassinated by a Soviet state security officer. Everyone who was related to Trotsky in any way was repressed.

Lenin's closest comrades-in-arms: Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Piatakov, Rykov — were executed in 1936-1938, the years that have been described as the "great terror years". In 1933-1939, 2 million people were expelled from the Party, 1.2 million of them were arrested. Everyone who survived to stand the show trials of 1936 - 1938, pleaded guilty of terrible deeds against the Party and the people. Grigoriy Zinoviev appealed for pardon to the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR, pleading guilty of all the charges that were brought against him. During the open trials the accused had to publicly recant their crimes, so that nobody would doubt that the enemy is many-faced, treacherous, and could be hiding anywhere and in anyone. A terrifying image of an «enemy», saboteur, terrorist was thrust on the people. The Prosecutor General, Аndrey Vyshinsky, used to conclude his speeches at the political trials of the 1930s with the following words: «All our people, young and old alike, are waiting for and demanding one thing: that traitors and spies who were selling our Motherland to the enemy, be shot like filthy dogs!»

People lived in the atmosphere of increasing and well-organized mass psychosis, in the atmosphere of general suspicion. At meetings, in newspapers, and on the radio the "enemies of the people" were furiously and incessantly denounced. After sentences were passed in the show trials, huge meetings were held in support of the court decisions.

The common people who demanded death sentences for those "rabid dogs" hardly realized that the "dogs" made their confessions having gone through many days of sophisticated torture. The telegram of January 10, 1939 signed by Stalin read: «The Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) explains that that the NKVD has been allowed to practice physical coercion since 1937, by the permission issued then by the Central Committee…». By physical and moral coercion they forced people not only to plead guilty, but also to testify against others.

7. For the Party no one is irreplaceable!
For the Party no one is irreplaceable!

The military were a special caste in the Soviet Union, the heroes of the civil war were sure of their immunity. But the coup d'etat in Spain lead by general Franco increased Stalin's suspicions that the same was possible in Russia. Marshal Tukhachevsky came to be considered a «possible dictatorial candidate» and his fate was sealed, as well as the fates of practically every officer of the high command. From among the 460 military men ranking from divisional commander and higher almost 400 were repressed, 350 of them were executed (by comparison, 320 commanders were killed in the war). When the high commanders were killed, people connected with them, or alleged to have a connection, were arrested.

At that time the mechanism of repressions was simplified as much as possible. Arrests and executions were carried out according to the quotas approved by the Central Committee and by Stalin personally. On the initiative of the local organs of the OGPU-NKVD those quotas were constantly increased. In 1934, the Special Councils (OSO), essentially extrajudicial tribunals, were formed within NKVD. They had the right to expel, banish, and put people in the camps for up to 5 years, without court trial or investigation. In 1941, the Councils were given the right to sentence to imprisonment for up to 25 years and to pass death sentences. At the time of the so called «great terror», on Stalin's order, People's Commissars Yagoda and Yezhov established new extrajudicial organs: "troika" and "dvoika" (committees of three or two) that arbitrarily decided people's fates. A regional "troika" comprised the secretary of the Party committee, the head of the NKVD directorate, and the public prosecutor, all of the same administrative region (district, territory, or a Soviet republic). All in all, just in 1937-1938, 1.5 million people were arrested, 1.3 million were convicted by extrajudicial bodies, about 700 thousand were shot.

The very notion of the «enemy of the people» firmly entered the everyday life, became an ineffaceable stain not only for the «unmasked traitors», but for their families as well. Members of the families of the "traitors of the Motherland" were subjected to physical and moral tortures. By the Politburo decision of July 5, 1937 wives of the «enemies of the people» had to be imprisoned in labor camps for the period of no less than 5-8 years. The children of the «enemies of the people» were sent either to the camps and labor settlements of NKVD, or to the special regime orphanages.

At a certain moment, it came the executioners' turn to become the "enemies". Yagoda and Yezhov, who headed the NKVD in succession, were shot. Lavrentiy Beria succeeded them on this post.

8. Not a step back!
Not a step back!

On June 22, 1941 the Great Patriotic War began. In the first days and months of the war many units of the Red Army were encircled or taken prisoners.

From August to November 1941 Stalin issued a series of orders that demanded to shoot on the spot commanding officers surrendering to the enemy; to arrest their families; to deprive families of the privates, who gave themselves up, of welfare payments; to destroy, by any means available, the encircled and surrendering military units. On July 28, 1942, the order № 227 known as «Not a step back!» was issued. Penal battalions and companies were formed out of those found guilty, and they fought with the special barrage troops placed in the rear of them to shoot those who retreated.

In 1943 the Main Directorate for Counterespionage (the so-called "SMERSH", which is an abbreviation for «death to spies») was created to fight sabotages and diversions in the army's rear. Besides, SMERSH was overseeing political mood of generals and officers of the Red Army.

In the very beginning of the war repressions were targeted against whole peoples. In August of 1941, the decree ordering resettlement of the German population of the Volga region was issued, during 1941 — 1942 more than 900 thousand Russian citizens of German extraction were deported from their homes. They were followed by the Karachais, Kalmyks, Balkars, Chechens, Ingush, Crimean Tatars. In autumn 1944 Kurds, Turks-Meskhetians and Khemshins were expelled from 5 regions. It was prohibited to the deported peoples to ever return to their land. In 1945 the category of «special migrants» comprised 2.2 million people.

The end of the war did not make the country's authorities stop the repressions. In May 1945, in the rear of the Byelorussian and Ukrainian fronts, there were formed filtration camps for liberated prisoners of war and repatriates. Out of 1,836,000 of Soviet prisoners of war who returned from Germany, 608,095 were sent to labor battalions, and 338,618 — to the NKVD camps.

Population losses of the Soviet Union during the Great Patriotic War were enormous. The country with the total pre-war population of 195 million people, according to the official — and evidently understated — data, lost 27 million people, and only 8.7 million out of them died on the frontline (according to some alternative estimations, twice as many), the rest were civilians and members of resistance.

9. Let us unmask the personality cult!
Let us unmask the personality cult!

The end of the war generated in the society hopes for change in the political and economical situation in the country. But instead of change the authorities, following the well tested strategy, switched the people's attention to searching for and exposing internal and external enemies. In the context of the «cold war» with the former allies, a campaign fighting «servility towards the West», that affected scientific and cultural life, was started. In 1946-1948, a series of decrees of the Central Committee of CPSU (B) denounced creative work and personalities of a distinguished poet, a writer, and two composers:. Akhmatova, Zoshchenko, Shostakovich, and Muradeli. Many famous cultural figures were accused of political indifference, lack of principles, propaganda of bourgeois ideology.

In January 1949 a campaign against «rootless cosmopolites», and in reality against Jews, was started. In December 1948, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was dissolved, and its members were arrested. In 1949, the famous Jewish actor and director of the Jewish Theater, Solomon Mikhoels, was killed. The campaign reached its climax in the last months of Stalin's life when a group of prominent Jewish doctors who worked in the Kremlin hospital were arrested and accused of premeditated homicide of high-ranking patients.

The wave of repressions was stopped only by Stalin's death on March 5, 1953.

In 1956, during the 20th Party Congress, the First Secretary of the CPSU, Nikita Khrushchev, delivered the «secret» speech that denounced the Stalin's «personality cult» and the crimes of the Stalin's regime. In fact, what the Khrushchev speech had shown was that all of the history of the Party since 1934, the period of Stalin's complete domination, was the history of crimes, unlawful actions, mass murders, and incompetence of the authorities. But his denunciations were restricted to the crimes committed against the Party members who supported Stalin and the general policy of the Party, not the crimes against members of the opposition. Khrushchev did not mention the principal victims of the regime - millions of common people.

After the 20th congress, the mass release of political prisoners and their "rehabilitation" (absolution of charges and annulment of their sentences) had begun. The process of rehabilitation was completed only by the beginning of the 21st century. But neither the Communist Party, nor the Soviet state, nor the new power that has replaced it ever repented for the crimes committed by the government against its own people.

Abbreviations and abridgement

Bolsheviks — (derived from bolshinstvo, "majority") the radical faction of the Russian Social- Democratic Labour Party, which under Lenin's leadership became the Russian Communist Party

Cadets — kadety - Constitutional Democrats Party (1905 — 1917)

VChK — Vserosiskaya Chrezvychainaya komissiya - All-Russia Extraordinary Commission (secret police during the civil war era)

Socialist-Revolutionary - essery - Socialist Revolutionary Party (1902 -1922)

OGPU — Obedinennoe gosudarstvennoe upravlenie -Unified State Political Administration (secret police during the late 1920s and early 1930s)

NKVD — Narodnyi komissariat vnutrennikh del - People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (secret police during the late 1930s and the Second World War, successor to OGPU)

RF — Russian Federation, the republic of the Union of Soviet Socialist Repalics (USSR), Russia

GULAG — Glavnoe upravlenie lagerei - Main Camp Administration

TsIK — Central Executive Committee

USSR — The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

TsK VKP(b) — Central Committee of the All-Russia Communist Party (Bolsheviks)

CPSU — Communist Party of the Soviet Union was the name used by the successors of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social- Democratic Labour Party from 1952 to1991

TsK CPSU — Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union

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Политика конфиденциальности

Региональная общественная организация «Общественная комиссия по сохранению наследия академика Сахарова» (Сахаровский центр) решением Минюста РФ от 25.12.2014 года №1990-р внесена в реестр организаций, выполняющих функцию иностранного агента. Это решение мы обжалуем в суде.

© Сахаровский центр

Политика конфиденциальности

Региональная общественная организация «Общественная комиссия по сохранению наследия академика Сахарова» (Сахаровский центр) решением Минюста РФ от 25.12.2014 года №1990-р внесена в реестр организаций, выполняющих функцию иностранного агента. Это решение мы обжалуем в суде.