There is an episode of South Park were the children discover that pesky adults and their rules could be made to disappear if they utter a magic word – molestation. Soon, South Park has no adults left as they have either been arrested or have fled to avoid being denounced. It seems far-fetched, but has a disturbingly real parallel in the Soviet Union during the turmoil of Stalin’s purges.
Pavlik Morozov became a celebrated hero throughout the Soviet Union when he denounced his father to the authorities. Soon after, Pavlik was murdered and the Communist Party was given a martyr. His image and story were used to inculculate the belief that loyalty to the state came before loyalty to your family.
The purges were a brutal bloodletting that soon became so widespread that they began to consume the original instigators. Bukharin, Zinoviev and Kamenev would be denounced, accused of an improbable range of treasonous plots.
The most celebrated fall from grace, and the one most resonant with a sense of karmic justice, was that of Yagoda – the feared head of the NKVD (the USSR’s secret police and precursor to the KGB). In the Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzenizin beautifully and with barely concealed relish describes the trial of Yagoda:
“This murderer of millions simple could not imagine that his superior murderer up top would not, at the last moment, stand up for him and protect him, just as though Stalin had been sitting right there in the hall. Yagoda confidently and insistently begged him directly for mercy.
And a witness reports that at just that moment a match flared in the shadows behind a window on the second floor of the hall, apparently behind a muslin curtain and, while it lasted the outline of a pipe could be seen. In light of the oriental despot in Stalin’s character, I can readily believe that he watched the comedies in that hall with satisfaction.”
The purges combined with worst elements of the regime’s disregard for the value of human life and its obsession with plans and quotas. The NVD was given a quota to arrest at least 260,000 anti-Soviet elements. Of those arrested, the curiously precise figure of 28% were to be executed.
A conservative estimate from the NKVD itself states there were 1.6 million arrests and 600,000 executions. There were almost certainly many more. Further millions would be consigned to the brutal and callous gulag system, the majority never emerging again regardless of the length of their sentence or the nature of their alleged crimes.
The most damaging element of this for the USSR was the purge of the Red Army. Stalin feared the top brass of the Soviet military force as the only group capable of deposing him. His solution was barbarously simple – liquidate the officer class and replace them with a new, politically reliable elite. Some 15,000 officers were executed, including heroes of the revolution and the civil war and many of the USSR’s brightest and most capable military minds.
The result was a Red Army that was almost fatally weakened. In normal times this may not have been too problematic. As the dark clouds of imminent conflicts rolled over Europe, it was suicidal.