The Great Terror (book)

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The Great Terror
The Great Terror.JPG
Cover of The Great Terror: A Reassessment, the 1990 revised version of the book
AuthorsRobert Conquest
Original titleThe Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties
CountryUnited Kingdom
SubjectsGreat Purge
Stalin era
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 the opened Soviet archives.[3] The book was funded and widely disseminated by Information Research Department, who also published Orwell's list collected by Conquest's secretary Celia Kirwan.[4]

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, and on an analysis of official documents such as the Soviet census. It also drew on accounts by Russian and Ukrainian émigrés and exiles dating back to the 1930s.[5] The book was well received in the popular press[6] but its estimates started a debate among historians.[5] Conquest defended his higher estimates of 20 million, which are supported by some historians and other authors in the popular press, while other historians said that even his reassessments were still too high[7] and are considerably less than originally thought.[8]


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 All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) 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, Conquest estimated that 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.[9] In the preface to the 40th anniversary edition of The Great Terror,[9] Conquest wrote that he had been "correct on the vital matter—the numbers put to death: about one million" but lowered other figures,[10] saying that the total number of deaths brought about by the various Soviet terror campaigns "can hardly be lower than some 13 to 15 million."[6]

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 October Revolution, and were contrary to the principles of Leninism. Conquest posited 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 wrote: "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."[11] Conquest sharply criticized Western intellectuals for what he described as 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 Webb and Sidney Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Jean-Paul Sartre, Walter Duranty, Bernard Pares, Harold Laski, Denis 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.[12] A widespread story recounts that when he was asked to provide a new title for an anniversary edition, after his initial findings were verified by the opened Soviet archives,[6] Conquest 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.[3]

Reception, impact, and debates[edit]

The Great Terror was the first comprehensive research of the Great Purge, which took place in the Soviet Union between 1934 and 1939 according to Conquest. Many aspects of his book remains disputed by Sovietologist historians and researchers on Russian and Soviet history. Many reviewers at the time were not impressed by his way of writing about the Great Terror, which was in the tradition of great men history.[13] In 1995, investigative journalist Paul Lashmar suggested that the reputation of prominent academics such as Conquest was built upon work derived from material provided by the Information Research Department.[14] In 1996, historian Eric Hobsbawm praised The Great Terror as "a remarkable pioneer effort to assess the Stalin Terror" but said that this work and others were now obsolete "simply because the archival sources are now available."[15] According to Denis Healey, The Great Terror was an important influence, "but one which confirmed people in their views rather than converted them."[11]

After the dissolution 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 several historians, including J. Arch Getty,[16] Gábor T. Rittersporn,[17] Hobsbawm,[15] and Vadim Rogovin.[18] Michael Ellman and Getty in particular criticised Conquest for relying on hearsay and rumour as evidence,[19] and cautioned that historians should instead utilize archive material.[5] Ellman distinguished between historians who base their research on archive materials, and those like Conquest whose estimates are based on witnesses evidence and other data that is unreliable.[5] Historian Stephen G. Wheatcroft said that Conquest's victim totals for Stalinist repressions are too high, even in his reassessments.[20] Wheatcroft stated that historians relied on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to support their estimates of deaths under Stalin in the tens of millions but research in the state archives vindicated the lower estimates, while adding that the popular press has continued to include serious errors that should not be cited, or relied on, in academia.[21] Historian Timothy D. Snyder wrote that it is still taken for granted that Stalin killed more people than Adolf Hitler but the estimates of 6–9 million for the Stalin regime are considerably less than originally thought, while those for Nazi Germany are higher and in line with previous estimates.[8]

Other historians, such as Stéphane Courtois[22] and Steven Rosefielde,[23] agree with Conquest and maintain their original, higher estimates, while Robert Gellately put more recent estimates at 10–20 million.[24] Among other authors published by the popular press who agree with Conquest's estimates are Stalin biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore,[25] perestroika architect and former head of the Presidential Committee for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev,[26] and the director of Yale University's Annals of Communism series Jonathan Brent.[27] 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.[28] In 1997, 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."[29] In the preface to the 40th anniversary edition of The Great Terror (2007), Conquest wrote: "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."[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Conquest 2008.
  2. ^ Rappaport 1999, p. 110.
  3. ^ a b Conquest, 12 April 2007.
  4. ^ Taylor 2002.
  5. ^ a b c d Ellman 2002.
  6. ^ a b c Williamson 2015.
  7. ^ Wheatcroft 1999; Wheatcroft 2000.
  8. ^ a b Snyder 2010, p. 384; Snyder 2011.
  9. ^ a b c Conquest 2007, p. xvi, "Preface".
  10. ^ Conquest 2007, p. xviii, "Preface".
  11. ^ a b Brown 2003.
  12. ^ Conquest 1990, pp. 466–475.
  13. ^ Samuelson 2009.
  14. ^ Defty 2013, p. 3.
  15. ^ a b Hobsbawm 2011.
  16. ^ Getty 1985, p. 222.
  17. ^ Rittersporn 1991, pp. 7–12.
  18. ^ Rogovin 1998, p. xx.
  19. ^ Getty 1985, p. 5.
  20. ^ Wheatcroft 2000.
  21. ^ Wheatcroft 1999, p. 341: "For decades, many historians counted Stalin' s victims in 'tens of millions', which was a figure supported by Solzhenitsyn. Since the collapse of the USSR, the lower estimates of the scale of the camps have been vindicated. The arguments about excess mortality are far more complex than normally believed. R. Conquest, The Great Terror: A Re-assessment (London, 1992) does not really get to grips with the new data and continues to present an exaggerated picture of the repression. The view of the 'revisionists' has been largely substantiated (J. Arch Getty & R. T. Manning (eds), Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives (Cambridge, 1993)). The popular press, even TLS and The Independent, have contained erroneous journalistic articles that should not be cited in respectable academic articles."
  22. ^ Courtois 1999, p. 4: "U.S.S.R.: 20 million deaths."
  23. ^ Rosefielde 2009, p. 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."
  24. ^ Gellately 2007, p. 584: "More recent estimations of the Soviet-on-Soviet killing have been more 'modest' and range between ten and twenty million."
  25. ^ Montefiore 2005, p. 649: "Perhaps 20 million had been killed; 28 million deported, of whom 18 million had slaved in the Gulags."
  26. ^ Yakovlev 2002, p. 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."
  27. ^ Brent 2008: "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."
  28. ^ Volkogonov 1998, p. 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."
  29. ^ Conquest 1997, p. 1317.