Over winter break I have started reading Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror. A lot of it is pretty shocking, even to someone who has read an above-average amount on the subject. It’s hard to feel bad for some of the victims of the purges; some of them had previously participated in atrocities like the Holodomor or in earlier purges. But many of the victims were innocent of any crime. After detailing changes to Soviet law allowing for the the imprisonment of relatives of people who fled, Conquest writes (pp. 86-87 of the 1968 edition):
More extraordinary still, and just as relevant to Stalin’s general plans, was the decree of 7 April 1935 extending all penalties, including death, down to twelve-year-old children.
This decree was noted in the West, where it made very bad anti-Soviet propaganda. Many people wondered why Stalin had made such a law public. Even if he meant to shoot children, this could be done without publicity. Indeed, an NKVD veteran [Orlov] tells how the bezprizorniye—homeless orphans of the wars and famines—had been reduced by indiscriminate shooting two or three years earlier.