On July 30, 1937 the head of Soviet secret police Nikolai Ezhov signed the order that started a mass punitive operation against their own citizens.
Having been lucky enough to grow up in the age of changes in the former Soviet Union, I remember the annoyed remarks of my high school teacher when she noticed a mention of political repressions in my essay. Today, the term “Great Purge” or “Great Terror” to describe a campaign of political repression in the Soviet Union in 1936–1938 is familiar not only to historians, it has also become an important event in the collective memory of the Soviet past. When people think of the Great Purge, many of them have in mind the notorious show trials against former Communist Party, Soviet, and military leaders with their monstrous accusations and even more monstrous confessions, which led us to guess about the torture and humiliation that brought about those confessions.
At the same time, the Party and Soviet elite constituted only a small fraction of the 400,000 executed and the further 400,000 imprisoned in concentration camps in 1937–1938. Most of the victims did not hold any significant official position. For witnesses, the arrests often seemed random, illogical. The choice of victims contradicted a common idea of criminals, even in its ideologized version. However, there was some logic that was defined by the NKVD (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, or the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) order #00447 of July 30, 1937. The “operation” to implement the order began on August 5, 1937 and was supposed to last for four months, but was later extended up to November 1938. The first two zeros in the number pointed to its top secret status, which was declassified and published in a Russian newspaper at the first time only in 1992.
The mass punitive operation was launched by Stalin’s letter of July 3, 1937 and was approved by Politburo TskK VKP(b) (the executive committee of the Bolshevik party and in fact the highest government authority in the USSR) on July 31, 1937. A title of the order “On the repression of former kulaks, criminals, and other anti-Soviet elements” gave an unofficial name to the campaign – the “kulak operation”. However, besides former “kulaks”—relatively better-off peasants, most of whom were deprived of their property and deported to northern and eastern regions in 1929–1933—the order also targeted a huge range of supposed enemies: former members of non-Bolshevik parties and organizations; former and current clergy and other religious figures; those who had been policemen, military officers, officials, etc., before the October Revolution or who had fought against Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War; returning emigrants; certain groups of criminals, and others. In fact, the very loosely interpreted term “anti-Soviet elements” and an extremely simplified and speedy investigation and trial procedure meant the order could be applied to practically anyone. Depending on the prescribed sentence, the order established two categories: the first, “the most hostile elements”, was subject to death by shooting; the others, the second category, were to be imprisoned in Soviet concentration camps and prisons. The order also established a quota for each region by category, indicating that the Soviet leadership considered its victims as potential rather than actual sources of resistance and that the operation was preventive and intimidatory. It also meant that the Soviet police was not expected to provide real and convincing evidence. Eventually, regional authorities and police would significantly exceed the initial quotas.
The order provided extraordinary powers to the Soviet police. People were to be arrested according to lists, which already defined the category and therefore the fate of the victims, and which had been composed by local police officials and signed by regional NKVD office chiefs, Party or Soviet regional leaders. After “speedy and simplified” interrogations, “troikas” (committees consisting of three members) performed the so-called trials without the accused, attorneys, and sometimes even the prosecutors present.
The USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive (VHA) contains a number of testimonies where interviewees, who lived before World War II in the Soviet Union, reflect on events related to NKVD order # 00447 and the “anti-kulak operation” that followed. While historians mainly rely on NKVD, party, and Soviet archival sources and especially interrogation files to study those events, testimonies represent several important aspects not reflected in official documents. Testimonies represent another viewpoint. It does not mean that testimonies give us completely different accounts or that those accounts are more reliable, but they are important to produce more comprehensive knowledge about those events.
While the order included former and current members of all non-Bolshevik parties and organizations, some of those organizations are still underrepresented in contemporary research literature. Among them are Zionist and other Jewish organizations, which became a target of repression in 1937–1938 along with other “nationalist” groups, including former Ukrainian armies and military groups, who participated in pogroms during the Russian Civil War. The VHA interviews is an important source on this topic. Even though in most cases accusations of Zionism were trumped up and based on such “evidence” as teaching Yiddish or singing Jewish songs, there are some accounts of former members of Zionist organizations arrested within the NKVD order # 00447. For example, Feiga El’kanovich (interview # 22110) speaks of her parents who joined a Socialist Zionist party in 1921. In 1926, her father, Isaak El’kanovich, was arrested and spent five years in exile in Siberia. People like Feiga’s father were a first target of the order, and in October 1937 he was arrested again and executed. Soon after, Feiga’s mother, Evgeniia Shenzon, was also arrested and sent to a concentration camp.
Testimonies demonstrate the degree of awareness about repression and its perception at the time. Many interviewees discuss why people were arrested. Usually, it is difficult to separate interviewees’ attitudes toward those events at the moment when they happened from their current opinions influenced by later accounts and their contemporary level of knowledge, but it is definitely an interesting problem to be further researched.
Most interviewees who had personal experience of the “anti-kulak operation” were the children of its victims, and they share stories of how family members tried to contact their loved ones in a prison, during deportation, or in a concentration camp and find out their fate. Many of those stories are vivid illustrations of experiences described in the poem Requiem by Anna Akhmatova and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel The GULAG Archipelago. Parents’ arrests had a particularly dramatic impact on the life of interviewees. Above, you will find excerpts from two compelling stories of Evgeniia Fizdel and Elena Zavadskaia.
 Trud. Jun. 4, 1992.