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Stalin’s ‘great terror’

When popular and charismatic local party boss Sergei Kirov was shot by an assailant as he left the Smolny on 1 December 1934, Stalin’s ‘great terror’ began, a movement designed to eliminate his enemies (real and perceived) which culminated in a series of show trials in Moscow that shocked the world.

Stalin showed his true brilliance as a Machiavellian operator by simultaneously ordering I he assassination of Kirov and using his ‘outrage’ to settle political scores in Leningrad, which to Stalin was still a dangerous bastion of cosmopolitanism and Western thinking. In the wake of Kirov’s murder alone, some 30,000 citizens were arrested and deported to camps from the former capital. Successive waves engulfed the city: in 1935 it was the turn of anyone from an aristocratic background, for example.



People changed, their everyday lives marked by a deep dread that every morning they were saying goodbye to their loved ones forever, or that they’d be woken in the middle of the night by the feared knock at the door – the preferred time of day to arrest people, as fewer people would witness the scene ;ind the victim would be disorientated.

Nikolai Yezhov, the loathsome local NKVD chief who carried out Stalin’s orders without so much as a second thought, was the dark force who controlled the fates of thousands during this time. The period became known as the yezhovshchina, and alongside the hundreds of thousands of unknowns who were imprisoned or killed, much of the city’s once world-famous intelligentsia was similarly liquidated: artist Kazimir
Malevich, silenced and depressed, died of natural causes in 1935 and his funeral was seen as that of the entire Petrograd avant-garde.

Writer Boris Pilnyak was shot in 1938, writer Osip Mandelshtam died in a camp in 1939, and theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold was tortured and then shot in 1940.

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