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 whole book—with detailed information, which both constitutes the main value of the work and at the same time makes it virtually impossible to do full justice to its contents in a review.

The book must be read in its entirety, even though some tender souls might prefer to shrink from this close look into a chamber of horrors. But they should not and they need not. Brazen forgeries, improbable lies, cruel tortures, inhuman executions, barbarous treatment of prisoners—all this should be sickening. But it is much less so than one might expect. For the enormity of the crimes committed exceeds the capacity of the human mind to absorb their horror. One can place oneself inside the souls of the seven human beings in Leonid Andreyev’s celebrated story and be dragged with them to the gallows; but the endless repetition of “shot…shot…shot…” dulls the brain and hardens the heart. This is undoubtedly the reason why Solzhenitsyn, with fine artistic intuition, showed us a “good day” in the life of Ivan Denisovich, and, similarly, in The First Circle introduced us into a very privileged labor camp, leaving it to the reader to try to imagine the remaining circles of Soviet hell and to draw for himself the inevitable inference ad fortiorem or ad horribiliorem.

Since Conquest’s book resists summary I will concentrate on what I take to be his historical interpretation of Stalinism. In his impressive chapter, “The Architect of Terror,” the author paints a portrait of Stalin: vain and vulgar, utterly ruthless and unscrupulous, morbidly suspicious, vindictive, and cruel, but endowed with immense resources of “nerve” and will power and great political intuition. Like Alan Bullock in his biography of Hitler, Conquest recognizes the political brilliance, the “simplicity of genius,” of his man. And so, if I understand Conquest right, Stalin’s personality is the key that makes us understand the history of Russia under Stalin. “The nature of the whole purge,” Conquest says, “depends in the last analysis on the personal and political drives of Stalin” (p. 62). He proceeds to support this view by pointing out that the materialistic conception of history, indeed like any sociological interpretation of politics, is restricted to systems to which the law of great numbers applies. “When a society is organized in such a way that the will of one man, or a small group, is the most powerful of the political and social forces, such explanation must give way, at least to a very considerable degree, to a more psychological style.” And referring to the years 1934-38, Conquest says: “Over the…four years he [Stalin] carried out a revolution which completely transformed the Party and the whole society” (p. 81).


There is a good deal of truth in the preceding statements. In particular, it is perfectly correct that Marxian analysis fails when applied to conditions characterized by the primacy of the political factor, to which the economic factor is subservient. This, incidentally, is nothing new in Russian history, many crucial periods of which must be explained by the demiurgic role of the State; and one is inclined to pity the Soviet historians who have been forced to apply Marxian concepts to material which rejects those concepts as eminently unsuitable. For the rest, however, the problem is far less simple than Conquest believes. Causal imputations in history are seldom unambiguous, and the plausibility of any single interpretation must be measured against the background of other possible interpretations.

We are, of course, unable to give more than a most tentative answer to the counter-factual question: What would have been the course of events if, say, Trotsky rather than Stalin had emerged victorious from the struggles of the Twenties? We may assume that in this case the language of the dictator’s perorations would have been much less crude. But Trotsky’s historical record is not remarkable for the man’s particular respect for the sanctity of human life, and it would not have been out of character for him to justify mass killings in the name of fetishist entities, such as proletariat and revolution, party and state.

There are a few passages in Conquest’s book which suggest that he would not necessarily disagree. Successful dictators are just not made of sugar and spice, which may mean no more than that once a man has acquired a certain position he is both called upon and able to take certain actions. It is another matter that those actions in turn may have a certain effect upon his psyche. Thus—may it be said in parentheses—it is quite revealing to compare the curious game of make-believe which Stalin played with his daughter, pretending that she was the boss and he her obedient servant, with the very similar game played by Peter the Great. There Romodanovsky, the chief of Peter’s secret police and master torturer, was the king, to whom Peter addressed letters signed “Your Royal Majesty’s most humble slave.” Surely, in either case, feelings of guilt, if not horror, about the ruler’s deeds and misdeeds must have created the anxious wish to escape into the fantasy of subordination.

Stalin might or might not have survived Trotsky’s victory, but obviously counter-factual exercises of this sort do not carry much conviction. The main point is that riveting our attention to the personality of the dictator tends to blind us to the force des choses, to the fact, that is, that recurring conditions produce analogous recurring responses. This should be clear even before we approach the specific and fundamental problem of dictatorship. Napoleon, the son of the French revolution and of its military victories, and Hitler, the product of the defeat of the Hohenzollern monarchy, came from radically different environments. It is difficult to find any resemblance in personality between Stalin, the son of a Georgian cobbler, and Alexander I, the enlightened legitimate monarch. And yet there are striking resemblances between the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement of 1939 and the Tilsit peace treaty of 1807. In both cases, the agreement was followed by a Russian attack on Finland; in both cases, it involved what now is Rumania and led to the annexation of Besarabia; in both cases, Russia was given promises of expansion toward the Indian Ocean, so that Soviet Russia was the only power to recognize immediately the government that emerged from Rashid Ali’s abortive coup in Iraq (1941); and in both cases, the agreement did not prevent the eventual invasion of Russia. It is reasonable to assume that something other than uniqueness of personalities was at work and accounted for the parallelism of events.

When Conquest says: “In a general way, the drive for power was Stalin’s strongest and most obvious motivation” (p. 81), few would quarrel with him. But this happens to be what all dictatorships are about; the desire, that is, to maintain and to increase their power; and a man whose libido dominandi is weak is unlikely to become or to remain a dictator for any length of time. In a sense, therefore, the statement just quoted is trite. But it is the necessary point of departure for the consideration of something that is not trite at all, that is to say, the mechanics of the exercise of power in a modern dictatorship—the crucial problem upon which Conquest touches here and there, but fails to face squarely.


The point is that a modern dictatorship which is supported neither by an ancient tradition (or close alliance with an ancient power, such as the Church) nor by the active consent of the governed must at all times justify its continuation in power. Being inherently unstable, it must therefore continually create and recreate the stability conditions of its power. To summarize what I have developed at greater length elsewhere, let me say that the most important among those stability conditions include: 1) Maintenance of a permanent condition of stress by creating enemies at home and abroad and/or by imposing upon the population gigantic tasks that would be unlikely to be carried out in the absence of the dictatorship; 2) incessant exercise of dictatorial power; 3) creation of a charismatic image of the dictator; 4) reference to an allegedly unchanged value system by which the actions of the dictatorship are justified, as well as to a utopian goal, carefully kept in a remote future; and 5) proscription of any deviating values, supported by threats and acts of repression.

These stability conditions are indeed distilled from the experience of the Soviet dictatorship, but the same dynamic force, the same inability to rest on their laurels, was characteristic of Napoleon and Hitler, and even of Napoleon III and Mussolini. “I am an upstart soldier,” said Napoleon; “my rule will not survive the day on which I have ceased to be strong and feared.” It was the search for stability, the need to vindicate his power, that pushed Napoleon into the disasters of the Spanish and Russian campaigns. It was the same force that propelled Hitler, saturated as he was with immense success both at home and abroad, into the catastrophe of the World War. Just so Stalin, after having conquered the peasantry in the highly dubious battle of the collectivization, plunged the country into the tragedy of the Great Repression.

It makes no difference in this context that Napoleon and Hitler lost and Stalin won. When Stalin, during his night vigils in the Kremlin, used to telephone—in the small hours of the morning—factory managers and party bureaucrats throughout the huge country, inquiring, commanding, and threatening, he knew well that incessant and arbitrary intervention of dictatorial power is one of the conditions of its stability. Napoleon acted very similarly when, at the height of his power, he used to issue orders from Berlin or Vienna concerning trifling administrative decisions in Paris or Naples. The only difference is that Stalin, because of the nature of the Soviet economic system, had a range of decisions at his disposal that greatly exceeded that of Napoleon’s.

It cannot be said that Conquest is entirely unaware of the fundamental problem of dictatorial rule. In describing Stalin’s studious efforts to manufacture his own charisma, to create the cult of his personality, Conquest sees those efforts “at least in part” as “the necessary cement of autocracy” (p. 70). When Stalin has the NKVD executioners executed, Conquest refers to “an old autocratic tradition” (p. 466). What is much more, he discerns the basic elements of Stalin’s dictatorship in the system created and perfected by Lenin, who said that he recognized “neither freedom, nor equality, nor labor democracy, if they are opposed to the interests of emancipation of labor”—naturally as these were interpreted by Lenin himself and as they curiously coincided with the interests of the dictatorship. It was Lenin who, in 1921, introduced resolutions prohibiting factions within the party and instituted surveillance of dissenting party members by the secret police, with Trotsky supporting him by declaring denunciations of such dissenters “an elementary obligation” of party membership (p. 6). Conquest is not blind to the connection between the confessions at the trials and the tradition of public self-denunciations at Party meetings which was established by Zinoviev and Kamenev, Trotsky and Pyatakov, as early as 1926 (p. 12).

But there are other things of crucial importance which Conquest understands less well or does not understand at all. When he says—quite correctly—that by 1934 Stalin for five years had been the undisputed head of party and state, the implication is that it was entirely unnecessary to launch an attack upon defeated men who lay prostrate at the dictator’s feet. For Conquest is unable to relate the Great Purge to the need for creating enemies and maintaining an atmosphere of distrust and mutual suspicion, a point on which Aristotle had incisively commented in his discussion of tyranny twenty-three centuries ago. The stern regimen of the dictator does not remove but on the contrary seeks to establish a Hobbesian situation in which a man is a wolf to his neighbor. Conquest wonders why an immense effort was made by the secret police to extract signed confessions from the arrested millions and is inclined to attribute it to formalistic insanity. But here again he fails to understand that the relation between the dictator and the security forces that protect him reveals the same basic instability of the dictatorship: in the nightmarish lawlessness of the regime, the order to obtain confessions, however preposterous they might be, implied the control of the dictator over the primary instrument of his power.

What seems to be the fantastic madness of the purge need not be attributed wholly, or even mainly, to Stalin’s sick mind. It can be viewed as rational behavior on the part of the dictatorship; as can be the sudden recourse to anti-Semitism after the war, which Conquest mentions but does not attempt to explain (p. 498), and which occurred during a dearth of possible or plausible enemies. No doubt, the problem of maintaining the stability of dictatorship is shot through with paradoxes. Keeping down the levels of consumption is not a popular policy, but it avoids a situation in which relative abundance would inevitably raise the question of the need for the continuation of the dictatorship. For a greater supply of material consumers’ goods tends to underline the scarcity of the less tangible commodity called liberty. At the same time, however, it did make very good sense to use the purge in order to attribute the desperate shortages of necessaries not to the policy of investment for investment’s sake and to the inefficiencies of the system, but to the nefarious actions of the wreckers, and to argue brazenly, as did Vyshinsky, that “In our country, rich in resources of all kinds, there could not have been and cannot be a situation in which a shortage of any product should exist.”

Nor was the mass purge of party bureaucrats likely to detract from the stability of the regime. For the fall of all those sub-tyrants meant promotion for at least an equal number of those who came to replace them. True, many beneficiaries of one stage of the purge became its victims at a later stage. But in a dictatorial regime men’s time horizon is low on either side of the prison bars.

Thus, to consider the Great Purge as irrational rather blurs our understanding of the horrible rationality of a dictatorship. Nor is it easy to accept Conquest’s statement that in 1934-38 Stalin carried out a revolution from which an entirely new political system emerged (p. 481). What is true is that unprecedented events took place in the course of which the group of old Bolsheviks was exterminated, the party bureaucracy radically renewed, and, above all, unbelievable sufferings were inflicted upon the population. Unprecedented was the degree to which the lie was given the status of a normal instrument of governmental policy. Conquest claims that Stalin was a constant reader of Machiavelli’s The Prince. This may very well have been the case. But if Machiavelli’s ghost had an opportunity to welcome Stalin’s arrival on the other bank of the Styx, he probably repeated the devil’s reproach to Prince de Bénévent: “Monsieur Talleyrand, you have exceeded my instructions!”

Yet it is much more reasonable to say that the “new political system” was established a long time before Stalin’s rise to monocracy, when a small group of desperate men seized the absolute power over the country and resolved to maintain that power at any cost. It is significant that Conquest, in a sentence I have quoted earlier, mentions in one breath “the will of one man” with that of a “small group.” A dictatorship is presumably stronger when headed by one dictator rather than a group of dictators, but the difference is not one between “political systems.” Besides, it is not even clear that, except for the removal of a possible threat from the army, Stalin’s personal position was much stronger at the end of the purge than at its inception. What can be said is that the stability conditions of the dictatorship were impressively displayed and effectively asserted over the period; and Conquest’s astonishment that this was done during a relative improvement in economic conditions from the miseries of the “man-made” famine of the early Thirties only shows that the requisites and mechanics of the exercise of dictatorial power are less clear to him than they should be.

Having explained so much in terms of Stalin’s personality, Conquest naturally finds it somewhat difficult to interpret the course of events after Stalin’s passing from the scene. He says: “After Stalin’s death, the machine he created continued to rule the country, as it does to this day. The principle of one party rule, the overriding competence of that party in all spheres of life, the preservation of its monolithic nature—and rule over it by a small central body—all continued” (p. 518). This statement is rather awkwardly phrased, because what Conquest, in a parenthetical afterthought, calls “a small central body” should have come first, and he may well have added that what is called “the party” is not, and has not been for a very long time, a party in any accepted meaningful sense of the word. Moreover, it is strange and at variance with Conquest’s own presentation in his introductory chapters to credit—or debit—Stalin with the establishment of one-party rule or of its overriding competence in all spheres of life.

But what is Conquest’s explanation for the continuation of the system? His answer is inertia: “Terror builds its own cadres, institutions, and habits of mind. And the party machine, whose loyalties for so long had been in practice simply to itself…had become Djilas’s New Class, no more capable of easily changing its ways than the old classes and bureaucracies of the past had been” (p. 520). I do not find this very convincing, and not just because in democratic societies classes did “change their ways” in a very thorough fashion. Something else is more important. Conquest makes no attempt to scrutinize the personality of the members of “the small body” that is currently in power. At length he has shifted his explanation from personality to system, but he has done so at the price of consistency and without focusing on the essential moving force of that system, that is to say, the unwillingness of the dictatorship to renounce its power and its vital interest in maintaining the conditions of stability—which indeed have been weakened in the throes of the succession crisis and the ensuing power struggles.

In the concluding passage of his book Conquest quotes from a pamphlet by Rosa Luxemburg. Written in 1918, the pamphlet contained a critique of the young Bolshevik dictatorship. She argued there that the absence of general elections, of unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, of a free struggle of opinion—in short, the absence of democracy—must cause a brutalization of public life. One may safely assume that Rosa Luxemburg never dreamed of the horrible extent to which her prediction would come true. But what matters here is that the prediction was made without any reference to the personalities involved and certainly without any inkling of Stalin’s political potentialities, a circumstance Conquest would have done well to mention. In fact, had he put that quotation from Rosa Luxemburg at the beginning rather than at the end of his book, he probably would have been led to place his unbelievably rich store of critically sifted information within a broader and more convincing interpretative framework.

Let me repeat, however, what I have said before. Distribution of emphasis in historical interpretations is an uncertain and elusive matter. In a little story by Zoshchenko—the great Soviet satirist who finally ran afoul of Zhdanov—the mother of a young communist comes to a priest anxiously asking advice about her son who is a member of the League of Godless, who claims that there is no God and that everything is simply chemistry. The priest ponders the problem and then surprisingly says: “Who knows, perhaps there is nothing but chemistry.” Who knows then? Perhaps there is nothing but personality.

This Issue

June 19, 1969