I would like to thank the organisers
of this meeting for giving me the opportunity to speak to such
a large gathering at this major university in Australia. Today
I will be talking about some of the most tragic events in modern
history -- events about which many books and articles have been
written, but about which there is much that is enigmatic and
misunderstood. These historical phenomena are sometimes referred
to as the Great Purges, or the Great Terror, or sometimes simply
as 1937. They have few analogies in history.
Of course the twentieth century has seen no small amount of mass
terror and even genocide directed against civilian populations.
In Hitler's concentration camps more people died than in Stalin's
camps and prisons. During World War I, in the space of a few
days, more than a million Armenians were killed.
These instances of ethnic genocide usually were not accompanied
by demagogy which was as sophisticated as in the Soviet Union.
In most cases the victims were not forced to confess to horrendous
crimes which they had never committed.
Our country, Russia, saw three civil wars in the space of 20
years and then was forced to bear the burden of a world war.
The first civil war unfolded from 1918 to 1920. It was a war
in which the revolutionary masses rose up against those who,
with the help of foreign interventionists, were trying to retain
This civil war had much in common with other civil wars following
revolutions in other countries. For instance, there is very much
in common between the Russian civil war and that which unfolded
in the 1860s in the United States. Trotsky found so much in common
between the Russian and American civil wars that he intended
to write an entire book devoted specifically to this question.
The second civil war to which I am referring lasted approximately
six years from 1928 to 1933. It took the form of violent, forced
collectivisation unleashed by the Stalinist clique against the
peasantry as a whole and turned into a virtual nationwide civil
There are many parallels for this civil war. For instance, there
was the Vendée uprising of the peasants against the French
Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century.
But for the third civil war, the phenomena we refer to as the
Great Purges, it is impossible to find an appropriate historical
Never before in history were hundreds of thousands of people
torn away from their apartments, thrown into prison, subjected
to torture, made to confess to crimes, and then either exterminated
or sent to concentration camps. It is no surprise that today,
even 60 years after the Great Terror, it is difficult for many
people to address these questions calmly.
Not long ago at my lectures in England
I came up against many different opponents. One old English Stalinist
told me that any talk about the Great Terror was just an example
of bourgeois propaganda. He heaped praise upon Stalin whom he
felt had saved England during World War II.
To justify his praise of Stalin he said that 27 million people
had died in the Soviet Union during that war. I answered by noting
that 27 million people was approximately half the population
of Great Britain at that time. I then asked him what would he
say about Churchill if, on the eve of a war, he had wiped out
the flower of the nation, including many of the officer corps,
and as result of his outrageous blunders the country lost almost
half its population.
Another opponent at my London lecture, a Ukrainian nationalist,
asked why I paid so much attention to the terror which was directed
largely against the Bolsheviks, but ignored the terror against
the Ukrainian people, which he said killed 15 million people.
Here we have a typical example of how anti-communists attempt
to greatly exaggerate the victims of the Great Terror. Solzhenitsyn
for example gives the figure of 60 million people who supposedly
perished in the camps and in the prisons.
If you walked around Moscow today during the pre-election campaign
you would find similar figures at various stands set up by pro-Yeltsin
forces. They display posters which say "don't forget the
communists destroyed 60 million people in our country".
These figures, which exaggerate the number of victims by about
12 times, are supposed to arouse the population.
And of course by comparison the number of people who have died
in the war unleashed by Yeltsin in Chechnya is insignificant.
And by comparison, the shelling of the Russian Supreme Soviet
at the White House in October 1993 is insignificant. Only about
1,000 people died in the course of that action.
The Yeltsin forces say that if the communists come back to power
they will launch a terror which will sweep away tens of millions
of people. These figures are cited even though in the 40 years
after Stalin died in 1953 there were virtually no political executions
in the Soviet Union. The day after Stalin died, the new wave
of terror he had been preparing was stopped by his successors
and a process of mass rehabilitations was begun.
Most people ignore whom the terror was directed against. Reliable
figures show that during the entire period of Soviet history,
approximately four million people were accused and convicted
of crimes against the state. Of those, approximately 700,000
to 800,000 were shot.
These figures are staggering by any measure, but we have to supplement
them with other figures. For instance, approximately one half
of the total victims were thrown into prison during a two-year
period -- 1937 and 1938. During those two years over six times
more people were shot than during the entire remaining period
of Soviet history.
The second feature of the Great Terror is that its major targets
were communists. Of the two million people who were repressed
during that two-year period, over half of them were members of
the party at the time of their arrest.
Moreover, at the beginning of the Terror there were approximately
one and a half million people who had earlier been in the party,
but had been expelled for belonging to various oppositions. Very
many of these people were arrested and exterminated during the
There is another myth about the Great Terror which is both supported
and spread by many different political tendencies. You can find
this myth in Krushchev's secret report on Stalin's crimes delivered
to the 20th Party Congress in 1956, or in the works of open anti-communists
such as Robert Conquest and Solzhenitsyn.
This myth says that virtually the entire population of the Soviet
Union was reduced to a stunned silence by the terror, and either
said nothing about the repression, or blindly believed in and
supported the terror. This myth also claims that the victims
of the repression were completely innocent of any crimes, including
opposition to Stalin. They were, instead, victims of Stalin's
excessive paranoia. Since there was no serious opposition to
the regime of Stalin, according to this myth, the victims were
not guilty of such opposition.
In order to refute these myths one simply must turn to various
dossiers and case histories which have recently come to light
and been published.
For example there is the case of the world-renowned physicist
and future Nobel laureate, Academician David Landau. It would
seem that this young physicist and scholar, who was busy with
his own work, not a member of the party and seemingly uninvolved
in politics, would have been guilty of nothing and therefore
arrested without any foundation.
Recently the dossier of his case was published. During the investigation
Landau was presented with an anti-Stalinist leaflet which he
had helped to reproduce and was getting ready to distribute.
The communist Kopets, who was a colleague of Landau, admitted
to having written the leaflet. He arranged for it to be reproduced
and attracted Landau and other students and physicists into this
conspiracy. They intended to distribute the leaflet at a May
Day demonstration in 1938.
Recently many examples of such leaflets have been published.
They were written by people we know little about, but people
who wrote from a consistent communist position, and who called
for a struggle against Stalin and his clique because they had
betrayed socialism. The content of these leaflets can only be
interpreted as a call to overthrow the existing political system,
or to be more precise, Stalin and his clique.
Of course these are isolated incidents, but prior to the unleashing
of the Great Terror there was a much more widespread, more serious,
and well-organised opposition to Stalinism as a regime which
had veered ever more widely away from the ideals of socialism.
This battle against Stalin began back in 1923 with the formation
of the Left Opposition. The inner party struggle unfolded in
ever sharper form throughout the 20s.
Thousands and thousands of communists took part in this opposition,
openly in the early days and then, after opposition groups were
banned, in illegal underground forms against the abolition of
party democracy by the Stalinist party clique.
They spoke out against forced collectivisation and the erroneous
methods of industrialisation which were leading to great deprivation
for the vast majority of the Soviet people. They spoke out against
the growing system of privileges and social inequality. The bureaucracy
had usurped political power from the working class and was consolidating
its position and privileges.
A significant change took place in the level of opposition in
1932 when it became clear that the adventurist policies of the
Stalinist leadership had led the country to an extremely sharp
economic and political crisis.
At that time in 1932, not only the old opposition groups became
more active, but they were joined by layers of newly-formed opposition
groups. Among those perhaps the most interesting is the so-called
Riutin was an old Bolshevik who underwent a very complex evolution.
During the 1920s he was a fervent Stalinist but by 1930 he came
to the conclusion that he had been wrong on many points and that
a new struggle had to be taken up against the Stalinist bureaucracy.
He sought ways of uniting with the Left Opposition, with Trotskyists.
The Riutin group published a document of more than 100 pages
called the Riutin platform. It exposed both the economic and
political crisis throughout the country on all basic questions.
Stalin and his clique feared this document so much that they
refused to distribute it to members of the Central Committee
who were discussing Riutin's expulsion. The Central Committee
proceeded to condemn Riutin and vote against the platform without
having read it.
At the same time, thousands of Trotskyists who had not capitulated
remained in exile or in prison throughout the country. Among
them were many prominent party members. Two choices stood before
each of these oppositionists. Either they could sign a letter
of capitulation and return into the fold of the bureaucracy to
secure positions -- or they could refuse to sign such declarations
and remain languishing in prison camps or in exile in the furthest
reaches of the Soviet Union.
It is interesting to note that dozens and dozens of oppositionists
in exile were brought back into Moscow when the first Moscow
Trial was being prepared in 1936. Not a single one of them who
had refused to sign a letter of capitulation agreed to give false
testimony. For that reason, they were not included in the first
Moscow Trial, but were murdered during the secret pre-trial interrogations.
It is significant that in 1932 many representatives of different
opposition tendencies began to discuss the need to form a united
anti-Stalinist bloc to overthrow Stalin's leadership and carry
out new policies.
The Riutin platform stated that by now all the previous differences
which had existed in the Party paled before the new dividing
line which pitted communists against each other. Either you were
for the Stalinist clique and the crimes it was committing against
the people, or you were for returning the party to Lenin's principles
of socialism by driving out the Stalinist clique.
Ivan Smirnov, one of the former leading members of the Left Opposition
who had formally capitulated and then returned to opposition
activity, went on an official business trip to Berlin in 1931.
He established contact with Trotsky's son Leon Sedov and began
to discuss the need to coordinate efforts between Trotsky and
his son in Mexico and Europe and the newly-formed opposition
bloc consisting of old and new tendencies in the Soviet Union.
Although many members of these opposition tendencies were arrested
at the end of 1932 and in early 1933, not a single one of them
gave information about the formation of this single united anti-Stalinist
bloc. Only in 1935 and 1936, when a new wave of arrests followed
the murder of Kirov in December of 1934 and many people were
subjected to the worst tortures, did the secret police, the GPU,
find out about the existence of the united bloc from 1932. This
was one of the main factors which drove Stalin to unleash the
When we look back now upon the Moscow Trials we can see that
90 percent of what was said by those put on trial was a fantastic
conglomeration of lies. They confessed to being agents of the
Gestapo, spying for foreign governments, conducting sabotage,
etc. But about 10 percent of what was alleged was true. They
did try to establish contact among themselves and fight for the
overthrow of Stalin's clique.
The Great Terror was caused not only by Stalin's increasing fear
of the growing communist opposition in the Soviet Union. It was
also tied up with serious foreign policy issues. Stalin became
more and more alarmed at the growing influence of Trotsky's ideas
as he gathered more supporters in the movement to found the Fourth
Stalin signing a death warant
Although all the official communist
parties abroad remained completely subservient to the Comintern,
which was in turn manipulated by Stalin, nevertheless more opposition
Trotskyist groups grew up in virtually every country in support
of the Fourth International.
Top of page - 1937 Exhibit - World
Socialist Web Site
In the archives of the Comintern one can find many documents,
largely prepared for internal use, which testify to the fact
that the opposition had major influence in almost every country,
that often it exerted strong influence in the trade unions and
the socialist parties, and that its numbers were reaching several
thousand in some countries.
In Spain, where the outcome of the civil war would help determine
whether there would be a second world war, there existed a powerful
Marxist party, the POUM; although it broke from the Fourth International,
it did carry out consistent anti-Stalinist policies. Stalin's
fear that the Fourth International might increase its influence
and become a threat to the Stalinised Comintern in many countries
forced him to conclude that he must unleash the Great Terror.
It swept away thousands of victims, not only in the Soviet Union
We should never forget that at that time, about half the regimes
in capitalist Europe were either fascist or semi-fascist totalitarian
regimes. Many communists, socialists and democratic-minded people
fled from these countries and sought political asylum in the
Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union there were tens of thousands
of foreign communists and communist sympathisers, almost all
of whom perished during the Great Purges.
There are many accounts of how terrible the lives of these political
emigrants were in the Soviet Union, even if they came from bourgeois
democratic countries. For instance, Audrey Blake, the wife of
a leading Australian communist, wrote that in the 1930s all foreign
information was blocked and any discussion of Trotsky's ideas
I had a chance to meet with many surviving former communists
in the United States who said that all Trotskyist literature
was banned. The fear of their leaders was so great that they
refused to allow them to read such material. However the consequences
of the Great Terror cannot simply be measured by the murder and
arrest of thousands and thousands of victims in the Soviet Union,
of people extremely dedicated to the October revolution and to
socialism. It goes beyond that.
When the news of the Great Terror reached the west, thousands,
perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, recoiled in horror before
the ideas of socialism. Under other circumstances, they would
have been prepared to take part in the communist movement, the
greatest international political movement in world history. But
they were repulsed by what they saw and the ideas of socialism
became discredited in their eyes.
Those leaders who survived the Great Terror in the various communist
parties had largely degenerated, and were bound to Stalin because
they had taken part in the persecution of their own comrades.
Among those who played a very foul and ignoble role in the 1930s
are those who to this very day are respected as fighters against
Among these is Imre Nagy, the Hungarian communist leader who
played an important role in the leadership of the Hungarian uprising
in 1956. Documents have emerged which show that Nagy was in the
Soviet Union as a political emigrant starting in 1929. By 1930,
he had become a paid agent of the NKVD, and due to his denunciations,
dozens of Hungarian, German and other communists were arrested.
Although there is no direct evidence that shows that Tito, the
Yugoslav communist, was a paid agent of the NKVD, many documents
show how enthusiastically he carried out the purges of the Trotskyists
in the Yugoslav communist party. In Moscow alone over 800 Yugoslav
communists were arrested.
In 1939 Tito returned to Yugoslavia as head of the party and
demanded that the purge be continued and deepened. He entrusted
this task to other communists, including Milovan Djilas.
Djilas, who became a famous dissident in the 1960s, 70s and 80s,
does not mention his role in the purges in his memoirs but he
does relate the following interesting incident. In 1942 at the
height of World War II, an old Yugoslav communist was arrested.
He had survived the 1937 purges only because he had refused to
go to Moscow. He subsequently published a book called "The
Balance of the Soviet Thermidor", in which he described
the persecution of Yugoslav and other communists in Moscow. Djilas
relates that although this man was arrested on Tito's orders
and severely tortured and beaten, he refused to admit to being
a foreign spy.
If we talk about the consequences of the Great Terror in the
Soviet Union and abroad what we can say is that the Bolshevik
type of consciousness virtually disappeared.
This type can be characterised by adherence to the ideals of
socialist equality, social justice and internationalism and the
refusal to allow one's high position in the party to result in
privileges for oneself. It can also be characterised by a willingness
to sacrifice for the cause.
If it had not been for the Great Purges it would have been very
difficult for Stalin to pursue the extreme changes in political
line which he carried out. The vast majority of those who fell
victim in the Great Terror were raised and trained in the genuine
spirit of anti-fascism. If they had remained alive, if they had
not been exterminated, it would have been much more difficult
for Stalin to sign the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact in 1939. And if
not for that pact, World War II might not have begun in the same
If those who perished in the Great Terror, true internationalists,
had not been killed, Stalin would have found it very difficult,
if not impossible, to unleash the anti-Semitism in the Soviet
Union which practically became official government policy after
World War II.
A whole wave of people sometimes referred to as the new recruits
or the newly chosen of 1937, began to rise to high posts in the
party, economy, government and the military. They occupied leading
posts of which they had never before dreamed.
The people who occupied these positions had no ties to Bolshevism
and no ideological adherence to Marxism. As a result they proved
to be extremely susceptible to the crudest forms of corruption
which corroded the body politic in the USSR. These people remained
in power in the Soviet Union for almost 50 years. And they cultivated
a new generation of absolute cynics who were completely indifferent
to the moral and ideological life of the nation.
The existence of such people in positions of power, directing
the intellectual life of the country, helps to explain why they
so easily managed to shatter the existing system over the last
10 years. First they cracked the ideological shell of society,
then they destroyed it politically.
Up until now, history has shown that when there is a sharp transformation
of the social structure, this change is reflected in the personnel
which occupy leading positions of power. In Russia and the many
republics of the former Soviet Union, however, that has not been
the case. Those who head the regimes in Russia, Ukraine, the
Baltics and many other former republics are those who were former
members of the party nomemklatura, the old party bureaucracy
and elite. To call these people Bolsheviks or Leninists is a
complete mockery of the truth.
What characterises them is a complete lack of ideological principles,
coupled with a nationalist orientation which is extremely hostile
to the ideals of Bolshevism.
So, although it happened decades ago, the consequences of the
Great Terror are still being felt in our country and in the 15
new states which have formed in the ruins of the Soviet Union;
and all of these nations are facing catastrophic conditions.