The Great Terror

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The Great Terror
The Great Terror.JPG
Cover of the revised version of the book, The Great Terror: A Reassessment, 1990
AuthorsRobert Conquest
Original titleThe Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties
CountryUnited Kingdom
SubjectsThe Great Purge
Soviet Union
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication date
Media typePrint
Pages584 (first edition)

The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties is a book by British historian Robert Conquest which was published in 1968.[1] It gave rise to an alternate title of the period in Soviet history known as the Great Purge. Conquest's title was also an evocative allusion to the period that was called the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution (French: la Terreur and from June to July 1794 la Grande Terreur, "the Great Terror").[2]

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.


The first critical inquiry into the Great Purge outside the Soviet Union 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 Joseph Stalin's government and therefore purged; the Dewey Commission found them not guilty). The most important aim of 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 appendix of the original 1968 edition of The Great Terror, Conquest estimated 700,000 "legal" executions took place during 1937 and 1938, which was roughly confirmed by the 681,692 executions found in the Soviet archives for these two years. In the preface to the 40th anniversary edition of The Great Terror, Conquest wrote that he had been "correct on the vital matter—the numbers put to death: about one million", but lowered other figures saying the total number of deaths brought about by the various Soviet terror campaigns "can hardly be lower than some fifteen million".[3]

In the book, Conquest disputed the assertion made by Nikita Khrushchev and supported by many Western leftists, namely 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 Vladimir 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".[4]

In the book, Conquest 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 denying, excusing, or justifying various aspects of the purges.

A widespread story recounts that when Conquest was asked to provide a new title for an anniversary edition, after his initial findings were verified by the opened Soviet archives, 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.[5]


After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening up of the Soviet archives, Conquest's estimates of death tolls and other aspects of his research were challenged by many historians, including Arch Getty,[6][7][8] Trotskyist historian Vadim Rogovin[9] and German historian Gábor T. Rittersporn.[10]

Other 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 University's Annals of Communism series Jonathan Brent, putting the death toll at about 20 million.[11] 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.[12]

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".[13] In the preface to the 40th anniversary edition of The Great Terror (2007), Conquest nonetheless said: "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 fifteen million".[14]

Historian Stephen G. Wheatcroft argues that Conquest's victim totals for Stalinist repressions are too high, even in his reassessments.[15][16]


  1. ^ Robert Conquest (2008). The Great Terror: A Reassessment. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-531699-5.
  2. ^ Helen Rappaport (1999). Joseph Stalin: A Biographical Companion. ABC-CLIO. p. 110. ISBN 1576070840. Retrieved 29 September 2015.
  3. ^ Robert Conquest, Preface, The Great Terror: A Reassessment: 40th Anniversary Edition, Oxford University Press, USA, 2007. p. xvi
  4. ^ Brown, A. (2003, February 15) Scourge and Poet, The Guardian retrieved 06.08.2015 [1]
  5. ^ Conquest, Robert. "Kingsley Amis and 'The Great Terror'". The New York Review of Books (April 12, 2007). Retrieved 19 May 2015.
  6. ^ Getty, J. Arch (1979). "The Great Purges Reconsidered," Ph.D. dissertation. Boston College. p. 48. Retrieved 24 September 2015.
  7. ^ Getty, J. Arch (1979). "The Great Purges Reconsidered," Ph.D. dissertation. Boston College. p. 53. Retrieved 24 September 2015.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Rogovin, Vadim (1998). 1937: Year of Terror. Mehring Books. p. xx. ISBN 0929087771.
  10. ^ Rittersporn, Gabor (1991). Stalinist Simplifications and Soviet Complications, 1933-1953. New York: Harwood Academic Publishers. pp. 7–12. ISBN 3718651076.
  11. ^ 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."
  12. ^ 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.".
  13. ^ Victims of Stalinism: A Comment (Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 49, No. 7 (November , 1997), pp. 1317–1319)
  14. ^ Robert Conquest, Preface, The Great Terror: A Reassessment: 40th Anniversary Edition, Oxford University Press, USA, 2007. p. xviii
  15. ^ Wheatcroft, Stephen G. (1999). "Victims of Stalinism and the Soviet Secret Police: The Comparability and Reliability of the Archival Data. Not the Last Word" (PDF). Europe-Asia Studies. 51 (2): 340–342. doi:10.1080/09668139999056.
  16. ^ Wheatcroft, S. G. (2000). "The Scale and Nature of Stalinist Repression and its Demographic Significance: On Comments by Keep and Conquest" (PDF). Europe-Asia Studies. 52 (6): 1143–1159. doi:10.1080/09668130050143860. PMID 19326595.
  • Robert Conquest (1968). The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties.
  • Robert Conquest (1991). 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.