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Suspending the Terror

Gulag labour camp, barracks, perekovka
Gulag barracks

At the rate the arrests were going on, it would not be long before the country broke down. The Party would be undermined - no one would believe it - unless the mass arrests came to an end.

Yezhov's power was reduced. Lavrenty Beria became his deputy and took over from Yezhov in November 1938. He announced a full review of the arrests in Yezhov's reign. By 1940, 1.5 million cases had been reviewed; 450,000 convictions had been quashed, 128,000 cases closed, 30,000 people released from jail, and 327,000 people let out of the Gulag's labour camps and colonies.

Stalin with Beria
Stalin with Beria (right)

These releases restored many people's faith in Soviet justice. They allowed those with doubts to explain the 'Yezhov terror' (Yezhovshchina) as a temporary aberration rather than as a product of the system. The mass arrests had all been Yezhov's doing, but Stalin had corrected his mistakes, and uncovered Yezhov as an 'enemy of the people' who had tried to undermine the Soviet government by arresting so many innocent people and thus spreading discontent.

In February 1940, Yezhov was convicted of a terrorist conspiracy and shot in a special building near the Lubianka which he himself had built for shooting 'enemies'. It was a fitting end.

The effect of Beria's review was not just to restore belief in Soviet justice. It reinforced the conviction that anybody who was not released by Beria, or was arrested after his appointment, must be guilty of the crimes for which they were arrested. The belief system was thus stabilized, allowing Terror to carry on.

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