In 1992, the discovery in the Soviet archives of the NKVD’s secret operational order n° 00447 of July 30, 1937, has drastically changed our perception of Stalin’s Great Terror (Conquest, 1968). Up to this point, the frenzied era of Stalinist repression had primarily been viewed as a massive political purge targeting the communist political, military, economic and intellectual elites, a process which Nikita Khruschev had briefly exposed in his famous “Secret Report” to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on February 24, 1956. But the Great Terror in fact had two sides: a public side and a hidden one.
The public side was that of the show trials – the famous Moscow trials (August 1936, January 1937 and March 1938) of the “Old Bolsheviks” – but also that of the hundreds of less well-known provincial trials of local officials (Werth, 2005). All these trials were more or less successfully staged political theater and, in Annie Kriegel’s words, “a formidable mechanism of social prophylaxis”. Show trials unmasked conspiracies and singled out scapegoats. The public side of the Great Terror was also the promotion of a new elite, younger, better-educated, and more obedient, brought-up in the strict “Stalinist spirit of the 1930s”. In light of newly-opened archives, it has been established that the purging of the Soviet elite was, however, no more than the visible tip of the iceberg: accounting for approximately 100,000 convictions out of a total of 1,550,000 convictions on political grounds. Over half of the condemned (800,000 persons) were executed, the remaining 750,000 sentenced to a ten-year term in the Gulag labour camps.
The hidden side of the Great Terror was that of the “NKVD operational orders”, made in compliance with top-secret Politburo resolutions. These were completely hidden transcripts, not meant for circulation or discussion in the Communist Party, State or society. These documents are the most important newly released sources for understanding the mechanisms and implementation of the “mass secret repressive operations” which constituted the core of the Great Terror: more than 90% of the victims were trapped in one of these operations (McLoughlin and McDermott, 2003). These operations (a dozen of them have been identified) were a form of social engineering intended to rid the country “once and for all of the entire gang of anti-Soviet elements who undermine the foundations of the Soviet State” (in the words of Nikolai Ezhov, the Head of the NKVD, in the preamble of Order n° 00447).
The largest secret mass operation was launched by the NKVD secret operational order n° 00447 “Concerning the punishment of former kulaks, criminals and other anti-Soviet elements”. The categories targeted included “former kulaks, deported in previous years, who have escaped from labour settlements”, “members of anti-Soviet parties, former tsarist officials, church officials and sectarian activists […], bandits, recidivist thieves and swindlers, contraband smugglers and other criminals including those already in camp or in labour settlements but continuing their criminal activities”. All these “anti-Soviet elements” were to be broken down into two categories. People ascribed to the “first category” (defined as “particularly active and vicious”) were to be immediately arrested and, after swift consideration of their case by an extra-judicial three-man commission (troїka) specially set up for the purpose, shot. People ascribed to the “second category” (“less active anti-Soviet elements”) were to be immediately arrested and sentenced by the same troїka to ten years of forced labour in the Gulag camps. Order n° 00447 then proceeded by establishing, for every region and republic, round-number quotas of persons subject to “punitive measures” in the first and in the second category. The highest quotas concerned Moscow and its region (35,000, of whom 5,000 were to be shot), western Siberia (17,000, of whom 5,000 were to be shot), southern Urals (16,000, of whom 5,500 were to be shot), Leningrad and its region (14,000, of whom 4,000 were to be shot). Ukraine had a quota of 28,800 (of whom 8,000 were to be shot). The total figures amounted to 269,100 persons, of whom 76,000 were to be killed. In fact, although initially planned for four months, Operation n° 00447 (refered to as the “Kulak Operation” in NKVD circles) lasted over 15 months (from August 1937 till mid-November 1938): approximately 767,000 persons were condemned, of whom 387,000 (just over one half) were shot (Junge and Binner, 2003; Danilov, Manning, Viola, 2006; Werth, 2009).
Two important features of this mass crime should be underlined at this stage:
a) The round-number quotas of Order n° 00447 were characteristic of the “figure mania” which had spread throughout the USSR in every sector of the economy, politics and social life during the 1930s. In matters of repression and social engineering, they were not unprecedented. On February 1, 1930, Genrikh Iagoda, the Head of the State Security, issued the secret Order n° 44/21 giving, for each region and republic of the USSR, round-number quotas of dekulakization and defining different categories of “kulaks” (“rich peasants” considered to be hostile to the Soviet regime). Kulaks “of the first category” – 60,000 individuals in the initial phase of the operation – defined as “particularly vicious” and “engaged in counterrevolutionary activities” were to be arrested and, after consideration of their case by a troїka, transferred to labour camps “or executed if they put up any sign of resistance”. Kulaks “of the second category” – 120,000 families – defined as “showing less active opposition, but nonetheless arch-exploiters with an innate tendency to destabilize the Soviet regime”, were to be arrested and deported with their families to “special settlements” in remote regions of the country (Siberia, Kazakhstan, Urals, far North). In the course of the different “dekulakization campaigns” (1930-1932), over 300,000 persons were sent to labour camps and 2,200,000 persons deported (Danilov, Manning, Viola, 2001).
b) Order n° 00447 was the culmination of a decade-long radicalization of policing practice against a wide range of social outcasts. From 1930 onwards, fear of “social disorder” resulting from the upheavals of forced collectivization, famine, massive and the uncontrolled migration of millions of peasants into towns, became the major obsession of party and police authorities. The newly created passport system (1933) for town dwellers enforced social quarantine on major cities; hundreds of thousands of “anti-Soviets”, “former people” and “socially harmful elements” were rounded up, expelled, or deported. These elastic categories included a wide range of people such as “persons with no definite place of work”, persons caught in urban areas without a proper residence permit, persons who had left the “special settlement” they had been assigned to, “speculators”, persons “having ties with the criminal world”, etc. Among these outcasts, “ex-kulaks” were the largest group. According to police statistics, as many as 600,000 “ex-kulaks” had fled from the places they had been deported to. For the NKVD, these “elements” were, in the words of Ezhov, “the chief instigators of every kind of anti-Soviet crime and sabotage”. The context of an impending war gave the mass operations of 1937-1938 their particular ruthlessness: the threat of war shaped Stalin’s perception of marginal and politically suspect populations as the social basis for an uprising in case of invasion. These potential recruits for a mythical “fifth column of wreckers, terrorists and spies” were to be preventively eliminated (Hagenloh, 2000; Shearer, 2003).