The Great Terror, 1937-1938

The following text is adapted from the 2009 article by Nicolas Werth “Les crimes de masse sous Staline, 1930-1953”. The numbers arrested, shot and sent to the camps have been adjusted in accordance with Krivenko and Prudovsky (April 2021).

In a matter of sixteen months, between August 1937 and November 1938, over one and a half million people were arrested in the Soviet Union by the NKVD. In addition to the four “national” operations described below there were also operations to arrest Greek, Rumanian, Finnish, Estonian, Iranian, Afghan and “others”. These operations, linked to hostile nationalities and neighbours, added a further 219,333 arrests and 46,367 executions to the total.

690,000 were sentenced to death, the others to years of forced labour in the Gulag by the extra-judicial troika (local “three-member commissions”), dvoika (Moscow-based “two-member commission” of Yezhov and Vyshinsky) and Special Board; some came briefly before the courts, military tribunals or the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court in Moscow [1]. Most were tried by the extra-judicial bodies named above according to evidence and charges presented to them by the NKVD, with no defence and in the absence of the accused.

For a long while the three Show Trials of leading Old Bolsheviks in Moscow (August 1936 to March 1938) led many to believe this unprecedented bloodletting was part of a violent “purge” within the Communist Party. Archival research since the late 1980s has shown that the vast majority of those arrested and shot or imprisoned during the Great Terror were picked up in accordance with regional quotas, approved by the NKVD in Moscow, and were not Party members.

Between July and November 1937 a series of orders to arrest particular categories of suspect were issued by Nikolai Yezhov, the People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs.[2]

25 July 1937: NKVD Order No. 00439 (“The German Operation”)

The purpose of this operation was to eliminate “German agents and spies,” in particular “those who infiltrated military factories.” In reality, the operation was specifically aimed at Soviet citizens of German origin, German emigrants (including communist emigrants), as well as anybody who might have had professional or personal ties with Germany, a country considered particularly hostile to the USSR.

In the sixteen months of the “German operation”, 56,747 people were arrested, 41,898 sentenced to death and 12,283 sent to the camps, most for ten years (table 3, Krivenko and Prudovsky, 2021).

30 July 1937: NKVD Order No. 00447 (“On repressive operations against ex-kulaks, criminals and other counter-revolutionary elements”)

The purpose of these operations was “to eradicate once and for all” (according to Nikolai Yezhov’s own words in the Preamble to Order n° 00447) a broad range of what could be called traditional enemies of the regime: in particular, “ex-kulaks returned after completing their sentences or after escaping deportation”, “recidivists”, “former members of non-Bolshevik parties”, “former czarist officials or gendarmes”, “anti-Soviet elements among White, Cossack or clerical groups”, as well as “sectarians or clergymen engaging in anti-Soviet activities”.

Quotas of individuals to be shot or sent to the Gulag for up to ten years were handed down to each region, amounting to a total of 76,000 “1st category” (death penalty) and 193,000 “2nd category” arrests (up to ten years imprisonment). However, regional Party and NKVD officials kept asking Moscow for more and more “supplements” with the result that the “initial objectives” were multiplied by two for “2nd category” arrests and by five for “1st category” arrests (executions) during the sixteen months of an operation initially planned to last four months.

See The Mounting Toll for the first allocations.

From August 1937 to November 1938, 767,000 people were arrested as part of “operation 00447”, of whom 387,000 were shot. Research by the late Arseny Roginsky indicates that the figures were higher: 704,248 people were arrested in Russia (831,892 in the USSR), of whom 319,533 were shot (USSR, 443,220) and 265,773 (USSR 388,672) sent to the camps, see Krivenko and Prudovsky (April 2021).

11 August 1937: NKVD Order No. 00485 (“The Polish Operation”)

This operation was aimed at eliminating agents of a mythical “Polish Military Organization” allegedly engaged in “espionage and sabotage activities” in the USSR. In reality, the operation was particularly aimed at Soviet citizens of Polish origin, Polish emigrants (including communist emigrants) as well as anybody who might have had professional or personal ties or might have simply lived in geographical proximity (inhabitants of border regions were particularly vulnerable) with Poland, a country considered particularly hostile to the USSR.

In the sixteen months of the “Polish Operation”, 143,810 people were arrested; 111,071 were shot and 28,344 were sent to the camps (table 3, Krivenko and Prudovsky, 2021).

15 August 1937: NKVD Order No. 00486 (“On repressive measures against the wives of traitors to the Fatherland and on providing for their children”)

Among the many “mass operations” that took place during the “Great Terror,” this particular operation gained much attention because it not only targeted the individuals suspected of counter-revolutionary crimes, but also their family members.

The principle of collective responsibility had already been applied to include family members during “dekulakization” when the families of supposedly wealthy peasants were expropriated and deported in 1929-1933, and later when certain social groups were expelled from “special regime” cities (1933-1935), as well as during the deportation operations targeted at border region minorities as of 1935. However, an additional step was taken in August 1937, when the principle of collective responsibility was applied to certain categories of people who had been condemned by extra-judicial tribunals.

In total, almost 40,000 wives of “enemies of the people” were arrested and convicted, and about 20,000 children of “repressed parents” were placed in orphanages.

20 September 1937: NKVD Order No. 00593 (“On repressive measures against former Chinese Eastern Railway civil servants”)

This third “national operation” was aimed at another group suspected of maintaining ties with a foreign enemy power, Japan.

The suspects were “Harbinites,” ex-employees and railway attendants of the Chinese Eastern Railway Company, based in Harbin, who had been repatriated to the USSR as Soviet citizens, after the surrender of the Railway to the Japanese. These Harbinites were accused of “terrorist and diversionist activities, financed by the Japanese secret service.”

During this operation, a total of 49,470 people were arrested, of whom 31,226 were shot and 15,637 sent to the camps (table 3, Krivenko and Prudovsky, 2021).

30 November 1937: NKVD Circular No. 49990 (“The Latvian Operation”)

This fourth “national operation” was aimed at Soviet citizens of Latvian origin, Latvian emigrants (even the political emigres) accused of espionage on behalf of Latvia, a State considered hostile to the USSR.

During this operation, which lasted from December 1937 to November 1938, 22,353 people were arrested, 16,575 were shot and 4,672 sent to the camps (table 3, Krivenko and Prudovsky, 2021).


Because of the Great Terror’s extremely diverse groups of victims, this crime is difficult to characterize and place within the history of such atrocities.

“It remains unique in its ‘category’,” concluded Nicolas Werth: “800,000 people executed with a shot to the head, after a parody of justice, in a matter of sixteen months. On average there were 50,000 executions a month, or 1,700 per day for nearly 500 days.”

See Nicolas Werth, 2009: “Crimes against Humanity under Stalin (1930-1953)”

Sergei Krivenko and Sergei Prudovsky, 2021: “The Statistics of the NKVD’s national operations in 1937-1938”

SOURCES (in English, French and Russian)


[1] See Olga Adamova-Sliozberg‘s account of her ‘trial’ for “planning to assassinate Lazar Kaganovich”, Till My Tale is Told, 1999 (or My Journey, 2002).

[2] Nikolai Yezhov was appointed People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs (head of the NKVD) in 1934. Replaced by Lavrenty Beria in November 1938, he was himself arrested the next year and shot in 1940.