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The Great Terror: A Reassessment

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: A Reassessment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.


I read Conquest's first book of the same name, published in 1970, and thought it was time to read his updated version, though 1990 now seems a long time ago too. He says in the introduction that, by 1990, a lot of the second-hand information he recorded earlier had been confirmed and much new had come to light. He wrote this book because Russia continues to struggle with the aftermath of post-revolutionary events dreadful beyond comprehension, and the world should know what happened.

For persons who read about the attacks on and deportation of persons in the Ukraine, and sometimes their escape from Russia, and would like to know more about the context in which these things took place, this is an excellent one-stop source. Conquest deals especially with Stalin's terror during the years 1933 through 1936, but includes events several years before
and after.

Conquest deals with the terror systematically. He begins with the maneuvering that brought Stalin to absolute power. By the early 1930s, the communist movement had reached a certain maturity. The government structure allowed for no dissenting sub-parties, and there were now Old Bolsheviks who had devoted their lives to the Party. When Stalin began to move against
those who had been his close friends and co-workers for years, nobody could believe that he would be as harsh and ruthless as he would become in consolidating his own power.

In an almost plodding style that lets readers create their own mental images, Conquest traces Stalin's process. Trumping up outrageous charges of sabotage ("wrecking"), spying for the Germans or Japanese, Trotskyite allegiance, contact with foreigners, being religious, plotting Stalin's death, and a long list of others, some of them incredibly trivial, he had persons arrested. They would be interrogated in relays (the conveyor), tortured, and confessions extracted. Most could be induced to "name names" of co-conspirators who would in turn be arrested. Wives, children above the age of 12, relatives, acquaintances,...would be rounded up, sometimes after
maddening intervals. Though there were a number of show trials, some attended by western observers, many were summarily shot, imprisoned, or transported to labor camps in the east or far north of the Soviet Union. The author explores prison and camp conditions, the plight of families, the personalities of the NKVD agents who did the actual work, and Stalin's work
habit of daily initialing long lists of persons to be put to death. After the saboteurs and Trotskyites were taken out (or while), he went after the clearly Stalinist leadership. Arrested and shot or deported to degrading conditions were engineers, scientists, doctors (one camp contained 800), writers, university professors and teachers, generals and almost the entire
officer corps of the army and navy, and heads of all divisions of the communist party even in the villages. When new persons took their places, these were also arrested and removed from their homes and towns, as were their replacements in turn, down to the fourth or fifth (at least once, the 13th) replacement. The purge extended to leaders of communist parties around
the world, through assassinations. Communists in America and England were least likely to be victims. Diplomats of all grades, including ambassadors who returned to Russia, were arrested and sentenced. They had, after all, had contact with foreigners.

Little by little, this pattern trickled down to ordinary folk until nobody at all was immune to hearing the knock on the door in the middle of the night. In one village, all the men between the ages of 20 and 50 were arrested and hauled away. Their crime? They had deliberately sabotaged the harvest, reducing the nation¹s food supply, by planting the crops late. The
NKVD became swamped, but continued to extract and type up charges and " confessions," conduct 20-minute trials (or none), and jam hundreds into cells meant for just a few. It ran homes for children orphaned by the long (often 25-year) sentences, and managed the execrable camps for their parents. One estimate says that, when Stalin died in 1953, there were some
12 million in the camps, untold hundreds of thousands in mass graves, and that up to 40 million persons had been "suppressed" in some way during the period. He had consolidated his personal power, and, by the late 1940s, had the country where he wanted it.

How did the rest of the world react? The basic information about what was happening was available throughout the period, though it took awhile for just how bad it was to sink in. Here as there nobody could quite believe any man would do such a thing to his own people, much less skim off the very people the country needed to modernize it and make it run. The major
reaction for a long time was denial. Most puzzling was the affirmation on the part of western intellectuals and political leaders that JUST MAYBE, a little of the abuse was true, but that Russia was largely a wonderful place where people flourished in a noncompetitive environment. Never was 100 percent of anything or anybody destroyed, and someone would point to the
remainder as proof that everything was okay. A US vice president visited an area of camps and bought the cleaned-up setting as typical. The newspapers were full of glorious achievements and accolades for things well done. Stalin banked, accurately, on the west's naivete. He could, for example, put on a clumsy show trial and have everyone believing that justice was being
done.

Are the rural Germans mentioned? Mostly no, though there is a brief reference to the deportation of the Volga Germans in 1941. The numbers of killed and deported were so great that, for the historian, this event appears to have been just one detail among hundreds. The Ukraine was a
special problem for Stalin and he went after the people living there with true viciousness. Any number of times when issues involving the Ukraine are mentioned in the book, the informed German Russian reader will know that the Germans living there were part of the "problem."

The book is not especially easy to read. I wish Conquest would have given thumbnail bios of the Russian leaders mentioned most, as he did for a few military figures, and would have provided a chart that showed the structure of the government. He assumed too much background on the part of the reader. I stumbled and tripped over the huge number of polysyllabic Russian names
but finally decided that I could skim over most of them and still get the story. There is an occasional turgid passage, but most of the writing is clear enough. Get it from your library or buy the paperback and read it.

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