The Great Purge or the Great Terror was a campaign of political repression in the Soviet Union which occurred from 1937 to 1938. It has been estimated that between 200,000 to 600,000 people died at the hands of the Soviet government during the Purge. In the Western world, Robert Conquest's book “The Great Terror” (1968) popularized that phrase. Conquest's title was in turn an allusion to the period called the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution.
The NKVD regulations that provided the foundation for the “Great Terror” were clearly in line with the methodology laid down by Stalin. Operation instructions and directives in Soviet security bodies outlined social and national groups that were to be isolated or physically eliminated.
Despite general instructions, mass operations in the Ukrainian SSR were special in that they were ethnically oriented. Charges of “Ukrainian chauvinism”, “nationalistic deviations”, sympathy for the “national counterrevolution” became the universal labels Cheka officers attached to innocent people as they invented criminal cases. It was not accidental that in his speech at the “congress of winners” (the 27th Communist Party congress) in 1934, Stalin emphasised the need to step up the struggle against Ukrainian nationalism as the main threat to the republic.
The 2 July 1937 Soviet Politburo decision “On Anti-Soviet Elements” started the “Great Terror” in the form of large-scale operations in the USSR. It sanctioned repressions against “kulaks” who had returned from exile and criminal delinquents. The “kulak operation” was launched under NKVD operation order 00447 and was one of the biggest components of the “Great Terror”. It further “purged” Ukraine after collectivisation and the 1932-33 Holodomor had already decimated the population.
The results of the “Great Terror” are hard to put in numbers. According to the Memorial society, in November 1936 through November 1938, at least 1.71 million people were arrested in cases opened by the NKVD, 1.44 million were convicted and 724,000 were shot. Additionally, “police troikas” convicted around 400,000 citizens as “socially harmful elements”. Moreover, 200,000 people were deported and no less than two million were convicted by courts under various articles of the criminal code, including 800,000 who were sent to the GULAG. In Ukraine, 198,918 people fell victim to Stalin’s terror in 1937-38, including 123,421 (62 per cent) who were shot. In analysing these horrible statistics, it should be kept in mind that every figure signifies not just one individual but an entire family.
In Kyiv those tragic events are annually observed in the horrible Bykivnia Forest, the place of last repose of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, Jews, people of other ethnic groups who were condemned to death by the tyrannical Stalinist government, often in retaliation for their desire to think like free individuals. In the 1930s-1940s, Ukraine was inflicted heavy losses. The Stalinist repressive machine destroyed all who attempted to resist it. Anyone — a peasant, intellectual, schoolteacher, engineer, worker or scientist — could fall prey to it… It was a time of disillusionment, despair, and hopelessness. Our memory and prayers must become the best homage to those who died, just as we must take daily care of the people who survived those horrible years… May our joint memories become a guarantee that such tragedies will never happen again.
It is surely a telling sign that monuments and posters of Joseph Stalin, one of the bloodiest dictators of the twentieth century, the main instigator of the bloodiest political repressions, should be emerging in Russian-occupied Crimea and areas of Donbas under Kremlin-backed militant control.