The Great Terror, 1937-1938

During a period of sixteen months (August 1937-November 1938), over one and a half million persons were arrested by the NKVD.

690,000 were sentenced to death, the others to ten years of forced labour in the Gulag by the extra-judicial troika (“three-member commissions”), dvoika (“two-member commissions”) and Special Board; others came briefly before the courts, military tribunals or the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court in Moscow [1]. The extra-judicial bodies examined the cases as 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 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”, 55,000 people were arrested and convicted, 42,000 of whom were sentenced to death.

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.

From August 1937 to November 1938, 767,000 people were arrested as part of “operation 00447”, of whom 387,000 were shot.

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”, 140,000 people were arrested and convicted, including 111,000 who were sentenced to death.

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 33,108 people were arrested, of whom 21,200 were executed.

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, 22,360 people were arrested, 16,573 of whom were condemned to death.


Because of the Great Terror’s extremely diverse groups of victims, this crime is difficult to characterize. It remains unique in its ‘category’: 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.

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

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.