The Great Terror: A Reassessment
by Robert Conquest
Oxford University Press, 570 pp., $24.95
Last year Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror was translated into Russian and published in the USSR in the journal Neva. (Unfortunately, only the first edition was published. I hope that the second, revised and enlarged edition will be published as well, if it is not suppressed by the censorship so recently revived in the Soviet Union.) The fate of this book in the USSR is truly remarkable. Many of those who opened Neva in 1989–1990 exclaimed: “But I know all this stuff already!” How did they know it? From Conquest himself.
The first edition appeared twenty years ago in English, was translated into Russian, and infiltrated what was then a closed country. It quickly became an underground best seller, and there’s not a thinking person who isn’t acquainted with the book in one form or another: those who knew English read it in the original, others got hold of the Russian text, made photocopies at night, and passed them on. The book gave birth to much historical (underground and émigré) research, the facts were assimilated, reanalyzed, argued, confirmed, elaborated. In short, the book almost achieved the status of folklore, and many Soviet people measure their own history “according to Conquest,” sometimes without realizing that he actually exists. This is why many readers, especially the younger ones, thought of Conquest’s book as a compilation of “commonly known facts” when they read it for the first time. The author should be both offended and flattered.
This is a book about the Stalinist terror, about the Great Terror, which began in the Thirties and continued—growing and fading—until the death of the Great Tyrant in 1953.
The very expression “Great Terror” leads to the idea of the “Little Terror” which remains necessarily outside the confines of this book. Of course, no one can write a book about Russia that includes everything, explains everything, weaves together the facts and motifs of history, revealing the root system that every so often puts out shoots and suddenly blossoms into the frightful flower of a Great Terror. I’m reminded of the protagonist of Borges’s story “Aleph,” who tried to create a poem that described the entire universe—but failed, of course. No one person can possibly accomplish such a task.
The Little Terror in Russia has been around from time immemorial. It has lasted for centuries and continues to this very day. So many books have been written about the Little Terror! Virtually all the literature of the nineteenth century, which is so valued in the West, tells the story of the Little Terror, sometimes with indignation, sometimes as something taken for granted, and tries to understand its causes, explain its mechanisms, give detailed portraits of its victims: individual personalities, entire classes, and the country as a whole. What is Russian society and why is it the way it is? What can and must be done in order to free ourselves of this all-permeating terror, of total slavery, of …