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How the NKVD Searched for Estonian Spies during the Great Terror in 1937—1938

The Soviet authorities carried out mass repressions in several stages in the 1930s. The most extensive of these was the declaration of the more enterprising and prosperous sector of the rural population as kulaks in the course of the collectivisation of agriculture in 1929, after which up to 2 million people were repressed. Yet purges also took place within the Communist Party, when in 1933 alone, 400,000 people were expelled from the Party. The mass operations of 1937–1938 were the culmination of the Stalinist repressions directed against their own land and people. In these operations, the NKVD arrested approximately 1,575,000 individuals, of which 681,692 are known to have been shot.

The overwhelming majority of repressions was carried out in the course of so-called mass operations, which unlike the show trials of the accused persons who belonged to the elite, were processed outside of the attention of the public. ‘Mass operations’ primarily mean ‘nationalities operations’ and ‘kulak operations’. Germans and Poles were targeted first of all in these nationalities operations (the corresponding directives were issued in July and August of 1937), but later on, other nationalities were also targeted, the countries of origin of which were countries bordering on the Soviet Union. The people targeted in these operations were prevailingly charged with spying for the countries of their origin. So-called nationalities operations were carried out in the Georgian SSR against Germans, Poles, Greeks, Iranians, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Bulgarians, Austrians, Romanians, Finns and Turks. The uncovering of a German-Estonian espionage network was staged in Abkhazia in the summer of 1937 and the NKVD conducted the proceedings for this prosecution within the framework of the so-called Diplomats’ Case. While the organisation of the Germans allegedly operated under the cover of Lutheran and Baptist congregations, the organisation of the Estonians allegedly operated under the cover of Estonian cultural and educational circles. Both organisations allegedly dealt actively with espionage, and prepared for the outbreak of war between the Soviet Union and Western countries, primarily Germany.

Sixty-three persons were arrested in the course of the NKVD ‘uncovering operation’. The arrested persons were charged with long-term espionage for Germany and/or Estonia – local Germans spying chiefly for Germany and Estonians for Estonia, but some individuals were made spies of both countries. The elite of Estonians in Abkhazia was destroyed in the course of the kulak and nationalities operations that were carried out in parallel. These were individuals who had already promoted local Estonian economic and cultural activity in the tsarist era and maintained connections with their Estonian motherland.