The Great Terror, 1937-1938

Over sixteen months (August 1937-November 1938), more than one and a half million people were arrested in the USSR and sentenced in their absence by regional tribunals — the extra-judicial troika (“three-member commissions”), dvoika (“two-member commissions”), and Special Board — or came briefly before the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court in Moscow. No defence was offered.

Half of those arrested were sentenced to death. They were shot and buried all over the Soviet Union in killing fields like those discovered and investigated in Karelia by Yury DMITRIEV (Krasny Bor and Sandarmokh), or like Kommunarka and Butovo near Moscow. The other detainees were sent to the Gulag for up to ten years of forced labour.

For a long while the concurrent Show Trials of leading Old Bolsheviks (1936-1938) led many in the Soviet Union and abroad to believe that this unprecedented bloodshed was linked to a “purge” within the Communist Party. Archival research since the late 1980s has shown that the vast majority arrested and shot or imprisoned were picked up in accordance with regional quotas issued by the NKVD in Moscow, and were not Party members.

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