Stalin’s Purge and Its Effects on World War II


Joseph Stalin’s tenure as the Soviet Union’s head of State is remembered largely for his domestic policies like the First Five Year Plan, but also his paranoia fueled purges of the Soviet people and the Communist Party. It is largely acknowledged that during his command the number of Russians who were killed as a result of his commands was in the region of 20 million. While the vast majority of Stalin’s targets during the purges were civilians, Stalin’s reach extended into the military as well. The purge of the Red Army Officer Corps was a power play which resulted in Stalin consolidating his power as leader of the Soviet Union. During the pre-war period he systematically imprisoned and/or executed thousands of his own military officers. The effect that the purges may have had on the Winter War with Finland as well as on the Russian front of World War II is massive.

The majority of these executions and imprisonments occurred as a result of Stalin’s discomfort with the new strength of the modernizing Red Army. Stalin saw the leaders of the Army as potential political threats. The loss of nearly the entire command structure of the Red Army had huge negative effects on the ability of the Soviet Union to win a war. This was demonstrated first with the Russo-Finnish war in 1939 and then again during the first month of Russian involvement in World War II.



History and Causes

Birt, Raymond. “Personality and Foreign Policy: The Case of Stalin.” Political Psychology 14, no. 4 (December 1993): 607–625.

  • In this article Birt discusses Stalin’s psychology. He writes that while never clinically diagnosed with paranoia, Stalin exhibits the behaviors of someone who suffers from paranoia as well as extreme narcissism. He explains the purges as a result of this paranoia pointing out indicators like the lack of a structure similar to the holocaust. jstor article availablehere.

Rogovin, Vadim. Stalin’s Great Terror: Origins and Consequences. Accessed April 4, 2013.

  • In this lecture at the University of Melbourne Rogovin, a Russian historian, discusses myths and truths surrounding the purge of 1937. He also discusses Stalin’s state of mind at the time and posits that his increasing paranoia was a huge factor. The transcript can be found here.

Sousa, Mario. “The Purges of the CSPU in the 1930s,” n.d. Rogovin, Vadim. Stalin’s Great Terror: Origins and Consequences. Accessed April 4, 2013.

  • The tagline for the Stalin Society is this: “The Stalin Society was formed in 1991 to defend Stalin and his work on the basis of fact and to refute capitalist, revisionist, opportunist and Trotskyist propaganda directed against him.” While many of the sources I have found are highly critical of Stalin, this one is almost entirely positive, blaming capitalist propaganda for Stalin’s negative image and denying that the purges were political in nature or that the Moscow Trials were in any way related to the purge. Their website can be found here and the pamphlet can be found here.

Sudoplatov, Pavel. Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness, a Soviet Spymaster. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994.

Special Tasks (Russian text).

  • Special Tasks is the autobiography of Pavel Sudoplatov, a General in the Soviet intelligence services. Sudoplatov was involved in several famous events, but most notably for this topic, the assassination of Leon Trotsky. After Stalin’s death Sudoplatov was imprisoned for 15 years. Served as some background information on the purges and describes to a degree Stalin’s state of mind during the Purges.

Purges and the Red Army

Bullock, Alan. Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. 1st American ed. New York: Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1992.

  • A comparison of the lives and dictatorships of Stalin and Adolf Hitler, the portion of this book (roughly pages 490-500) which deals with the purges is highly informative, listing stats directly related to the purge of the Red Army Officer Corps. It lists in detail the how many of the top officers in the Soviet Military structure were removed from power (all but 4 of the 29 most powerful officers were deposed) as well as overall numbers of officers permanently dismissed during the purge in 1937 and 1938. Importantly gives perspective on just how badly the Red Army was crippled by Stalin’s actions at this point.

Rapoport, Vitaliĭ. High Treason: Essays on the History of the Red Army, 1918-1938. Durham: Duke University Press, 1985.

  • Rapoport’s books covers a large span, but the last chapter, Chapter 16 (PDF here page 232) covers the period from 1934 to 1938 beginning with the 17th Party Congress and the Solidification of his Stalin’s power base via the Terror, the Moscow Trials, and the execution of opposition leaders like Nikolai Bukharin and Mikhail Tuchachevsky.

Reese, Roger R. The Soviet Military Experience: a History of the Soviet Army, 1917-1991. Warfare and History. London: New York : Routledge, 2000.

  • Reese dedicates a portion of his chapter on the interwar period to the purge and also includes his analysis on the effect of the purge on the Red Army’s performance in both the Winter War with Finland and against the Germans in World War II. While I don’t necessarily agree with his analysis the statistical and historical context he provides is solid.


Effects on Army Capability

Reese, Roger R. Lessons of the Winter War: A Study in the Military Effectiveness of the Red Army, 1939–1940.

  • By the same author, this article is an in depth look at the effectiveness of the Red Army in its first conflict after the purges of 1937/38. Not as solid of a source, but it still provides an idea of the physical abilities of the Red Army versus the potential they have on paper. Full article can be found here.

Reese, Roger R. A Note On the Consequence of the Expansion of the Red Army On the Eve of World War II

  • In this article, also by Reese, the author hypothesizes that the ineffectiveness of the Red Army in the opening stages of the second world war is a result of the rapid expansion of the Army in the years leading up to the war as opposed to the purge. He states that despite the purge of thousands of officers, due to expansion the Officer Corps was actually larger by the end of the Corps. Very interesting ideas and more historical context.


Other Things

    Efimov, Boris. Ezhov’s Iron Glove. Political Cartoon, 1937.

    This propaganda cartoon shows Nikolai Yezhov, leader of the NKVD secret police and Prime executor of the purge under Stalin’s directives, crushing the traitors who are portrayed as snakes.

    “Russia Opens Some Katyn Documents To Public.” Accessed April 12, 2013.


    This is a death warrant signed by Stalin with orders to execute Polish officers in the Katyn massacre in 1940.