The Great Purge or the Great Terror was a large-scale campaign of mass repressions of citizens, which was deployed in the USSR in 1937-1938 on the initiative of the leadership of the USSR and personally Joseph Stalin to eliminate real and potential political opponents, intimidating the population, changing the national and social structure of society.
The consequences of communist terror in Ukraine were the elimination of the political, artistic and scientific elites, the deformation of social ties, the destruction of traditional values, the spread of social depression and denationalization.
According to historians, 198,918 people were convicted on the territory of the USSR during the “Great Terror”, of which about two thirds were sentenced to shooting. The rest were sent to jails and camps (other punitive measures constituted less than 1%, only 0.3% of those convicted were set free).
The large-scale repressive operations in 1937-1938, according to J. Stalin's plan, were supposed to complete the twenty-year struggle against “socially harmful elements”, to humiliate the population by means of mass terror, to establish an authoritarian style of leadership and to carry out a “personnel revolution”. The reason for the deployment of terror was the thesis of J. Stalin on the intensification of the class struggle as the socialist construction succeeded.
Officially the beginning of the “Great Terror” was the operation order of the NKVD of the USSR No. 00447 “About repression of former kulaks, criminals, and other anti-Soviet elements” of July 30, 1937, approved by the Politburo of the Central Committee of the CPSU (b) on July 31, 1937. However, the documents of the NKVD (orders, correspondence, telegraphs) indicate that mass repressions were prepared in advance, and they were only formalized by the order.
Order No. 00447 introduced limits (plans) for the punishment of citizens. The 1st category was subject to death by shooting, the 2nd category was to be sent to GULAG (Rus.: Main Directorate of Corrective Labor Camps) of the USSR NKVD. The primary limit for the USSR by the 1st category was 26,150 people; in January 1938 it was increased to 83,122 people. The request for additional limits to Moscow was repeatedly addressed by the USSR People's Commissar of Internal Affairs Israel Leplievsky and Alexander Uspensky.
Prior to the operational order No. 00447, special attention was paid to the “purge” of the party ranks and security agencies, which was supposed to ensure continued unconditional execution of the repressive directives of the center. And in June 1937 mass arrests began. On July 10, 1937, the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine (Bolsheviks) sent instructions on the formation of an extra-judicial repressive body, the regional “troikas”, set up to simplify the procedure of conviction. The “troikas” usually consisted of the head of the regional NKVD, the regional prosecutor and the first secretary of the regional or republican committee of the CPSU (b). The existence of the “troikas” and other extrajudicial repressive organs completely contravened the Soviet legislation, including the 1936 Constitution.
The arrested person was in fact deprived of the right to defense (attorney) or appeal from judgement. Investigators “secured” the required confessions from the arrested by applying emotional abuse and fiendish tortures. In 1937, the permission to use the methods of “physical influence on suspects” (i.e. torture) was given at the highest level of the Central Committee of the CPSU (b). Cases of wrongful condemnation were considered to be quite permissible and justified by the proverb “you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs”.
The times of the “Great Terror” in the mass consciousness of the USSR population are marked by total fear and distrust. Night arrests of neighbors, the suspicion of colleagues at work, friends, relatives, the search for spies and enemies, the fear of denunciations and the duty to publicly brand the enemies of the people were every day. A person could write a report on colleagues, fearing that they would report it first. It became a typical means of solving personal conflicts with management, teachers, relatives, etc.
The scenario-driven protests against the heads/leaders of the party and state organizations in 1937-1938 included the elimination or marginalization of the remains of the old elite, as well as the impact on new loyalists and society as a whole. Participation in these demonstrative processes was to demonstrate political and ideological loyalty, obedience to the leader's will, recognition of the terrorist methods of state leadership.
The “Great Terror” was curtailed on the orders of the highest body of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. On November 17, 1938, the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) and the People's Commissars of the USSR adopted a resolution “On Arrests, Prosecutorial Supervision and the Course of Investigations”, which “aimed at law enforcement agencies to stop “large-scale purges” and restoration of elementary legality”. The next step was the physical liquidation of the direct organizers and performers of the “Great Terror.”
The Rehabilitation of Victims
The illegitimacy of the “Great Terror” was recognized in the time of the USSR following the death of J. Stalin, when in the years of “thaw” they carried out a partial rehabilitation of the repressed. Rehabilitation processes of the second half of the 1950s and early 1960s were of limited character. Most citizens convicted of political accusations did not receive full rehabilitation, and their rights have not been fully restored.
In 1991, in the last months of the USSR existence, the Law “On Rehabilitation of the Victims of Political Repressions in Ukraine” was adopted. It was the first time in Ukraine when political repressions as a method of managing the society was condemned and rejected. But since this law was still passed in the USSR, some of these repressions, even those committed by extrajudicial authorities, were still defined as “justified”. In accordance with the requirements of the Law, the bodies of the prosecutor's office and courts during 1991-2001 rehabilitated 248,810 citizens, refusing to rehabilitate 117,243 people.
In 2015, Ukraine condemned the crimes of the communist totalitarian regime by the Law “On the condemnation of the communist and national socialist (Nazi) regimes, and prohibition of propaganda of their symbols.”
In 2017, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine adopted in the first reading a new draft law “On amendments to some legislative acts of Ukraine concerning improvement of the procedure of rehabilitation of victims of repressions of the Communist totalitarian regime 1917-1991” (No. 6574 dated June 9, 2017), developed by the Ukrainian Institute of national remembrance in cooperation with people's deputies. The draft law dramatically broadens the range of people who are subject to rehabilitation. In particular, it provides for the automatic rehabilitation of persons who have been punished by extrajudicial authorities, those who fought for the independence of Ukraine with arms in hand, who were imprisoned, compulsorily placed in a psychiatric institution, a labor army, deprived of property through “expropriation” or “dispossession of the kulaks”, or deported along ethnic lines.