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Case Study:

The NKVD Mass Secret Operation n° 00447 (August 1937 – November 1938)

Last modified: 20 May 2010
Nicolas Werth

May 2010

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Nicolas Werth, The NKVD Mass Secret Operation n° 00447 (August 1937 – November 1938) , Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on 24 May 2010, accessed 28 November 2015, URL : http://www.massviolence.org/The-NKVD-Mass-Secret-Operation-no-00447-August-1937, ISSN 1961-9898

 B. Decision-Makers, Organizers and Actors

Although Nikolai Ezhov signed the Order n° 00447, its instigator was Stalin himself. On July 2, 1937, Stalin sent a top-secret letter to all regional party secretaries (with a copy to NKVD regional chiefs) ordering them to present, within five days, estimates of the number of kulaks and “criminals” that should be arrested, executed or sent to camps. As First Secretary of the Moscow Communist Party, Nikita Khruschev wired to Stalin, on July 10, 1937: “41,305 kulak and criminal elements have been posted in Moscow and Moscow region. Police material allows us to allocate 8,000 of them to the first category, and the remaining 31,305 to the second category”. Produced in a matter of days, these figures roughly matched those of “suspect” individuals already under police surveillance, although the criteria used to distribute the “kulak and criminal elements” among the two categories are not clear. The quotas allocated by Order n° 00447 were generally based on these estimates. However, as soon as the Kulak Operation was launched (August 5, 1937), regional party and NKVD bosses, eager to show their zeal, demanded an increase in the quotas. Recently declassified top-secret correspondence between Stalin, Ezhov and regional party and NKVD leaders reveals, in chilling bureaucratic transcripts, the development of a dynamic leading to a huge overfulfillment of quotas (Junge and Binner, 2003). Planned orders from the center plus bureaucratic reflexes spurred local officials, many of whom had just recently been promoted, to anticipate and surpass the desires of superiors further up the hierarchy and the directives that arrived from Moscow. Already at the end of August 1937, Stalin and Ezhov were assailed with numerous requests for the initial quotas to be raised. The execution or the ten-year confinement in camps of thousands of people was ratified in short Politburo resolutions (signed by Stalin) drafted as follows: “Approve the proposal of the Altaï territory Party Committee for a supplement of 4,000 in the first category and of 4,500 in the second category”. But supplements were not only the result of demands from below. The largest new allowances were distributed by Stalin and Ezhov on their own initiative: on October 15, 1937, for example, the Politburo passed a secret resolution increasing the number of people “to be repressed” by 120,000 (63,000 “in the first category” and 57,000 “in the second category”); on January 31, 1938, Stalin ordered a further increase of 57,200, 48,000 of whom were to be executed. To keep up the pace, police organized sweeps and round-ups of markets or railway stations where marginals and other social outcasts were likely to be found. In order to carry out a growing number of arrests, the UGB (State Security) units – approximately 25,000 functionaries – were supplemented by ordinary policemen, sometimes by Party or Komsomol (Young Communist League) members. Every unit had a “casework minimum” of arrests to perform but also of confessions to extract in order to “unmask conspiracies”. Uninterrupted interrogation for days on end and merciless beatings were widely used to force prisoners to confess their alleged counter-revolutionary crimes. In order to speed up the procedure, prisoners were often forced to sign blank pages of the pre-printed interrogation folios on which the interrogator later typed up the confession, the contents of which were scrutinised by the UGB commanding officer. If the prisoner’s statement did not adhere to the “general line” of the prosecution scenario, the head of the Security Police inserted his own fantastic screenplay, and had the forgery re-typed for signature by the defendant. Some UGB units brought this rationalisation to a fine art, setting up what they themselves called a sector for “spare parts”: a “model” protocol was copied by a pool of typists; the interrogating officer then filled in the prisoner’s data and, from case to case, marginally changed the circumstances of the “wrecking” activities and their “instigators” (McLoughlin and McDermott, 2003). Once the culpability of the arrested considered proved, the files were transmitted to the troїka, who pronounced the verdicts in the absence of the accused. During a half-day long session, the troїka (which comprised, as a rule, the regional party first secretary, the chief of the regional NKVD and the regional procurator) went through several hundred cases, delivering either a death sentence or a ten-year sentence to the Gulag labour camps. Death sentences were immediately enforceable. The sentence was not even announced to the condemned, and relatives were simply told that the arrested person had been sentenced to a ten-year term in a labour camp with no right to correspond. The executions were carried out at night, either in prisons or in a secluded area run by the NKVD and located as a rule on the outskirsts of major towns. Tens of mass execution and mass burial places have been found during the past fifteen years (the “special shooting ranges” of Butovo, near Moscow, Levachovo, on the outskirsts of Leningrad, Bykivnia near Kiev, Sandormokh, in Karelia, Vinnitsa, in Ukraine, etc).

Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence® - ISSN 1961-9898