Origins of the Great Terror

Terror was central to Lenin's revolution from the start. The Bolshevik leader had always accepted the need for organized violence to establish and defend 'the dictatorship of the proletariat'. He saw it as a weapon of the civil war. All the main ideas and institutions of the Stalinist terror were developed by Lenin. According to Molotov, who worked with both men, Lenin was more severe than Stalin.

The way the Party developed under Lenin also predisposed it to the mass terror that was perpetrated in its name during the 1930s. The conspiratorial culture of the revolutionary underground made Lenin's followers receptive to the idea of 'enemy conspiracies' everywhere. It was Lenin who began the purging of the Party. His ban on factions could be used by Stalin to denounce opponents as 'enemies' and 'counter-revolutionaries'. Throughout the 1920s the Party kept itself in power through low-level repression, mass surveillance and the constant threat of violence.

There were many waves of terror in the Stalin period but the Great Terror was special. It was not just a routine wave of mass arrests but a calculated policy of mass murder.

In 1937-38, at least 1.3 million people were arrested for 'crimes against the state', and more than half of them (681,692 people) were shot. The population of the Gulag labour camps grew in these years from 1,196,369 to 1,881,570 people (a figure which excludes at least 140,000 deaths within the camps themselves). The motives for the Great Terror are not easy to explain.

Some historians have argued that it is best understood as a number of related but separate waves of terror, each one capable of being explained on its own but not as part of a single phenomenon. It is certainly true that there was a complex amalgam of different elements: the purging of the Party, the great 'show trials', the mass arrests in the cities, the 'kulak operation', and 'national operations' against minorities.

But while it may be helpful to analyse these various components separately, the fact remains that they all began and ended simultaneously, which does suggest that they were part of a unified campaign that needs to be explained.

To begin to understand it, we must look at the Great Terror, not, as some have argued, as an uncontrolled or accidental happening, a product of the chaos and infighting of the Stalinist regime, nor as something driven by social pressures from below, as argued by 'revisionist' historians, but as an operation masterminded and controlled by Stalin in response to the specific circumstances he perceived in 1937.

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