30 July 2022
by Aleksandr Podrabinek
Eighty-five years ago, on 30 July 1937, the People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs of the USSR, Nikolai Yezhov, signed Operational Order No. 00447 ‘On the operation to punish former kulaks, criminals and other anti-Soviet elements.’ This NKVD order was top secret and was not published anywhere at the time.
The special operation to exterminate people began, a week after the order had been given, on 5 August 1937. It lasted 15 months until 16 November 1938. During that time, minimum estimates indicate about 1.7 million people were arrested, 390,000 people were shot and 380,000 people were sent to camps.
What were those arrested accused of? Nothing specific. The unsubstantiated charges asserted that the persons concerned ‘continue to conduct active anti-Soviet subversive activity.’ The NKVD, top party leaders and personally comrade Stalin needed some explanation for the mass repressions, even if this had no basis in fact whatsoever. Just as today’s FSB and Comrade Putin personally need some kind of justification, no matter how absurd, for the war and have declared that Nazis rule in Ukraine.
There is nothing new in this. The perpetrators of mass atrocities need a justification that makes them appear, at least in their own eyes, as saviours rather than murderers. At home with their families and loved ones, they explain to their children they are simply doing their job. Yes, it’s dirty and hard work, but someone has to do it. Otherwise the world bourgeoisie, NATO, Jews, gays, the ‘fifth column,’ or whoever else will seize hold of the country.
NEITHER RETRIBUTION NOR PUNISHMENT
The special operation of 1937-1938 was prepared with great care. Its future victims were identified: former kulaks who had escaped from camps and labour settlements and were hiding from dekulakisation; socially dangerous elements of insurgents, fascists, terrorists and bandits; members of anti-Soviet parties, hiding from repression having escaped from places of detention and returned emigrants who were actively conducting anti-Soviet activities; members of Cossack and White Guard organizations; the most active anti-Soviet elements from among former kulaks, ex-tsarist officials, bandits, whites, sectarian activists and clerics; criminals, whose cases have not yet been examined by judicial bodies’ and those engaging in criminal activities in camps and labour settlements.
Almost any citizen of the country could be included in the above categories. The number of those to be arrested was agreed upon and checked out in advance. Classes of punishment were also predetermined in advance: ‘the most hostile’ were shot, the rest were sent to camps and exile for 8-10 years. Special on-site courts, ‘troikas,’ were organized all over the country, each with a representative of the NKVD, a party official and a prosecutor. Verdicts were handed down in absentia.
How much time and effort does it take to open the gates of hell? In 1937 the authorities gave themselves five days. The chief element in this was that those executing the policy were allowed to disregard the laws and forget about judicial procedure. The government allowed its oprichniks to spill the blood of their own citizens without fear of retribution or punishment under the law.
Today, the direct heirs of that regime issue the same draconian orders dressed in the form of laws. Most importantly, they allow investigators, judges, police officers and prison staff to destroy people’s lives and torment innocent people. The regime allows soldiers and mercenaries to kill, torture, and pillage in foreign countries, promising them not punishment but government awards for these crimes. And while such people are hardly the majority, their deeds are becoming a hallmark of modern Russia. Just as the mass repressions of 1937 became the hallmark of Stalinism.
Translated by Simon Cosgrove