In her book Everyday Stalinism, Sheila Fitzpatrick says that such purges took place especially during the 1920s, a period of the young Soviet Union that she calls its "cultural revolution" (echoing the name of the similar later period in China), "bringing excitement into the workday bureaucratic routine". Such reviews would start with a short autobiography from the reviewed person and then interrogation of him or her by the purge commission as well as by the attending audience.
Although the term "purge" has become mostly associated with Stalin's rule, the Bolsheviks carried out their first major purge of the Party ranks as early as 1921. About 220,000 members were purged or left the party in 1921. The purge was justified by the necessity to get rid of the members who had joined the party simply to be on the winning side. The major criteria were social origins (members of working classes were normally accepted without question) and contributions to the revolutionary cause.
The first Party purge of the Joseph Stalin era took place in 1929–1930 in accordance with a resolution of the XVI Party Conference. Purges became deadly under Stalin. More than 10 percent of the party members were purged. At the same time, a significant number of new members, industrial workers, joined the Party. Additionally, Stalin ordered "Case Spring" - the repression and/or execution of officers of the Red Army who had served previously in the Russian Imperial Army, of civilians who had been sympathetic to the White movement, or of other subversives rounded up by the OGPU. Historians estimate that over 3,000 people were executed and that tens of thousands lost their positions and privileges.
Stalin ordered the next systematic party purge in the Soviet Union in December 1932, to be performed during 1933. During this period, new memberships were suspended. A joint resolution of the Party Central Committee and Central Revision Committee specified the criteria for purging and called for setting up special Purge Commissions, to which every communist had to report. Furthermore, this purge concerned members of the Central Committee and of the Central Revision Committee, who previously had been immune to purges, because they were elected at Party Congresses. In particular, Nikolai Bukharin, Alexei Ivanovich Rykov, and Mikhail Tomsky had to try hard to defend themselves during this purge. At this time, of 1.9 million members, about 18 percent were purged.
The idea of party purges began innocently enough: between 1921 and 1933 in the Soviet Union, for example, some 800,000 people were purged or left the party, but most suffered no worse fate (although the ones that did became the first waves of the Gulag Archipelago system). But from 1934 onwards, during the Great Purge, the connotations of the term changed, because being expelled from the party came to mean almost certain arrest, with long imprisonment or execution following.
Sergey Kirov, leader of the Leningrad section of the Communist party, was murdered in 1934. In response, Stalin's Great Purge saw one third of the Communist party executed or sentenced to work in labor camps.
Following Stalin's death in March 1953 purges as systematic campaigns of expulsion from the party stopped. In the decades after, the center's strong political control was exerted instead mainly through individualized loss of party membership and its attendant nomenklatura privileges (which in the Soviet system quite effectively downgraded one's opportunities in society—one's job, whom one could interact with, which foods one could buy, and so on). For recalcitrant cases, the Soviet authorities usually used the harsher method of involuntary commitment to a psychiatric institution to reduce the accused into total nonpersons.