The Great Terror

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This article is about the book by Robert Conquest. For other uses, see Great Terror (disambiguation).
The Great Terror: A Reassessment by Robert Conquest

The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties is a book by British historian Robert Conquest, published in 1968. It gave rise to an alternate title of the period in Soviet history known as the Great Purge. Conquest's title was in turn an allusion to the period that was called Reign of Terror (French: la Terreur, and, from June to July 1794, la Grande Terreur -the Great Terror-) during the French Revolution.[1]

A revised version of the book, called The Great Terror: A Reassessment, was printed in 1990 after Conquest was able to amend the text, having consulted recently opened Soviet archives.

One of the first books by a Western writer to discuss the Great Purge in the Soviet Union, it was based mainly on information which had been made public, either officially or by individuals, during the Khrushchev Thaw in the period 1956–1964. It also drew on accounts by Russian and Ukrainian émigrés and exiles dating back to the 1930s. Lastly it was based on an analysis of official Soviet documents such as the census.

Conquest's background[edit]

Educated as a historian at Oxford University, Conquest joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1937 and broke with it in 1939, when the Communist party denounced the war as imperialist and capitalist.[2] During World War II he enlisted and worked for British intelligence in Bulgaria and in 1948 for the British Foreign Office in the IRD created to "collect and summarize reliable information about Soviet and communist misdoings, to disseminate it to friendly journalists, politicians, and trade unionists, and to support, financially and otherwise, anticommunist publications."[3]

The book[edit]

The first critical inquiry into the Great Purge outside USSR had been made as early as 1937, by the Dewey Commission, which published its findings in the form of a 422-page book entitled Not Guilty (this title referred to the people who had been charged with various crimes by Stalin's government and therefore purged; the Dewey Commission found them not guilty). The most important aim of Robert Conquest's The Great Terror was to widen the understanding of the purges beyond the previous narrow focus on the "Moscow Trials" of disgraced Communist Party leaders such as Nikolai Bukharin and Grigory Zinoviev. The question of why these leaders had pleaded guilty and confessed to various crimes at the trials had become a topic of discussion for a number of western writers, and had underlain books such as George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. According to the book, the trials and executions of these former Communist leaders were a minor detail of the purges, which, together with man-made famines, had led to 20 million deaths according to his estimates. In the preface to the 40th anniversary edition of The Great Terror, Conquest lowered these figures but claimed that the total number of deaths brought about by the various Soviet terror campaigns "can hardly be lower than some fifteen million."[4]

In the book, Conquest disputed the assertion made by Nikita Khrushchev, and supported by many Western leftists, that Stalin and his purges were an aberration from the ideals of the Revolution and were contrary to the principles of Leninism. Conquest argued that Stalinism was a natural consequence of the system established by Lenin, although he conceded that the personal character traits of Stalin had brought about the particular horrors of the late 1930s. Neal Ascherson noted: "Everyone by then could agree that Stalin was a very wicked man and a very evil one, but we still wanted to believe in Lenin; and Conquest said that Lenin was just as bad and that Stalin was simply carrying out Lenin's programme."[5]

In the book Conquest's sharply criticized Western intellectuals for their blindness towards the realities of the Soviet Union, both in the 1930s and, in some cases, even in the 1960s. He described figures, such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Jean-Paul Sartre, Walter Duranty, Sir Bernard Pares, Harold Laski, D. N. Pritt, Theodore Dreiser and Romain Rolland as dupes of Stalin and apologists for his regime for various comments which, according to him, were denying, excusing, or justifying various aspects of the purges. But in fact, the Webbs, Shaw, Rolland and others had died by 1950, well before knowledge of Stalin's purges were known in the West, revealed in 1956 by Nikita Khrushchev in his famous speech denouncing the dictator's personality cult.[6]

A widespread story recounts that when Conquest was asked to provide a new title for an anniversary edition, he replied, "How about I Told You So, You Fucking Fools?" According to Conquest, this never happened, and was a joking invention of writer Kingsley Amis.[7]


Many leading historians in Soviet history have criticized Conquest's methodology and use of sources, accusing him of misusing them and of having a non-scientific approach from an historical point of view.

In 1979 Professor J. Arch Getty wrote in his Ph.D. dissertation:

"Sometimes, the “scholarship” had been more than simply careless. Recent investigations of British intelligence activities (following in the wake of U.S. post-Watergate revelations), suggest that Robert Conquest, author of the highly influential Great Terror, accepted payment from British intelligence agencies for consciously falsifying information about the Soviet Union. Consequently, the works of such an individual can hardly be considered valid scholarly works by his peers in the Western academic community."[8]

"the standard interpretations of the “Great Purges”, such as those by Fainsod and Conquest, are seriously flawed, cannot account for the available evidence, and are thus no longer tenable."[9]

The dominant tendency [in writing the history of the “purges”] has been automatically to believe anything an emigre asserted while automatically denying the truth of everything from the Stalinist side. If one wanted a balanced picture of Tsar Ivan IV, (“The Terrible”), one would not accept at face value the descriptions of the exiled Prince Kurbsky in Poland, during a period of Russo-Polish war. If one wanted a balanced picture of Mao Tse-Tung's regime in China, one would not accept Chiang Kai-Shek's version in the early 1950's as essentially reliable. If one were not interested in such a view, one would. The apparent monstrosity of Stalin's crimes and a generation of Cold War attitudes have contributed to what would be considered sloppy scholarship in any other area of inquiry.[8]

Again in 1985, J. Arch Getty argued that the book of Conquest, uniformly based on memoir sources (as admitted by the author himself), was thus unreliable:

"For no other period [the Great Purges of the 1930s] or topic have historians been so eager to write and accept history-by-anecdote. Grand analytical generalizations have come from secondhand bits of overheard corridor gossip. Prison camp stories (“My friend met Bukharin’s wife in a camp and she said…”) have become primary sources on central political decision making. The need to generalize from isolated and unverified particulars has transformed rumors into sources and has equated repetition of stories with confirmation."[10]

Indeed, Conquest wrote that “truth can thus only percolate in the form of hearsay” and that on political matters “basically the best, though not infallible, source is rumor.” [11]

While citing these quotes of Conquest, Getty added:

"Such statements would be astonishing in any other field of history. Of course, historians do not accept hearsay and rumor as evidence. Conquest goes on to say that the best way to check rumors is to compare them with one another. This procedure would be sound only if rumors were not repeated and if memoirists did not read each other’s works" and "As long as the unexplored classes of sources include archival and press material, it is neither safe nor necessary to rely on rumor and anecdote".[10]

Further on:

"In Conquest’s, Terror, half the notes in the chapters “Stalin Prepares” and “The Kirov Murder” are to emigre and defector raconteurs who were not close to the events they describe."[12]

The Russian Trotskyist historian Vadim Rogovin pointed out the lack of accuracy of Conquest's work:

"With any of these authors [Western Sovietologists and Russian dissidents], it is not difficult to find many factual errors, in exact formulations, juggling of facts, and outright distortions. This can be explained on the whole by two reasons. The first is the limited nature of the historical sources which these authors had at their disposal. Thus, the basic research for R. Conquest’s The Great Terror consists of an analysis of Soviet newspapers and other official publications, to which are added references to the memoir accounts of several people who managed to escape from the USSR. The second reason is that the majority of Sovietologists and dissidents served a definite social and political purpose–they used this enormous historical tragedy to show that its fatal premise was the “utopian” communist idea and revolutionary practice of Bolshevism. This prompted the researchers concerned to ignore those historical sources which contradict their conceptual schemes and paradigms."[13]

German historian Gábor T. Rittersporn wrote:

"Essentially he [Conquest] bases this on the memoirs of ex-prisoners who assert that between 4 and 5.5% of the Soviet population were incarcerated or deported during those years. It seems improbable that men who are inside penal institutions would be able to form any exact idea either of the proportion of the population which is still at liberty or the numbers recently arrived in all the other camps and prisons, which they are not personally familiar with even though they had come to know a few by being moved around."[14]

As Hiroaki Kuromiya stated on his essay Guide to émigré and dissident memoir literature:

"secondhand accounts in many emigre and dissident memoirs do present serious problems to historians. The control of the state over information often forced Soviet citizens to rely on rumor, hearsay, and gossip [...] secondhand information in the literature cannot be taken at face value. Western historians do not necessarily take due caution and discretion in this respect.[...] a notorious example the leading Western expert on the Great Purges, Robert Conquest, [...]

Conquest offers remedies to the problems of hearsay memoirs as historical sources: "Good rough criteria are whether an author is an authenticable figure, or a mere name on a book (like some writers who have had unexplained success in scholarly circles in the West); and whether the information checks against other and particularly later-reports, and is itself consonant with the political and general atmosphere;"[15]

The first remedy is flawed, because authenticable figures do not necessarily write authentic accounts. The second remedy too is at least partially faulty, because, as Getty points out, it is sound only if rumors were not repeated and if memoirists did not read each others's works. These remedies are necessary steps to be taken by historians, but do not guarantee the reliability of information. Some memoirs are rank forgeries."[16]

In 1986, historian Robert W. Thurston published an article where he affirmed that very, very few people were in fact “terrorized” thus asserting the dishonesty of the term “Great Terror”.[17]

This article elicited a hostile response by Conquest,[18] Thurston replied accusing Conquest to rely on lousy evidence stating "my differences with Robert Conquest center on the nature and use of evidence". And "I am delighted that he now believes that “life went on, games were played” and so during the Ezhovshchina, for that is simply not the picture he has presented to date."[19]

In fact, if we are to believe Conquest at key junctures, he must offer more, or in some cases, any, evidence. Among his unsupported assertions in his response is that life in a totalitarian country is roughly comparable to being at a warfront. To support this notion in The Great Terror, he quoted only the memoirs of Robert Graves on English soldiers in World War I. We need more than that, but the memoirs I cited show something very different. (I find the totalitarian model in general, increasingly rickety, but I will spare us that issue here.) Another assertion: “the Soviet Union in a goodish year like 1935 is comparable to one of the most repressive dictatorships of today.” This must be shown, but I have found indications to the contrary. Another: peasants were “major victims” in 1936-1938. Perhaps, but we need more proof […].[20]

Instead, Conquest […] finds the memoir evidence sound where it supports his views and worthless when it does not. This statement leads me to his use of evidence in general. First, I am puzzled by his understanding of the word [estimate] in one case. Weissberg made an estimate, as he plainly said, of the total arrested. This estimate is no more “solid empirical evidence” than anyone else’s calculation is.[21]

I will examine one last assumption in the response: I cited seven, not one, cases of people who spent much more than three to four months in prison; yet Conquest clings to his original statement on prison turnover, another key part of his estimate of total arrests. My evidence is substantial, given the nature of the sources. It is much more than Conquest has offered, and now he must counter with some detailed material. He has attacked my use of memoirs–again, ironic criticism coming from him–all the more reason he should move beyond the general, often unreliable, statements in survivors’ accounts to an examination of the specific evidence they present. His massive generalizations require support: the “outside public” felt such and such by 1937, the whole country was “broken” in 1939. I prefer to call my own language on such points cautious rather than slippery; but I would call his wording unjustifiable. How can anyone say that 170 million people felt any one thing or another?[22]

Conquest replied trashing Thurston's book Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia, 1934-1941 when it was published by Yale University Press.[23]

Against them, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening up of the Soviet archives in 1991, Conquest argued theat his claims were validated to have been accurate. But again Conquest's estimates of the death toll were contested by sovietologists J. Arch Getty and Gábor T. Rittersporn as being too high.[24]

Nevertheless, some historians agree with Conquest and maintain their original, higher estimates, among them Stalin biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore, Perestroika architect and former head of the "Presidential Committee for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression" Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev, and the director of Yale's "Annals of Communism" series Jonathan Brent, putting the death toll at about 20 million.[25] Russian historian Dmitri Volkogonov (who was special adviser for defence issues to the Russian President Boris Yeltsin until 1994), is also broadly in agreement with Conquest.[26]

In 1997, Robert Conquest stated: "We are all inclined to accept the Zemskov totals (even if not as complete) with their 14 million intake to Gulag 'camps' alone, to which must be added 4–5 million going to Gulag 'colonies', to say nothing of the 3.5 million already in, or sent to, 'labour settlements'. However taken, these are surely 'high' figures."[27]

But in the preface to the 40th anniversary edition of The Great Terror (2007), Conquest lowered his estimates stating:

"Exact numbers may never be known with complete certainty, but the total of deaths caused by the whole range of Soviet regime's terrors can hardly be lower than some thirteen to fifteen million."[28]

In Eric Hobsbawm's opinion Conquest's work is now to be considered outdated and obsolete in the field of scientific historical research:

"Much of what actually happened can now be known because information is available, although during pratically all the life of the USSR much was inaccessible, [...]. This is why an enormous mass of literature that appeared during that time will now have to be junked, whatever its ingenuity in using fragmentary sources and the plausibility of its guesswork. We just won't need it any more. Robert Conquest's The Great Terror, for instance, will drop out of sight as the major treatment of its subject, simply because the archival sources are now available, though these sources won't eliminate all argument. Conquest will be read as a remarkable pioneer effort to assess the Stalin Terror, but one which as inevitably become obsolete as a treatment of the terrible facts it tried to investigate. In short, he will eventually be read more for what his book tells us about the historiography of the Soviet era than for what it tells us about its history. When better or more complete data are available, they must take the place of poor and incomplete ones. This alone will transform the historiography of the Soviet era, although it won't answer all our questions".[29]


  1. ^ Helen Rappaport (1999). Joseph Stalin: A Biographical Companion. ABC-CLIO. p. 110. ISBN 1576070840. Retrieved 29 September 2015. 
  2. ^ "Robert Conquest obituary". Retrieved 11 September 2015. 
  3. ^ Timothy Garton Ash. "Orwell's List" (review), New York Review of Books, 23 September 2003.
  4. ^ Robert Conquest, Preface, The Great Terror: A Reassessment: 40th Anniversary Edition, Oxford University Press, USA, 2007. p. xvi
  5. ^ Brown, A. (2003, February 15) Scourge and Poet, The Guardian retrieved 06.08.2015 [1]
  6. ^
  7. ^ Conquest, Robert. "Kingsley Amis and ‘The Great Terror’". The New York Review of Books (April 12, 2007). Retrieved 19 May 2015. 
  8. ^ a b Getty, J. Arch (1979). "The Great Purges Reconsidered," Ph.D. dissertation. Boston College. p. 48. Retrieved 24 September 2015. 
  9. ^ Getty, J. Arch (1979). "The Great Purges Reconsidered," Ph.D. dissertation. Boston College. p. 53. Retrieved 24 September 2015. 
  10. ^ a b Getty, John Arch (1985). Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938. N.Y.: Cambridge University Press. p. 5. ISBN 0521335701. 
  11. ^ Conquest, Robert (1968). The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties. New York: Macmillan. p. 754. 
  12. ^ Getty, John Arch (1985). Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938. N.Y.: Cambridge University Press. pp. 218–219. ISBN 0521335701. 
  13. ^ Rogovin, Vadim (1998). 1937: Year of Terror. Mehring Books. p. xx. ISBN 0929087771. 
  14. ^ Rittersporn, Gabor (1991). Stalinist Simplifications and Soviet Complications, 1933-1953. New York: Harwood Academic Publishers. pp. 7–12. ISBN 3718651076. 
  15. ^ Conquest, Robert (1968). The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties. New York: Macmillan. p. 755. 
  16. ^ Fitzpatrick, Sheila; Viola, Lynne (1992). A Researcher's Guide to Sources on Soviet Social History in the 1930s. M.E. Sharpe. pp. 257–258. ISBN 1563240785. Retrieved 24 September 2015. 
  17. ^ Thurston, Robert W. "Fear and Belief in the USSR's 'Great Terror': Response to Arrest, 1935-1939". Slavic Review 45 (2 Summer, 1986): 214–234. doi:10.2307/2499175. Retrieved 24 September 2015. 
  18. ^ Conquest, Robert. "What is Terror?". Slavic Review 45 (2 Summer, 1986): 235–237. doi:10.2307/2499176. Retrieved 24 September 2015. 
  19. ^ Thurston, Robert W. "On Desk-bound Parochialism, Commonsense Perspective, and Lousy Evidence: A Reply to Robert Conquest". Slavic Review 45 (2 Summer, 1986): 238. doi:10.2307/2499177. Retrieved 24 September 2015. 
  20. ^ Thurston, Robert W. "On Desk-bound Parochialism, Commonsense Perspective, and Lousy Evidence: A Reply to Robert Conquest". Slavic Review 45 (2 Summer, 1986): 241. doi:10.2307/2499177. Retrieved 24 September 2015. 
  21. ^ Thurston, Robert W. "On Desk-bound Parochialism, Commonsense Perspective, and Lousy Evidence: A Reply to Robert Conquest". Slavic Review 45 (2 Summer, 1986): 240. doi:10.2307/2499177. Retrieved 24 September 2015. 
  22. ^ Thurston, Robert W. "On Desk-bound Parochialism, Commonsense Perspective, and Lousy Evidence: A Reply to Robert Conquest". Slavic Review 45 (2 Summer, 1986): 242. doi:10.2307/2499177. Retrieved 24 September 2015. 
  23. ^ "Response to the Death of Robert Conquest". Retrieved 24 September 2015. 
  24. ^ J. Arch Getty; Gábor T. Rittersporn; Viktor N. Zemskov (October 1994). "Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-War Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence". The American Historical Review 98 (4): 1017–1049. doi:10.2307/2166597. JSTOR 2166597. 
  25. ^ Simon Sebag Montefiore. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. pp. 649: "Perhaps 20 million had been killed; 28 million deported, of whom 18 million had slaved in the Gulags.".  See also: Alexander N. Yakovlev (2002). A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia. Yale University Press. pp. 234: "My own many years and experience in the rehabilitation of victims of political terror allow me to assert that the number of people in the USSR who were killed for political motives or who died in prisons and camps during the entire period of Soviet power totalled 20 to 25 million. And unquestionably one must add those who died of famine – more than 5.5 million during the civil war and more than 5 million during the 1930s.".  and Robert Gellately. Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe. Knopf, 2007 ISBN 1-4000-4005-1 p. 584: "More recent estimations of the Soviet-on-Soviet killing have been more 'modest' and range between ten and twenty million." and Stéphane Courtois. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror Repression. Harvard University Press, 1999. p. 4: "U.S.S.R.: 20 million deaths." and Jonathan Brent, Inside the Stalin Archives: Discovering the New Russia. Atlas & Co., 2008 (ISBN 0977743330) Introduction online (PDF file): Estimations on the number of Stalin's victims over his twenty-five year reign, from 1928 to 1953, vary widely, but 20 million is now considered the minimum. and Steven Rosefielde, Red Holocaust. Routledge, 2009. ISBN 0-415-77757-7 pg 17: "We now know as well beyond a reasonable doubt that there were more than 13 million Red Holocaust victims 1929–53, and this figure could rise above 20 million."
  26. ^ Dmitri Volkogonov. Autopsy for an Empire: The Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Regime. pp. 139: "Between 1929 and 1953 the state created by Lenin and set in motion by Stalin deprived 21.5 million Soviet citizens of their lives.". 
  27. ^ Victims of Stalinism: A Comment (Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 49, No. 7 (November , 1997), pp. 1317–1319)
  28. ^ Robert Conquest, Preface, The Great Terror: A Reassessment: 40th Anniversary Edition, Oxford University Press, USA, 2007. p. xviii
  29. ^ Hobsbawm, Eric (2011). On History. Hachette UK. p. Chapter 19. ISBN 1780220510. 
  • Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties (1968)
  • Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment, Oxford University Press, May 1990, hardcover, ISBN 0-19-505580-2; trade paperback, Oxford, September 1991, ISBN 0-19-507132-8