The Purge of the Red Army and the Soviet Mass Operations, 1937–38by

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The Purge of the Red Army and the Soviet Mass Operations, 1937–38

Author(s): Peter Whitewood

Source: The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 93, No. 2 (April 2015), pp. 286-314

Published by: the and Modern Humanities Research Association University College London,

School of Slavonic and East European Studies

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Slavonic and East European Review, 93, 2, 2015

The Purge of the Red Army and the Soviet Mass Operations, 1937–38


The purge of the Red Army launched by Iosif Stalin in early June 1937 can help explain his later sanction of the mass operations, a decision that finally pushed the political violence of the Great Terror towards the ordinary Soviet population. The ‘mass operations’ were large-scale campaigns of state repression, spanning from summer 1937 to autumn 1938, and marked the high point of the Great Terror. The first operation was launched on 30 July 1937 against former kulaks and other ‘anti-Soviet elements’; thereafter, similar operations targeted a range of different population groups, including national minorities such as Poles, Germans and Koreans. In total, the mass operations led to approximately 1.15 million people being sentenced by the NKVD and 683,000 executions, representing a significant acceleration of the Great Terror.1 Notably, the purge of the

Red Army immediately preceded this massive wave of violence. In May the NKVD arrested Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevskii and a group of other high-ranking officers and accused them of being the ringleaders of a fascist-backed ‘military conspiracy’. Soon after in early June, Stalin and the

Red Army leadership called for an extensive purge of the military to root out any co-conspirators and arrests quickly spread throughout the officer corps. Just weeks later, the first mass operation began. As this explosion

Peter Whitewood is a Lecturer in History at York St John University. 1 See Paul Hagenloh, Stalin’s Police: Public Order, Mass Repression in the USSR, 1926–1941, Baltimore, MD, 2009, p. 3. For the national operations, see Nakazannyi narod: po materialam konferentsii ‘Repressii protiv rossiiskikh nemtsev v Sovetskom Soiuze v kontekste sovetskoi natsional´noi politiki’, ed. Irina Shcherbakova, Moscow, 1999; Repressii protiv poliakov i pol s´kikh grazhdan, ed. A. E. Gur´ ianov, Moscow, 1997; James Morris, ‘The Polish Terror: Spymania and Ethnic Cleansing in the Great Terror’, Europe–Asia

Studies, 56, 2004, 2, pp. 751–66.

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THE RED ARMY PURGE & MASS OPERATIONS, 1937–38 287 of repression inside the Red Army closely coincided with the first mass operation, this article will show why the military purge may have acted as the spark and had a transformative impact on the course of the Great


Before evidence of the mass operations was published in 1992, historians of the Great Terror typically concentrated on political elites rather than ordinary people.2 Attentions usually focused on the repression unleashed by Stalin within the Communist Party following the murder of the

Leningrad Party First Secretary, Sergei Kirov, on 1 December 1934 and the three notorious show trials of the former political opposition held during 1936–38.3 But evidence of the mass operations now makes clear that ordinary people, rather than party elites, suffered the most during the

Great Terror. In fact, due to the very large spike in arrests and executions from summer 1937, it has been argued that the Great Terror only really began with the first mass operation.4

Historians have been forced to reconceptualize the Great Terror to incorporate such widespread repression against ordinary Soviet citizens.

Yet, despite the publication of a growing body of research, there is still little consensus about Stalin’s motivations in sanctioning the mass operations. Historians agree that their objective was to destroy ‘dangerous’ and ‘unreliable’ population groups, but why Stalin perceived these to be a threat to his regime, and why he decided to take action against them specifically in summer 1937, remain disputed questions. There are related disagreements about whether the mass operations were connected to the earlier political repression within the Communist Party (and the nature of this connection) and what such widespread arrests and executions of ordinary people tells us about the nature of Stalinist totalitarianism.

The purge of the Red Army has been ignored in all recent research on the mass operations even though this began in early June 1937, only weeks before the first mass operation. As this article will show, the military purge was sparked by the Soviet leaders’ misperception that the Red Army had been deeply infiltrated by foreign agents and that a conspiratorial military group was operating within the upper levels of the high command. Stalin sanctioned a purge in early June in order to remove what was believed to be 2 Details of the first mass operation were first published in Trud on 4 June 1992. For the political context of the publication, see Hagenloh, Stalin’s Police, p. 6ff. 3 From a large body of work, see Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties, London, 1968, and Adam Ulam, Stalin: The Man and his Era, New York, 1974. 4 See Oleg Khlevniuk, Master of the House: Stalin and His Inner Circle, New Haven,