Benson: Stalin and Khrushchev’s Great Purge

Although President Barack Obama has ordered airstrikes on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Pentagon is saying that "further strikes are needed in both Iraq and Syria to stop the militants from regrouping." Then, from the Red Square...

Although President Barack Obama has ordered airstrikes on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Pentagon is saying that “further strikes are needed in both Iraq and Syria to stop the militants from regrouping.” Then, from the Red Square in Moscow, President Russian Vladimir Putin has “slowly ramped up his meddling in Ukraine, and with just enough uncertainty around each incremental escalation” so as to evade a larger war or a threat from the United States or western Europe.
Then, today marks the 13th anniversary of 9/11, al-Qaida’s deadly attacks on New York City’s twin towers and Washington, D.C.,’s Pentagon.
One wonders where all this “war and rumors of war” will end. A columnist recently said though, “it could be worse.” Indeed, look back to the 1930s, to the Soviet Union, and see a nation where the citizens shrank in terror from a Great Purge: Siberian prison camps, executions and mass graves.
Although Hitler’s Holocaust in the early 1940s receives the most attention today, Stalin’s Great Purge preceded the Nazi leader’s by five years.
Beginning in 1934, Soviet Union’s dictator Joseph Stalin turned on, in succession, his own Communist Party’s members; the Red Army’s generals and officers; the writers, thinkers, poets and playwrights; and then the Russian peasants, the kulak’s who resisted Stalin’s idyllic plan for collective farms. Most of those arrested were shot and their bodies dumped into mass graves. Most were innocent.
The numbers are difficult to comprehend. Soviet archives list a total of 681,692 people killed, but others put the estimate at 1 million or more. Then, there were those transported to the prison camps in Siberia, where they worked for years, many of whom died before their terms expired. In the 1930’s, the Soviet citizens - Russian, Ukrainian and the other nationalities - suffered unspeakable atrocities.
Why did Joseph Stalin turn on his own party, his army officers, the intelligentsia and the peasants? One answer is that he feared the loss of his own power and that his paranoia drove him to eliminate all potential rivals. Another answer is that he subscribed to Karl Marx’s political philosophy.
The British author Paul Johnson wrote in his book “Intellectuals” that “Marx’s vision of the dictatorship of the proletariat had taken concrete and terrifying shape and that Stalin - the ruler who achieved the absolute power for which Marx had yearned - was just beginning his catastrophic assault upon the Russian peasantry.”
Another answer is that Stalin was contemptuous of the Russian people. In 1937-38 he signed 357 lists that authorized the executions of tens of thousands of people, and he said, “Who’s going to remember all this riffraff in 10 or 20 years? No one. Who remembers the names now of the boyars that Ivan the Terrible got rid of? No one.”
Nikita Khrushchev supported Stalin’s purges and even participated in them. For 10 years, the Russian was the Communist Party’s leader in the Ukraine, and from that post he oversaw the arrest and execution of thousands of Ukrainian people, including the kulaks there, and so many members of Ukraine’s Communist Party that they could not meet because of a lack of a quorum.
It is no small wonder that the Ukrainians fear the Russian leaders today. Krushchev’s name is not forgotten in the Ukraine.
At the time of the Great Purge, Khrushchev said, “Everyone who rejoices in the successes achieved in our country, the victories of our party led by the great Stalin, will find only one word suitable for the mercenary and fascist dogs, and that word is execution.”
Khrushchev was fortunate that Stalin never turned on him, because others acted and spoke in the same servile manner that Khrushchev did, and yet Stalin rounded on them. Submissiveness to the dictator proved no guarantee of his protection.
Still, Khrushchev said, “When Stalin says dance, a wise man dances.”
Stalin died of a stroke on March 5, 1953, and Khrushchev succeeded him as the Soviet Union’s leader, and then on Feb. 25, 1956, to the Communist Party’s 20th Congress, Khrushchev delivered his Secret Speech. In it he outlined Stalin’s crimes: “It is here that Stalin showed in a whole series of cases his intolerance, his brutality and his abuse of power. … In practice, Stalin ignored the norms of party life and trampled on the Leninist principle of collective party leadership.”
Because of his speech, Khrushchev made enemies in the Communist Party, and because of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, party officials ousted him in 1965. He died six years later on Sept. 11, 1971.
The machinations of ISIS and Vladimir Putin are worrisome, a harbinger of further atrocities and of world war, but they are small in comparison to Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge.
“It could be worse.”

Benson is a historian from Sterling, Colo., who writes a bi-weekly column for The Dickinson Press.

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