Credit: Mikhall Sokolov

Great Purges are not how democracy should work 

A photo of Gulag prisoners in Perm (undated). Photo Credit: Mikhal Sokolov

To all those cheering on the 2021 purge, hear the account of a previous target before you pile in; and remember it might be you some day. The following is based on the testimony of Viktor Kravchenko, who lived through the Stallinist Purges of the 1930s in the former Soviet Union.

The realisation that the foundation of his most fervent beliefs was actually a cover for brutality, confronted Victor Kravchenko on his first excursion into the Ukranian countryside on official work of the communist party.

Kravchenko was a Ukranian engineering student who had moved to the city before the Bolshevik revolution really took a grip on the countryside. During the collectivisation of the farms he had been studying engineering in the Ukranian city of Kharkov and, whilst he was studying metallurgy, he also had deeply imbibed (through the mandated study prescribed ) the history and ideas of Lenin, Marx and Stallin.  The Bolshevik drilling turned out starry-eyed believers in the great soviet project, and Kravchenko was a fervent believer.

In 1933,  as a loyal party member, he was appointed to “mobilize party brigades to work in the villages” to collect the harvest.

The party youth were rounded up and given an unnerving war-like speech by a member of the party’s central committee. It was a strange speech considering all he had learnt about the fraternity and good will that existed amongst the people under the communist system. It was in his opinion odd that his communist party comrades, who existed to protect the oppressed, seemed to be so belligerent towards the peasantry.

They were ordered to go into the villages and: “assume your duties with a feeling of the strictest party responsibility; without whimpering, without rotten liberalism. Throw your bourgeois humanitarianism out of the window and act like bolsheviks worthy of comrade Stalin. Beat down the Kulak agent wherever he raises his head. It’s war – it’s them or us! The last decayed remnant of capitalist farming must be wiped out at any cost!”

Over the next two years, the Soviets wiped out 5 million of those “Kulaks.”

Credit…From Red Famine

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Kravchenko recalls the type of soviet official who executed these purges. If they weren’t sadists, they were zealots who believed that the struggle must succeed at all costs. When it came to counting the damage and the bodies, the latter were worse than the sadists.

He accounts one conversation with a party official in the second year of the harvest. He had done very well in the village bringing in a large harvest which allowed the villagers to feed themselves on the excess. A party official congratulated him but took him aside and whispered: “A ruthless struggle is going on between the peasantry and our regime. It’s a struggle to the death. This year was a test of our strength and their endurance. It took a famine to show them who was master here. It cost millions of lives, but the collective farm system is here to stay. We‘ve won the war”.

All over southern Russia the famine raged. The international papers were silent (even the New York Times, who under Walter Duranty vehemently denied there was a famine) though the whole country knew it. Kravchenko says that party members “denounced as anti-soviet rumours what we knew as towering facts.”

Everyone who witnessed the Kulak purges knew that to show signs of fading faith would mark you out for the next purge.

The peasant farmers were the first big purged of the 30s. Kravchenko’s time would come.


Hungry Children on a Ukraine street during the famine, 1933. Photo Credit: Granger Collection

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The first internal party purge in 1933 was a routine thing; a cleaning out of the non-committed. Purge commissions were set up throughout the country. Every factory and college had its appointed session with the purge commission. In every institution all over the country little metal boxes were installed in which anonymous accusations and denunciations could be dropped in. It was open season on everyone, and a subdued sense of panic was endemic.

Attendance for the weeks of the purge was obligatory for all party members, and it became a nerve wracking circus where one minute you could be denouncing an accused friend and the next minute be under the scrutiny of the inquisition.

The accused would be asked to recount their life and their dedication to the party. Thick files were compiled on all the accused where their past statements and history of associates were raked over. Anything “suspicious” (such as membership of another political party) would be in those files so it was advisable to confess all and beg forgiveness during this testimony.

If anything was left out it would be brought up as a conspiracy to deceive. The crowd, smelling blood, would quickly turn on the victim.

“Once the audience sensed that the purgee was in disfavour or actually ‘on the skids,’ it jumped on him and trampled him without pity; especially his frightened friends and associates hastened to join in the verbal lynching to protect themselves,” he wrote in his memoir ‘I Chose Freedom’.

In the purge Kravchenko attended, it came out that comrade Sanin once signed a petition of the Trotskyist party. The crowd smells blood, and once close colleagues scramble to throw accusations at the hapless man.  “The closer their association with him the more eager they seem to incriminate him.”

Another accused was an exemplar of soviet industry. A college professor, he had humble working class beginnings, starting work in a factory at the age of eight. He had graduated to a lathe turner, a foreman, joined the komsomol and then the party, before being selected to study engineering. His wife, he said, was a nurse who was very active in the party.

The crowd approved so far.

“Tell me, did you register your marriage or not?” asked one of his interrogators.

He hesitated. The crowd came to attention.

Turns out he had married in a church, and no matter what excuses he gave he was decried as a superstitious, religious, fanatic. His dedication to the cause of bolshevism was questioned. His party membership was removed and he was ejected in disgrace.

Expelled party members frequently never turned up for work or school again. Some committed suicide, some were arrested immediately.

Kravchenko faced down his accusers, but this was only a dress rehearsal for the real purges.


Stalin ordered the murder or removal of millions of his own countrymen

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These purges which were conducted between 1934 and 1938 were stage managed mass murders which cleaned out the old revolutionary party members and many more besides. By the end of the purges more than 1 million people had been executed and more than half of the communist party (1.8 million) had been removed and murdered or sent to the gulags. In a sense they were the removal of the past from the histories that Stalin would re-write.

Frequently the one prosecuting the purge on one day would become the prosecuted within a matter of weeks.

George Orwell later described this strategy in his greatest work of fiction: “Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past.”

Kravchenko was director of  a pipe rolling plant during these purges. People would start disappearing from work never to show up again. Fear of the secret police and informers was rife. Factory meetings frequently descended into witch hunts. As the factories lost skilled workers and engineers, efficiency and production suffered. The state terror increased and a new enemy was declared: the “saboteurs” and “wreckers” – supposedly scheming engineers, managers, and technical staff, who secretly harboured capitalist sentiment.

More engineers and managers, in particular the non party competent ones, were taken to the torture cells of the NKVD (The Russian Secret Police).

The comic-tragedy of Russia continued to throw up cruel farces. An initiative known as Stakhanovism, based on a patently false story of superhuman endeavours by a miner named Stakhanov (if Stakhanov can do it every man can do it), sought to extract more productivity from workers. Workers in every plant were brought into meetings where they “volunteered” to work harder and produce more output.

When these targets weren’t met blame was assigned. Arrests followed.

Party men and union lackeys – virtue signallers – were first to cast blame and denounce “spoilers of Stakhanovism,” when their haste to increase output caused machinery to fail. Wherever there was an accusation the NKVD eagerly followed up.

Despite the propaganda which blared from the media of enthusiastic workers eagerly jumping to the cause, Stakhanovism drove wedges of resentment between work crews. It rewarded the so-called productive crews and paid them off with the wages robbed from the “unproductive”.

Each Stakhanovite “achievment” was broadcast and celebrated in staged theatrical announcements. In the factories workers were submitted to lectures from party officials on the socialist merits of the new Stakhanovite zeal. Workers, we were told, voted to accept new quota challenges, clamouring to outdo all previous exertions.

The truth was that the unfortunate workers silently accepted the inevitable and voted as they were told to. The alternative was an appointment with the NKVD and the Gulags.

In Kravchenko’s plant, the sick ploy followed the script in set stages.

First there was an all-factory gathering of Party, technical and trade union leaders and “activists” from the rank and file. Their responsibility was “to ‘educate’ the working masses to an ‘understanding’ and acceptance of the new quotas”.

Next Stalin’s speech in praise of Stakhanovism was read out. With serious faces these leaders explained that the low norms the workers were accustomed to were: “an insult to the socialist zeal and productive genius in our party and factory.”

Ambitious communists, keen for recognition and advancement, used the opportunity to demonstrate their conformity, and piled in with harangues of their fellow workers using the same clichéd political slogans as employed by the party and the media.

Kravchenko tells that in this charged atmosphere of fear and intimidation “a resolution proposing steep increases in quotas was read out and approved ‘unanimously.”

Kravchenko recalls the meeting at his sub-plant.

“Listless workers sat glumly, silently, scarcely interested. They clapped mechanically at every mention of comrade Stalin’s name, and when exhorted to vote, voted unanimously to accept the new quotas.

“Who is opposed?” the union chairman asked.

There was silence.

Suddenly a woman voice exclaimed: “Comrade chairman, Kiryushkin here didn’t vote”

For the first time the meeting actually came to life. The jingo and bluster, and the listless acceptance was replaced with real drama. As Kravchenko said “there was a lion amongst the rabbits.”

Kiryushkin spoke what was on the mind of all the silent majority.

“Why should I vote? One way or the other the norms will be passed. It’s my job to work and I work, what else do you want? I should show my hand, all right here is my hand,” he said raising a calloused hand. “My wife and children” he continued “expect me to make some more money and this means I will make even less.”

A party lackey shouted out “He’s not class conscious,” but there was little enthusiasm for the charade, and the motion was passed with a great deal less lustre than hoped for.

Kravchenko then made a speech on the technical aspects of meeting the new quotas. He rehashed empty words which he knew were full of lies and deception; making claims that the new commitments were both possible and fair.

The meeting came to an end with an air of submission, but according to the district papers and radio it was an overflowing success. They reported that “Amidst thunderous enthusiasm the proletarians of the Nikopol Metallurgical Combinat demanded yesterday that the outmoded norms be revised.”

Kiryushkin was lucky to get away with his defiance. Questioning the narrative was a dangerous step to take; it usually put you to the front of the purge.

The purge reached everywhere. Nobody was too powerful or too lowly to be purged. The show trials of 1936 – 38 were a stunning demonstration of political power and psychological manipulation. These were the statements to the world that Stalin and the politburo were masters of all Russia, from the most secret thoughts of the mind to the acts of the most influential citizens; all was controlled by the party. The state was the new God; one with utterly malicious intent.

In the midst of all this Terror – hunger, massed imprisonment, mass deportations and confiscations, cattle trains transporting millions of prisoners to slave labour camps – Russia formally announced its adoption of “the world’s most democratic constitution” in November 1936.

It was just after this that Kravchenko’s ordeal with the secret police started. It began with a denunciation by a fellow party member at a party meeting. The charge was that all of his former colleagues had been arrested, and as his accuser said “I wonder whether that is accidental?”

Guilt by association; that was the charge and it would lead to a year long ordeal in the offices of the NKVD.  All he had to do to make it end was sign a statement containing a few denunciations.

He refused to do it, and somehow lived to tell the tale.

Victor Kravchenko’s memoir I Chose Freedom was first published in America in 1946. It has been reissued 73 times in English and has been translated into French, German, and Spanish, as well as in his native Ukranian.

He died on the 25th February 1966



“Wall of sorrow” at the first exhibition of the victims of Stalinism in Moscow, 19 November 1988

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