The Great Terror: A Reassessment: 40th Anniversary Edition, 2008
by Robert Conquest
Just last summer, Robert Conquest, a great hero of the Cold War, died—on August 3.
The weapons he wielded were exacting research and a mastery of expression that marked his many works of poetry and fiction, as well as history and politics.
But Conquest will be most remembered for his comprehensive research and expose of the Soviet Union’s 1934-1939 Great Purge.
Conquest published his magnum opus first as the Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties in 1968, then as The Great Terror: A Reassessment in 1990, and then as The Great Terror: A Reassessment: 40th Anniversary Edition, in 2008.
In an August 14, 2015 obituary in National Review on Line, John O’Sullivan calls Robert Conquest, “the single most important historian of the Soviet Union and its crimes.”
To read The Great Terror is to become schooled—against all our deep-seated Judeo-Christian values—in how utterly evil a total tyranny can become.
Although can be dizzying in its accumulated emotional effect, The Great Terror is very readable scholarly work, documented with 67 pages of notes and bibliography.
Former Margaret-Thatcher-adviser O’Sullivan continues:
“Bob’s narratives balanced the large collective truths with the small, revealing personal details of callousness. He revealed terrible crimes by presenting the evidence for them. As two other tributes illuminate, however, it was not only the truth that set readers free. It was the teller, too. Bob’s narratives balanced the large collective truths (how many millions Stalin murdered) with the small, revealing personal details of callousness (after signing more than 3,000 death warrants, Stalin went to the movies). He revealed terrible crimes by presenting the evidence for them.
He refuted the casuistical Marxist justifications of such crimes with more evidence and without raising his voice. He had an instinct for detecting dishonesty and a talent for exposing it — qualities evident in his literary criticism as well as in his historical research. He himself claimed what the facts supported, and not an iota more. (Highlighting Forum’s throughout)
The Guilt-By-Confession System
As Conquest relates, for those accused, arrested, grilled, and tortured, the Great Terror operated through a guilt-established-by-confession system.
For the accused were compelled to name co-conspirators, who then must be arrested and made to confess and to name others as well.
The accused party luminaries often ended in major public “show trials.”
Most of the accused, however, received “administrative” judgements, with lengthy sentences to forced-labor camps or immediate execution by shooting.
The purge targeted party officials, but also professional groups (military officers, diplomats, churchmen, historians, poets, weather forecasters), and leaders (party members, cadre, plant managers); ethnic nationalities (Polish, Ukrainian, Georgian)—as well as pick-up categories such as the wives and children of enemies of the state, or anyone who had contact with foreigners.
Kirov’s Murder: “Crime of the Century”
In his 40th edition preface, Conquest presents evidence to show that Stalin arranged the 1934 assassination of prominent Bolshevik leader Sergei Kirov, and then used the sensational murder as a pretext to begin the Great Terror.
“This killing has every right to be called the crime of the century. Over the next four years, hundreds of Soviet citizens, including the most prominent political leaders of the Revolution, were shot for direct responsibility for the assassination, and literally millions of others went to their deaths for complicity in one or another part of the vast conspiracy which allegedly lay behind it.”
Kirov’s death, in fact, was the keystone of the entire edifice of terror and suffering by which Stalin secured his grip on the Soviet people, declares Conquest.
Conquest allows that “the circumstances of the Kirov murder on 1 December 1934 are still disputed,” but he argues that the weight of evidence attests to Stalin’s central role.
In the World War II years, some Americans understood the nature of the Soviet Union.
During the Cold War, more people did.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, as well as Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, became touchstones.
But do today’s Americans know much about the Soviet Leviathan?
Now television history documentaries of varying depth typically cover the crimes of Hitler’s Germany (against Jews, Christians, dissenters of all kinds, and conquered peoples).
But there is very little television portrayal of the malevolent regime of Joseph Stalin.
The slogan “Never Forget” properly evokes Jews under Hitler, but there is no slogan recalling the deaths of millions during Stalin’s Terror.
“Exact numbers may never be known with complete certainty,” writes Conquest, “but the total of deaths caused by the whole range of the Soviet regime’s terrors can hardly be lower than some fifteen million…. Yet the worst of the terror was not the killings, however excessive, but the regular accompaniment throughout of torture.”
The voices of the Hard Left ignore if not “justify” the truly monstrous record of Stalin’s regime.
For example, read here about the “New York Times Moscow correspondent whose dispatches covered up Stalin’s infamies.”
In her essay on Conquest’s death, historian Diana West points to the denialist strain of the American “intelligentsia” when they discuss the Soviet regime.
“To be able to ‘deal with’ the evil of Communist extermination history, then, as Conquest writes, is to be judgmental as well as inquisitive. This suggests a continuum between such fruits of curiosity and academic labor—the repugnant facts of Communist extermination history—and our judgment of them.”
Reminding us of the scorn that met Ronald Reagan’s characterization of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” West notes—
“Reagan’s exhortation to face ‘the facts of history’ was a broad challenge, his reference to ‘the aggressive impulses of an evil empire’ an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ moment. The cataclysmic histories of Ukraine, Finland, Bessarabia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Korea, East Germany, Vietnam, China, Cuba, Angola, and on and on were not the shining raiment becoming an empire of peace. Reagan was challenging us to acknowledge the implications of this fact, to fight the paralysis of ‘moral equivalence,’ and see not two bullies in a playground, as the East-West struggle was repetitiously framed, but one aggressor seeking to impose a totalitarian system over as much of the world as possible. Good and Evil.”
Robert Conquest’s life shows that the dedication of a few or even one person to the truth of a matter can make a global difference.
The Great Terror remains a testament to the strength of truth established by scholarship and evidence.
It also provides a perspective on the unnatural appetite of many on the American left for a “total elimination of dissent,” as Rush Limbaugh puts it.
And it should be a book to teach our emerging generations about the vigilance needed to keep our freedom—and to open their eyes to the evil that homegrown tyrants could inflict even on their fellow Americans.