Robert Conquest's The Great Terror: A Reassessment is a book that is an absolute 'must read' for anyone who is interested in the history of Communism, and more important, the issue of human rights. In fact, it can be said that the book is perhaps one of the most powerful arguments in favor of human liberty, rights and the democratic process of government. It is also of interest to note that Conquest's book contains the only really exhaustively researched, historical record of the reign of terror unleashed by Stalin's purges. Though Conquest wrote the original The Great Terror some twenty years ago, this version assumes higher importance given recent new evidence, which emerged during the glasnost period. And also because the new references help put to rest any doubt over the accuracy of the source material (Conquest, 1990, p.viii), or earlier speculation that Conquest derived his material from the Information Research Department, a known source of information tailored to spread anti-Communist propaganda (Wikipedia).
Conquest's narrative begins with a description of the historical roots behind 'The Great Terror' such as the development of the Party, the consolidation of the dictatorship, and the dominant ideas of the Stalin period that resulted in extreme policies. Interestingly, though no doubt, Stalin himself was primarily responsible for the atrocities inflicted on millions of innocent Soviet citizens, Conquest traces the roots of 'The Great Terror' to the establishment of "...the system of rule by a centralized Party against...all other social forces...Bolsheviks...centralized and disciplined..." By Lenin. The Civil War that followed contributed to transforming the new mass party into a hardened and experienced machine in which loyalty to the organization came before any consideration (Conquest, 1990, p.4-5). By taking into account external events as well as the machinations of political leaders, Conquest manages to skillfully demonstrate to the student and lover of history the role-played by both people and the fortuitous co-incidence of external events that help create a culture.
Conquest goes on to explain that the Bolshevik rule did not exclude any political opposition in the early years. In fact, post the Civil War, the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries quickly began to gain ground with the trade unions and peasants turning anti-Bolsheviks. Instead of legalizing and recognizing the existence of such opposition parties, Lenin and his supporters chose the route of suppression including forbidding the formation of rival groups within the Communist Party itself. Thus the grounds for encouraging a culture where Party members denounced fellow members hostile to Party policies was, in fact, sown during Lenin's era. Lenin justified his policies on the grounds that "neither freedom, nor equality, nor labor democracy...if they are opposed to the interests of the emancipation of labor from the oppression of capitalism" should be recognized (Conquest, 1990, p.5-6). This early account of Soviet history is valuable as it shows that by creating a Party that relied on dogma alone, Lenin laid the foundation for Stalin's later fanaticism, abuse of Party power, totalitarianism and reign of rule by terror.
Conquest's analysis is thought provoking in that it clearly demonstrates Lenin's failure to see that ideology alone wasn't sufficient and that imposition of such ideology by force would be tantamount to a reign no better than the Tsars: "...the use of political power to promote equality...tended to become less and less concerned with the liberty side..." reaching a stage where it became "...(in Thomas Soweli's words), 'the grand delusion of contemporary liberals...that they have both the right and the ability to move their fellow creatures around like blocks of wood - and that the end results will be no different than if people had voluntarily chosen the same actions." (Conquest, Feb 1999) Had Lenin possessed the foresight to envisage the consequences of his creating a framework that was vulnerable to power hungry people, Soviet history may have taken a very different turn. Thus, in tracing the roots of 'The Great Terror,' Conquest succeeds in highlighting the importance of not just ideology in politics but the importance of a system of government based on true democratic principles.
Indeed, the chronology of events that followed Lenin's death proves Conquest's point beyond any dispute. Post Lenin's death, Stalin unabashedly exploited the advantages of a centralized, one party rule. He ensured that his bid for power was unchallenged by systematically eliminating all likely rivals and opposition within the Politburo. Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky, all met their deaths and by 1928, Stalin was entrenched as the supreme Soviet ruler. Surrounding himself with men such as Kaganovich, Zhdanov, Malenkov, Beria, and Yezhov, known for their ruthlessness, Stalin is known to have gone on record as saying, "...he preferred people to support him from fear rather than from conviction, as conviction could change." (Conquest, 1990, p.13) Stalin then proceeded to implement his own particular vision of socialism, which entailed acceptance of the 'Party line' by force. Collectivization of agriculture was imposed on a reluctant and resistant peasantry by brute force, leading to "...a civil war in the rural areas...the beginning of a whole new era of terror." (Conquest, 1990, p.18) While forcing the peasants to give up their rights to their landholding is, by itself, a form of terrorism, the act took on inhuman proportions by forcing them to give up their grain, leading to a terrible famine in 1932: "The death toll among the peasantry...1930 to 1933...around 10 million - higher than the dead...First World War." (Conquest, 1990, p.20)
Agriculture was not the only area to see the implementation of Communist ideology by force. Stalin's campaign of rapid industrialization led to the alienation of the very proletariat that the Party was supposed to represent by taking away basic rights of labor and even going to the extent of imposing the death penalty on any worker found to be stealing State property. Soviet Russia's industry grew but it was achieved through inhuman methods. These moves did lead to some opposition within the Politburo, which Stalin squashed through ruthlessly expelling or arresting all known or suspected traitors to the Party: "...general purging of the Party.... More than 800,000 members were expelled...another 340,000 in 1934." (Conquest, 1990, p. 26)
Conquest's account of Stalin's purges of his own party members is a compelling one since it also highlights the human issues involved and the irony behind Politburo members opposing the death penalty for Party members on grounds of loyalty. As he points out, "It is here that the true...double belief - of the Party moderates lay. It explains, as nothing else, the horrified resistance of many who had cheerfully massacred the Whites...uncomplainingly starved and slaughtered the peasantry, to the execution of prominent Party members...reflects a double sense of morality comparable to the attitude of...men in the ancient world to slaves...." (Conquest, 1990, p. 27)
Conquest's account of Stalin's rule is numbingly shocking in that he recounts the dispassionate manner in which Stalin cold bloodedly manipulated the Politburo into agreeing to the death penalty for all oppositionists. He describes Stalin's planning of Kirov's assassination, and use of it to execute Politburo leaders such as Kamenev, Bukharin and Zinoviev: "This killing has every right to be called the crime of the century. Over the next four years, hundreds of Soviet citizens...were shot for direct responsibility...literally millions of others went to their deaths for complicity." (Conquest, 1990, p.38)
The Great Terror's value to any historical analysis of the period is also seen in the manner in which Conquest has put together a psychological profile of the key architect behind the era of terror. Using verbatim quotes, Conquest describes Stalin as a man with a deeply suspicious nature who saw enemies everywhere. Stalin was also, quite obviously, an enigma judging by the fact that he never openly revealed his intentions, nor was it easy for anyone to deduce his motives. But perhaps, the best insight into Stalin's personality and arguably the key to understanding his rise to power, is described as his ability to keep his thoughts to himself, exercise patience and manipulate: "Stalin would attack and discredit a man, then appear to reach a compromise, leaving his opponent weakened...removed one by one from the leadership." (Conquest, 1990, p. 62) With such a man at the helm of affairs it is not hard to comprehend that Stalin was, first and foremost, interested only in obtaining personal power and glory. Though, arguably, Stalin was committed to communism or at the very least anti-capitalism, as Conquest observes, "Contrary to all that Marx had thought...the Soviet Union of the Stalin epoch...the economic and social forces were not creating the method of rule.... For Stalin created a machine capable of taking on the social forces and defeating them.... Society was reconstructed according to his formulas." (Conquest, 1990, p. 53)
For Stalin, constructing a socialist country meant the ruthless plowing down of all opposition. His primary method of achieving his goals was to simply exterminate all who stood in his way but through the cunning route of torturing them into confessing crimes that…