The Chargé in the Soviet Union ( Kirk ) to the Secretary of State

No. 2249

Sir: With reference to my despatch number 1965 of December 22, 1938,34 reporting the removal of N. I. Ezhov as Commissar for Internal Affairs, I have the honor to inform the Department that the political elimination of Ezhov forecast in the last paragraph thereof would appear to have reached its final stage with the division of the Commissariat for Water Transport, of which he was still nominally head. It is now rumored that he has been arrested and it is a fact that his pictures were recently ordered removed from Moscow shops. His complete political elimination was apparent at the time of the XVIII Party Congress when, although the full list of the delegates was not published, it was apparent that Ezhov was not a delegate and his name failed to appear among those elected to the Central Committee or other high organizations of the Party. Since he had been nominally at least a member of the Political Bureau and Chairman of the [Page 754] then-important Party Control Commission, the failure of his name to appear in any capacity during the proceedings of the Congress made it abundantly clear that there was little doubt as to his eventual fate. The division of the Commissariat for Water Transport, of which he was still nominally chief, into two separate commissariats, with no provision made for Ezhov, as reported in my telegram number 174, April 10, 6 p.m.,35 may be viewed as the final announcement of his political and possibly even physical elimination.

The final disappearance from the Soviet scene of the man who, while head of the GPU,36 was the chief instrument of the reign of terror which swept the Soviet Union during 1937 and 1938 and resulted in the execution, arrest, or dismissal, at a conservative estimate, of at least eighty per cent of the prominent Soviet Government, Party, and military leaders, would appear to constitute a suitable occasion to review evidence which has accumulated since the beginning of the year that the Kremlin has called a halt to at least the more reckless and active features of the “purge.” Before discussing these indications, it is well to define more closely the meaning of the word “purge” which has been subject abroad to certain misinterpretations. The nation-wide hunt for “Trotskyists, Bukharinists, spies, wreckers, and diversionists” conducted by Ezhov while head of the secret police should not be confused with the so-called “purge” of the Party apparatus which were recently abolished by the changes in the Party statutes introduced by the XVIII Party Congress which, as indicated in despatch number 2111 of February 16, 1939,35 discussing the report of Zhdanov on which these changes were based, refer only to the administrative cleansing of its ranks of undesirable elements by the Party apparatus itself.

With the exception of Ezhov, whose removal, far from indicating a continuation of the purge, is contributory evidence of its end, no outstanding Soviet officials, in so far as the Embassy is aware, have been arrested or removed from their posts since the beginning of the year.37 An exception should be made for the former members of the Commissariat for Internal Affairs who were associated with the Ezhov regime. These men, according to reports reaching the Embassy, have been widely removed and replaced by new officials brought in by Beriya, and it is even rumored that the position of Frinovski, Commissar for the Naval Fleet, formerly Assistant Commissar for Internal Affairs under Ezhov, is none too secure. Reports continue to [Page 755] reach the Embassy of the release of a certain number of persons arrested or even sentenced to corrective labor camps, although it cannot be said that such releases have been wholesale and consequently are believed to have been made largely for the sake of their effect upon Soviet public opinion.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Although the proceedings and speeches delivered at the XVIII Party Congress shed very little light on the origins of or reasons for the wave of executions, arrests, and dismissals conducted under the regime of Ezhov, nevertheless certain remarks by important speakers would appear to indicate that a halt had been called in these activities. As indicating a possible modification of repressive measures in the future, certain observers point to Stalin’s reference in the section of his report devoted to the question of the functions of the state in the Soviet Union, that “Now the main task of our state inside the country is the work of peaceful economic organization and cultural education. As for our army, punitive organs, and intelligence service, their edge is no longer turned to the inside of the country but to the outside.…” However, the Embassy is inclined to view Stalin’s remarks more in the light of an attempted theoretical justification for the failure of the socialist state to wither away in accordance with the previously accepted Marxian doctrine by stressing exclusively the external functions of the state in the face of the “capitalist encirclement” while denying its internal police functions.

Of more importance, however, is the speech which Beriya, Commissar for Internal Affairs, made at the Party Congress, reproduced in the Soviet press on March 15. After stressing the importance of the existence of the capitalist encirclement and the need of vigilance to combat the spies, wreckers, et cetera, who would continuously be sent into the Soviet Union by foreign intelligence services, Beriya stated that

“But it would be a mistake to explain the failures which have occurred in various plans of our national economy as being due only to the undermining work of enemies. These failures must to some extent be explained by the bad, unskillful work of a number of officials who stand at the head of our Soviet and economic organizations, and who have not as yet sufficiently mastered the Bolshevik style of management.”

It is true that in a subsequent portion of the same speech he characterized as a task of the very first importance the expulsion from Soviet organizations of enemies of the people, all of whom, are as yet unexposed. However, Beriya’s remarks may perhaps indicate that for the present at least the Kremlin does not intend to attribute as extensively [Page 756] as in the past the inefficiencies, mistakes, and failures in the operation of Soviet economy to the wrecking activities of alleged enemies, a policy which, if applied, should result in the restoration of a certain degree of confidence among the members of the Soviet bureaucracy.

Any definite statement, however, in regard to the end of the purge in the Soviet Union must be made with the greatest reserve, since it is not yet to be anticipated, and there is as yet no sign, that the degree of control exercised by the Kremlin through the Soviet secret police will in the slightest degree be modified. Nor is there any reason to believe that individual officials who may in one way or another incur the displeasure or arouse the distrust of Stalin will be treated with any greater leniency than in the past or that any greater degree of freedom in word or deed will be permitted in the Soviet Union. It can, however, be said that at the present time the functions of secret police are being returned to those of control and surveillance rather than to the conduct of the active “witch hunt” for “Trotskiist-Bukharinist spies, wreckers, and diversionists” which characterized Soviet internal political and economic life during the past two years. How long this comparative respite will last will depend largely on the development of the internal situation in the Soviet Union, both economic and political, and Stalin’s evaluation of these developments in their effect on the maintenance of his personal power.

Respectfully yours,

A. Kirk
  1. Not printed.
  2. Not printed.
  3. The General State Police Administration, the secret police.
  4. Not printed.
  5. Marginal note in the handwriting of Mr. Edward Page, Jr., of the Division of European Affairs: “Since this was written Frinovski [Mikhail Petrovich Frinovsky], Commissar for Naval Affairs, and Litvinov have been released.”