The Great Terror of 1936 to 1938 left an indelible mark on Soviet politics and Stalinist society. In addition to the three major show trials in Moscow, purges and arrests took place across the country. Initially, these were mostly, though not exclusively, aimed at high ranking Communist Party members and government officials as well as targeting industrial managers and the military leadership. It was during the summer of 1937 that the terror became truly great. The now infamous ‘kulak order’ of 30 July 1937 extended the purges to the mass of the Soviet population and, over the course of the next 16 months, led to the arrest of around two million people and, according to official figures, the execution of some 681,692 individuals. These ‘mass operations’ were accompanied also by a series of ‘national operations’ aimed at targeted national minorities living in the Soviet Union. ‘Nationality’ was one of the personal identifiers listed in the internal passport.
One of the lesser known aspects of the Great Terror is NKVD Operational Order No. 00486 ‘On the repression of wives of enemies and traitors of the Motherland’, which became effective 80 years ago on 15 August 1937. My chapter on ‘The Forgotten Five Per Cent: Women and the Purges’ in Stalin’s Terror Revisited (Palgrave, 2006) explores Order No. 00486 in detail. In July 1937, the Politburo had already set out its plans to confine the wives of those who had already been convicted over the course of the previous year to labour camps and the NKVD was to make preparations to house their children. By the beginning of the summer in 1937, many wives of the political and military elite had already been forcibly exiled from the country’s major metropolitan centres. Order No. 00486 now made provision for their repression.
A list was drawn up of the wives and children over the age of 15 who fell under the terms of the order. The terms could be applied to both legal and common-law wives and even some of those women who had formerly divorced their husband. These ‘wives’ and adult children were now themselves subject to arrest and detention in a labour camp for between 5 and 8 years. At the time of arrest, a detailed search was made of their residence and many items were confiscated, including personal items such as photographs. Younger children, with the exception of babies, were to be sent to NKVD-run children’s homes if no relatives, neighbours or friends came forward to care for them. The fear of being identified as a relative of an ‘enemy of the people’ was enough to scare many people away, but there are also courageous stories of nannies who continued to care for their wards during the long years of their parents’ detention, often without financial support and even stepping in as adoptive mother in cases where the birth mother did not return.
Exact numbers of ‘wives’ detained under Order No. 00486 are difficult to determine. Evidence suggests that these amounted to 540 in the Moscow region alone by the end of November 1937, and the numbers of arrests, including those associated with the various ‘national operations’, reported in other regions throughout the country ran into the thousands. In addition to the outright arrests, wives were subject to daily surveillance and to forced resettlement. By the autumn of 1938 the Great Terror was being wound down. A memorandum sent to Stalin in October 1938 noted that more than 18,000 wives had been arrested under the terms of Order No, 00486, including 3000 from Moscow and 1500 from Leningrad. Given the pressure on the security services, the memorandum recommended putting a halt to these activities. On 17 October 1938, Operational Order No. 00689 put an end to the arrests. Henceforth, the only women to be arrested were those who were themselves deemed to be involved in anti-Soviet and counter-revolutionary activities.
Some of my recent research has focused on the fate of the female secondary and collateral victims of the Soviet purges. What were the experiences of the wives, mothers, daughters and sisters of those who were arrested, the female victims of the terror who were not themselves subject to direct repression but who nonetheless found their lives significantly constrained by their familial association? Families were often thrown out of their apartments and women sometimes lost their jobs. Children were expelled from and denied membership of the Komsomol, a necessity for those wishing to continue their studies at university. The purges had a life-long impact and reverberated across generations. These issues are explored in detail in the forthcoming book: Kelly Hignett, Melanie Ilic, Dalia Leinarte and Corina Snitar, Women’s Experiences of Repression in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, to be published by Routledge in the autumn.