In these years of the Popular Front, the Soviet killings and deportations went unnoticed in Europe. Insofar as the Great Terror was noticed at all, it was seen only as a matter of show trials and party and army purges. But these events, noticed by specialists and journalists at the time, were not the essence of the Great Terror. The kulak operations and the national operations were the essence of the Great Terror. Of the 681,692 executions carried out for political crimes in 1937 and 1938, the kulak and national orders accounted for 625,483. The kulak action and the national operations brought about more than nine tenths of the death sentences and three quarters of the Gulag sentences.
The Great Terror was thus chiefly a kulak action, which struck most heavily in Soviet Ukraine, and a series of national actions, the most important of them the Polish, where again Soviet Ukraine was the region most affected. Of the 681,692 recorded death sentences in the Great Terror, 123,421 were carried out in Soviet Ukraine—and this figure does not include natives of Soviet Ukraine shot in the Gulag. Ukraine as a Soviet republic was overrepresented within the Soviet Union, and Poles were overrepresented within Soviet Ukraine.
The Great Terror was a third Soviet revolution. Whereas the Bolshevik Revolution had brought a change in political regime after 1917, and collectivization a new economic system after 1930, the Great Terror of 1937-1938 involved a revolution of the mind. Stalin had brought to life his theory that the enemy could be unmasked only by interrogation. His tale of foreign agents and domestic conspiracies was told in torture chambers and written in interrogation protocols. Insofar as Soviet citizens can be said to have participated in the high politics of the late 1930s, it was precisely as instruments of narration. For Stalin’s larger story to live on, their own stories sometimes had to end.
The Soviet Union was a multinational state, using a multinational apparatus of repression to carry out national killing campaigns. At the time when the NKVD was killing members of national minorities, most of its leading officers were themselves members of national minorities. In 1937 and 1938, NKVD officers, many of whom were of Jewish, Latvian, Polish, or German nationality, were implementing policies of national killing that exceeded anything that Hitler and his SS had (yet) attempted. In carrying out these ethnic massacres, which of course they had to if they wished to preserve their positions and their lives, they comprised an ethic of internationalism, which must have been important to some of them. Then they were killed anyway, as the Terror continued, and usually replaced by Russians.
The Jewish officers who brought the Polish operation to Ukraine and Belarus, such as Izrail Leplevskii, Lev Raikhman, and Boris Berman, were arrested and executed. This was part of a larger trend. When the mass killing of the Great Terror began, about a third of the high-ranking NKVD officers were Jewish by nationality. By the time Stalin brought it to an end on 17 November 1938, about twenty percent of the high-ranking officers were. A year later that figure was less than four percent. The Great Terror could be, and by many would be, blamed on the Jews. To reason this way was to fall into a Stalinist trap: Stalin certainly understood that Jewish NKVD officers would be a convenient scapegoat for national killing actions, especially after both the Jewish secret policemen and the national elites were dead. In any event, the institutional beneficiaries of the Terror were not Jews or members of other national minorities but Russians who moved up in the ranks. By 1939 Russians (two thirds of the ranking officers) had replaced Jews at the heights of the NKVD, a state of affairs that would become permanent. Russians became an overrepresented national majority; their population share at the heights of the NKVD was greater than their share in the Soviet population generally. The only national minority that was highly overrepresented in the NKVD at the end of the Great Terror were the Georgians—Stalin’s own.
This third revolution was really a counterrevolution, implicitly acknowledging that Marxism and Leninism had failed. In its fifteen or so years of existence, the Soviet Union had achieved much for those of its citizens who were still alive: as the Great Terror reached its height, for example, state pensions were introduced. Yet some essential assumptions of revolutionary doctrine had been abandoned. Existence, as the Marxists had said, no longer preceded essence. People were guilty not because of their place in a socioeconomic order but because of their ostensible personal identities or cultural connections. Politics was no longer comprehensible in terms of class struggle. If the diaspora ethnicities of the Soviet Union were disloyal, as the case against them went, it was not because they were bound to a previous economic order but because they were supposedly linked to a foreign state by their ethnicity.
The link between loyalty and ethnicity was taken for granted in the Europe of 1938. Hitler was using this very argument, at this very time, to claim that the three million Germans of Czechoslovakia, and the regions they inhabited, must be allowed to join Germany. In September 1938 at a conference in Munich, Britain, France, and Italy had agreed to let Germany annex the western rim of Czechoslovakia, where most of those Germans lived. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared that the arrangement had brought “peace for our time.” French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier believed nothing of the sort, but he allowed the French people to indulge the fancy. The Czechoslovaks were not even invited to the conference, and were simply expected to accept the result. The Munich agreement deprived Czechoslovakia of the natural protection of mountain ranges and the fortifications therein, leaving the country vulnerable to a future German attack. Stalin interpreted the settlement to mean that the Western powers wished to make concessions to Hitler in order to turn the Germans toward the East.