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Сергій Білокінь (Київ)

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Purging to plan

S. Bilokin

From time to time the Party cadres were shaken up. As early as June 6, 1919 the Ukrainian Politburo considered the question “On Struggle Against the Counterrevolution and Purge of the Soviet Institutions.” It resolved to refer the matter to the Communist faction in the TsiK for further consideration [42]. Two days later, the Politburo heard Kosior’s report “On Mobilization of Communists in Kharkiv and Work of the Commission for Revision of Staffs of Soviet Institutions.” RESOLVED: “That due notice be taken of the report. The Staff Revision Commission shall complete its work within 10 days.” [43] On August 28, when evacuation was under way (the White Guards were on the offensive), the Politburo decreed:

“In view of the necessity to impose a most rigorous discipline among political workers in the Army and to conduct a purge among them, Comr. Rafail [Farbman] shall have political workers checked by the Political Department.” [44]

A characteristic joint resolution “On Provisional Commissions […] for Checking the Personnel of Institutions, Enterprises, and Organizations” was adopted on April 30, 1924 by the VUTsVK (signed by Petrovsky and Butsenko) and the Radnarkom (Chubar). Such checks were global and were to cover

“employees of state institutions and enterprises, whether central or local, including those operating on a self-supporting basis, and all types of cooperatives, as well as state-subsidized institutions and organizations.” The text expressly defined the task of these commissions as “elimination of those whose presence adversely affected the activities of an institution, enterprise or an organization and also those whose continued employment would not be conducive to the interests of the proletariat.” [45]

The exclusive right to define and interpret the said interests was, of course, reserved for the Politburo. Another campaign was launched in January 1929: “The Soviet apparatus must be purged of alien elements. One-third of all employees in Ukraine are former czarist bureaucrats.” [46] It seems Bolshevik analysts had done their homework before drafting such measures.

On December 17, 1928 the Communist faction of the presidium of the Kiev regional executive committee heard a report on the political situation in the region. It resolved:

“2) That the Party section on the Regional Election Committee be directed: a) to make full use of the GPU data on the contamination of the Soviet apparatus and election committees; b) to pay special attention to preventing anti-Soviet elements registered as such by the GPU organs from penetrating the Soviet apparatus.

“3) The Regional Election Commission shall take all necessary measures to remove all undesired elements both from district election committees and from the Soviet apparatus. […]

“5) Considering the fact that the Kiev area stands out among other regions in the number of terrorist acts and the ascendancy of the kulak elements, it is deemed necessary to give undiminished attention to the struggle against the anti-Soviet elements and to direct the GPU to continue its work along these lines.

“That the VUTsBK Presidium be requested to speed up the hearing of all court cases originating in the Kiev area and concerning terrorist acts committed by kulak elements.” [47]

The Politburo’s decisions based on its bank of data concerning the helpless populace under its rule included those ordering cleansing of specific areas, in particular the restricted border zones. On February 22, 1938, an NKVD officer named Krupnikov, who was then briefly arrested but was later rehabilitated and has since been referred to as an “innocent victim of the Stalinist tyranny,” explained to an interrogator, a Junior Lieutenant Petrov:

“During my stay in Slavuta as chief of divisional S[pecial] D[epartment] and D[istrict] D[epartment] of the NKVD well-organized secret operations helped create the necessary basis that made it possible to repress (sic) a considerable number (sic) of anti-Soviet element when mass arrests began.” [48]

But then, of course, all this was being done “to protect the lawful order from socially dangerous persons.” After all, judicial murder (“ultimate penalty” or just UP) was sometimes termed “extraordinary measure of social protection.”

An important eyewitness account is provided by K. Shtepa: “At the same time class reprisals against the old technical intelligentsia went on. Show trials followed one after another: the “Shakhty Case,” the “Industrial Party” trial, the trial of the Narkomzem [49] specialists, etc. Thousands of engineers, agronomists, veterinarians, and others were subjected to all kinds of repressions on charges of ‘deliberate damage’ and ‘sabotage’.” [50] There were plenty of such repressive campaigns in the ‘20s and ‘30s, but Shtepa brought all those facts together into a general picture of terror against the “old” technical specialists.

In another episode, in 1935, a considerable portion of Kiev’s population was removed “with the view to cleansing the capital city of Kiev of the Ukr. c/r [counterrevolutionary] nationalistic element.” [51] The whole country’s “domestic life” largely consisted of such operations that kept coming one after another with no end in sight. To implement the repressive programs devised in the Kremlin, Moscow sent down quotas which the provinces pledged themselves to overfulfill. Every such operation was backed by a wide-scale political campaign that was waged in the media and through other channels. For their part, the “special services,” employing their peculiar methods, made sure that the assigned missions were fully accomplished. Now that they had already performed their information-gathering function, the Party requested them to proceed with assignments that logically followed from that first job.

A very interesting question was raised by Russian emigre V. Zhirmont, a former inmate of a Soviet concentration camp. Gathering and analyzing facts on the economic component of the terror he found that mass arrests and executions of people who were absolutely blameless even by the Soviet Communist standards appeared wholly unmotivated. However, when viewed against the economic background, the same information revealed a pattern showing that the arrests were, in fact, a hunt for slaves – a huge, virtually free labor force for economic exploitation. This pattern was discerned by the late historian D. A. Volkogonov. In his book about Stalin he wrote:

“Whenever a new construction project was being planned for Siberia or the North, quotas needed to make up for the ‘natural attrition’ were established as part of the ‘planning procedure.’ The NKVD even prepared ‘supply capacity’ estimates for the individual regions that were actually reserves of slaves for the ‘socialist projects’.” [52]

However, one would not have to dig too deep to find out that long before Volkogonov the same idea had occurred to Mikh. Rozanov:

“[…] concentration camps proliferated and swelled, and had already been made part of the first Five-Year Plan.” [53]

But V. Zhirmont had written about all this earlier than either Rozanov or Volkogonov, and in much greater detail:

“Viewed from this angle, a great many inexplicable phenomenon becomes rational and understandable. If one could compare the curve describing the growth of this industry with that of the mass arrests, they would have coincided at all their points: every new ‘project,’ every new ‘complex,’ every new ‘main line’ was a very serious reason for another wave of arrests and exiles. Every ‘initiative’ required some particular category of specialists, and it is not difficult to trace the pattern from the ‘Industrial Party’ trial, reverberations of which were felt by all trusts of the country reaching Grozneft [54], Baku, the Donets basin, etc., to the Ural-Kuznetsk and Nitrogen Fertilizer complexes, now under construction and development, and the nuclei of heavy industries in the Far East. The agreements for delivery of lumber to England concluded some time ago were an indirect cause of short-shrift trials ‘in the provinces’ of young students and Komsomol deviationists (the number of ‘lumberjacks’ in the North had decreased drastically by that time , and new young manpower was needed). The rest of the labor force was rounded up in the same fashion, strictly automatically.” [55]

According to V. Zhirmont’s calculations, the state had enormous payrolls to meet, not only of highly qualified technical personnel but also of average skilled workers.

“It was the GPU-NKVD that saved the situation, and its role in the development of Soviet industry and expansion of the country’s military potential was indeed enormous! Through a series of campaigns, some of which were staged as ‘public’ show trials to justify the mass arrests (people in the Union’s other regions were later rounded up on these charges automatically) labor forces were created for new construction projects and state farms. Their composition was selected quite carefully – no single labor category was forgotten! The Gulag received, as a matter of course, requests for manpower itemizing the various labor categories. From the provinces, people were brought, for further distribution, to Leningrad, Moscow or Samara, depending on their destination. Sometimes, there was a surplus when supply exceeded demand, and then prisoners had to wait for months on end before they were shipped to the camps […]. But in the spring recurrent epidemics of typhus and dysentery usually washed out a certain portion of slaves on the jobs, and more transports prepared to take the road.” [56]

Having made a series of economic calculations, the eyewitness turned investigator reached a conclusion that every year the GULAG system saved tens of billions of rubles for the state budget. A contemporary demographer has found that compared to Eastern Siberia, where the total growth of population between 1926 and 1939 was 14%, in the Far East it was 68.8%. The mechanical increase of urban population exceeded the natural growth by a factor of 7.7. [57]

The findings of an investigator from the Urals, V. V. Guseva, add to the general picture. Studying the fate of people repatriated in 1935 from areas along the Chinese Eastern Railroad (“Harbin Russians”) she came across a secret order of the NKVD of September 20, 1937. She writes:

“Basically, this was a well thought-out, precise plan of repressions and extermination of the repatriates. This order appeared as a result of two years of work on the detection and registration of 25 thousand “Harbin Russians” plus 4,500 persons who had already been executed or imprisoned. The time schedule for arrests, investigation, hearing of cases, and execution of sentences was very short – from September 20 to December 25, 1937. Brief analysis of categories of persons specified in the documents as such who were to be arrested indicates that the NKVD departments were instructed to eliminate all Russian repatriates from China and to extend the terms of those already imprisoned.” [58]

The machine of terror would have been exceptionally perfect if it had operated just as smoothly all the time. But it often degenerated into a theater of the absurd, as evidenced, e.g., by Anton Antonov-Ovsiyenko:

“Casualties of the first months [of the war] were staggering. Every battalion was precious. And at the same time in the famous transit camp in Nakhodka Bay 70 thousand inmates lay idle. Well, not exactly idle… Whole divisions of ‘enemies of the people’ were daily driven out under guard to pick at the frozen Arctic earth. Next day, the ditches dug out so painfully were filled in. That was not exactly after Dostoyevsky: in his Dead House the convicts dragged stones from one place to another.” [59]

An unnamed wise prisoner quoted by the Russian writer A. Pismennyi in his belated 1965 afterword to his novel Prigovor (Sentence) though along the same lines and reached the same conclusions:

“It seemed to me that there had to be at least some reasons, however formal or wrong, to deprive a person of his or her freedom. At least a false denunciation or slander. There was nothing of the kind. People were imprisoned ‘by allotment’ simply because among other grand and somber schemes the idea had occurred to somebody (!? – S. B.) to “let through the filter of isolation” another category of citizens. A hundred thousand, two million – it doesn’t matter. A significant portion of them will die. This doesn’t matter either. What does matter is that the hateful ability to understand simple human relations through simple human thoughts and feelings will be destroyed, ripped out, beaten out forever from the head and the soul. And a stock of fear will be created for many years to come.” [60]

Of course, it was not just before the war that Soviet people had built up their private “stocks of fear.” A tremendous contribution had been made by Lenin, who had tirelessly worked on it from the very beginning of his rule.

As we trace the course of Soviet repressive practices we become increasingly convinced of the profound truth of the terse formula which the Moscow gossip attributed to Kaganovich: “We remove people in layers.” [61] N. P. Dudorov, Party secretary of the USSR People’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry in 1937–39, recalled that his boss, People’s Commissar L. Kaganovich had gone to the Donets basin area twice, each time attended by a horde of NKVD men. Numerous enterprise and mine managers were arrested during those visits. Back in Moscow, Kaganovich, addressing the Board of the People’s Commissariat, boasted that he had “removed two layers” of enemies of the people who had allegedly operated in the Donets basin industries [62]. Karl Albrecht observed:

“Every liquidation of some important Party boss entailed simultaneous automatic elimination in the center and the provinces of hundreds of thousands of his followers accused of belonging to the opposition.” [63]

Alexander Weissberg recalled that after Gvakhariya, Ordzhonikidze’s nephew and one of the geniuses of the industrialization, the directors of all of Ukraine’s major steel mills were arrested:

“A few months later those who replaced them were also arrested. Usually only the third or fourth managerial team stayed on.” [64]

This was another example of “removing people in layers.” It is hard to say whether the rumors about “layers” reached Nadezhda Mandelshtam, but she described the process in remarkably similar terms:

“People were removed in strata by categories (age was also taken into account): clergymen, mystics, idealist scientists, wisecracks, nonconformists, thinkers, talkers, the taciturn, debaters, people with legal, political or economic ideas, plus engineers, technicians and agronomists because there appeared the term ‘saboteur’ which accounted for all failures and errors.” [65]

We should not be deceived by the memoirist’s feminine or poetic classification: in fact, her list and any strictly sociological survey would coincide. After all, the “thinkers,” “talkers,” and “debaters” fall under the category of active individuals who are quite capable of providing leadership to a political party. The wisecracks and nonconformists are the natural prey for informants. As to the clergy, they cannot be defined in any other way and, according to the Bolshevist notions, were doomed regardless of any personal characteristics.

The pattern of mass repressions carried out by the Communist regime was very special. The authorities did not penalize individuals guilty of specific transgressions. On principle, the terror was targeted at whole social groups. This is why it would be more correct to speak of a mass terror rather than a huge number of individual actions of the Bolshevist “security” services. In this the Party and its NKVD vanguard were guided by the Marxist-Leninist theory which divided the nation into certain classes that were further subdivided into a number of social groups. In keeping with this theoretically substantiated structuralization, the secret police did not merely subject many people to repressions. The victims of the state terror were critical masses of people, i.e., proportions sufficient for qualitative changes in the respective categories. Eradication of individual social groups began with the liquidation of leaders around whom they were structured. The ax fell on the finest exponents of the Ukrainian idea – from members of the Central Rada to priests, teachers, and the most efficient private farmers. The Bolshevist terror atomized the social environment. The authorities reduced these critical masses to predetermined limits. A. Avtorkhanov estimated the proportion of victims of the Great Terror alone at 3–4% of the Soviet Union’s total population, i.e., about five million people. [66]

The system worked in such a way that people related to or acquainted with the liquidated leaders could be spared, but the common structure was dismantled. External pressures displaced the survivors to the periphery of the crippled structure, sometimes even causing them to spill over into other social groups. In this manner the regime achieved more than it could have done by persecuting individuals, whether guilty or innocent – it wiped out whole ethnocultural environments. Repressions were systematically carried out within the limits of one social group or another, but recurrent campaigns were targeted by turns at its various subgroups. This was a pogrom on a transcontinental scale. In the case of Ukraine, it had a pronounced anti-Ukrainian orientation.

The execution lists of M. Rozhenko and E. Bohatska contain 72 names of murdered priests, deacons, and monks. Of these only Father Andriy Boychuk was arrested and executed in 1941. The arrests, summary trials, and executions of the rest fit in a very brief period of time. They were all sentenced and executed between September 193 and May 1938. [67] It is amazing indeed that over the entire 1917–1941 period it took just a few months to liquidate 71 clergymen.


42. Ibid., F. 1, Rec. 6, No. 1, Sh. 28.

43. Ibid., F. 1, Rec. 6, No. 7, Sh. 27 rev.

44. Ibid., F. 1, F. 1, Rec. 6, No. 1, Sh. 94.

45. Zbirnyk uzakonen ta rosporyadzen, 1924, Section One, May 20, Part 10, pp. 228(229, Item 99.

46. Vecherniy Kiev, Jan. 31, 1929, No. 25 (599), p. 1.

47. StateArchives of Kiev Region (SAKR), F. r-112, Rec. 1, No. 8608, Sh. 490.

48. CSAPOU, No. 31137 FP, Box 180, Vol. 1, Sh. 84. Yefim Veniaminovich Krupnikov (* Sept. 20, 1903 in Hnativka, Kiev Province) in 1933(35 was chief of Horodok, Proskuriv Region, NKVD district dept. He wrote in his report of Sept. 10, 1938 to People's Commissar A. I. Uspensky: "Working in Kamyanets-Pod[ilsky] during these last months and meeting with the personnel of the Proskuriv investigative group I have been told by many of them that in Horodok (despite a serious punitive blow dealt in that district) not all the files compiled in my time have yet been acted on." (Vol. 2, Sh. 38). Arrested on October 20, 1938, released in March 1939.

49. Abbreviated from Narodnyi Komissariat zemledeliya (Rus.) ( People's Commissariat for Agriculture ( Transl.

50. K. F. Shtepa, Yezhovshchina, Novyi Zhurnal, Vol. LVIII, New York, 1959, p. 144.

51. CSAPOU, No. 34019 FP, Box 518, Sh. 35. Characteristically, the new Ukrainian capital was being cleansed of Ukrainians. The UkrSSR capital had been transferred to Kiev from Kharkiv in 1934.

52. Dmitry Volkogonov, Triumf i tragediya, Book I, Part 2, p. 57.

53. Mikhail Rozanov, Solovetskiy kontslager v monastyre, 1922(1939, Book 1, publ. by the author, 1979, p. 201.

54. Grozny Oil Co. ( Transl.

55. V. Zhirmont, Ekonomicheskaya funktsiya terrora, Sotsialisticheskiy Vestnik, 1949, No. 6, p. 117.

56. Ibid., p. 118.

57. I. I. Platunov, "Vliyaniye migratsiy na chislennyi rost naseleniya severnykh i vostochnykh payonov SSSR v 20-30-e gg.," Pliblemy demografii SSSR: period sotsializma, Chi(inau: (tiin(a, 1985, p. 48.

58. V. V. Guseva, "Mekhanizm provedeniya repressiy sredi russkikh repatriantov 1935 goda iz Kitaya," Politicheskiy sysk v Rossii: Istoriya i sovremennost, St. Petersburg, 1997, pp. 212(214.

59. A. Antonov-Ovseyenko, Portret tirana, p. 305.

60. A. Pismennyi, Ya iskrenne veril Stalinu…, Knizhnoye Obozreniye, Oct. 6, 1989, No. 40 (1218), p. 10.

61. M. Voslensky, Nomenklatura, p. 95.

62. N. K. Baybakov, Sorok let v pravitelstve, M.: Respublika, 1993, p. 205.

63. Cf. K. I. Albrecht, Vlast Stalina, pp. 17, 21.

64. A. Weissberg, Conspiracy of Silence, London, 1952, p. 364.

65. N. Mandelshtam, Vospominaniya, Book 1, 4th ed., Paris, YMCA-Press [1982], p. 16.

66. A. Avtorkhanov, Tekhnologiya Vlasti, 3rd ed., Posev, 1983, p. 410.

67. M. Rozhenko and E. Bohatska, Sosny Bykovni svidchat, Book 1, 568 pp.