The Great Terror: A Reassessment

The Great Terror: A Reassessment by Robert Conquest took me three weeks to get through its 554 pages. A slow read at times, its history of Stalinism–focussing on the purges of the Great Terror–was riveting enough that in spite of its repetition, I never felt the need to doze off. The stories of arrests, interrogations, mock trials and sentences were all too similar as there is only a limited number of ways for Conquest to write about a mass arrest of another political cadre or group of professionals. The names were often meaningless to me, and I often didn’t even try to pronounce them in my mind as I read them. Just the sight of hundreds of pages of dense text with minimal paragraphs could have turned me away from even attempting to read this, yet the subject matter had always interested me and this book is now a classic in the field, so it was worth the often plodding pace of some chapters.

Stalin “recognized no limitations, either moral or intellectual, in his methods of securing power.” He had it in for everybody, from his close allies to actors, agriculturalists and even astronomers. No one was exempt, and the middle-of-the-night knock on the door from the NKVD (the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, also known as the secret police) instilled fear in millions. Stalin also used mass arrests to explain the economic failures. The reason for widespread food shortages? Not the inefficiencies of collective farming. It was sabotage by counter-revolutionaries, spies and Trotskyites:

“This sort of theme–the blaming of all the errors and malpractices of the Soviet economy on sabotage by the accused–was to run through the trial. For all spheres of life, there was someone in the dock to answer for popular discontents. And the evidence tells us a huge amount about Soviet conditions.”

Stalin feared that anyone could be a traitor, saboteur or spy working undercover. Entire government departments were cleared out and replacements, who were often less skilled, hired in their place. Every institution suffered, and it seemed that the toddlers were now running the nursery schools. The military, of all institutions, was being run by inexperienced new faces. Some departments, like astronomy, could no longer function without its staff:

“Generally speaking, the sciences in some way connected with policy or ideology fared worse. Sciences impinging on agriculture fared badly on both counts. The Meteorological Office was violently purged as early as 1933, for failing to predict weather harmful to the crops. In part on similar grounds, astronomers connected with sunspot research fared badly. The Solar Service had in fact been set up in 1931 to help predict long-range weather patterns, with the usual imperfect results, though there were also charges of un-Marxist theories of sunspot development. But astronomy in general suffered a devastating purge, conducted by the Stalinist pseudo-astronomer Ter-Oganezov. This started in early 1936, and soon the press was attacking the great Pul’kovo Observatory, which had in its earlier days been known as ‘the astronomical capital of the world.’ The distinguished astronomer B. V. Numerov, arrested in November, admitted after severe beatings that he had organized a counter-revolutionary astronomers’ group for espionage, terror, and wrecking. It had ‘drawn a significant number of scientific workers into its orbit.'”

After the first purge, none of the new hires could consider themselves safe, as Conquest told story after story of how the new staffs were purged and then purged en masse yet again. Imagine what working conditions would be like when:

“To shoot the best economic organizers in order to encourage the second-best to be more effective than they had been is doubtful policy. It is true that the Soviet Union finally gained a fairly competent cadre of administrators capable of working under the threat of liquidation. But there are no doubt managers who do not give their best in such circumstances, and of whose services the country was deprived.”

The arrested population overcrowded the prisons to such a degree that people had to sleep in shifts, and those that did had to do it while lying on their sides. Reasons for arrest were not given; only while incarcerated did the prisoners discover why they were there in the first place:

“In his cell in this new community, the arrested man might be interrogated at once, or he might wait for some time. Meanwhile, he would discover in discussion with his cell mates what his crime was likely to be. At the beginnings of the purge, those arrested often thought that the other people in the prisons were actually guilty of something, and that their own case was a mistake. By 1937, the outside public had come to realize that the accused were innocent, and people brought in took it for granted that their cell mates were in the same boat as themselves. The chances of anyone there being actually guilty of anything whatever were very small.”

It was important that the prisoner discovered what his crime was:

“For when he went to interrogation, it was NKVD practice not to tell him what he was in for, but to let him frame his own confession–unless he proved ‘obstinate’ after a few interrogations, when he might be enlightened.”

Of course if one is arrested without knowing why, one is likely to reveal more to the interrogators than what they might already think they know. The NKVD might have arrested you for espionage, for example (and not told you about it) while you decide to confess to something else. In so doing you entrap more people under false charges. Afterwards:

“With interrogation completed, the cases were transferred to the judicial and quasi-judicial bodies for sentence. Since 1934, the competent court in political cases was the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court. It had a large staff and was able to mount many cases simultaneouly. It took mere minutes even for leading officials or generals. A lesser figure, Eugenia Ginzburg, describes her seven-minute trial before the Collegium in 1937. The Court returned in two minutes with a ‘verdict’ which she estimates must have taken twenty minutes to type. Thus the Collegium got through tens of thousands of cases over the years of the Terror. From 1 October 1936 to 30 September 1938, it passed 36,157 sentences–30,514 of death and 5,643 of imprisonment. But these constituted a very small proportion of those condemned.”

Those who were arrested often confessed to the false charges, believing that they would be better off cooperating versus challenging their accusers. Without fail, however, those who were told that they would be spared the death sentence if they cooperated were sent to the firing squad anyway. Torture was always used to extract confessions from uncooperative defendants, yet Conquest told of some brave souls who resisted. The author did explain the psychology of why those who were arrested confessed to the false charges, and how one’s devotion to a political ideal may have justified their confessing to crimes they did not commit.

The reign of terror did not exempt those who were related to the guilty. Punishments were intergenerational and those who were sentenced to labour camps or to death also saw their entire families, including spouses (usually wives) children and even in-laws served with the same sentence. While very young children were often sent to government-run homes, young teens were shot too.

Conquest wrote about the overcrowded prison conditions and this was, in my opinion, the most interesting part of this gargantuan book. To show that really no one was exempt from the Great Terror, even the prison staffs were purged, and there were cases of former guards sharing quarters with the inmates.

After the death of Stalin the truth started to come out, slowly, during Khrushchev’s time in power. Western opinion could not at first believe that any regime so brutal could have existed, yet even while Stalin was still alive, flattering articles by Western journalists dismissed critical exposés about the labour camps and trials:

“What many people of good will found hard to believe was less the existence of the system, in all its unpleasantness, than the numbers of prisoners alleged to be detained in them. When figures like 10 million were mentioned, it was an almost instinctive feeling that this did not accord with common sense, with normal experience. Nor, of course, did it. But, then, the reality of Stalin’s activities was often disbelieved because they seemed to be unbelievable. His whole style consisted of doing what had previously been thought morally or physically inconceivable.”

The book ended with the evolving Soviet assessments of Stalin during the times of Khrushchev and then Brezhnev in power. De-Stalinization in policy was not immediate, as the USSR seems to have undergone waves of shunning and then lauding Stalin under his successors, and even within their own regimes.

The Great Terror was subtitled A Reassessment because the opening of the Soviet archives via glasnost enabled Conquest to revise and add significantly to the book, which originally came out in 1968.

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