What role did Stalin play in the instigation and carrying out of the Great Purge in the Soviet Union?
I have been learning about this in class and am unsure about to what extent he was involved. I need some key points in relation to historical dispute on the subject of blame for the purges. Some examples of how Stalin was or wasn't involved would be very helpful.
So far as mainstream historians are concerned, there is no doubt that Stalin was the main driving force behind the purges. It was he who instigated the purges and he who was behind much of the selection of whom to purge.
The purges were carried out at Stalin's orders and for his benefit. The whole point of the purges was to eliminate people who might challenge Stalin's hold on power in the Communist Party. Stalin accused those who he felt might threaten him of being tools of the exiled Leon Trotsky. He alleged that they were dedicated to destroying the Soviet Union. He signed the documents approving the executions of those who were to be killed. There is no doubt that he was the driving force behind the purges.
There is some speculation that the purges would have happened with or without Stalin. Some say that the nature of Russian history and society made purges inevitable. That, of course, is only speculation. Whether or not someone else would have carried out the purges, it was Stalin who actually did instigate them and carry them out.
Stalin was probably the ultimate evil genius in that he created a bureaucracy that allowed him to exercise absolute power over millions of people while at the same time removing himself from any overt responsibility for its brutal excesses. The hierarchy of the Soviet secret police--from the Cheka to OGPU and NKVD and KGB--made it possible for Stalin to ascribe blame for the incredible massacres (that were an essential part of his dictatorial policy) to apparatchiks like Dzherzinsky, Yagoda, Yezhov, and Beria. Even when Khrushchev attempted to "de-Stalinize" in the late 1950s, the popular description of the Great Purges was the Yezhovshchina or Yezhov Era, which made it seem as though Stalin's lieutenant (his "dwarf") was operating on his own without any instruction from the Party Secretary.
Stalin's obvious paranoia--his grim determination to rid himself of anyone and everyone who might even potentially pose a threat to his power--revealed itself most obviously in the show trials of the late 1930s prosecuted by Vyshinsky that led to the deaths of so many of the original cadre of Bolsheviks such as Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Bukharin. However, the Purges may be seen to have started with the assassination of Sergei Kirov on December 1, 1934, an act that was clearly motivated by the man's enormous popularity--which naturally was interpreted by Stalin as a threat to himself. The man who pulled the trigger implicated Nikolai Bukharin before being executed, a transparent attempt to deflect attention from the person who most obviously benefited from Kirov's removal. The subsequent energetic search for co-conspirators resulted in any number of people accusing each other of crimes against the state in a desperate attempt to escape liquidation. All of this played directly into Stalin's hands because he could, as a result, annihilate the members of the old political hierarchy who were likely to threaten him and, furthermore, replace them with his own creatures who would do his bidding without questions or remorse until they, in turn, were removed by the next round of bureaucratic hatchetmen.
In the final analysis, there can be no question that Josef Stalin was ultimately responsible for every action that was perpetrated while he was Party Secretary, particularly after 1928 when he consolidated his power over the Politburo. The totalitarian regime he created was absolute to the point where he was given credit for good weather and the birth of healthy children; he personally viewed and approved all films that were allowed to be screened in the Soviet Union; he held the power of life and death over every last one of his people. It is unthinkable that the Purges, which were carried out with rigorous attention to the niceties of Soviet law and administered by a chain of command that began and ended at the top, could possibly have occurred without his approval.
One last note: it is perhaps somewhat ironic that one of the last notable victims of the Stalinist purges was also the first and most public of Stalin's political enemies: Leon Trotsky, who had to wait the better part of fifteen years before he met his fate in Mexico City in 1940.