These three categories were distinguished in the following way:
As applied in practice, "wrecking" and "sabotage" referred to any action which negatively affected the economy, including failing to meet unrealistic economic targets, allegedly causing poor morale among subordinates (e.g. by complaining about conditions of work), lack of effort, or other incompetence. Thus, it referred to economic or industrial sabotage in the very broadest sense. The definition of sabotage was interpreted dialectically and indirectly, so any form of non-compliance with Party directives could have been considered a 'sabotage'.
One of the show trials involving charges of "wrecking" was that of official coordinators of the 1937 Soviet Census. The census was organised with great expectations from the government that it would confirm the superiority of the Soviet economic and social model, with Stalin publicly declaring in 1934 that the Soviet Union was gaining at least 3 million citizens per year. The census questions and procedure were prepared for several years by a commission of professional statisticians and demographers, but then significantly changed by Stalin and other members of the Central Committee to better match their political goals – the collection phase of the census was shortened and the procedures simplified. The results obtained from the census were at least 8 million people short of the expected outcome and immediately classified. The formal organizers were accused of "wrecking" and sent to camps, and the shortage was officially presented as caused by their negligence and intentional sabotage. The actual measurement error, as estimated by statisticians in the 1990s, did not exceed 1.5% and such a disappointing result was caused by the huge loss of life that occurred during collectivization, the Famine of 1932–1933, including in the Ukraine (Holodomor), and the mortality rates in the Gulag.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his historical account of the prison camps of the Soviet Union, The Gulag Archipelago, describes Nikolai von Meck (son of Karl and Nadezhda von Meck, patroness of Tchaikovsky), an engineer who advised heavier-than-average loads being placed on freight trains for the betterment of the economy. He was accused of being a wrecker and shot – his supposed crime being having overloaded the trains for the purpose of wearing out the rails faster.
In Harry Turtledove's 2015 alternate history novel Joe Steele, in which Stalin's parents immigrated to the United States before his birth, the totalitarian American government of President "Stalin" (Joe Steele) in the 1930s and '40s codifies the crime of "wrecking" and has numerous people imprisoned and in some cases executed for it, with the equivalent of Gulags being located in Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, and the Territory of Alaska.