Inhuman Power of the Lie: “The Great Terror” at 40
By Michael Weiss
The New Criterion
I met Robert Conquest two summers ago in Palo Alto, which he has made his home, as a fellow of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, for the past two decades. Christopher Hitchens had sent Conquest, the primus inter pares of Sovietology, a review I had written of a recent Stalin biography that evidently impressed him, and a lunch was arranged at the Hitchens’s household. For a few hours I got to chat with the premier truth-teller of the most sustained totalitarianism of the twentieth century.
As it happened, Conquest had just completed another series of light verse—“bawdy,” as he prefers to call it—at which I was fortunate enough to get an advance peek. Those familiar with the full oeuvre of this extra- ordinary man, responsible for Margaret Thatcher’s “Iron Lady” speech and dubbed, at the last plenum of the Central Committee, “anti-Sovietchik number one,” will know that he is also an accomplished poet, novelist, and literary critic, whose limericks have long furnished the sunnier side of Cold War tabletalk on both sides of the Atlantic. Most of these are bawdy all right, and the best trade in liturgical or ethnic humor. It would be amusing and rewarding to see the captive minds of political correctness implode should they discover such dirty rhymes in print today; the closest they’ll come to a Conquest anthology is a generous helping in The New Oxford Book of Light Verse, edited by his boon companion Kingsley Amis. (The curious should check under the pseudonyms Ted Paulsen, Victor Gray, and Stuart Howard-Jones.) Among my own favorites, collected instead in Amis’s Memoirs, is this technically expert animadversion on the embarrassing Observer critic Philip Toynbee:
At ninety years of age, Conquest can still tell you what it was like to fire a rifle in the Spanish Civil War. He’d been “bumming around” Malaga as a student in 1936 when he befriended a few genial but scruffy anarcho-syndicalists whose Ford 10 he was good enough to get started. They invited him to “put down some señoritos” said to be holding out along the coast and, as a not-bad marksman at Winchester, he agreed. After cleaning the sorry-looking Mauser he’d been handed and getting exactly one warning shot off above the Fascist hideout (vacant, as it turned out), he boarded a boat and returned to England, his companions having declared the end to all major hostilities.
This anecdote yields quite a lot, I think, about more than Conquest’s winning personality (Kingsley Amis to Philip Larkin: “Bob just goes on as if nothing has happened”). It also speaks ably of what has made him, apart from his groundbreaking research, such a powerful historian: irony and a wry sense of humor have offset some of the most tragic passages committed to print in the last hundred years. (“The sequence Lenin-Stalin-Khrushchev-Brezhnev was like a chart illustrating the evolution of the hominids, read backward.”) As Amis plausibly, but inventively, tells it, when the publisher of The Great Terror asked Conquest what he’d like to re-title the book in its second edition, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and new archival material from Moscow vindicated almost all of its key judgments: “Well, perhaps, I Told You So, You Fucking Fools. How’s that?”
The Great Terror refers to the purges that took place in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. To give this more statistical accuracy, between 1937 and 1938, about seven million Russians were arrested, one million executed, and two million more or less murdered by the inhuman conditions of the Gulag. Throughout the entire period—roughly 1934 to 1939—there were not fewer than 15 million victims, overall. These are conservative estimates, and it’s worth bearing in mind that this abattoir system was invented, operated, and maintained “in detail” from the top, as against revisionist claims that Stalin and his cadre were unaware of the death count of their gruesome mechanism of state repression.
For instance, new evidence has disclosed that in 1937 the Politburo came to a decision, which was signed by Stalin himself, to allow the NKVD (the precursor organization to the KGB) to arrest, shoot, or exile “former Kulaks and Criminals” of all Russian provinces and republics “guilty of anti-Soviet diversionary crime.” Of the 3,789 “former kulaks” (or wealthy peasants, a class enemy of Marxism-Leninism) rounded up in this period, 3,552 were actually proletarians. “Socialism in a Single Country” and some banal observations about race and nationality do not compare to Stalin’s most lasting contribution to the realm of Communist “theory”: he believed that class conflict and the necessity of terror rose just as the influence of the defeated classes was on the wane.
We’re told in a new introduction to the present volume, which originally came out in 1968:
So we know that the original Great Terror was necessarily a work of deduction and what might be called empirical imagination. Conquest opens by explaining that terror was not endemic only to Stalin’s reign: it began under Lenin, during the first show trials of the Social Revolutionaries in 1922. The crucial disparity between Lenin’s terror and Stalin’s is that the former made no attempt to conceal that it was a matter of the ends justifying the means. It was described openly for what it was; enemies or antagonists of the Kremlin were deemed just that without an enormous bureaucracy put to the service of falsifying the reasons for their persecution.
As Conquest phrases it, Lenin’s “hot” terror consisted of “desperate acts of rulers precariously riding the flood, and fighting for control and survival.” Menshevism and factionalism were outlawed in 1921, the same year that the sailors of Kronstadt mounted their ill-fated rebellion, which had helped turn mass opinion against the Communist regime.
Conquest has devoted a separate biography to analyzing the mutant genius that enabled one man to lord it over eleven time zones; suffice it to say, Stalin’s climb to the top was not entirely unencumbered but was a product of his seeming political moderation. He sometimes hedged against his own most loyal servants—chiefly, Kaganovich, the ruthless First Secretary of the Ukraine between 1925 and 1928 and the Head of the Agricultural Department in 1933—to side with those urging less fanatical measures, be it in economic policy or political punition. When Kamenev and Zinoviev—the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of ideological haplessness—demanded Trotsky’s expulsion from the Party, Stalin replied that no one could “conceive of the work of the Political Bureau … without the most active participation of Comrade Trotsky.” This from the man who would soon rig an international dragnet for actual and supposed members of a nebulous opposition inaugurated by the Red Army founder, himself exiled to Turkey in 1929. Nikolai Bukharin, the doomed egghead of Russian Communism, the basis for Koestler’s Rubashov in Darkness at Noon, said of Stalin: “He changes his theories according to the need he has of getting rid of somebody at such-and-such moment.”
In Conquest’s view, the “moderates seem to have thought that Stalin might have been induced to accept compromise and make shift with less than autocratic power. This mistake weakened them, as it had weakened all previous opponents of Stalin.” Even outward loyalists such as Politburo members Kirov, Ordzhonikidze, Rudzutak, and Kuibyshev were closer to “supporters and allies” who nevertheless felt compunction about some of the more extreme measures of the purges—namely, the application of the death penalty for Old Bolsheviks. For instance, Stalin learned of the necessity of getting rid of his own cadre when the bulk of it opposed executing Ryutin, a true early dissident who said that the “Right”—or quasi-capitalistic—wing of the Party was correct about the economy and Trotsky was correct about the degeneration of the regime. The “Ryutin Platform,” an entrenched plot aiming at Stalin’s assassination, would later become a convenient scapegoat for implicating even those who clearly had nothing to do with it when it was hatched in 1930.
The first sign that systematic massacres were in the offing was the disaster of collectivization, which included the Stalin- orchestrated terror-famine that claimed the lives of 10 million peasants between 1930 and 1933. Stalin responded to this failure with his infamous “Dizziness with Success” editorial in Pravda in March 1930. In it, he blamed the overzealousness of local Party workers and “distortions” of the Party line for the wave of human misery, with the implied promise that these would have to be dealt with before any further land reforms were attempted. Industrialization, however, proceeded apace, and in 1931 the first prison terms were handed down for Russians found guilty of violating labor discipline. Theft of state or collective property carried the death penalty beginning in 1932, the year that also saw the restoration of the internal passport, formerly a tsarist bête noire to Lenin. Between 1937 and 1938, during the Yezhovshchina, or “time of Yezhov,” the most lethal NKVD chief, Stalin was sent lists of important figures slated for execution: “We are told in recent Soviet articles that on 12 December 1937, Stalin and Molotov sanctioned 3,167 death sentences, and then went to the cinema.”
Of course, to Communists, their despair at current events took the more parochial and self-serving form of worrying about what had become of their precious Party. (Contrast how many deplored capital punishment for old comrades but said not a word about its legal application to twelve-year-olds.) Dvoeverye in Russian means “double belief,” or double standard of morality in adjudicating crimes committed against one’s own sodality and those committed against everyone else. The suffering of mere citizens did not, in the main, factor in the grim appraisals of the anti-Stalinist opposition; rather it was, as Bukharin feared, the “real dehumanization of the people working in the Soviet apparatus.” As to why, exactly, a non-Communist audience should therefore care about the plight of those who were, before their own wretched undoing, themselves willing executioners, apart from a matter of Terror’s unprecedented reach, wantonness and sheer brutality, Conquest offers the reason:
The most famous Old Bolshevik victim was Sergei Kirov, whose murder “has every right to be called the crime of the century.” It was the first Soviet assassination since 1918, and it loosed the flood tide of autocratic repression by inculpating hundreds of political innocents and millions of non-political innocents for “complicity in one or another part of the vast conspiracy which allegedly lay behind it. Kirov’s death, in fact, was the keystone of the entire edifice of terror and suffering by which Stalin secured his grip on the Soviet peoples.”
The details of the case are too extensive to go into here, but I am compelled to share a few facts. It is almost beyond dispute that Stalin personally ordered the murder, having feared Kirov’s growing popularity both within the Party (he was at one point nominated to replace Stalin as General Secretary, a post he declined) and within Leningrad, a city he administered as local hierarch as a kind of private duchy unmoored from Moscow’s central authority. Kirov had also blocked Stalin’s favored appointee to the Leningrad NKVD leadership, a secret policeman who had previously done the sinister spadework that landed the Shakhty engineers in the second show trial to occur in the USSR in 1928. Stalin chose Yagoda, the dimwitted but efficient head of the NKVD, whose deputy Agranov once claimed that if he had “Karl Marx to interrogate, he’d have him confess to being an agent of Bismarck,” to put the gun in the hand of the “disaffected” young assassin Leonid Nikolayev.
Tellingly, the very same day Kirov was shot while entering his office, Stalin ordered a decree that established the following: 1. Investigative agencies should speed up cases against those suspected of plotting terrorist acts; 2. There would be no pardons for the death penalty in such cases; 3. That penalty should be henceforth applied swiftly upon sentencing. Borisov, Kirov’s strangely negligent bodyguard, died in a “car accident” upon being brought to Stalin for interrogation. And a laughably tenuous link was established, via the Leningrad Komsomol (or Communist Youth organization), between Nikolayev and Zinoviev and Kamenev, who were presently to find themselves the objects of the first major round of public vilification.
The Moscow show trials were characterized by a complete lack of viable evidence and an almost sub-human gullibility by even non-Communists around the world to believe coerced confessions that ranged in tenor between the abject and the masochistic. It actually did reach the point of absurdity where the vile Karl Radek, whose life was spared at the forfeiture of so many others, spoke openly of “semi-Trotskyites,” “quarter-Trotskyites,” and “one-eighth-Trotskyites” in an attempt to distinguish shades of conspiracy as though they were in accord with antebellum race laws. Add to this the fact that in the first two trials there were countless assassination plots mentioned, and yet only one proven corpse—Kirov’s—lying as monument to martyrdom against a supposedly enormous, skulking beast of counter-revolutionary activity. No documentary evidence whatsoever was provided by the state in the Zinoviev-Kamenev Trial, which fact, Conquest says, “should have struck observers as particularly odd. For in the arrest of underground Bolsheviks, the tsarist police re- peatedly discovered documents. And the underground Bolsheviks of that time were at least as skilled in conspiracy as the men Stalin now arrested; indeed (as Orlov points out), ‘They were the same men.’” Plausible deniability seems a euphemism.
Perhaps the most noteworthy exchange of the Zinoviev-Kamenev Trial was the accusation, made by the notorious state prosecutor Vyshinsky, that one junior ex-Trotskyist, acting in league with a larger “Trotskyite-Zinovievite bloc” responsible for the Kirov death, had colluded with the outcast revolutionary’s son Sedov in Copenhagen at the Hotel Bristol. In a rare example of the Western media seeing through an obvious put-up job, the Danish Social Democratic Party announced that the Hotel Bristol had been demolished in 1917. The Stalinist propaganda apparat simply changed the meeting-place to the Café Bristol—and never mind that the junior ex-Trot was verifiably taking exams in Berlin when he was alleged to have met Sedov in a different country in 1932. A similar seemingly grievous error recurred in the trial of Pyatakov, who, as an accused wrecker of industry and infrastructure, was said to have flown from Berlin to Oslo to meet Trotsky in December 1935. The trouble was, as the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten published, no civil aircraft had landed at the cited airfield during that month.
The gaping holes in the legitimacy of Soviet jurisprudence were of course there for anyone who wished to notice them. Many in the dock denied charges against them, recanting their violently deposed statements during the preliminary investigation. The Bukharin Trial—the most significant because the defendants included three members of Lenin’s Politburo—was an inspired farce, thanks largely to the brave defiance of the main defendant. One charge against Bukharin had been that he wished to kill Lenin in 1918; it was true that he for a time contemplated arresting the father of Bolshevism, a folly he admitted as early as 1924. But if this were such an offense, then why was it that other Left Communists of like mind, including the now-deceased Kuibyshev and Menzhinsky, were not then considered “enemies of the people”? Additionally, if Bukharin were allied to the Social Revolutionaries, as the state maintained, why had the Social Revolutionaries thrown a bomb at him during the suggested alliance? These and other keen points of reason were ruled out of order. Yagoda, too, who now found himself facing the full wrath of the secret police network he constructed, had been a refractory witness, given to answers like “Permit me not to reply to that question.” At one point, he snapped in fury at Ulrikh, the presiding judge, telling him, “You can drive me, but not too far. I’ll say what I want to say … but do not drive me too far”—a clear sign that his testimony had been premeditated, but not by him.
Conquest makes an easy meal of dupes like Walter Duranty, Owen Lattimore, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and Joseph Davies (the American Ambassador to the USSR), all of whom “swallowed” the trials, from soup to nuts. Such examples of Western megaphones for the Stalinist line “can hardly be acquitted of a certain degree of complicity in the continuation and exacerbation of the torture and execution of innocent men.” Indeed, they were not ignorant of massive evidence demonstrating the falsehood of the trials: Trotsky and the Dewey Commission had published their meticulous findings in 1937. (A U.S. manifesto was circulated repudiating the Commission as biased; it was signed by Theodore Dreiser, Granville Hicks, and Corliss Lamont, among others.) Edmund Wilson, a rather quaky fellow traveler, knew right away that Zinoviev and Kamenev’s confessions were untrue, and he spent the rest of the 1930s trying to convince incredulous cocktail party audiences of the fact. We also have Wilson’s wife Mary McCarthy’s elegant memoir, “My Confession,” telling of her initial confrontation with the dire truths of Moscow and the shameless apologists of Manhattan. My own contribution to the minor field of anatomizing the blinkered leftist intelligentsia, which included for a time even those who would go on to write brilliant polemics against Stalinism, has been to say that
As to why Old Bolsheviks did confess and implicate their erstwhile comrades, torture was not the only incentive. Conquest writes cogently of Partiinost, the idea that the Party enjoyed the absolute right to decide all questions of state policy, including who was to be sacrificed at the altar of Almighty October. Bukharin, as we have seen, was no wimp, yet even he was given to remark: “It’s not [Stalin] we trust but the man in whom the Party has reposed its confidence. It just so happened that he has become a sort of symbol of the Party.” Koestler, as ever, has the best explication of the self-consuming philosophy of Communism:
Stalin’s achieved objective was to create “New Men” for whom this would be the sole catechism that brooked no doubt or hesitation.
One of the most devastating consequences of the purge—not just for the Soviet Union but for every victim of Nazism—was the near total annihilation of the military command structure. Conquest gives the chilling figures: Among the top soldiers purged were three out of five Marshals, thirteen out of fifteen Army Commanders, eight out of nine Fleet Admirals and Admirals Grade I, fifty out fifty-seven Corps Commanders, 154 out of 186 Divisional Commanders, all sixteen Army Commissars, twenty-five out of twenty-eight Corps Commissars and fifty-eight out of sixty-four Divisional Commissars. Many of their replacements were also cut down in short order. Not even the admirable efforts of the wartime Defense Commissar Timoshenko (who later tried to reinstitute the sane martial policies of Tukhachevsky), nor the battlefield prowess of Zhukov were enough to stay the catastrophic military losses the Soviet Union, largely by its own hand, sustained against Hitler. The German General Staff had in fact given a “secret rating” of the Red Army in 1939, citing it as a “gigantic military instrument” that nevertheless had a “too young and inexperienced” leadership; though they warned against underestimating the capability of Soviet forces, the Nazis also surmised that it would take four years before they were back to their 1937 levels of efficiency. This doubtless contributed to Hitler’s decision to invade Russia in 1941, an eventuality that Stalin was repeatedly warned against by multiple intelligence sources, including his own, but which he dismissed as the invention of fascist spies.
Part of the tyrant’s paranoia about the military had less to do with its potential for a Bonapartist coup, although that factored in his thinking as well, and more to do with the permanent threat of the occupational hazard of being exposed to foreign elements. Contact with soldiers and officials of other countries meant one was susceptible to treason and espionage. (Stalin’s was a self-fulfilling prophecy: he had so ravaged the nation by the time of Operation Barbarossa, that more Russians went over to the other side during World War II than they ever had in any previous war.) Conquest recounts the memoirs of one Rear-Admiral Isakov, who described a flag officer’s sunken sailboat near Kronstadt. When a Norwegian steam cruiser came to his aid, the officer refused rescue. He shrewdly explained his action by saying that being picked up by a non-native vessel would have led to his being asked “when and how this meeting with foreign agents had been arranged and for how much I had sold our operational plans while the ship was passing through the channel.” This is exactly what did happen when he was back in Soviet territory.
“Bourgeois nationalism” was a common accusation hurled against purge victims in the Soviet republics and the Caucasus. The Ukraine suffered terribly, both physically, in the terror-famine which left millions dead by 1933, and politically. It became “little more than an NKVD fief, where even the formalities of Party and State activity were barely gone through.” Kaganovich, nicknamed the “black tornado,” engulfed the majority of executive officials of Soviet provincial committees. Conquest highlights the peculiarity of these purges: “the ‘black tornado’ really uprooted the old ‘Party-line’ Stalinists, the veterans who represented a continuity, however tenuous, with the old Party of the underground, of 1917, of the Civil War. This amounted to a revolution as complete as, though more disguised than, any previous changed in Russia.” Poles, whose status in Russia Conquest equates with that of the Irish in England, were subject to the worst treatment: 10,000 were shot at the time of the Bukharin Trial, 50,000 in the whole country throughout the purge, according to one cited estimate, and the entire Polish Central Committee was, by 1939, eliminated. Moreover, the Katyn Massacre of up to 20,000 Poles in 1940—originally blamed on the Germans—represented a “mass execution carried out, without trial and in complete secrecy, as a routine administrative measure—and in peacetime.” During the Hitler-Stalin pact, the Soviets engaged in the most sinister exploitation of minorities as political leverage: 570 German Communists wanted by the Nazis were gathered in Moscow prisons and summarily “sent over the bridge to the German-occupied Poland at Brest-Litovsk, while NKVD men checked the lists with Gestapo men.”
What was the purge like at the demotic level? Bad enough that many Russians welcomed the onset of war against Germany as a period of relative calm and slackened surveillance, where the main efforts of the state were directed outward rather than inward. “It is easy to speak of the constant fear of the 4:00 a.m. knock on the door,” writes Conquest, “of the hunger, fatigue, and hopelessness of the great labor camps. But to feel how this was worse than a particularly frightful war is not so simple.”
The atmosphere of hysterical denunciation had neighbors informing on each other and children cursing their own parents in public forums. In Dr. Zhivago, Pasternak refers to the “inhuman power of the lie,” and it is not going too far to say that it infected every aspect of the Russian social and cultural experience. This situation seemed to realize Dostoevsky’s memorable insights in The Brothers Karamazov; if the authorities have done you an injustice, chances are they’d never forgive you for it.
An entire sub-class of seksots, or professional denouncers—either “idealists” who did it for nothing, or blackmailed stool pigeons of the NKVD—roved the streets and inhabited every nook and niche of Soviet society. (By one calculation, every fifth person in the typical office was a state informer.) The writer Ilya Ehrenburg recounts that his daughter had a poodle that became adept at shutting the dining room door whenever the chatter descended into hushed tones. Isaac Babel spoke of conditions in which “a man only talks freely with his wife—at night, with the blankets pulled over his head.” Anna Akhmatova wrote that if a statue were ever erected in her honor, it should be placed outside the Leningrad prison gates, where she stood for 300 hours waiting to obtain word about the status of her arrested son, Lev Gumilev. One secret policeman in the Ukraine was given a quota of 3,800 arrests; having exhausted all his new leads, and having re-arrested even old collars, he petitioned village soviets to nominate new lists of anti-Soviet elements. His own name appeared on one.
Particularly vulnerable were members of religious sects, wives of enemies of the people, engineers (always suspected of industrial sabotage), physicists, biologists who ran counter to the sham theories of Lysenko, citizens with relatives abroad, artists, intellectuals, and members of schismatic Marxist groups. Jews in particular were targeted long before the Doctors’ Plot; “Zionism” and “rootless cosmopolitanism” became bywords for Soviet anti-Semitism.
Conquest has elsewhere written that the difference between the Nazi concentration camp and the Soviet one was that in the latter one you at least had a chance for survival—the objective was slave labor, not necessarily extermination. Much of the labor often went into building the camps themselves: Kargopol in Archangel was founded in 1936 by 600 prisoners who were marched into the middle of a wilderness and told to start digging. Conquest, like Solzhenitsyn, provides the ghastly details of what life under the Gulag was like, but it is worth emphasizing that the camps constituted autonomous mini-states, or colonies, unto themselves. The NKVD-controlled Dalstroy, the Far Eastern Construction Trust, was responsible for overseeing the mining of gold in Kolyma. The largest camp in this category spanned a territory four times the size of France and housed 500,000 prisoners.
About two million souls perished in the Gulag between 1937 and 1938 alone, at which time there were roughly 8 million inmates being put to unfathomable services, in sub-freezing temperatures, on behalf of the state. It scarcely mattered that slavery was anathema to classical Marxism, which abominated the system on moral and also economic grounds—it was too costly and inefficient. So it proved in the USSR:
In Reflections on a Ravaged Century, his millennial volume on totalitarianism and its more pasteurized intellectual offshoots, Conquest completes this picture by recounting an exchange he had with a St. Petersburgian near the end of the Soviet era.
Corruption and malice above, misery and degradation below; withal, the ability to excavate a dark comedy.
Anthony Powell once wrote of Robert Conquest that he had a “capacity for taking enormous pains in relation to any enterprise in hand.” It is beyond dispute that, forty years after the publication of The Great Terror, this judgment requires no reassessment.
This article originally appeared in
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