Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Robert Conquest — The Great Terror

After reading some of Sheila O'Malley's posts on a book called The Great Terror, I found myself sufficiently interested to order a copy and set about reading Robert Conquest's painstakingly researched survey of Stalin's Terror.

It took me about a month of dedicated reading to finish. Unlike, say, Ulysses, this wasn't because the book was complex or obscure. It was simply too much to handle. The Great Terror is a catalog of death, with enough names listed to fill a war monument. In fact, that's how I began to think of the book at some point, akin to going through each name on the Vietnam Wall, albeit with the added horror of knowing how nearly each of them died. And like the conflict in Vietnam, the Terror was so senseless, so base, so cynical on the highest level that coming to grips with it is such an awful prospect it seems better to simply act as if it never happened.

But of course, nothing ever gets solved that way, and Conquest's book is a necessary slog through Hell to find some meaning, some motive, some psychological tear that explains the system of fear and torture that took over a society supposedly founded on collectivism and the common good. I shouldn't even say "supposedly:" as Conquest reveals, the horrid, mad genius of Stalin's reign was in the dictator's use of such ideals to convince everyone that every arrest, no matter how transparently absurd and fabricated, truly was for the good of the U.S.S.R.

No one was spared. Peasants filled prisons hundredfold past the buildings' limits. Fearing potential coups from the Army, Stalin went ahead and took out their command. The intelligentsia suffered almost total casualties, to the point that Stalin effectively set Russia on a path backwards by killing or imprisoning all the well-qualified people in the union. Even Old Bolsheviks were brought down through slander and accusation until the very architects of the Revolution were recast as spies and saboteurs all along. And the artists, the artists who actually believed in Communism and set to work glorying it, were only censored if they were extremely lucky; the rest suffered harsher fates.

But imprisoning, torturing and killing was never enough. The most insidious, troubling aspect of the Terror were the confessions. It's a brilliant strategy, of course; no matter how many times we hear of coerced confessions, people seem to accept a defendant's admission of guilt as the be-all, end-all of a trial. But how anyone could have bought into that during the Purges is insane: defendants would arrive in court, reject the confession they'd been made to sign, offer evidence to the contrary, then be shouted down and coerced further until a retraction of the retraction was made that same day. The Russian court system was its own satire, and some of the accounts Conquest lists would be funny had they not actually happened and had they not entailed a full physical, moral and psychological breakdown.

The book rarely deals directly with Stalin, because Stalin found so many ways to avoid direct culpability. He'd assign tasks to an upper echelon and let orders filter down further from there, but no one, either out of crazed ignorance or sheer obedience, ever seemed to trace it back to him. Even when Stalin would clear out the ranks of those closest to him, some poor saps who must have known Stalin signed their death warrants (there were hardly any intermediaries between them and the big man) sent letters to him begging for help.

Stalin's genius—and for all his prosaic, anti-intelligentsia qualities, he was in some respects outrageously brilliant—lie in his patience and consideration. By not being the head inquisitor, by not overtly ordering police around but secretly slipping orders through the chain of command, he could always misplace resentment and blame, occasionally giving the people a light morale boost by persecuting the old Secret Police chief for following brutal orders as told. And the sick games he played: more than once, Conquest relates a story of an arrested man being set free, given a phone call by Josef personally, assuring the man that everything will be fine. Then, a few days, weeks, months, even years later, the other shoe dropped, usually on the condemned's skull.

To call Stalin's complete takeover of society goes beyond a cult of personality, something Conquest himself argues. Never noted as a philosopher with the rest of the high-ranking Old Bolsheviks, Stalin so terrified his people into subservience that he soon became hailed as one of the foremost thinkers of the era, offering responses to Hegel and elucidations of Aristotle that never seemed to make their into the record. He could literally rewrite history with a single sentence, forcing historians and anthropologists to flat-out lie because he believed one people descended from a completely unrelated region or civilization. He might have destroyed a country to completely control it, but he somehow knew that his actions would lead to this result, of total thought control. Conquest occasionally returns to the notion that those who felt Stalin was either conducting his purges for the good of the State or was in fact barely involved with them at all "did not understand [him] yet." But it's damn near to understand him even now. Oh, his reasoning, sure, but not the pathology, not the super-sanity of his crazy decisions, all of which led to ruin but succeeded in that they solidified the dictator as complete lord over the people of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

I quaked, cried and heaved reading The Great Terror. It is not merely a demonstration of an authoritarian's capacity for cruelty but of a shared culpability engendered in a society based on fear that perpetuates the cycle. Stalin trots out a few show ponies with confessions in-hand, sparks a web of informants and narks in which people rat out neighbors, friends, even relatives to avoid being arrested for lack of diligence, then get sent to the prisons themselves. If everyone has either been broken into confessing to horrible crimes and made to denounce others, who can claim the moral high ground and oppose the regime? Descriptions of this subtly woven trap tore me apart the way reading about the Holocaust for the first time did. How does one ever come to terms with this? How does any human being have the audacity to claim dominion of this planet when this is what we do with that "authority"?

Conquest's accounts are all the more devastatingly felt for having been culled from the testimonies of those who suffered. Initially, all he had to go on were the bits and pieces of memory and official document the Soviet government had not sufficiently suppressed, and the sheer size of the Terror Conquest nevertheless could capture reveals how massive an undertaking it really was.

His judiciously structured book frames the Terror not as a series of purges but as a mounting attack on the Soviet people, one long crescendo that always traced back to Stalin's first grabs for ultimate power, in this case the orchestrated murder of his rival, the rising star Kirov. From that moment, everyone remotely in a position of status could never simply stand trial for any one crime. Every general, artist and Party member was in some way complicit with either the Kirov murder or, later, the Bukharin "plot" to undermine the U.S.S.R. At some point, even the believers accepted that their fellow cellmates were as innocent as they were.

Importantly, Conquest does not frame The Great Terror as simply a reflection of Stalin. This was not a system turned bad by a rotten apple; this was a poorly-conceived, inherently autocratic society tailor-made for Stalin by those who eventually got an undeserved romantic reputation for breaking with him. Lenin and Trotsky conducted their own Purges, executions and farcical trials, and to look to them as beacons of what might have been is simply reductive. They simply lacked Stalin's talent for institutionalizing these acts; as anti-intellectual as he was, Stalin was oddly correct in noting that the intelligentsia thought too hard in terms of logic when politics was a game of image and suggestion, which he proved hundreds of times over with his sham trials.

The version of the book I read, and the only one currently in print, is of a revised edition published after the fall of the Soviet Union gave Conquest access to buried documents. In almost every case, Conquest's estimations and extrapolations from oral histories and fragments of official accounts were either right or actually too conservative. This is important to note because, upon the book's original publication in 1968, leftists the world over savaged him for what they considered slander. France, in particular, undergoing the May '68 brouhaha, wanted nothing to do with it, with intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre refusing to even consider the possibility of such a damning account of the moral failure of Communism.

But in their rejection was proof of what Conquest attempted to show: that a sense of denial spurred by belief in a cause could lead to absolving the murderers and shunning the innocent. On one level, I can sympathize with this denial, because I can see it more innocently reflected in those Stalin purged: the sheer level of atrocity is so difficult to fathom that the first response is disbelief. After all, Stalin was so...indiscriminate. What might be dismissed as a consolidation of power must be confronted as a crackdown of an entirely different kind. This wasn't even something as transparent as the Reichstag fire or as focused (however huge) as the Shoah; Stalin broke every member of the Soviet Union into submitting to him completely, and he preyed on the humanity of others to cover up his true intentions, which are still incredibly hard to suss out, regardless of how openly he admits his willingness to kill millions.

On the other hand, of course, ignoring, even writing apologia for, Stalin's crimes solely to protect one's rosy view of a political system that has yet to work is pathetic. I'm fairly ensconced in the liberal camp—I do think that the state should control certain enterprises that should not exist simply to make money, such as healthcare, basic public transportation and local/national security. But Communism always struck me as nothing more than the unfavorable opposite of Ayn Rand's absurd vision of Utopia: neither system truly favors the industrious or talented (not even Rand's, which uses all the wrong markers of success to measure moral worth), and both leave huge spaces for an inhuman mind to fill. After not-so-subtly suggesting how and for what duration his critics could go fuck themselves in his updated epilogue, Conquest summarizes the memory of Stalin and the successors who could never fully break out of the system he established by saying, "The world, whatever its other problems, is a better place without them." It is no surprise that Conquest's statement is true; it is disheartening, though, that so many disagree with him solely on blind ideology.

The main lesson of The Great Terror is not that Stalin was inhuman: it's that he was just human enough to recognize how to manipulate others. Conquest never tries to write off Stalin, never takes the simple route of explaining away Stalin's psychology, always keeping focus on how his bad wiring managed to short out the moral fuses in so many subordinates. The descriptions of rapes, beatings, psychological torture made me shake uncontrollably at times; this was a society that put so many people in jail that the only ones left outside were the actual criminals. Petty grudges could land entire families in gulags based on a poison-pen letter without substance from some loon. Children came of age expecting to inform on their parents, leading to what nearly amounted to a feral generation of amoral, vicious teenagers who make the sneering punks hanging around S.E.X. in the '70s seem even more tame and harmless.

How could this have happened? I apologize for the circularity, but I cannot get off this question. How could Stalin permit this, whatever amorality drove him? How could anyone allow it to continue when they could see Russia sliding backwards in front of their eyes? But then, if I was tortured physically and mentally, if my family were threatened with the same horror, and if I knew I would go to prison anyway, wouldn't I confess to make it stop, no matter if I knew the pain would keep coming? It is necessary to approach the Terror as one does the Holocaust: not as the result of one man's insanity but of one collective's willingness to go along with transparent atrocity.

This is a devastating book, a Herculean effort on Conquest's part (he had to piece together the narrative from scattered anecdotes, records and testimonies decades before he could confirm everything), and one of the more damning accounts of man's inhumanity. But I said earlier that it was necessary, and I stand by it. It's no good running away from these horrors, and Conquest's meticulous research helps put the puzzle together and explain how evil seeped into every nook and cranny of an already-flawed system. It's a harrowing read, but also one I have no choice but to recommend. Beyond that, even; it's one of the most important books of the last hundred years.


  1. I'm re reading this book after 30 years. I concur with all you say about it. It makes you feel ashamed to belong to the same species as Stalin Yhezov and co.

    The great irony is that many of these "victims of Stalin" were victims of a system they themselves created. Their own torturers and executioners. Basing a political system on an ideological dream world gives the psychopaths their ideal climate in which to flourish and destroy.

    If more people were informed about the monstrous things what happened in the communist world in the twentieth century, communism would be seen as as abhorrent as Nazism. Sadly, it still has its cheerleaders and disciples.

  2. The great irony is that - to this day - many of the East Coast intelligentsia and West Coast literati *still* refuse to acknowledge that their dabbling sympathies for Communism was in fact (gullible) support for this barbarity.