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J.G. Wright

Millions Hit as Stalin Purge
Continues in Soviet Union

(October 1938

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 47, 29 October 1938, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

No official statistics relating to the Stalinist purge have been issued. None will be forthcoming. Nevertheless on the basis of indirect data in the Stalinist press the number can be roughly approximated. A figure of 1,000,000–1,500,000 for the past two years would be a conservative estimate.

In December 1937, Walter Krivitsky, leading Soviet diplomat who refused to return to Russia, stated that in May of that year he had learned from an authoritative source that the number of political arrests had at that time reached the total of not less than 300,000, the majority being party members and members of their families. In the period since May, the number of arrests had considerably increased and Krivitsky estimated it to be in the neighborhood of half-a-million.

Krivitsky’s estimate is indirectly borne out by a dispatch from Denny during this same period:

“The purge continues unabated although it has now been going on so long that its trials and executions have become routine news stripped of all dramatic value.” (N.Y. Times, Dec. 2, 1937)

Replacement and Purges

However, we have a far more authoritative verification. In January of this year Pravda asserted that: “More than 100,000 people have been advanced to leading posts during last year alone – in districts, provinces, federated and autonomous People’s Commissariats. More than 100,000!” ... The advancement has acquired a mass character, it is becoming almost everywhere a mass phenomenon. (Jan. 27. Emphasis in the original)

It goes without saying that for every individual who was “advanced” another one was removed, i.e., purged. It is equally clear that for every “leading” functionary a number of subordinates, to say nothing of relatives, were caught in the dragnet. A ratio of 5 to 1 is hardly exaggerated. Thus on the basis of Pravda’s boast, the number of those purged during “last year alone” can be set at not less than 500,000. The appalling implication of the figure mentioned in Pravda becomes clear if we bear in mind that Pravda cited it only to call for an intensification of this campaign of “advancement.” It was only a modest beginning! In March came the Bukharin-Rykov frame-up as part of the machinery of speeding up the purge.

At that time Webb Miller, United Press staff correspondent, reported from Moscow:

“Many thousands of persons have been arrested – the number perhaps running into five figures – throughout the Soviet republics since the recent treason trials.” (N.Y. Post, March 8)

“Tens of Thousands ...”

In July, Walter Duranty was able to state with satisfaction that

“there is no doubt that it (the purge) cut a deep furrow through every phase of national life. To prove this it is sufficient to compare published membership lists of official bodies, from the high military council to local Soviets, of two years ago and now, or to read reports of changes of the personnel in Communist party secretariats, both provincial and municipal, and in government administrative positions.” (N.Y. Times, July 26)

The spheres and the changes enumerated by Duranty embrace not isolated individuals but the entire party and administrative apparatus of the country, that is to say, thousands upon tens of thousands of people.

We continually meet with this refrain of “new thousands.” Thus, in August, Izvestia stated that “in the recent period thousands of new people have been advanced to leading posts in People’s Commissariats and the administrative bodies”. (August 28. Our emphasis) And only the other day, Denny reported on the Army purge as follows:

“The purge that is still continuing in the Red Army, though apparently on a smaller scale, is being accompanied by promotions of thousands of junior officers to responsible posts.” (N.Y. Times, Oct. 17. Our emphasis)

Yardstick for Data

The scope of the “promotions” provides a yardstick for the real extent of the purge. Let us apply it to those isolated cases in which the Stalinist press provides us with some statistics.

In Pravda, for July 22, A. Akopov, director of the Ural Heavy Machinery Plant made the following boast:

“There are more than 400 engineers and technicians in the construction department of Uralmash. Of these only 3 completed their studies prior to 1917, all the others are from among the Soviet youth.”

We also learn that “more than 250 Stakhanovists from among the labor and technical personnel have been promoted to leading posts.” Here we have a purge of more than 60 per cent in a single department. So we are not shocked to discover that in this plant there were:

“a foreign specialist, the spy Z....; former chief metallurgist, the diversionist P....; head of the central laboratory, the spy D....; former head of the forging-press dep’t, Z....; chief engineer, the wrecker L.... former head of the order bureau, the spy K....”


Here is a report of the results of the Party Conference in the city of Stalinsk:

“In the Kuznets metallurgical plant named after Stalin, the cadres of the party have been vigorously renovated in the last year. The majority of the secretaries of shop committees and group organizations are new people – their past record in party work does not exceed one year.” (Pravda, July 22)

Finally, we take the instance of the Don Basin. Time and again has the administration been purged, culminating in the sweeping changes effected by Kaganovich in October of last year. Pravda commented as follows:

“The People’s Commissar of Heavy Industry, com. L.M. Kaganovich has reorganized ‘Glavugol’; he has expelled from there the apologists of wreckers’ theory ... the bureaucrats and the office holders; he has reinforced the apparatus of the chief administration with young engineers, tested communists, people who know their jobs and are desirous of fighting for the convalescence of the coal industry.” (Oct. 2, 1937)

“Worthless Directors”

On June 11, 1938, Pravda announced the removal of these “worthless directors” and boasted of a new leading staff embracing: 260 mine superintendents; 240 chief engineers, 610 heads of sectors, 400 “leaders of tens,” 650 Stakhanovists, 120 organizers and 140 chairmen of mine committees.

Said Pravda:

“The chief task of the directors of ‘Donbasugol’ was to transmit the experience of the advanced mines in the struggle for coal to the laggard mines, to put an end once and for all to criminal negligence and to proceed to root out the consequences of wrecking ... The former leaders of ‘Donbasugol’ failed to do this. Departmental-bureaucratic methods of management predominated in their work. The worthless directors have been removed.” (June 11)

In October of this year, the Donbas has been reorganized once again, this time into three separate units. No purge was reported in connection with this reorganization but it doubtless took place. If the purge elsewhere assumed the same proportions it would involve not 1% but several millions. We presume that these are exceptional cases.

Commissariats Cleansed

Of the 28 Commissariats (established in January) 11 have been purged from top to bottom. These include the commissariats of Agriculture, Trade, Mechanical Construction, Light Industry, Food Industry, Land Transport, Finance, and Farm Products Storage. On Oct. 2, came the news of the reorganization of the State Bank, with the appointment of Bulganin as chairman, and three deputies. All four of these new appointees are G.P.U. functionaries – an evil omen to the personnel!

The naval commissariat has been purged. The purge in the Army continues. While there has been no confirmation of Bluecher’s arrest, it is known that his entire general staff and scores of his closest collaborators have been arrested.

The refusal of collectives to deliver grain to the government is being met by the extension of the purge into the collectives. This list far from exhausts the countless thousands who are involved. In the light of these facts our estimate of those who have fallen victims to the purge at three times the figure set by Krivitsky last December is, if anything, an underestimation.

Last updated: 14 September 2015