Stalin’s brutal methods and growing power were a cause of grave concern amongst at least some members of the Soviet leadership. In early 1934, at the 17th Congress of the Committee of the Communist Party, Stalin received more than 100 anonymous negative votes. This only strengthened his conviction that enemies and traitors were everywhere, plotting his downfall.

Determined to eradicate any possible threat to his position, Stalin began a purge of his own party, targeting enemies both real and perceived. More than half of the 1,996 who attended the 17th Congress had been arrested by the end of 1939. Most were executed by Stalin’s secret police, others were put to work in the labor camps of icy Siberia; few returned.

The Great Terror was not confined to party elites. Stalin intended to kill anybody who might pose a potential threat; innocence of any actual crime afforded no protection. Intellectuals, scientists, and artists were all targeted. The Red Army was by no means exempt, and thousands of its officers suspected of disloyalty were removed from their posts or executed.

The purges spread like a contagion through the ranks and society. Even the innocent would confess to crimes and name friends and acquaintances as accomplices, anything to make the torture stop. The process would then repeat itself with a new set of victims.

By the end of 1938, as the Great Terror began to wind down, more than a million people had been arrested and half a million executed. Stalin’s grip on power was assured, and all understood that the merest hint of disloyalty or criticism would be met with brutal retribution.

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