During the years 1934-1939, Soviet dictator and Communist Party General Chairman Josef Stalin ordered what later became known to history as the “Great Purge” – a period of brutal political repression, torture, imprisonment and mass murder in the Soviet Union.
Launched under the auspices of purifying the Communist Party of ideologically-unreliable elements and rooting out fifth columnists within its ranks, the purges focused initially on party leadership. However – fueled by Stalin’s paranoia – they soon expanded into the military, government bureaucracy and wider Soviet society.
Members of the intelligentsia, senior government bureaucrats (nomenklatura), professionals, land-owning farmers (kulaks), members of the military and anyone else suspected of being an enemy of the state were swept up in the wave of suspicion and mutual distrust. Suspects were typically charged with espionage, anti-Soviet agitation, counter-revolutionary activity, or the like; if no “evidence” of wrong-doing could be found, it was manufactured by the secret police – the dreaded NKVD – or obtained via “confessions” extracted under torture. Following a perfunctory hearing or trial with a pre-determined outcome, most of those charged were imprisoned in the vast Soviet system of gulags (concentration camps) or executed. At the height of the purges, in 1937-1938, an estimated 1.2 million people lost their lives.
Aware of a resurgent Germany on his western flank, and a militarized and powerful Japan on his eastern frontier, Stalin – fearful of infiltrators and fifth-columnists within the ranks – ordered Commissar of State Security Nikolai Yezhov to purge the Soviet senior officer corps. Acting under orders from Premier Stalin, who sought a pretext to move against the officer corps, the NKVD instructed agent Nikolai Skoblin to pass incriminating misinformation implicating Red Army Field MarshallMikhail Tukhachevsky, to Reinhardt Heydrich, the head of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) – the intelligence arm of the German SS-Gestapo. Heydrich arranged for the information to be planted in such a way as to implicate Tukhachevsky and a number of other top Soviet general officers.
So began the purge of the senior officer corps of the Soviet army and navy. By the time the process ended in 1939 – with war on the horizon – the military had been decimated. Three of the five Marshalls of the Soviet Army – including Tukhachevsky himself – were executed; 13 of 18 army commanders, 8 of 9 admirals, 50 of 57 army corps commanders, and 154 out of 186 division commanders were removed; some were executed, while others were imprisoned or forced into retirement and exile. Some of the survivors were later ideologically-rehabilitated and brought back into uniform, but by then, the damage had been done.