The Great Terror

The Great Terror

"The Great Terror" is a book by British writer Robert Conquest, published in 1968. It gave rise to an alternate title of the period in Soviet history known as the Great Purge. The complete title of the book is "The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties". 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

Educated as a historian at Oxford University, Conquest joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1937. During World War II he enlisted and worked for British intelligence in Bulgaria and later, having become disillusioned with communism, for the British Foreign Office in a programme that countered Soviet propaganda and misinformation.


The first critical inquiry into the Great Purge 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 aspect of Robert Conquest's "The Great Terror" was that it widened the understanding of the purges beyond the previous narrow focus on the "Moscow Trials" of disgraced Communist Party leaders such as Nikolai Bukharin and Grigori 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". Conquest claimed that 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 revised his estimate downwards to 13-15 million. [Robert Conquest, Preface, "The Great Terror: A Reassessment: 40th Anniversary Edition", Oxford University Press, USA, 2007.]

Controversy and hostility surrounding the book

The timing of the publication of "The Great Terror", in the middle of the Vietnam War and the great upsurge of leftist sentiment in Western universities and intellectual circles (see The Sixties), guaranteed that it would receive a hostile reception. Fact|date=June 2008 Hostility to Conquest's account of the purges was heightened by various factors. The first was that he refused to accept 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." Fact|date=June 2008 The second factor was Conquest's sharp criticism of Western intellectuals for what he saw as their blindness towards the realities of the Soviet Union, both in the 1930s and, in some cases, even in the 1960s. 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 were accused of being dupes of Stalin and apologists for his regime for various comments they had made denying, excusing, or justifying various aspects of the purges. Furthermore, Conquest's comment about the poet John Cornford, who had been killed in the Spanish Civil War and was a hero of the British intellectual Left, that "not even high intelligence and a sensitive spirit are of any help once the facts of a situation are deduced from a political theory, rather than vice versa," was widely quoted, and sparked its own controversy. Fact|date=June 2008


Some Communists continue to deny the claims made in The Great Terror, and accuses him of relying on Nazi collaborators, émigrés, and the CIA," and characterize his work with British intelligence and the Foreign Office as "production of anti-Soviet propaganda."

However, some Russian, and other historians, such as Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev, and Dmitri Volkogonov, agrees on Conquest's views.Fact|date=January 2008 Eric Hobsbawm, while considering the book to be read as a "remarkable pioneer effort", wrote that it has "inevitably become obsolete as a treatment of the terrible facts it tried to investigate" and that "we just don't need it anymore." [Eric Hobsbawm, "On History: Can we write the history of the Russian Revolution?"] The polar opposite of this criticism was achieved when Kingsley Amis spread the rumor that Conquest was titling the 1990 reprint of his book "How About I Told You So, You Fucking Fools?" [Robert Conquest, "Kingsley Amis and 'The Great Terror' [] " The New York Review of Books.]


* 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

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