Ep. 31 The Arrest

Information about the execution of the death warrant of the NKVD troika in relation to the Russian scholar and theologian Pavel Florensky, 1937

Three years earlier there would have been a similar document in the secret police files for Gerhard. Only difference – this man was shot.

In what he later perceived as a stroke of luck or divine intervention, the secret police arrested Gerhard on February 27, 1934. In Russian history the period from 1934-40 is known as the Great Purge or the Great Terror.

To understand why Gerhard was on the menu, let’s review the social engineering experiment Josef Stalin was conducting.

In 1932 Stalin proposed to arrest and execute all critics of the government. Second-in-command Sergei Kirov argued against that policy and when a vote was taken most of the government leaders supported Kirov against Stalin. In the spring of 1934, just weeks after Gerhard’s arrest, Kirov argued people who had opposed the government’s policy on collective farms and industrialization should be released from prison. Stalin lost faith in his protégé and on December 1, 1934 Kirov was assassinated. Later historians have implicated Stalin in Kirov’s murder.

People_s Commissar of Internal Affairs Nikolai Yezhov

Nikolai Yezhov

Publicly Stalin used the assassination as a pretext to unleash a purge in which a million people died. He appointed Nikolai Yezhov as head of the NKVD[1] who arranged the arrest of all leading political figures in the Soviet Union critical of Stalin. Yezhov signed the orders but Stalin enthusiastically encouraged more arrests.

In theory, the purpose of the Great Purge was to eliminate political opponents by exiling them to distant places or outright killing them. It was not a new method of maintaining authority, Lenin had used it against his enemies for years, but the Great Purge differed in that every Russian citizen was under suspicion. Specifically targeted were political opponents, political allies also could not be trusted, intellectuals, artists, professionals, the Army, clergy, and kulaks and other “anti-Soviet elements.”  Some estimate that half of the Red Army officer corps was executed and 85 per cent of the Russian clergy. At the height of the purge in 1936-37, a negative comment by a neighbour and the unfortunate person was either exiled to the prison camps or executed in cold blood.

In 1992 Soviet archives disclosed the true nature of the purge was social engineering: to get rid “once and for all of the entire gang of anti-Soviet elements who undermine the foundations of the Soviet State,”[2] in the words of Nikolai Yezhov. “Anti-Soviet elements” were interpreted to be not only opponents of the regime, or persons who might oppose the regime, but also persons of certain nationalities. The official purge consisted of two main operations: the Kulak Operation (perceived political opponents) and the Nationalities Operation (perceived ethnic opponents). Local secret police were invited to add any further categories they deemed appropriate.

The Kulak Operation “targeted a wide category of previously identified ‘social outcasts’: the innumerable cohort of ‘formers’, directly and purposefully marginalized in the 1930s (‘former kulaks’, ‘former members of anti-Soviet parties’, ‘former White officers’, ‘former tsarist civil servants’ and ‘church officials’), but also various kinds of ‘socially harmful elements’ (such as ‘recidivist criminals’, ‘bandits’, ‘hooligans’, ‘speculators’, ‘persons with no definite place of work or having ties with the criminal world’, etc).”[3]

Since many Mennonites had succeeded in their endeavours as farmers, millers, teachers, factory owners, craftspeople, and business owners, and had resisted collectivization, they were branded as kulaks and were subject to exile or execution.

The Nationalities Operation targeted minorities with links to other nations, regardless of the number of years they had lived in Russia. In fact as time went on it didn’t even matter whether a person was a member of the particular targeted minority. As Mennonites maintained their cultural connections to Germany they also fell within this operation. Mennonite historian Peter Letkeman says Mennonites were subjected to arrest, exile and execution at four times the rate of the general population.[4]

Excerpt of NKVD Order No. 00447

NKVD order No. 00447

Although Yezhov signed all the secret NKVD[5] operational orders related to the National Operations, its instigator was Stalin himself. In a note to Yezhov during a Politburo meeting Stalin wrote: “ALL Germans working on our military, semi-military and chemical factories, on electric stations and building sites, in ALL regions are ALL to be arrested”[6]. As his correspondence with Yezhov shows, Stalin monitored the National Operations. On Yezhov’s first report on the progress of the Polish Operation (23,000 arrests in four weeks) Stalin wrote: “This is excellent! Continue to dig, cleanse, eradicate all this Polish dirt! Liquidate all this dirt in the name of the interests of the USSR. J.Stalin, 14.X.37”.[7]

Author Tim Tzouliadis notes, “By the autumn of 1937, the pressure to achieve arrests was so great that the NKVD interrogators began picking out names from the telephone directory or preselecting married men with children who, as every agent knew, were the quickest to confess.”[8]

From 1936-39 it is estimated that 600,000 – 1,000,000 people were executed in the purge.

NKVD officers working the nationalities operation

NKVD officers working the Nationalities Operation.

Unlike the Nazis in Germany, the Bolsheviks tried to maintain the appearance of a functioning legal system. People were arrested on some basis and then provided with an investigation followed by a hearing where they were found to be guilty of the matter at hand. That the person under investigation didn’t know the complaint against him and wasn’t permitted to be present at his hearing didn’t seem to matter. The whole thing was over in a matter of minutes.

In 1934 Gerhard was under suspicion as a German, a son of a kulak, a teacher and as a member of a religious sect. He had again asked to attend teacher college but was pressured instead to teach in Johannesfeld for one more year. His arrest, like most others, took place at night; on some mornings villagers awoke to the cries of family members discovering their loved ones were gone.

GERHARD On February 27, 1934 I noticed a sleigh with two GPU[9] agents enter the village and the hair on my neck stood up. I remarked to someone, they are coming for me. In fact that evening as I was teaching an adult literacy class, I was called to the village administration building. I should say at this point that my 11-year-old sister, Mariechen, was living with me, everything had been confiscated from my father, my mother had died in October 1932 and my siblings had been dispersed, living with strangers. Teachers received better rations so I could help keep my sister from starving.

I had been warned that the GPU had me in their sights. I had received a letter and a package of food from my girlfriend in Germany. I had been writing to her and she agreed to come to Russia on May 1 and we were to be married.

Gerhard was 22, in love, and planning for the future but the event horizon was crashing in on him.

GERHARD I was called in to the office at approximately 7 p.m. When I got there I saw the finely dressed GPU men. We had a very general conversation and when I asked to  go outside, the GPU man was behind me and he said: “You are coming with us.” I had already been warned earlier by a friend who said: “You are in danger.” Now I knew what was happening to me. At 9 p.m. another community member was brought in and by 10 p.m. we were on our way to jail, and that’s how my teaching career ended.
The court of the people. Fragment of the painting of Solomon Nikritin

The Court of the People, fragment of a painting by Solomon Nikritin

In 1934 the GPU still attempted to maintain the veneer of due process when making arrests. That’s why Gerhard was not taken away until another community member was present to act as a witness. A few years later people simply disappeared.

GERHARD It was a cold winter evening and another man from the village was also arrested. And so the journey began, us “criminals” and the GPU men. The moon shone brightly enough for one of them to shoot a rabbit as we travelled.


GERHARD I was locked up in a tiny room in Matveyev Kurgan. There were so many of us in the cell there was no place to sit down, so we had to stand up all night long.

It is a disgrace to be led away at gun point, but for me it was an honour because I knew I was innocent.

 After two days in a tiny cell packed with other “criminals” like me, we were marched to the train station under lock and key and placed in GPU cells in Taganrog. I asked a guard for paper and an envelope so I could inform my father of my situation. The Lord was also with me then. I prayed the Lord would spare my father. When I arrived at Taganrog a guard said to me: “Sad that such a young man has come to this.” I was 22 years old.

I can’t help thinking Gerhard saw himself as the rabbit on that clear moonlit night, the sleigh gliding over the snow, only creaking harnesses and occasional snorts of horses in the stillness.


[1] Russia’s secret police from 1934-41

[2] Nikolai Ezhov, in the preamble of Order n° 00447 cited in http://www.sciencespo.fr/mass-violence-war-massacre-resistance/en/document/nkvd-mass-secret-national-operations-august-1937-november-1938, accessed October 26, 2017.

[3]  Werth, Nicolas (24 May 2010), “The NKVD Mass Secret Operation n° 00447 (August 1937 – November 1938)”, Mass Violence and Resistance – Research Network, http://www.sciencespo.fr/mass-violence-war-massacre-resistance/en/document/nkvd-mass-secret-operation-n-00447-august-1937-november-1938, accessed November 3, 2017.

[4] Letkemann, Peter, Mennonites in the Soviet Inferno, 1917 – 1956, Preservings, No. 13, December, 1998, page 11, cited in http://www.plettfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Preservings13December1998.pdf, accessed October 26, 2017.

[5] Russian secret police.

[6] Okhotin, Nikita, and Roginskii, Arsenii, «Iz istorii ‘nemetskoi operatsii’ NKVD 1937-1938» (History of the ‘German Operation’ of the NKVD, 1937-1938), in Scherbakova, Irina (ed.), 1999, Nakazannyi Narod (The Punished People), Moscow: Zvenia, pp. 35-74, quoted in Werth, The NKVD Mass Secret Operation, Mass Violence and Resistance – Research Network, http://www.sciencespo.fr/mass-violence-war-massacre-resistance/en/document/nkvd-mass-secret-operation-n-00447-august-1937-november-1938, accessed November 3, 2017.

[7] Cited in Encyclopédie des violences de masse (http://ww w.sciencespo.fr/mass-violence-war-massacre-resistance), accessed October 26, 2017.

[8] Tzouliadis, Tim, The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia, Penguin Books, London, 2008, pgs. 84-86; pg. 187 cited in https://www.wikiwand.com/en/NKVD_Order_No._00447, accessed November 3, 2017

[9] Russia’s secret police from 1926-34

One thought on “Ep. 31 The Arrest

  1. Dear Author,
    Please don’t leave us long wondering what has happened to Gerhard and his sister and others….My what a time in that region and era.
    Thank you for this lesson of history.
    Carol G.

    Liked by 1 person

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