From what we now know of Stalin, he seemed to have believed in the basics of Marxist-Leninism. As a communist, didn't he fear that killing his own military's leadership would seriously endanger the world's only socialist experiment against capitalist rivals? 1936 moreover was several years after the rise of Hitler. Didn't Stalin realize an escalation of political tensions was going to lead to war soon? There is every indication that Stalin was a ruthless, cruel man. He also displayed moments of great opportunism and caution during his rise to political power throughout the 1930s and his later conduct during the war, after 1942. What motivation beyond paranoia led to the purges, which seems like such a self-evident detrimental policy?

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    There is every indication that Stalin was pretty aware of the upcoming conflict. In 1929 Stalin started the Industrialization in order to prepare to war. In the interwar period the USSR had enough enemies even without Hitler, the most outstanding were Poland and Japan.
    – d.k
    Jan 9, 2016 at 22:03
  • Rezun-Suvorov once wrote a book which I can recommend only as a compilation of facts about the "soviet military" before the Purge. The book is "Cleansing", sorry I don't know whether English translation is available.
    – d.k
    Jan 9, 2016 at 22:06
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    Are you going to substantiate that ridiculous claim?
    – Ne Mo
    Jan 10, 2016 at 13:16
  • 4
    I'm quite surprised nobody talked about historical precedences. Stalin knew perfectly well that the main challange to the power of the absolute ruler came from within armed forces, and usually someone who's gloried from battle (see ... well pretty much entire history of Rome :) So, removing the head of officer corps who earned military glory seems like an extremely logical step to prevent any challenges.
    – DVK
    Jan 10, 2016 at 18:31
  • 10
    @user907860 - It's not about military talent, it's about being famous and having followers. Tukhachevsky had both. Perception is far more important than reality in politics (If Stalin needed to eliminate the most competent brass, he definitely wouldn't have left Zhukov and some of the others alive)
    – DVK
    Jan 10, 2016 at 20:17

9 Answers 9


It is impossible to tell for sure what was inside Stalin's brain. Historians can only speculate on this. I can outline some principal opinions stated in the process of this speculation:

a) Stalin's primary goal was to consolidate his absolute power. Not only to remove any real, or potential or imaginary opposition, but to make sure that everyone was scared to death, and would blindly obey his orders whatever happened. Essentially he achieved this goal; and he won the war, after all. (Whether he won it by a narrow margin or not, is a subject of another speculation).

b) It is not only clear that he knew about the approaching war, but he planned for it, and wanted it. This can be confirmed by his recorded statements, the whole scale of preparations and by his support of Hitler on various stages of his career.

c) It is equally open to speculation whether any of those who were repressed were indeed traitors, or whether they were well-qualified to win the approaching war. In any case, the scale of the purges is well-known, it is clear that most of those prosecuted were neither traitors, nor inferior officers in comparison with those who took their place.

d) That he was simply a paranoic.

But there is really no way to tell for sure what was in his mind.


It is worth noting that in 1917, in the midst of The Great War (as it was then commonly known) both the French and Russian armies mutinied. That the French mutiny ultimately amounted to little was in no small measure due to both a massive assault by British forces (the Battle of Passchendaele) that occupied German forces on the Western Front, and a declaration of War by the U.S.

However the Russian Amy mutiny led ultimately to the formation of the communist government in Russia that Stalin led. With a repeat conflict against Germany on the horizon in 1936, it is likely that Stalin wanted to so terrorize and cow the officers of the army that none daring enough to organize any such mutiny again would be left . Despite the fact that the Soviet army in 1941 and 1942 was much less successful against the Germans than the Russian Army had been in 1914-1916, no threat of such a mutiny ever materialized during the Second World War.

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    Yes, he made absolutely necessary steps - for his own power sake.
    – Gangnus
    Jan 10, 2016 at 2:29
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    "it is likely that Stalin wanted to so terrorize and cow the officers of the army that none daring enough to organize any such mutiny again would be left ". Usually, mutinies aren't organized by officers, but by soldiers.
    – MasB
    Jan 10, 2016 at 15:29
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    The mutinies in the French army in 1916-1917 were certainly not organized by officers.
    – MasB
    Jan 10, 2016 at 15:32
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    I've got to disagree on several points. First, mutiny in 1917 was organized by soldiers, not by officers, as Bernard pointed out. Second, there were massive defections in Red Army in 1941-42, most famously 120,000-strong army led by Vlasov. Third, the purge actually increased the chances of massive defection because experienced officers were replaced by spineless cowards. Fourth, as explained in other answers, Stalin cared more about his absolute power than anything that would happen to Russia.
    – Michael
    Jan 13, 2016 at 17:07
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    @Michael 120,000 strong army of Vlasov wasn't a single large defection, though. It was formed using mostly volunteers from the numbers of PoWs, and it could be argued that given the attrition rates that Soviet PoWs in Germany faced, the reason was less of a hatred for USSR and more of an attempt to get out of concentration camps. According to the wiki article you linked, while these units were deployed in the East, they often mutinied and/or re-defected to the USSR. I am not aware of any defections that could be classified as "massive", i.e. not individuals but whole units. Oct 25, 2017 at 5:47

Stalin developed Lenin's idea of absolute value of the power to the upper limit. Never was he interested in effectiveness for the sake of Russia or even "The Revolution". His only aim was his own power. He had annihilated the lead economists of the USSR, set by Lenin, because they were not his people. He annihilated millions of farmers because his way to annihilate his political competitors needed it.

The army officers were the last people in the USSR who had their own authority independent on Stalin. (Personally they were dependent on him, but their fame already existed and couldn't be cancelled without destroying these officers). Stalin had to bring EXCUSES to the Tukhachevsky pair for years before, agreeing with his views. These people had to die, when it became possible!

Almost all high officers were killed. On the territorial army groups level, for example, EVERY commander was killed.

So, all talk about somebody's treason, or ineffectiveness were pure nonsense. ALL the generals couldn't have been spies. If they were fools, changing them for the arbitrary lower officers doesn't give cleverer men. And talk about Darwin methods is absurd, too. For example, the general, that almost lost the Finnish war, Mesherjakov, got the upper position after the war, and his opponents, on the contrary, went down.

The normal, qualified officers were a constant and real danger to his personal power. For example, if they were left on their positions, then on the start of WWII in USSR, after the terrible losts of the start of the war, they would SURELY change Stalin for another leader. So, he had his reasons.

  • 1
    I disagree, Stephen Kotkins book "Stalin: Paradoxes of Power", shows that Stalin was very much into his progressive agenda. Even in his private conversation he was discussing proletariat and progressive goals.
    – user25367
    Jun 27, 2017 at 5:49
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    @Tlen To evaluate people, expecially politicians, according to what they say - what can be more erroneous? Sorry, your message cannot be an argument, even if it is true.
    – Gangnus
    Jun 27, 2017 at 6:55
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    @Tlen If you consider communism as progressive, I would like to know what exactly sort of communism do you mean: war communism of Civil war in Russia (5-10 mln of victims), Stalin's kolhoz system (10-20 mln of victims), Mao Cultural Revolution (?), PolPot in Cambodja (1/3 of population). Nowadays in Russian there appeared several interesting modern communist writers (Kulakov &Co), they openly say that 90% of population should be killed and that operation must be regularly repeated. Please, what percent of population should they annihilate to become the most progressive?
    – Gangnus
    Jun 27, 2017 at 7:52
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    @Tlen Communism is simply a fallacy that does not work in dynamical society. And any attempt to realize it in real life will necessarily lead to mass murders. As it was realized many ties in past, in Ancient Egypt, Mezopotamia, China - And it worked then!... In Mazdak's Persia in 6th Cent ("ground, slaves and women should belong to everybody!") it already failed.... It is not progressive, on the contrary, it is extremely regressive.
    – Gangnus
    Jun 27, 2017 at 7:58
  • 1
    @Tlen Sorry, I totally disagree. Progress means reforms towards NEW structures and principles. The mentioned guys reformed the society towards one of the most ancient society structures if not the most ancient.
    – Gangnus
    Jun 28, 2017 at 7:36

You need to read the BEST book on the Great Purges, including the purge of the army, written by Robert Conquest, called The Great Terror, a reassessment.

Essentially, Stalin killed off all political socialist rivals within the Communist party and millions of others, including all of the old respected communist guard from the revolution itself, so he could have absolute power. It made NO economic or military sense, but it made political sense so far as it made him absolute dictator.

He did this to his own party through false trials and executions entirely based on tortured confessions. This spread down through the party ranks until the entire communist party was terrorized. Millions were murdered during his purges. He attacked anyone with a power base outside of his control, first, within the country (the attacks on the kulaks and the forced starvation of the Ukraine, then within the communist party itself, then his attack on the army, again, killing tens of thousands of officers. He finished it off by murdering the Secret Police (the NKVD) themselves by the tens of thousands at the end, to kill off witnesses. Often he killed off the best brains, even people in the Census Bureau were murdered for producing populations numbers that were too low! (due to his killings)

You should also read Anne Applebaum's fine book, Gulag: A History.

  • 1
    Welcome to the site. History.SE is a Q&A site, not a forum, so make sure to include a clear answer to the original question in your post. While background information and book recommendations are good, a clearly written answer (which may refer to or link to external resources) is even better.
    – Gwen
    Jan 10, 2016 at 21:55
  • 1
    Your book is obvious repetition of the Chrushev's version of history - written by a gang of killers, defending themselves by putting all on their leader. Respected communist guards? They were absolutely same murderers. Simply Stalin happened to be cleverer and won over them. Their winning would result in even more victims, due to less intelligence with same lack of morals. They were all communists who killed these tens of millions of people. Stalin killed no one personally...
    – Gangnus
    Jan 12, 2016 at 8:12
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    @Gangnus The old communist guard was the elite of the new regime. Whether they were objectively good people or criminals (or rather in what proportion within the group and each individual) is a debatable question but it has no bearing on the understanding of Stalin's purges. Stalin killed them because they were the new elite, not because of what they had done to become it. Jun 27, 2017 at 6:12
  • @FelixGoldberg Yes, Stalin was a crazy murderer. But the public of the type of Tukhachevsky, the most renown marshal these days, who won over only peasants around Tambov, with the use of gases, were even more crazy murderers. Yes, Stalin should be judged, but not from THEIR point of view. A bandit is not bandit because he killed some of his gang, but because he killed much more normal people. Stalin killed tens of millions. And on that background I do not consider moral to weep over several thousands of same killers.
    – Gangnus
    Jun 27, 2017 at 6:51

Stalin, or any other Soviet leaders, did not "believe in the basics of Marxist-Leninism". For all of them, including Lenin, the ideology of Marxism was a pretext for acquiring power, a fairy tale for the masses to convince them to support you. Stalin even introduced slavery and servitude (under different names of course) under the guise of "socialism"!

IMO the only two major reasons for the massive purges 1936-38, from Stalin's viewpoint, were consolidation of absolute power and producing a slave population for the massive Gulag project. You can kind of measure which of the reasons was dominating by looking at the percentage of prisoners executed versus sentenced to hard labor camps.

In case of military purges, I think consolidation of power was the primary reason. One can find quite a few documents where Stalin amends massive arrest orders to increase the percentage of prisoners to be executed versus sent to labor camps. Here's one in Stalin's own handwriting where he approves the execution of 46 generals on a single page.

  • 1
    I wouldn't dismiss so summarily the influence of ideology. That would be Vulgar Marxism, btw... ;) Jun 27, 2017 at 6:13
  • I fully agree with your ideas, only I woiuld like to notice an error in your examples: Great Purge 36-38 was not targeted against masses, they were enslaved earlier, in 29-33 years. Then more than 10 millions perished. The Great Purge was not really so great. But it was declared such by other nomenclature members and middle level communists and special services people, because it was organized against them. Pure struggle for absolute power it was. Of course, a pair of hundred thousands of people got into that massacre accidentally, but that was simply the style of work.
    – Gangnus
    Jun 27, 2017 at 7:01

The Great Purge in the USSR already in the 1930s became known as Yezhovshchina.

The main drive behind the purge in the military, and followed Great Terror of 1937 was newly-appointed (September, 1936) Commissar of the Internal Affairs Nikolay Yezhov.

It is quite conceivable that he initially convinced Stalin that there were some serious conspiracies in the military.

But less than a year after the start of the purge it seems the Politburo of Central Committee started changing the attitude.

On July 31, 1937 there was issued a directive by the Central Committee to appoint all the purged officers who were fired even on political charges on economic positions.

...And dispite this the NKVD (Commissariat of Internal Affairs, Yezhov) continued to issue repressive orders (August, 11).

On October 17, 1937 there is a directive by Commissariat of Defense, forbidding firing officers and demanding on any suspensions on political charges to consult with the Commissariat of Defense.

In January, 1938 was conducted a Plenum of Central Committe which issued a directive "About the mistakes of the party organizations regarding expulsions of Communists from the party and about the formal and bureaucratic attitude towards appeals of those excluded from the party and fixing those flaws"

January 20, 1938. A directive by Schadenko, ordering to re-consider all fire orders for the whole 1937 and restore all wrongly fired from the Red Army.

November 17, 1938. A joint directive by Stalin and Molotov "About arrests, prosecutor's oversight and conducting the investigations" which effectively put an end to the purge and contained a lot of criticism of those repressions and methods involved, hinting that there were enemies in the NKVD body itself.

Yezhov was appointed the Commissar of the Water Transport in April, received a deputy Beria in August (who effectively took all affairs) and was fired from his Commissar of Internal Affairs position in November.

The majority of those executed during Stalin's rule (about 800 thousand) fall on 1937.

So, it was Stalin, not Khrushchev who started to uncover and criticize the extensive repressions in the USSR. Khrushchev did not invent anything except blaming also Stalin.

We can see that starting from July, 1937 the Central Committee (Stalin's body) started to resist the purges conducted by NKVD.

  • 3
    You never tire of trying to whitewash Stalin, do you? Jun 27, 2017 at 6:14


Trying to describe this purge in terms of Marxism-Leninism: Bolsheviks knew history of French revolution and were scared by possible military coup of "Red Bonoparte". So, Bolshevik revolution, following this role model, should be finished by self-destruction of their party and termidorian coup d'etat. Trotsky, as head of Red Army, was considered as candidate to Bonoparte, in 1920s. For a while, Frunze was considered so, and after his death - it's apparently Tukhachevsky. I can repeat - it did'nt matter at all, were they REALLY going to became bonopartes, they considered as POTENTIAL candidates, it was a phobia. Trotsky himself considered (since 1933) Stalin's rise to power as termidorian coup. First candidate to bonoparte was, apparently, Muravyov (killed at 1918 during his riot).

The reason is very clear. The Red Army was founded by Leon Trotsky and power struggle inside Communist Party at 1920s shows very clearly that lots of high rank military are still loyal to Trotsky (and even more: at winter of 1924-25 Moscow had rumors that Trotsky is going to make a military coup). So, as a part of total paranoia of that years, military were under suspicion.

In general, Stalin realized very well, that war is coming, and prepared very actively (very serious improvement of military productions, at first).


To be more exact, links with Trotsky were not only reason, but one of major reasons. Other reason for suspicion in disloyalty can be, for example, former membership in some non-communist party.

In 1930s Trotsky was still very active, since 1935 trying to found IV International. Sure he was considered as clear danger.


In general, the purge of Army was a part of total hunting for POTENTIALLY disloyal members of so called "fifth column": former members of oppositions, former members of non-communist parties, former military of tzar army (Case Spring at 1930-31), people of foreign origin (considered as indoctrinated by alien ideology) etc.

  • 2
    Can you add sources for this? May 11, 2021 at 12:21
  • Russian language. stuff.mit.edu/people/fjk/Rogovin/volume5/xxiv.html
    – user49944
    May 11, 2021 at 14:33
  • I can translate. In all military units were created atmosphere of hysterical hunting for enemies of the people, at first former members of oppositions. "Во всех воинских частях была создана атмосфера истерической охоты за врагами народа, к которым в первую очередь были отнесены, разумеется, бывшие участники оппозиций."
    – user49944
    May 11, 2021 at 14:35
  • Other categories of people, subjects of total purge, were members of ethnicities with states out of USSR. 10 March 1938 Malenkov ordered to Mehlis to make lists of army communists - polishs, germans, lithuanians, estonians.... "Другой категорией лиц, подлежащих тотальной чистке, были представители национальностей, имевших государственные образования за пределами СССР. 10 марта 1938 года Маленков поручил Мехлису представить списки армейских коммунистов - поляков, немцев, латышей, эстонцев, финнов, литовцев, болгар, греков, корейцев и представителей ряда других национальностей."
    – user49944
    May 11, 2021 at 14:38
  • So, in general, links to former Trotsky opposition (real or imagined) was not only reason, I was not quite correct - links to ANY former opposition (or foreign origin).
    – user49944
    May 11, 2021 at 14:40

Leon Trotsky in 1918 was head of Red Army, so we can safely assume that many of high-level commanders were his supporters and proteges. He was also main opponent of Stalin, and Lenin named Trotsky as "most capable man" to replace him (Lenin) in Lenin's testament.

He was also brilliant public speaker and agitator (unlike Stalin), so again this could win him supporters in army.

Trotsky and Stalin had multiple disagreements during the war, where it can be argued that Stalin's mistakes and failures to cooperate with Trocky led to losses (like Battle of Warsaw see "Second Phase"). Likely, many of the purged commanders were aware of Stalin's mistakes, and had to be eliminated to cover the tracks.

Lenin died 1923, Stalin-Bukharin faction blocked Testament's publication during 1924-1927 while Stalin consolidated power.

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    Not really. Twenty years is a long time, especially since Stain had control of personnel matters since the middle 1920's. Even if Trotsky had a military clique, and I don't think he ever did, it would have been out of any position of influence by the time of the purges. -1 I am afraid Jun 27, 2017 at 6:17
  • @FelixGoldberg - 20 years in not really a long time, because Stalin has first to eliminate Trotsky, which took him a while, because Trotsky was Lenin's successor, as named in Testament. And because of timing from Lenin's death, it was bit more than 10 years. Jan 17, 2018 at 20:32

There was no "great" purge. This is propaganda. 40 thousand were dismissed from the Red Army. I said "fired", but not destroyed. Some of the dismissed are pensioners. Old farts without qualifications and education. Some of the dismissed are alcoholics and loafers. Some of the dismissed were arrested. These are bandits, thieves. A simple example: in the early 30's ready often after drinking, the officers started to shoot each other. Are these innocent victims of Stalin? I beg of you! Some of the dismissed were innocent. For example, Rokosovsky. But he was not shot or destroyed. Moreover, the "bloody devourer of babies" Beria freed Rokosovsky. Beria began a massive revision of the criminal Soviet commanders. Stalin cleared the army of small bandits and alcoholics.

In place of Stalin you would have done the same.

This book describes the beginning of the war. Part of the information about the causes of the defeat and "great purge". https://www.amazon.com/Dubno-1941-Greatest-Battle-Second/dp/1910777749/ You can search for a black cat in a black room for a long time. Especially if it's not there.


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