On Dictatorship

The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties

by Robert Conquest
Macmillan, 633 pp., $9.95

Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin; drawing by David Levine

Robert Conquest’s impressive book is not a definitive study of the crimes perpetrated by the Soviet dictatorship during the limited period between the murder of Kirov (December 1934) and the fall of Yezhov, the chief of the secret police, four years later. A truly definitive study cannot be undertaken without access to the relevant Soviet archives. Since it is most unlikely that such archives will be opened as long as the Soviet dictatorship persists, and since much of the material may have, or will have, been destroyed, the likelihood is that full light will never be cast on what was far and away the most horrible period in the history of the country whose annals are not distinguished by the absence of savage brutality and murderous cruelty.

Still, The Great Terror—well-written, with well-chosen pithy mottoes and many illuminating allusions to literature and history—is a most important book. It is an immense and splendid effort in research. Based on a pains-taking scrutiny of the available material, it offers a comprehensive, skillfully organized critical summary of that material. Naturally, the reliability of the information is uneven, and Conquest, I am sure, would be the last to claim that his sources are unimpeachable. But he has used, whenever possible, reasonable and effective tests to check his facts, and both in the text and in his statistical appendix he achieves what I consider the highest possible degree of plausibility.

Thus, the total figure of 20 million deaths caused by Stalin’s terror appears to be a very reasonable estimate. To be sure, it cannot be a precise figure, but it is unlikely to be much lower and it may be a good deal higher. Quite possibly, therefore (military deaths apart), corpse for corpse the race between Stalin and Hitler, even on a per capita basis, was a very close one. It is equally plausibly established that Stalin was responsible for the murder of Kirov, which initiated the Great Purge. In dealing with the great public trials, Conquest brilliantly demonstrates the faked nature of the confessions, and in his analysis of the seemingly baffling behavior of the accused he succeeds in making it clear that not loyalty to the Party, but tortures, threats to their families, and false promises to spare their own lives must have been decisive.

The annihilation of the old leadership of the Party in and around the trials, as well as that of the lower echelons, was certainly an event of considerable historical moment. Yet one cannot help feeling that—perhaps inevitably—Conquest’s book is not well balanced. In a huge volume of some 600 pages, more than one-half is devoted to the purge of Party and Army and only ninety pages to the anonymous millions who were falsely denounced, arrested, tortured, and executed, or sent to slower death from starvation and overwork in the labor camps. But even those shorter pages are crammed—as is the…

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