"Live for the moment"; this proverb took on a whole new meaning in the Soviet Union from 1936-1938. At a party, movie theater, grocery store, anywhere, lurked the possibility of unimaginable horrors. The secret police were always around and no one knew when they would be targeted. "One prisoner who survived Stalinís camps reported seeing women in prison still dressed in the tattered remnants of their luxurious evening dresses. Apparently, like so many Cinderellaís, they did not even make it home before their world disappeared in a flash." (Kort, p.187)
Stalin, a paranoid ruler, always feared that political opponents, military officials, even common citizens were plotting against his political position and even his life. Perhaps as a means of self defense or simply just madness, Stalin was responsible for killing millions. "Terror- the use of extensive, indiscriminate force- was nothing new to Bolshevism: it was built into the new Soviet order from the start. What changed was its scope...most Bolsheviks accepted it as a legitimate political weapon." (Kort, p.188) Not the first leader to use terror as a political weapon, Stalin certainly took it to a new extent. Fear and terror reached throughout all socio-economic classes. Known to periodically purge his close military and political allies, nobody felt safe from the terrible killings. Periodically, purges were done of the secret police, the NKVD, the townspeople and political opponents.
KIROV Possibly the event that set off the mass chaos was Kirovís assassination in 1934. It is now widely believed, especially by Westerners, that Stalin ordered it to rid himself of a potentially threatening political opponent. Suspected assassins of Kirov as well as many Bolshevik party members on trial for plotting to assassin Stalin were executed. This came to be known as the first show trial in August 1936. Two more show trials would follow. In each case all the accused were beaten and tortured into confessing their crimes. Virtually the only evidence of their crimes, their confessions became very important. These confessions were a farce, however they "legitimized" the executions. One startling fact of the Great Purges is that everyone confessed to their crimes; Stalinís secret police had very effective torture methods. Many of the accusedís families were also killed or tortured in order to provoke confessions.
After the last purge in March 1938, the spread of terror was out of control. The Soviet society was in danger of collapsing. "The purges literally deformed Soviet society. Since at least 80 percent of those in the camps were males, by the 1950ís the percentage of males to females of the age groups most affected by the purges was about 35 percent versus 65 percent." (Kort, p.194). Time to put an end to the chaos, Stalin officially blamed the secret police for letting things get out of hand. However, this would not be the end of the killing altogether. Concentration camps had come to play an important role in the economy and remained in existence through World War II. Also, fear had become vital to the assurance of Stalinís power. No longer a political leader, he was now a dictator come to power through fear, pain and suffering of the people. "Whatever the causes, the purges must be viewed as a counterproductive episode that weakened the Soviet state and caused incalculable suffering." (Zickel, p.71)