Stalin’s Great Purge and the Brutal Gulags

Soviet Premier Josef Stalin
Soviet Premier Josef Stalin

After the death of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, the infamous Josef Stalin came to power in the Soviet Union.  In the late 1930s, Stalin began a ruthless campaign known as The Great Purge, referred to by the Russian people as the Great Terror. Any person or group perceived in Stalin’s twisted mind as a threat to his power was arrested, given a sham trial, and either executed on the spot or sent to the Gulags.  The Gulags were the Soviet system of horrific forced labor camps scattered across the USSR, many in Siberia. While Adolf Hitler had his Nazi Concentration Camps, Stalin had his Gulags.  They were far from the Bolshevik dream of a Communist utopia – free from the evils of western imperialism.

Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks revolted against Czar Nicholas II in 1917 to create a supposedly equal communist society, free of capitalism.  The Soviet Union became anything but.  Lenin died of a sudden stroke in 1924. Under his successor Josef Stalin, the USSR became a regime laced with suppression and brutality. The Gulag system was a shrewd punishment. Stalin’s ‘threats to Communism’ weren’t just eliminated, they were turned into forced labor to build his state.

Stalin had to fight his way to power, declaring himself premier in 1929. The United Opposition was a political group which never approved of Stalin’s rule.  Some members of old Bolshevik party questioned his authority. Some Communists saw Stalin as dictatorial and corrupt.  Stalin’s authority was questioned by influential comrades like Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin.  A suspicious and paranoid Stalin believed anyone with ties to Lenin was therefore a threat and needed to go

Stalin’s solution was his Great Purge.

It began quietly in 1934 with the assassination of Sergei Kirov, a prominent Bolshevik. Kirov was murdered in broad daylight at Communist Party headquarters in Leningrad. Many believe Stalin himself, a friend of Kirov, ordered the hit.  This gave Stalin the perfect excuse to commence his purge.  He used Kirov’s death as evidence a traitorous faction in the Communist party was trying to eliminate its leaders.  There’s no hard evidence that Stalin ordered Kirov’s death, but it’s simply too much of a coincidence.

Stalin decided to get rid of the loudest dissidents and original Bolsheviks from the 1917 Revolution.  He launched his purge claiming he’d uncovered a dangerous cabal of Communist traitors.  Kirov’s death led to staged trials in Moscow of Stalin’s rivals and critics, which he labeled the “Leftist Counter-Revolutionary Bloc.” 14 former high-ranking Communists, like Nikolai Bukharin, were arrested for treason. The accused were ruthlessly tortured, or their close families threatened, until the pathetic men admitted to being traitors and spies.  Stalin had them all executed.

From 1936 to 1938, the Soviet secret police, the so-called NKVD [People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs], then conducted field trials of lesser threats who were arrested, tried, found guilty and executed as well.  While the Moscow Trial’s were conducted in legitimate courtrooms, the secret police utilized a swift, unjust method, employing 3-member committees responsible for sentencing the ‘anti-Soviets’ to death.

Stalin didn’t stop with executing just his rivals.

Stalin freely used the term The Fifth Column, to identify his “Enemies of the People.” Stalin often used propaganda buzzwords like “subversives, intelligentsia, and counter-revolutionary.” Any of these labels would land a person in a Gulag or firing squad. The labels meant one thing: TRAITOR.  In all, about 1/3 of the Communist Party’s 3 million members were purged and sent to the Gulags. 

The paranoid Stalin even had 30,000 members of his own Red Army and Navy executed, because he suspected, without evidence, that they were plotting a military coup. The Great Purge removed field marshals, generals, admirals, commanders, and commissars. Over 100 high ranking officers were all executed.

And still Stalin was not satisfied.  He expanded his Great Purge to include aristocrats landowners, ethnic minorities, and foreigners.  Then came the educated academics, scientists, even medical doctors.  Finally, it included journalists, writers, artists and students. All were sent to the Gulags. No one, it seemed, was safe.

When everyone was a potential suspect, Soviet-wide paranoia meant everyone suspected their neighbor. The rampant Purge caused pervasive fear and eventually broke the will of the Soviet people.  At least 750,000 were executed during the Great Purge. Some believe the true death count to be twice as high.  More than a million others were sent to the Gulags. Overall, the camps held about 18 million Soviet citizens from the late 1920s until Stalin’s death in 1953.

What was life like in the Gulags, where millions were sent to suffer? 

The word “Gulag” is an acronym for Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, Russian for Main Camp Administration. All laborers were officially known as “political prisoners.” Conditions were brutal: prisoners worked up to 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, often in cold, severe weather. Thousands died of starvation, disease, or execution.  Even women endured the harsh conditions. Many of them facing the daily threat of rape or assault by guards or male prisoners.

By the time Stalin took control, the Gulag system had 84 small labor camps spread across the USSR, most in Russia and Siberia. Under Stalin’s rule, the prison population grew exponentially.  Daily life was organized around forced hard labor as both a tool of ‘Re-education,’ and a source of revenue for Stalin’s regime. He viewed the Gulags both a way to get rid of threats and as cheap labor to boost his industries.

Gulag inmates dug canals, built railroads and highways, constructed dams and cargo ships. They mined coal, tin and copper, and cut acres of timber from Siberia’s thick forests.  Prisoners were given sentences, and if they met their quotas and survived their term, they were released.  But since there was a constant influx of new prisoners, Gulag officials thought little about preserving the health of their workforce.  The Gulag inmates were both expendable and replaceable.

Prisoners were given crude tools and no safety equipment. The daily tasks were so grueling, some would cut or burn themselves to avoid work.  Prisoners drudged through brutal Russian weather in sub-zero temperatures. Food was rationed and if prisoners didn’t complete their quotas, they received less.  Thousands died of exhaustion, starvation or disease.

Starvation in particular was a constant factor and deliberate.  It allowed camp officials to control the population. Even normal rations, which were given to prisoners who exceeded their quotas, did not make up for the calories lost during hard labor.  As the hopeless inmates grew physically weaker, and failed to meet their quotas, they earned less food and became weaker still.

Camp conditions were overcrowded and unsanitary. Violence was common among inmates as they stole food and supplies from each other.  The environment created a cruel form of Darwinism — survival of the fittest.  Any potential friendship with a fellow prisoner was squashed by competition.  It was hard to form alliances or rebellions when you’re fighting over food and resources.

‘Any human feelings — love, friendship, charity, mercy, decency —  vanished along with your body’s flesh due to prolonged starvation.  Bread was not issued in equal pieces, but thrown onto a pile in the dirt.  Run fast and grab! Knock down your comrades, and tear it from their hands! … You hate them — they are your rivals in life and death.’

Quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1973).

By 1939, Stalin had to focus on Hitler and the Nazis in World War II, so he slowed his purge in order to send men to the German front instead.  Stalin then had the head of his NKYD shot. Nikolai Yezhov was feared only next to Stalin. Yezhov’s predecessor was in the Moscow trials and executed. After dutifully carrying our Stalin’s orders, he too met a similar fate.  Yezhov was executed in 1940, after ‘confessing‘ to anti-Soviet activity.  Stalin didn’t just target threats, but also those who served him.

Soviet Gulag prisoners awaiting orders in Siberia
Soviet Gulag prisoners awaiting orders in Siberia

The final act of the Purge occurred when Stalin had his old rival Leon Trotsky killed in 1940. Trotsky was expelled from the Communist party in 1929 and exiled by Stalin.  At the Moscow Trials, Trotsky was sentenced to death in absentia. After several assassination attempts, Leon Trotsky was finally murdered in Mexico. A communist agent killed him with an ice pick to the head.   

After World War II, the arrests and exiles continued until Stalin’s death in 1953 at age 74.  The Gulag system weakened immediately. Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchez, was a staunch critic of the camps and the Purge.  He acknowledged that most prisoners were, in fact, innocent. Within days, millions were released.  

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics itself later collapsed in 1991.

Over their 30 years, the Gulags killed at least six million, roughly a third of all those imprisoned. A true death toll is hard to determine as the NKVD covered their tracks well. The Gulags left deep scars, both physically and psychologically. The Gulag’s dark history left generations of Russians scarred and damaged. Survivors suffered poverty and PTSD long after their release. Even today, some survivors are still too fearful to talk about their experiences. Perhaps rightly so, under Vladimir Putin.

The true horrors of the Gulags were kept hidden within the USSR for decades. Unlike the Nazi Holocaust Concentration camps, no film or images of the Gulags were shown to the public. In 1973, The Gulag Archipelago was published by Russian survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The book detailed the true atrocities of the Gulags.  Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Union, but returned to Russia in 1994.

Stalin’s Gulags demonstrates just one of the evils of Soviet-style Communism.  The camps were justified because they were utilized for the greater good. Much like the German people, Soviet citizens didn’t see themselves as villains. Propaganda told them they were living the dream of a “Virtuous Revolution.”  However, Karl Marx’s utopian vision only led to a brutal dictator and the horrors of the Gulags.

Under his successor Nikita Khrushchev, some of the camps were turned into criminal prisons. It wasn’t until 1987 that Mikhail Gorbachev, himself a grandson of Gulag victims, officially eliminated the camps. The legacy of the gulags remains forever a part of Soviet history. Today, Russia is lead by President Vladimir Putin, who has his own agenda for reclaiming the former republics of the Soviet Union. 

And what of Josef Stalin?  After his victory over Germany in World War II, he was seen as a bold, national hero, though still greatly feared by all.  He led the Soviet Union to become a global nuclear superpower in the new Cold War with the democratic West.   Today, we see Josef Stalin for what he was – a paranoid, manipulative sociopath, devoid of any humanity or empathy.  I will leave you with one of Josef Stalin’s more infamous quotes. 

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

Josef Stalin
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LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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