Long before the opening of the Soviet archives, the Great Terror had provoked a number of debates about the amplitude, the mechanisms, the reasons and the purpose of these mass purges. In the 1950s American scholars proposed a structural explanation of the Great Terror: as a totalitarian system Stalin’s regime had to maintain its citizens in a state of fear and uncertainty, and recurrent random purging provided the mechanism (Brzezinski, 1958). At the end of the 1960s, Robert Conquest published the first detailed account, which was to become a classic reference, on the Great Terror (Conquest, 1968). This work emphasized Stalin’s paranoia, focused on the Moscow show trial of “Old Bolsheviks”, and analyzed the carefully planned and systematic destruction of the Leninist party leadership as the first step toward terrorizing the entire population. In the mid 1980s, John Arch Getty, an american historian of the revisionist school contested Conquest’s interpretation, arguing that the exceptional scale of the purges was the result of strong tensions between Stalin and regional Party bosses who, in order to deflect the terror that was being directed at them, had found innumerable scapegoats on which to carry out repressions, demonstrating in this way their vigilance and intransigence in the struggle against the common enemy. Thus, far from being a planned and long-term project revealing the growing paranoia of an all-mighty dictator, the Great Terror turned out to be a “flight into chaos” (Getty, 1985). In spite of their fundamentally different approach, historians of both schools focused on party purges, repression of real or imagined “oppositionists”, show trials of party leaders, elimination and replacement of political, intellectual, economic or military elites, and struggle between the center and regional party cliques. Neither of them studied, mainly because of the scarcity of information on the subject, the mechanisms, organization, implementation of mass arrests and mass executions, or the sociology of the victims, who represented a much wider group than party elites or intelligentsia. Thus, the Great Terror of 1937-1938 in the Soviet Union solidified in popular and academic memory as Stalin’s attack on political and social elites, as the “Great Purges”.
This has been fundamentally challenged since the opening of the soviet archives, the discovery of the NKVD operational orders and other top-secret Politburo documents. Scholars now insist on the hidden side of the Great Terror, interpreting it as a crucial moment – or rather the culmination – of a vast social engineering campaign started at the beginning of the 1930s (Hagenloh, 2000; Shearer, 2003; Werth, 2003). In the light of recent research, the qualification of “Great Purges” seems incorrect to characterize this murderous outburst of violence. The extreme diversity of the victims makes difficult any legal qualification of this crime, which appears to be in a class of its own: 800,000 people executed in secret (over half of them under Order n° 00447) by means of a bullet in the back of the head after a pretence of justice; this over a period of sixteen months, at a rate of 50,000 executions per month or 1,700 per day for nearly 500 days. Let us therefore content ourselves with a “minimalist” classification: the Great Terror was one of the worst and largest mass crimes carried out by the Stalinist State against one per cent of its adult population.