What was the significance of the international situation to the unfolding of the ‘Great Terror’?

The 1930s were an increasingly precarious time internationally for the Soviet Union. Hostility towards the regime had been commonplace in the previous decade; but the rise of the Nazis in 1933, who were outwardly and aggressively hostile to the USSR both in its anti-communism and in its pursuit of Anschluss (expansion eastwards), intensified the uncertain position of the USSR on the international stage. Japan remained a long-standing threat in the Far East with their pursuit of the Soviet land east of the Urals. 1936 was a year of significant tension, with events such as the remilitarization of the Rhineland, the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, and the signing of the “Anti-Comintern Pact” between Germany and Japan. Furthermore, the British and French never ceased in their ideological opposition to the Soviet Union, and displayed inconsistency in their foreign policy towards the Nazi regime and the Soviet regime throughout the interwar period.

1936 would also see the beginnings of the Great Terror. In June, the CPSU’s Central Committeee ‘dispatched to the localities a secret letter concerning ‘the terrorist activities of the Trotskyist-Zinovievite counterrevolutionary bloc’, on the basis of which many former oppositionists were repressed.’ The resulting Moscow show trial in August would be the first of four show trials between 1936 and 1938 against major Party figures. These trials were concurrent with mass operations against Soviet citizens by the NKVD.

But how and to what extent did these developments in the international situation influence the unfolding of the Great Terror? This essay will assess the historiography on this issue, particularly looking at key themes such as the role of ideology and the purge of the Red Army. It will be argued that, while the Soviet Union was subject to significant isolation, hostility and aggression, this threat was not the direct cause of the Terror. Soviet foreign policy was more concerned with appeasement and security. The threat of war rather served as a trigger for the elimination of real or potential opposition to the Stalinist leadership, and the international situation gave more power to the rhetoric of the regime in undermining and eliminating opposition to the Stalinist leadership.

The aim of the Great Terror

The question of the relevance of the international situation to the Great Terror has received much attention from historians. Boris Nikolaevskii, George Kennan and Robert Tucker have argued that the Stalin leadership’s ultimate aim was agreement with Nazi Germany, and thus the purges were directed at those who opposed, or could potentially oppose, this arrangement with fascist Germany. However, as Teddy Uldricks highlights, this seems unlikely not only due to the inconsistent nature of Soviet foreign policy, but also in terms of the victims of the Terror. For example, in Uldricks’ words, ‘many of the strongest proponents of the traditional Rapallo orientation [the treaty between the USSR and Germany signed in 1922] fell victim, while numerous supporters of cooperation with the Western democracies survived. In fact, since the main result of the terror was to decimate the Soviet élite and thereby weaken the USSR, the Purges made the USSR a less desirable potential ally’.

Oleg Klevniuk stresses the significance of the international situation in the Terror, claiming that ‘the influence of external forces on domestic policy, and on the policy of the terror above all else, was one of the cornerstones of the Soviet system at each stage of its existence.’ Klevniuk asserts that the Bolsheviks had prepared for war since the inception of the Soviet Union, viewing the threat of war as interconnected with the threat of losing power, not least based on how they had come to power originally in 1917. Developments in the latter half of the 1930s added immediacy to the threat, demanding decisive action.

This leads us to the position of James Harris, who highlights the USSR’s fear of ‘capitalist encirclement’. Though Harris downplays the actual severity of external threat to the USSR, suggesting that ‘Stalin’s dictatorship was stronger and more secure in the mid-1930s than it had ever been’, he argues that Lenin’s theory of imperialism led Stalin to misread the international situation. This was the theory that the growth of capitalism increases the likelihood of war due to the insatiable need to expand and find new markets, which leads to increased competition between capitalist nations. Successful socialism in the Soviet Union, by this logic, ‘constituted an immediate threat to the capitalist order, a showdown between a coalition of capitalist powers and the Soviet Union was likely.’ As a result, this belief in the inevitability of war was incorporated into the information collated by intelligence services, creating a bias and tendency to play down counter-evidence, to the extent that ‘by the 1930s, agencies were afraid to pass such counter-evidence to the leadership.’ Harris further explains how

Stalin’s intelligence reports repeatedly told him that the Poles, Germans, and Japanese were in the midst of military and diplomatic preparations for a 1935 invasion. Their plans also appeared to involve subversive activities to weaken Soviet defences and exacerbate disaffection with the regime. The Commissariat of Foreign Affairs ordered the Soviet embassies … in the Baltic states and eastern Europe to confirm reports that White Russians were being recruited … to organise sabotage … in the event of war in the Far East. Stalin received a long series of intercepted communications … on the importance of subversion to an invasion.

According to Harris, by late 1936 the Soviet leadership believed that it was under such a threat from capitalist encirclement that it had to resort to terror to rout out spies and subversives. The implication of Harris’ argument is that the Terror was caused by Stalin’s adherence to Leninist theory. This idea is complemented by the work of Silvio Pons, who stressed the role of ‘Bolshevik  ideological culture’ in presenting war as inevitable, leading Stalin to crush ‘every trace of an internal fifth column’ in order to find ‘a way out’ of war.

Yet this fails to explain foreign policy decisions made by Stalin in the build up to war––not least why he famously ignored Soviet spy Richard Sorge’s detailed warning on Germany’s plans to invade the USSR. Surely these warnings should have confirmed his supposed Bolshevik ideology? Gabriel Gordetsky criticises this approach succinctly:

Even if Stalin and his entourage had become accustomed to using a distinctly Soviet rhetoric, employing expressions such as ‘isolation’ or ‘capitalist encirclement’, the terms had been stripped almost bare of their dogmatic content and were employed as agents of legitimization and mobilization of the state machinery and the population at large. The historian’s task is to assess the alternatives and detect the meanings that the rhetoric conceals.

Indeed, Vadim Z. Rogovin stresses that although Bolshevik language was utilised in carrying out the purges, it was only used because it was the only available rhetoric which could adequately justify the elimination of opposition. Though the threat of espionage by capitalist and fascist powers was very real, the Terror unmasked no actual agents of any foreign power. The main accusation against the defendants was of being a Trotskyist–Zinovievite. Although Stalin politically amalgamated this opposition with the fascist and capitalist threat, the Terror was aimed at both real and potential internal communist opponents. As Rogovin explained,

In a country where the lava of socialist revolution had not yet cooled, in order to reinforce the social, political and ideological relations created by Stalinism, which were still highly unstable, it was necessary to physically exterminate the communist opposition.

But, as he quotes from Trotsky, the regime could not

punish the opposition for its actual ideas and deeds …. To accuse the oppositionists of criticizing the autocracy of the bureaucracy would mean only to help the opposition. Nothing else remained but to charge it with crimes directed not against the privileges of the new aristocracy, but against the interests of the people.

The Purge of the Red Army

The purge of the military in June 1937 is a peculiar development of the Terror, especially with regards to the international situation. It saw the execution of brilliant military commanders such as Mikhail Tukhachevsky who had helped lead the Bolsheviks to victory during the Civil War, then triggered ‘a nationwide explosion of terror directed at leading cadres in all fields and at all levels.’ As Roy Medvedev wrote,

In 1937–38 the Soviet Union was preparing for an unavoidable war with the fascist countries, which had already begun their aggression in Spain, Abyssinia, and China.… And precisely in that perilous time Stalin and NKVD struck at the best cadres of the Red Army; in the course of two years they destroyed tens of thousands of loyal commanders and commissars.

Furthermore, Stalin’s repression of the Army’s best commanders and commissars undermined discipline in the army by fuelling a sense of distrust. It was also acknowledged by foreign powers as a significant blow for Soviet defence; when faced with warnings against invading the USSR in 1941, Hitler asserted confidence, pointing out that ‘the first-class high-ranking officers … were wiped out by Stalin in 1937, and the new generation cannot yet provide the brains they need’. So why, as Peter Whitewood queries, ‘would Stalin execute his most qualified officers at the same time as defence spending was rising and a world war was approaching?’

Arch Getty summarises the possible factors which could have led to this decision. Firstly, the fact that Tukhachevsky and his group had ‘frequently disagreed with Stalin’s loyal but incompetent minister of defence, K. I. Voroshilov, and on at least one occasion Tukhachevsky had openly insulted him.’ The second issue was that rumours had reached the Soviet leadership alleging that the officers had been disloyal––including ‘disinformation’ from the Gestapo. Thirdly, relations between party and army in the Soviet system had always been rocky. From time to time, the party had appointed ‘political commissars’ to watch over the officer corps; such political watchdogs had been installed just before the arrest of the generals.  ‘The Tukhachevsky group were not “party first, army second” personalities like Voroshilov, Semyon Budenny, and other who had fought alongside Stalin in the civil war,’ writes Getty. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, ‘the army was an armed, organized force that could conceivably challenge Stalin and the party regime for control of the country.’ By the spring of 1937, the leadership––facing ‘the possible receipt of disinformation documents from Germany and the confessions of V. M. Primakov and other Trotskyist officers directly implicating Tukhachevsky’––were apparently convinced that there was a concrete threat of a military plot within the Red Army leadership. As Molotov recalled decades later,

1937 was necessary . . . [to ensure] that in time of war there would be no fifth column. … It is doubtful that these people were spies, but … the main thing is that in the decisive moment there was no relying on them.

Despite this, Getty underlines that there is in fact ‘no evidence that the accused officers were involved in any plot against Stalin.’ … ‘policy in the second half of 1937 was, essentially, to destroy anyone suspected of present or potential disloyalty to the ruling Stalin group.’

Peter Whitewood argues that the growing severity of the international situation––especially the signing of the anti-Comintern pact between Germany and Japan in November 1936––led the Soviet leadership to genuinely believe that there was a major threat of espionage in the Red Army, which was always perceived as ‘vulnerable to subversion’. But, similarly to Harris’ approach, Whitewood argues that this threat was still exaggerated by the misconceptions caused by Bolshevik ideology. He writes that after the Civil War, ‘the gulf between the perception and reality of threat to the army continued to grow’. Although ‘[s]ome military specialists did betray the Bolsheviks and some foreign agents were genuine,’ the ideologically driven ‘class prejudice, the pressure of ‘capitalist encirclement’ and the violent interrogation methods used by the Cheka’ exaggerated the scale of the threat of foreign espionage and internal betrayal.

However Whitewood fails to address the issue of the political amalgam employed by Stalin––that is, equating opponents from both the left and right as one category. Getty presents a more convincing image of Red Army leaders that were viewed as being too independent of the Stalinist bureaucracy, something simply unacceptable when the potential power of the army was taken into account. In the eyes of the party leaders, the Tukhachevsky group could not be relied on to be loyal to the Stalinist leadership in a time of crisis, thus it was removed––even if this meant a weakened army in an unstable international situation. In this respect, the international situation was important in the sense that an event such as war could trigger an opposition to overthrow the regime.

The Great Terror and Socialism in One Country

To further understand the relevance of the international situation to the Terror, it is vital to look at the Soviet Union’s foreign policy at the time. As Uldrick explains, Stalin’s foreign policy

was motivated neither by a comprehensive anti-fascist impulse, nor by a pacifistic aversion to war; neither by admiration or loathing of Hitler, nor by any really operative desire to foment foreign revolutions. … gaining additional lands was not his central objective, either. Rather, perceiving that the Soviet Union existed in an extremely hostile environment, Stalin’s principle objective was to preserve the country’s national security.

This was the essence of Stalin’s fundamental principle of Socialism in One Country, and moreover a major source of opposition to his rule from within the CPSU. This policy was based on a defensive, nationalistic foreign policy and, most importantly, a rejection of revolutionary internationalism. As Gorodetsky argues, Stalin’s view of the world was much more about ‘traditional concepts of balance of power and spheres of influence’ than it was about ideology, and as such his foreign policy was built first and foremost on self-preservation, and this necessarily meant appeasement.

As such, Stalin devoted considerable effort to presenting the Soviet regime as a moderate regime to the Western powers; to ‘disarm the suspicions, the fears, and the prejudices of the West’. At the General Commission of the Disarmament Conference in May 1934 Foreign Commissar Litvinov pleaded for a formation of an anti-Nazi coalition.’ In September, the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations––an institution much derided by Lenin. Security pacts were signed in 1935 with France and Czechoslovakia, and the Comintern line in 1935 to a ‘Popular Front’ line, to reflect cooperative relations with the West. The policy of world revolution was abandoned in favour of the diplomatic interests of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Stalin asserted in a famous interview with Roy Howard that the Soviet Union ‘never had such plans and intentions’ for world revolution––this was a ‘misunderstanding’.

The Spanish Civil War was especially awkward for Stalin in terms of consolidating his foreign policy aims. Although a Nationalist victory, backed by fascist Germany, would have presented a threat to Soviet security, intervention may have been interpreted as Soviet expansionism by the French and British. As such, Stalin sought to avoid antagonising the French and British by urging the Spanish Popular Front to fight for the more moderate Republican cause, rather than for revolutionary aims. The anti-Stalinist Marxists of the P.O.U.M were hunted down by Soviet forces, accused of being a ‘fifth column’, despite fighting the same fascist enemy. These actions in Spain, Howard Roffman argues, were ‘meant as an expression of [Stalin’s] conservatism with respect to world revolution; it was a signal that Stalin could be counted on to control foreign communists and protect Republican governments.’

This sentiment had already been recognised by some foreign observers in early 1934. In a report on Russia for the Royal Institute of International Affairs, British M.P. Herbert Morrison remarked that

Russia is pursuing a policy of national self-sufficiency in the economic sense and of national security; the period of world revolution is passed for the time being. … The Russian Government, I think, has now in practice turned its back on the idea of world revolution, and is putting Russia economically right without worrying too much about putting the rest of the world right at the present time.

Despite Stalin’s efforts, Western powers took no interest in allying with the Soviet Union; to many in the West, Stalin was viewed as ‘the chief fermenter of revolution.’ As the West faced the threat of social unrest caused by mass unemployment and poverty, ideological fear of communism and the Soviet Union was as strong as ever.

But the Soviet regime’s endeavour for self-preservation is vital in understanding the nuances of the role of the international situation in the purges. What Trotsky described as ‘fatal opportunism (class collaboration under the hollow banner of “anti-Fascism”, social-patriotism under the cover of the “defense of the USSR”),’ was a fundamental criticism made by leftist opposition to the Soviet leadership. The striving for socialism in one country was the striving for the maintenance of the status-quo. This meant the maintenance of the bureaucracy––the ‘new privileged layer’ in Trotsky’s words––whose privileges were threatened by real or potential opposition. This dovetails with the position of Jonathan Haslam, who highlights the importance of this increasing isolationism of the Soviet Union under Stalin, and argues that the purpose of the purges had been to ensure full command over foreign policy.

Rogovin highlights how the charges against and ‘confessions’ of the defendants at the Moscow Trials reflected the constantly changing diplomatic relations of the late 1930s. By the time of the Zinoviev-Kamenev trial in 1936, the Soviet Union had lost any hope of maintaining the cordial ‘Rapallo’ relations it once had with Germany––thus, defendants were now accused of collaboration with the Nazis. ‘This scheme … was reworked and rendered more complicated at the trial of Radek-Piatakov’, writes Rogovin. ‘Here there was talk of Trotsky’s direct conspiracy with the governments of Germany and Japan, directed at preparing the defeat of the USSR in a future war.’ The Third Trial coincided with Germany’s strengthening position on the world stage and the USSR’s ‘fading hopes for Popular Fronts and a military alliance [with] Great Britain.’ Defendants were now supposedly ‘agents of a whole synod of capitalist states: Germany, Japan, Poland and England.’ The changing rationale for the Terror reflected the zig-zagging of Stalin’s foreign policy; but the ‘Trotskyist-Zinovievite’ charge remained consistent.

Finally, and perhaps fundamentally, the Stalin regime recognised that they themselves had risen to power in 1917 through the pressure of war. ‘Although the threat from the opposition seems negligible to us,’ writes Getty, ‘the elite at the time obviously felt a continuing crisis in the wake of collectivisation and with the rise of German fascism: a “new situation” in which economic and social stability was still a new hope and in which the final success of the Stalinist line was by no means assured.


The Soviet Union existed in a hostile international environment and faced a genuine threat of counterrevolutionary activity. This has been recognised in the historiography, but often at the expensive of entangling this counterrevolutionary activity with the communist oppositional threat––echoing Stalin’s own position. As Trotsky observed at the time, ‘[e]veryone who does not bow down to the ruling Moscow clique is now presented as part of a ‘general fascist mass’.’ The precarious and threatening international situation was thus used as a stick to beat oppositionists within the Soviet Union. To conclude, the international situation was indeed a significant factor in the Terror, but it was not the only one. The key factor was the regime’s desire to consolidate its rule, which meant eliminating all forms of opposition.


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One thought on “What was the significance of the international situation to the unfolding of the ‘Great Terror’?

  1. !Dear Jodie¡:

    I am graduated in History by the UCM (Complutense University of Madrid,Spain).

    I have read with great interest your articles on “The great terror” and on Arch getty.

    Getty is an excellent historian.

    The problem is that Getty does not “believe” in the evidence that he uses in his books and articles.( Argument of unbelief)

    And this evidence demonstrates that anti-Soviet conspiracies probably actually existed and were not the product of the “paranoid” pathology of the Bolshevik government.

    Most anticommunist writers do not even consider this probability.

    All of them start from the “request of principle”, beggin the question , assume what has to be demonstrated.

    Many of these authors scoff at evidence that does not fit into the “anti-Stalin paradigm.”

    This is the recent case of Whitewood and James Harris.

    For an analysis of this evidence and the “logical fallacies” that these authors commit I recommend Grover Furr’s books:

    * Kruschev lied (2011)
    * The Murder of Serguei Kirov (2013)
    * “Yezhov versus Stalin” (2016)
    * “Blood lies” (2014)
    * “Trostky’s Amalgams”, vol1 (2015)

    . For a critique of the logical fallacies and factual errors committed by James Harris, Vid.

    * Lorenz Erren: http://www.hsozkult.de/publicationreview/id/rezbuecher-26131

    * Jabara Carley: “Who Was Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin?”:

    A very cordial greeting from Spain.

    Rafael Granados.Madrid.Spain.


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