Soviet Secret Police: Mass Murder (1918-91)

Figure 1.--

The NKVD like its German counterpart the SS was involved in mass murder. These ctions are not as well studied as the German killing actions. Because they began before World war II, and went on for a longer period, they may well exceed the German actions in number of victims, although this is difficult to determine with any precission. There were differences in that whole families were usually not targeted, although families did perish s partr of the populations transported to the interior during the War. We are just beginning to piece together the totality of the NKVD killing operations. Large numbers of people were killed by the Cheka, but we are not sure any fall into the mass murder category. The post World War I Civil War Famine may be an example. Here it is difficult to assess blame between the Cheka and Bolshevik authorities. Readers may have information to add to our assessment or suggest mass killing operations we have not yet identified. The same is probably true OGPU/GPU with the exception of the Ukranian Famine. Most of the mass murders were conducted by the NKVD before, during, and immediately after World War II. These include the Great Terror, Gulag deaths, Barbarossa prisoner executions, ethnic cleansings, ethnic punishments, and German collaborator executions. Stalin was preparing a massice action gainst Soviet Jews at the time of his death. KGB killings after Stalin's death were much more focused on individuals actually guilty of legal violations however specious and not just mass arrests for purposes of terror. Beczuse the Soviet Union was not defeated and completely occupied during World War II, details on many of the Soviet mass killing operations are not as detailed as the German operations.

Civil War Red Terror (1919-22)

The Russian Civil War was an exceptionall brutal struggle. Both Reds and whites resorted to terror, unleashing horrendous terror campaigns. The Red Terror constantly expanded and was at a lever far excedding the killing actions of the Whites. Lennin at the onset of the Civil War issued what has become knon as the 'Hanging Order'. He sent instructions by telegram tp Penza Communists Vasily Kurayev (Penza Soviet chairman), Yevgenia Bosch (the chairwoman of Penza Gubernia Party Committee) and Alexander Minkin (the chairman of Penza ispolkom) (August 11, 1918). Thgey were ordered to supress the kulaks' revolt in the Penza Gubernia region. Tey were ordered to hang a least 100 kulaks, seize grain, and desinate hostages. Lennin added, "Do it in such a fashion that for hundreds of kilometres around the people might see, tremble, know, shout: "they are strangling, and will strangle to death, the bloodsucking kulaks." Many Cossaks supported the Wjites. The Bolsheviks decided on policy of 'decossackization' ameaning the killing or deportation of an entire ethnic comminity. Tis was done early in the Civil War (early-1919). Some estimate that over 10,000 men were executed. Many more were deported and their villages razed. [Holquist] The Red Terror resulted in the execution of tens of thousands of individuls labeled 'emies of the people' by the Bolshevik secret police--the Cheka. The Cheka focussed on class enemies. This included many individuals with bourgeois backgrounds, often used as hostages. There were summary executions, but large numbers of individuals were rounded up and held in readiness as needed for summary execution as reprisals for any actual or alleged counter-revolutionary provocation. Red Army units execute large numbers of such hostages during and after the suppression of serious revolts, including the Kronstadt and the Tambov Rebellion. These were not small groups of hostages, but included numbers in the tens of thousands of innocent civilians. [Rayfield, p. 85/] In addition to bourgeois elements, Orthodox priests were also tagetted. [Yakovlev, p. 156.]

Civil War Famine (1920-22)

The post World War I Civil War Famine may be an example of mass killing by Soviet secret police agencies. Here it is difficult to assess blame between the Cheka and Bolshevik authorities. Millions of Russians were killed in the Russian Civil War, both soldiers and civilians. Estimates suggest 10-15 million people perished. The World War I and the Civil War which followed it, devestated Russuia. Agricultural and industrial production was a fraction of pre-War levels. Food shortages were widespread. Not only had agricultural production declined, but the peasants were unwilling to sell their harvest for paper money which was essentially worthless. The distribution of essential commodities virtually broke down. The country's transportation system was badly damaged by the fighting, further complicating the food situation. Large numbers of children orphaned in the fighting were sarticularly at risk. The American relief mission was overseen by Herbert Hoover. As terrible as the Civil War was, the loss of life could have been much worse. The American Relief Administration (ARA) had offered Russia food relief in 1919, despite the Bolshevik takeover. The Bolsheviks rejected the offer because of the terms involved. The ARA insisted that an American overseer was to be in charge of all food stations to ensure that the food was not distributed on a political or religious basis. The Bolsehvicks in 1921 changed their minds. Faced with a severe famine as a result of their Civil war and a severe drought, the Bolsheviks accepted the American terms. When a critic inquired if he was not thus helping Bolshevism, Hoover retorted, "Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!"

Ukranian Famine (1932-33)

One of the greatest crimes of the Stalinist era was horific famine in the Ukraine. The famine area included both the Ukraine and the Soviet northern Caucasus, as well as Russian areas in the lower Volga River basin. Famines are historically primarily the results of natural events such as drought, heat, diseases, insect infestations, and other natural causes. The Ukranian famine was primarily caused by Stalin's program of collectiving Soviet agriculture, especially the forced collectivization of the Ukraine. The Ukraine had been the bread basket of Russia. It was the prize sought by the Germans in two world wars. The rich, well watered soil made the Ukraine the most productive agrivcultural area of the Soviet Union. Two issues merged which resulted in dissaster for the Ukranian people. Not only did the Ukranian peasantry resist collectivization, but there was a strong Ukranian national spirit, especially in the western Ukraine. Stalin was determined to both bring agicultural under central control, but to crush Ukrainian nationalism at the same time. Stalin not only used the famine to crush the spirit of the Ukranian peole, but he also purged the Ukrainian intelligentsia. Stalin even purged the Ukrainian Communist party. At the cost of millions of lives, many of them children, the famine succeedded in breaking any organized redsistance on the part of the peasantry to collectivization. Stalin's purges also succeeded in smashing the Ukranian national movement. Stalin's actions in the Ukraine were not without costs beyond the deaths of Ukranians. Agricultural production plummeted. Soviet agricultural became one of the most inefficent agricultural operations in the world. Stalin bought Ukranian agricultural under his control through collectivization, he also signicantly reduced the output of Soviet agriculture.

Great Terror (1934-38)

Stalin organized a series of show trials in which priminent officials and military officers were forced to admit to ludicrous accounts of treason. Soviet citizens were encouraged to denounce their neigbors. Many did in an effort to improve their chances of survival. Stalin consolidated his personal power by eliminating opponents, suppressing any vestige of independent thought. A biographer reports that Stalin ruled by the Big Lie "not only by terror but also by falsification". Stalin used torture to extract false confessions creating what has become known as the Great Terror. [Conquest] Stlalin turned the Soviet Union into a police state in which Soviet citizens lacked even the most basic civil liberties. Workers were completely at the disposition of the state. Stalin ordered purges in which millios lost their jobs, homes, freedom, and often their lives. Most important Blosheviks that had led the Revolution were arrested and show trails organized in which the tortured defendents confessed to traechery and traeason (1936-38). Most were executed. Only a few Bolsehevik leaders, men like Molotov who were close to Stalin, survived. But the FGreat Terror went far beyond individuals. The Politbiuro to gain Stalin's favor ordered Yezhov to launch 'mass operations' to round up recidivist criminals, remaining kulaks, and other 'anti-Soviet elements' (July 3, 1937). Those arrsted were judged by three-person tribunals. Yezhov established quotas in each district setting the number of people arrests. NKVD units in an effirt to show their effectiveness and hopefully earn promotions vied in exceeding these quotas. Yezhov's initial quota was 177,500 exiled and 72,950 executed. The NKVD subsrabyially exceeeded these quotas. One observer writes, "What had begun as bloody retribution against the defeated political opposition developed as a self-induced pathology within the body politic. Its psychic consequences among the survivors were long-lasting and incalculable."

Gulag Deaths

World War II POWs (1939-45)

Barbarossa Prisoner Executions (1941)

Ethnic Cleanings (1939-41)

World War II Ethnic Punishments (1941-45)

Jewish Action (1953)


Holquist, Peter. "Conduct merciless mass terror": decossackization on the Don, 1919"

Rayfield, Donald. Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him (Random House, 2004).

Yakovlev, Alexander Nikolaevich. A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia (Yale University Press: 2002). ).


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Created: 8:49 PM 6/17/2014
Last updated: 8:50 PM 6/17/2014