Skip over navigation

Joseph Stalin

The Great Terror and the Nazi-Soviet Pact

Stalin Triumphant

World War II

In the early 1930s, a famine developed in the Ukraine; learning of the suffering there, Stalin's wife Nadezhda confronted him, demanding that he remedy the situation. The couple had a tremendous fight, and Stalin ordered the arrest of the students who had informed his wife of the disaster. Shortly thereafter, on November 8, 1932, Nadezhda shot herself. It was the end of any trace of "normal" family life for Stalin, and witnesses saw tears in his eyes at her funeral--the only report that we have of the great dictator crying.

Meanwhile, Stalin remained the unquestioned master of the Soviet Union, with all his enemies vanquished and his position seemingly secure. But while his rivals from the '20s had suffered defeat, they were still alive and in the Party. Meanwhile, members of Stalin's loyal, personally appointed Politburo were beginning to wonder if their leader, who had guided them through the turmoil of collectivization and the Five-Year Plan, could now also prove effective in a relatively peaceful era. Talk circulated about electing a new General Secretary, and Sergei Kirov, a member of the Politburo, was put forth as a possible candidate. Kirov rejected this notion, but at the Fifteenth Party Congress in 1934 many members expressed disapproval of Stalin's tight control, and a small percentage of the delegates actually voted against re-electing him the Central Committee.

This brief swell of dissent only shows how egregiously people still misunderstood the nature of Stalin's rule. For in his mind, there was no question of his primacy: he was to be first, period; there was no room for dissent in his regime. Thus Stalin made Kirov the scapegoat, and it was Kirov who was assassinated on December 1, 1934. This was a turning point in Stalin's relationship with the rest of the Communist Party. The assassin--who had been hired by the secret police, the NKVD--was shot, along with all his close relatives (this would become a typical Stalinist tactic). Then, in quick succession, a number of minor Party men who had supported Kamenev and Zinoviev in the '20s were also arrested, charged with terrorism, and shot. This was followed, in January of 1935, by the arrest of Zinoviev and Kamenev themselves, along with a number of their allies; they would be tried in secret, accused of having "inspired" Kirov's assassination, and given long jail terms.

So began the "Great Terror," the aptly named period when Stalin effectively liquidated all traces of opposition to his rule. Large-scale purges struck the country, targeting all levels of society--including children: Stalin reasoned that parents were more likely to confess to trumped-up charges of subversion and disloyalty if they knew their children's lives were at risk. Then, in August of 1936, Stalin engineered the first of what came to be known as the Show Trials, in which he accused Zinoviev, Kamenev and their associates of conspiring (with the exiled Trotsky) against Stalin and the government. In an amazing scene that was broadcast around the world--and which played a large role in exposing the true nature of the Soviet regime--every one of the accused Bolsheviks confessed their supposed crimes. Only later did the world discover that these confessions were elicited after long months of psychological torture and physical abuse. All of the confessors were sentenced to death.

The following year, another group of old Bolsheviks were subjected to the same treatment. (It is important to note that Stalin stood directly behind these trials--he delegated responsibilities in other aspects of the Terror, but for the Show Trials he personally chose the list of "guilty" men, he deceived the accused into thinking their confessions would earn them leniency in sentencing, and he signed the death warrants.) Bukharin and the other "Rightists" could see the writing on the wall: Tomsky committed suicide, and for the rest of 1937, Stalin toyed with Bukharin and Rykov. Meanwhile, a wave of hysterical denunciations, arrests, and executions swept the country. In June of 1937, a number of leading army officers were arrested, along with the head of the secret police, Genrikh Yagoda--a blow from which the army would take years to recover. The generals were convicted and executed in secret, but Yagoda received his death sentence at the Show Trials, in March 1938, as did Bukharin, Rykov, and their supporters.

The Terror finally burnt itself out late in 1938, and at the Party Congress in March of the following year Stalin announced the end of the era of mass purges. But the campaign had caused lasting devastation--the exact numbers may never be known, but most historians estimate that millions of Russians were either executed or shipped off to the dreaded Siberian gulags between 1936 and '38. Perhaps the Soviet psyche suffered just as much damage, as an entire nation and its attendant culture sank into a deep-seated paranoia and a frightened submission to the state--the effects of which are still being felt in Russia today. This was, not coincidentally, the era when Stalin's "cult of personality" rose to overwhelming prominence in the Soviet Union, as history was rewritten to make him the hero of every circumstance, his writings were handed out to schoolchildren with a reverence once reserved for the Bible, his childhood was mythologized and every reference to his name accompanied by phrases like "Leader of Genius of the Proletarian Revolution," "Supreme Genius of Humanity," and so on: fear had conditioned the Russians to forego all independent though.

But even as the last opposition to Stalin disappeared on the domestic front, a new force was rising to challenge him in the heart of Europe. Adolf Hitler, had taken power in Germany in 1933--in part by playing on anti-Communist feeling--and Hitler's magnum opus, Mein Kampf, had pledged Germany to the destruction of the inferior Russian Slavs and the conquest of Lebensraum ("living space") in the Russian East.

Throughout the '30s, the Nazis and the Soviets seemed on a collision course, as Hitler denounced the "Bolshevik Menace" and the two nations fought a proxy war in Spain, each supporting a different side in that country's civil war. For a time, Stalin considered an alliance with the western Allies, France and Britain, in order to contain the growing Nazi threat; indeed, his Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Maxim Litvinov, publicly proposed such an alliance in 1935. That offer remained on the table, however, until 1938, by which point Hitler had conquered Czechoslovakia and Austria, and seemed ready to swallow up Poland as well. By now, although Stalin still desired to contain Hitler, allying with France and England in defense of the Poles would have meant war, which the Soviet leader wished to avoid at all costs. Moreover, he had become unfavorably impressed with the tactics of the western powers, whose policy of appeasement had done little to contain Hitler. He replaced Litvinov with Vyacheslav Molotov, by now one of his top lieutenants, and Molotov carved out a pact with the German foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, by which Russia and Germany agreed not to attack one another. This sacrifice of ideology, signed in August of 1939, shocked and frightened the West--but it should have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Stalin's political cunning. A month later, Germany invaded Poland, igniting the Second World War.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us