The Great Terror, 1937-1938 | Russia's Necropolis of Terror and the Gulag

The Great Terror, 1937-1938

Between August 1937 and November 1938 over one and a half million persons were arrested throughout the USSR. Half (800,000) were sentenced to death; the other half faced years of forced labour in the Gulag. Some cases were dealt with by the courts. Most came before extra-judicial bodies – the regional troika or the dvoika (“two-member commission”) in Moscow – where the accused was swiftly judged in his / her absence and without representation. A detailed chronology of the Great Terror in one republic, Karelia, gives a sense of this alarming and accelerating campaign of terror.

The following text is adapted from the 2009 article by Nicolas Werth “Les crimes de masse sous Staline, 1930-1953”.

The numbers arrested, shot and sent to the camps have been adjusted in accordance with Krivenko & Prudovsky, “The national operations of the NKVD during the Great Terror” (April 2021). In addition to the four ‘national’ operations described below there were also campaigns to arrest Greeks, Rumanians, Finns, Estonians, Iranians, Afghans and “others”  who were linked, supposedly, to hostile nationalities and neighbours: these account for a further 219,333 arrests and 46,367 executions.

JC, December 2021

See also The Burial Grounds of the Great Terror.

25 July 1937: NKVD Secret Order No 00439

“The German Operation”

The stated purpose was to eliminate “German agents and spies,” especially “those who infiltrated military factories.” In reality, the operation was aimed at Soviet citizens of German origin, German emigrants (including communist emigrants), as well as anybody who might have had professional or personal ties with Germany, a country considered as particularly hostile to the USSR.

In the sixteen months of the “German operation”, 56,747 people were arrested, 41,898 sentenced to death and 12,283 sent to the camps, most for ten years (Table 3, Krivenko & Prudovsky, 2021).

30 July 1937: NKVD Secret Order No 00447

“On repressive measures against ex-kulaks, criminals and other counter-revolutionary elements”

The purpose of the ‘kulak’ operation was “to eradicate once and for all” (Yezhov’s own words in the Preamble to Order No 00447) a broad range of the regime’s “traditional” enemies: in particular, “ex-kulaks returned after completing their sentences or after escaping deportation,” “recidivists,” “former members of non-Bolshevik parties,” “former czarist officials or gendarmes,” “anti-Soviet elements among White, Cossack or clerical groups,” as well as “sectarians or clergymen engaging in anti-Soviet activities.”

Quotas of individuals to be shot or sent to labour camp for ten years were attributed to each region, amounting to a total of 76,000 “1st category arrests” (death penalty) and 193,000 “2nd category arrests” (ten years in the camps). However, regional Party and NKVD officials kept asking Moscow for more and more “supplements,” with the result that the “initial objectives” doubled for “2nd category individuals to repress” (arrests) and increased fivefold for “1st category individuals to repress” (executions) during the operation, which lasted sixteen months instead of the initially planned four months. See the Great Terror in Karelia for a month by month illustration of these rising quotas.

Research by the late Arseny Roginsky indicates that 704,248 people were arrested as part of the “kulak operation” in Russia (831,892 in the USSR), of whom 319,533 were shot (USSR, 443,220) and 265,773 (USSR 388,672) sent to the camps, see Appendix 1, Krivenko & Prudovsky (April 2021).

11 August 1937: NKVD Secret Order No 00485

“The Polish Operation”

Supposedly aimed at eliminating agents of a mythical “Polish military Organization” allegedly engaged in “espionage and sabotage activities” in the USSR, in reality this operation was particularly aimed at Soviet citizens of Polish origin, Polish emigrants (including communist emigrants) as well as anybody who might have had professional or personal ties or might have simply lived in geographical proximity (inhabitants of border regions were particularly vulnerable) with Poland, a country considered as particularly hostile to the USSR.

In the sixteen months of the “Polish Operation”, 143,810 people were arrested; 111,071 were shot and 28,344 were sent to the camps (Table 3, Krivenko & Prudovsky, 2021).

15 August 1937: NKVD Secret Order No 00486

“Repressive measures against the Wives of Traitors to the Fatherland; providing for their Children”

Among the many “mass operations” of the ” Great Terror,” this particular campaign drew much attention for targeting not only individuals suspected of “counter-revolutionary crimes”, but also their family members. As of 1935 the collective responsibility principle had already been applied: to family members during the “dekulakization” operation of expropriation and deportation action; when certain social groups were expelled from “special regime” cities; and during the deportation of border region minorities. An additional step was taken in August 1937, however, when the principle of collective responsibility was applied to certain categories of people who had been condemned by a special jurisdiction. In total, almost 40,000 “wives” were arrested and condemned, while 20,000 children of “repressed parents” were placed in orphanages.

20 September 1937: NKVD Secret Order No 00593

“Repressive measures against former Chinese Eastern Railway staff and employees”

This third “national operation” was aimed at another group suspected of maintaining ties with a foreign enemy power, Japan. The suspected “Harbinites” were ex-employees and railway attendants of the Chinese Eastern Railway Company, based in Harbin. Repatriated to the USSR as Soviet citizens, after the surrender of the railway to the Japanese, they were now accused of “terrorist and diversionist activities, financed by the Japanese secret service.”

During this operation, a total of 49,470 people were arrested, of whom 31,226 were shot and 15,637 sent to the camps (Table 3, Krivenko & Prudovsky, 2021).

30 November 1937: Secret NKVD Circular No 49990

“The Latvian Operation”

This fourth “national operation” was aimed at Soviet citizens of Latvian origin and Latvian emigrants (even the political emigrants) who were accused of espionage on behalf of Latvia, a State considered as hostile to the USSR. During this operation, which lasted from December 1937 to November 1938, 22,353 people were arrested, 16,575 were shot and 4,672 sent to the camps (Table 3, Krivenko & Prudovsky, 2021).


“Because of the extreme diversity of those who fell victim to the Great Terror (1937-1938) in the Soviet Union,” concludes Nicolas Werth, “this crime is difficult to characterize. It remains in a class of its own.”

Over a period of 16 months 800,000 people were executed with a shot to the head, after a parody of justice. On average there were 50,000 executions a month, or 1,700 a day for almost 500 days.

The Great Terror, 1937-1938