Robert Conquest – The Great Terror: A Reassessment
This book did more than any other to publicize the extent of how murderous the Soviet government was. Stalin never had a saint’s reputation, and there were whispers about gulags, deliberate famines, and the price of dissent. Conquest put faces and numbers on it. His exhaustive account shocked the world. These days, the 1937-1938 Terror is common knowledge. In a way, the fact that such a revolutionary book can seem ordinary is proof of the impact Conquest had. What was shocking at the time is now common knowledge.
Even so, this old book still has the power to startle. This is due in large part to Conquest’s eye for detail. The most striking one is his description of a physical paper record of a political interrogation. It contains the usual euphemisms and coded language one would expect from such a document. Nothing special there. But this one had an old stain on it, which was forensically tested. It came back positive for blood.
Stalin’s surprising approval rating today in Russia, and socialism’s campus voguishness are frightening to people who know the history. We likely have little to fear from either case. Many Russian people have a strong sense of nostalgia and a yearning for stability, more than a literal return to Stalinism. Putin, though a dictator, and a murderous one at that, is almost certainly no Stalin. In richer countries, college dorm room bull sessions should be taken as seriously as they deserve. That said, some knowledge of Conquest, Solzhenitsyn, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Robert Service, Richard Pipes, Stephane Courtois, and other historians and writers would likely change the tenor of discussion.
A final thing to bear in mind–the vast terror in this book is only a small slice of what happened. The Great Terror lasted for roughly two years out of the USSR’s 70-plus years. It is separate from multi-million-death events such as the deliberate Ukraine famine, the continent- and generation-spanning gulag archipelago, and the horrors of World War II.