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Purges of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union (Russian: "Чистка партийных рядов", chistka partiynykh ryadov, "cleansing of the party ranks") was a Soviet ritual, especially during the 1920s, in which periodic reviews of members of the Communist Party were conducted by other members and the security organs to get rid of "undesirables".
Such reviews would start with a short autobiography from the reviewed person and then an interrogation of him or her by the purge commission, as well as by the attending audience. Although many people were victims of the purge throughout this decade, the general Russian public was not aware of the purge until 1937.
Although the term "purge" is largely associated with Stalinism because the greatest of the purges happened during Stalin's rule, the Bolsheviks carried out their first major purge of the party ranks as early as 1921. Approximately 220,000 members were purged or left the party. The Bolsheviks stated as justification the need to get rid of the members who had joined the party simply to be on the winning side. The major criteria were social origins (members of working classes were normally accepted without question) and contributions to the revolutionary cause.
The first Party purge of the Joseph Stalin era took place in 1929–1930 in accordance with a resolution of the XVI Party Conference. Purges became deadly under Stalin. More than 10 percent of the party members were purged. At the same time, a significant number of new industrial workers joined the Party.
Stalin ordered Case Spring – the repression and/or execution of officers of the Red Army who had served previously in the Russian Imperial Army, of civilians who had been sympathetic to the White movement, or of other subversives rounded up by the OGPU. Historians estimate that over 3,000 people were executed. In Leningrad alone, in May 1931, over a thousand people were shot in this case.
The organizer of the initiated case "Spring" was the leader of the OGPU Izrail Leplevsky. With the support of the deputy chairman of the OGPU Genrikh Yagoda, he inflated the scale of "Spring" to the scale of the "case of the Industrial Party."
In total, according to some reports, more than 3,000 people were arrested, among them Andrei Snesarev, A.L. Rodendorf, Alexander Andreyevich Svechin, Pavel Sytin, F.F. Novitsky, Aleksander Verkhovsky, I. Galkin, Yu. K. Gravitsky, Vladimir Olderogge, V. A. Yablochkin, Nikolai Sollogub, Aleksandr Baltiysky, Mikhail Dmitriyevich Bonch-Bruyevich, N. A. Morozov, Aleksei Gutor, A. Kh. Bazarevsky, Mikhail Matiyasevich, V. F. Rzhechitsky, V. N. Gatovsky, P. M. Sharangovich, D. D. Zuev and others.
This case gained fame with the release in 2000 of the book of the Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Tinchenko “The Calvary of Russian Officers”, which essentially raised this topic for the first time and made it accessible to the general reader.
Some documents relating to the operation "Spring" were published in the USSR in a two-volume collection of documents "From the archives of the Cheka, OGPU, NKVD" dedicated to this operation.
1932 to 1935
Stalin ordered the next systematic party purge in the Soviet Union in December 1932, to be performed during 1933. During this period, new memberships were suspended. A joint resolution of the Party Central Committee and Central Revision Committee specified the criteria for purging and called for setting up special Purge Commissions, to which every communist had to report. Furthermore, this purge concerned members of the Central Committee and of the Central Revision Committee, who previously had been immune to purges, because they were elected at Party Congresses. In particular, Nikolai Bukharin, Alexei Ivanovich Rykov, and Mikhail Tomsky were asked to defend themselves during this purge. As the purges unfolded, it became increasingly apparent that what had begun as an attempt to cleanse the party of unequipped and defecting members would culminate in nothing less than a cleansing of integral party members of all ranks. This included many prominent leading party members that had ruled the regime for over a decade. At this time, of 1.9 million members, approximately 18 percent were purged.
Until 1933 those purged (totaling 800,000) were not usually arrested. (The few that were became the first waves of the gulag forced labor system.) But from 1934 onwards, during the Great Purge, the connotations of the term changed, because being expelled from the party came with the possibility of arrest, with long imprisonment or execution following. The Party Central Committee would later state that the careless methodology used resulted in serious errors and perversions which hindered the work of cleansing the party from its real enemies.
The most prolific period of executions occurred during the Great Purge, from 1936 to 1938.
The Central Committee Plenum passed a resolution in 1935 declaring an end to the purges of 1933. Sergey Kirov, leader of the Leningrad section of the Communist party, was murdered in 1934. In response, Stalin's Great Purge saw one third of the Communist party executed or sentenced to work in labor camps. Stalin induced terror among his own party and justified it with Marxist principles. Victims of the Great Purge were placed in a losing scenario regardless of what view they took. They were required to confess their transgressions towards the party and name accomplices. Although most were innocent, many chose to name accomplices either in hopes of gaining freedom or just to stop their torture by interrogators, which was ubiquitous at the time. The prisoner most often was still punished the same whether they denied their crimes, admitted them and provided no accomplices, or admitted them and provided accomplices. It made little difference as to their fate. This can be described as a one-shot, n-person prisoner's dilemma. The punishment remained the same regardless of the terms of confession.
The Great Purge was no less perilous for those few foreigners who attempted to assimilate into Soviet culture. In one piece of literature the author recalls a Soviet general describing the Great Purges as "difficult years to understand" for citizens and foreigners alike. These foreigners were treated much the same as Soviet ethnic minorities and they were thought to be potential threats in the impending war. Germans, Poles, Finns, and other westerners were shown the same fate the bourgeoisie had been dealt following the end of NEP. Punishments ranged from eviction and relocation to summary execution.
Following Stalin's death in 1953 purges as systematic campaigns of expulsion from the party ended; thereafter, the center's political control was exerted instead mainly through loss of party membership and its attendant nomenklatura privileges, which effectively downgraded one's opportunities in society – see Trade unions in the Soviet Union § Role in the Soviet class system, chekism, and party rule. Recalcitrant cases could be reduced to nonpersons via involuntary commitment to a psychiatric institution.
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Operation 'Spring' in 1930–31 targeted the former officers and generals of the Tsarist army serving in the Red Army. According to incomplete data, 3496 officers were arrested and 130 were executed in the Ukraine, Voronezh and Leningrad regions being accused of preparing uprisings in anticipation of intervention.
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In 1934, Kirov, the leader of the Leningrad Communist Party, was murdered, probably on Stalin's orders. Stalin used this episode to order massive purges by which anybody suspected of disloyalty was murdered, sent to prison camps, or put on public show trials at which they pleaded guilty to incredible crimes they could never have done. [...] The Communist leadership was purged - 93 of the 139 Central Committee members were put to death. The armed forces were purged - 81 of the 103 generals and admirals were executed. The Communist Party was purged - about a third of its 3 million members were killed.
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