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The Great Purge

Text: © University of Toronto Press
Reprinted with permission.

While the waves of repression that rolled across Ukraine in the early 1930s were mainly directed against Ukrainians, the Great Purge of 1937-38 encompassed the entire Soviet Union and all categories of people. Its goal was to sweep away all of Stalin's real and imaginary enemies and to infuse all levels of Soviet society, especially upper echelons, with a sense of insecurity and abject dependence on and obedience to the "Great Leader." In a series of sensational show trials, almost all the "founding fathers" of bolshevism (and the potential rivals of Stalin) were discredited and subsequently executed. The political police, now referred to as the NKVD, repeatedly fabricated plots and terrorist groups to implicate ever broadening circles of people. The usual sentence was summary execution or, at best, lengthy terms in Siberian concentration camps. To assure themselves of an endless supply of "traitors," the NKVD interrogators concentrated on two questions: "Who recruited you?" and "Whom did you recruit?" The "confessions" often doomed casual acquaintances, friends, and even family. Even at a time when the threat of war in Europe was rising, much of the military leadership - the only remaining base of potential opposition - was executed. It was at this point that Stalin's method began to show definite signs of madness.

Again Ukraine was among the worst-hit areas. Unlike the purges of 1933, during which opponents of collectivization and Ukrainizers had been purged, in 1937 Stalin decided to liquidate the entire leadership of the Ukrainian Soviet government and the CPU. [] By June 1938 the top seventeen ministers of the Ukrainian Soviet government were arrested and executed. The prime minister, Liubchenko, committed suicide. Almost the entire Central Committee and Politburo of Ukraine perished. An estimated 37% of the Communist party members in Ukraine - about 170,000 people - were purged. In the words of Nikita Khrushchev, Moscow's new viceroy in Kiev, the Ukrainian party "had been purged spotless." The NKVD slated for extermination entire categories of people, such as kulaks, priests, former members of antiBolshevik armies, those who had been abroad or had relatives abroad, and immigrants from Galicia; even average citizens perished in huge numbers. An indication of the vast scope of the Great Purge was the discovery, during the Second World War, in Vinnytsia, of a mass grave containing 10,000 bodies of residents of the region who were shot between 1937 and 1938. Given the lack of complete data, it is difficult for Western scholars to establish the total loss of life brought about by the Stalinist terror. Adam Ulam and others estimate that in the Soviet Union as a whole, about 500,000 were executed in 1937-39 and somewhere between 3 and 12 million were sent to labor camps. One can assume in light of the above-mentioned factors that Ukraine's share of those who were victimized was disproportionately high.

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