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The Great Terror

This article is about the book by Robert Conquest. For other uses, see Great Terror (disambiguation).
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The Great Terror: A Reassessment by Robert Conquest

The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties is a book by British historian Robert Conquest, published in 1968. It gave rise to an alternate title of the period in Soviet history known as the Great Purge. A revised version of the book, called The Great Terror: A Reassessment, was printed in 1990 after Conquest was able to amend the text, having consulted recently opened Soviet archives.

One of the first books by a Western writer to discuss the Great Purge in the Soviet Union, it was based mainly on information which had been made public, either officially or by individuals, during the Khrushchev Thaw in the period 1956–1964. It also drew on accounts by Russian and Ukrainian émigrés and exiles dating back to the 1930s. Lastly it was based on an analysis of official Soviet documents such as the census.

Conquest's background

Educated as a historian at Oxford University, Conquest joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1937. During World War II he enlisted and worked for British intelligence in Bulgaria and later, having become disillusioned with communism, for the British Foreign Office in a programme that countered Soviet propaganda and misinformation.

The book

The first critical inquiry into the Great Purge had been made as early as 1937, by the Dewey Commission, which published its findings in the form of a 422-page book entitled Not Guilty (this title referred to the people who had been charged with various crimes by Stalin's government and therefore purged; the Dewey Commission found them not guilty). The most important aspect of Robert Conquest's The Great Terror was that it widened the understanding of the purges beyond the previous narrow focus on the "Moscow Trials" of disgraced Communist Party leaders such as Nikolai Bukharin and Grigory Zinoviev. The question of why these leaders had pleaded guilty and confessed to various crimes at the trials had become a topic of discussion for a number of western writers, and had underlain books such as George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. According to the book, the trials and executions of these former Communist leaders were a minor detail of the purges, which, together with man-made famines, had led to 20 million deaths according to his estimates. In the preface to the 40th anniversary edition of The Great Terror, Conquest claims that the total number of deaths brought about by the various Soviet terror campaigns "can hardly be lower than some fifteen million."[1]

In the book, Conquest disputed the assertion made by Nikita Khrushchev, and supported by many Western leftists, that Stalin and his purges were an aberration from the ideals of the Revolution and were contrary to the principles of Leninism. Conquest argued that Stalinism was a natural consequence of the system established by Lenin, although he conceded that the personal character traits of Stalin had brought about the particular horrors of the late 1930s. Neal Ascherson noted: "Everyone by then could agree that Stalin was a very wicked man and a very evil one, but we still wanted to believe in Lenin; and Conquest said that Lenin was just as bad and that Stalin was simply carrying out Lenin's programme."[2][better source needed]

In the book Conquest's sharply criticized Western intellectuals for their blindness towards the realities of the Soviet Union, both in the 1930s and, in some cases, even in the 1960s. He described figures, such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Jean-Paul Sartre, Walter Duranty, Sir Bernard Pares, Harold Laski, D. N. Pritt, Theodore Dreiser and Romain Rolland as dupes of Stalin and apologists for his regime for various comments they had made denying, excusing, or justifying various aspects of the purges.

A widespread story has it that when Conquest was asked to provide a new title for an anniversary edition, he replied, "How about I Told You So, You Fucking Fools?" According to Conquest, this never happened, and was a joking invention of writer Kingsley Amis.[3]


After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the research that resulted from the opening up of the Soviet archives, many of Conquest's claims have been contested. At issue are Conquest's estimates of the death toll, which are now contested by some historians as being much too high.[4]

Nevertheless, some historians maintain their original, higher estimates, among them Stalin biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore, Perestroika architect and former head of the Presidential Committee for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev, and the director of Yale's "Annals of Communism" series Jonathan Brent, putting the death toll at about 20 million.[5] Russian historian Dmitri Volkogonov is also broadly in agreement with Conquest.

In 1997, Robert Conquest stated: "We are all inclined to accept the Zemskov totals (even if not as complete) with their 14 million intake to Gulag 'camps' alone, to which must be added 4–5 million going to Gulag 'colonies', to say nothing of the 3.5 million already in, or sent to, 'labour settlements'. However taken, these are surely 'high' figures."[6]

In the preface to the 40th anniversary edition of The Great Terror, Conquest states:

"Exact numbers may never be known with complete certainty, but the total of deaths caused by the whole range of Soviet regime's terrors can hardly be lower than some thirteen to fifteen million."[7]


  1. ^ Robert Conquest, Preface, The Great Terror: A Reassessment: 40th Anniversary Edition, Oxford University Press, USA, 2007. p. xvi
  2. ^ Robert Conquest at Spartacus Schoolnet
  3. ^ Conquest, Robert. "Kingsley Amis and ‘The Great Terror’". The New York Review of Books (April 12, 2007). Retrieved 19 May 2015. 
  4. ^ J. Arch Getty; Gábor T. Rittersporn; Viktor N. Zemskov (October 1994). "Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-War Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence". The American Historical Review 98 (4): 1017–1049. JSTOR 2166597. doi:10.2307/2166597. 
  5. ^ Simon Sebag Montefiore. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. pp. 649: "Perhaps 20 million had been killed; 28 million deported, of whom 18 million had slaved in the Gulags.".  See also: Dmitri Volkogonov. Autopsy for an Empire: The Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Regime. pp. 139: "Between 1929 and 1953 the state created by Lenin and set in motion by Stalin deprived 21.5 million Soviet citizens of their lives.".  and Alexander N. Yakovlev (2002). A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia. Yale University Press. pp. 234: "My own many years and experience in the rehabilitation of victims of political terror allow me to assert that the number of people in the USSR who were killed for political motives or who died in prisons and camps during the entire period of Soviet power totalled 20 to 25 million. And unquestionably one must add those who died of famineTemplate:Spaced ndashmore than 5.5 million during the civil war and more than 5 million during the 1930s.".  and Robert Gellately. Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe. Knopf, 2007 ISBN 1-4000-4005-1 p. 584: "More recent estimations of the Soviet-on-Soviet killing have been more 'modest' and range between ten and twenty million." and Stéphane Courtois. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror Repression. Harvard University Press, 1999. p. 4: "U.S.S.R.: 20 million deaths." and Jonathan Brent, Inside the Stalin Archives: Discovering the New Russia. Atlas & Co., 2008 (ISBN 0977743330) Introduction online (PDF file): Estimations on the number of Stalin's victims over his twenty-five year reign, from 1928 to 1953, vary widely, but 20 million is now considered the minimum. and Steven Rosefielde, Red Holocaust. Routledge, 2009. ISBN 0-415-77757-7 pg 17: "We now know as well beyond a reasonable doubt that there were more than 13 million Red Holocaust victims 1929–53, and this figure could rise above 20 million."
  6. ^ Victims of Stalinism: A Comment (Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 49, No. 7 (November , 1997), pp. 1317–1319)
  7. ^ Robert Conquest, Preface, The Great Terror: A Reassessment: 40th Anniversary Edition, Oxford University Press, USA, 2007. p. xviii
  • Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties (1968)
  • Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment, Oxford University Press, May 1990, hardcover, ISBN 0-19-505580-2; trade paperback, Oxford, September 1991, ISBN 0-19-507132-8