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The Great Terror: An Introduction

Below we have excerpted part of the introduction from the 40th anniversary edition of Robert Conquest‘s The Great Terror: A Reassessment.  This book, the definitive work on Stalin’s purges, provides an eloquent chronicle of one of humanity’s most tragic events.  Robert Conquest is the author of some thirty books of history, biography, poetry, fiction, and criticism.  He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, the British Academy, and the American Academy of Art and Sciences. He is at present a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

The Great Terror of 1936 to 1938 did not come out of the blue.  Like any other historical phenomenon, it had its roots in the past.  It would no doubt be misleading to argue that it followed inevitably from the nature of Soviet society and of the Communist Party.  It was itself a means of enforcing violent change upon that society and that party.  But all the same, it could not have been launched excpet against the extraordinarily idiosyncratic background of Bolshevik rule; and its special characteristics, some of them hardly credible to foreign minds, derive from a specific tradition.  The dominating ideas of the Stalin period, the evolution of the oppostionists, the very confession in the great show trials, can hardly be followed without considering not so mch the whole Soviet past as the development of the Party, the consolidation of the dictatorship, the movements of faction, the rise of individuals, and the emergence of extreme economic politics.

After his first stroke on 26 May 1922, Lenin, cut off to a certain degree from the immediacies of political life, contemplated the unexpected defects which had arisen in the revolution he had made.

He had already remarked, to he delegates to the Party’s Xth Congress in March 1921, “We have failed to convince the broad masses.”  He had felt obliged to excuse the low quality of many Party members: ‘No profound and popular movement in all history has taken place without its share of filth, without adventurers and rogues, without boastful and noisy elements…A ruling party inevitably attracts careerists.”  He had noted that the Soviet State had “many bureaucratic deformities,” speaking of “that same Russian apparatus…borrowed from Tsardom and only just covered with a Soviet veneer.”  And just before his stroke he had noted “the prevalence of personal spite and malice” in the committees charged with purging the Party.

Soon after his recovery from this first stroke, he was remarking, “We are living in a sea of ilegality,” and observing, “The Communist kernal lacks general culture”, the culture of the middle classes in Russia was “inconsiderable, wretched, but in any case greater than that of our responsible Communists.”  In the autumn he was criticizing carelessness and parasitism, and invented special phrases for the boasts and lies of the Communists: “Com-boasts and Com-lies.”

In his absence, his subordinates were acting more unacceptably than ever.  His criticisms had hithero been occasional reservations uttered in the intervals of busy political and governmental activity.  Now they became his main preoccupation.  He found that Stalin, to whom as General Secretary he had entrusted the Party machine in 1921, was hounding the Party in Georgia.  Stalin’s emissary, Ordzhonkidze, had even struck the Georgian Communist leader Kabanidze.  Lenin favored a policy of concilation in Georgia, where the population was solidy anti-Bolshevik and had only just lost its independence to a Red Army assault.  He took strong issue with Stalin.

It was at this time that he wrote his “Testament.”  In it he made it clear that in his view Stalin was, after Trotsky, “the most able” leader of the Central Committee; and he criticized him, not as he did Trotsky (for “too far-reaching self-confidence and a disposition to be too much attracted by the purely administrative side of affairs”), but only for having “concentrated an enormous power in his hands” which he was uncertain Stalin would always know how to use with “sufficient caution.”  A few days later, after Stalin had used obscene language and made threats to Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, in connection with Lenin’s intervention in the Georgian affair, Lenin added a postscript to the Testament recommending Stalin’s removal from the General Secretaryship on the gournds of his rudeness and capriciousness- as being incompatible, however, only with that particular office.  On the whole, the reservations made about Trotsky must seem more serious when it comes to politics proper, and his “ability” to be an administrative executant rather more than a potential leader in his own right.  It is only fair to add that it was to Trotsky that Lenin turned in support in his last attempts to influence policy; but Trotsky failed to carry out Lenin’s wishes.

The Testament was concerned to avoid a split between Trotsky and Stalin.  The solution proposed- an increase in the size of the Central Committee- was futile.  In his last articles Lenin went on attack “bureaucratic misrule and willfulness,” spole of the condition of the State machine as “repugnant,” and concluded gloomily, “We lack sufficienct civilization to enable us to pass straight on to Socialism although we have the political requisities.”

“The political requisities…”- but these were precisely the activity of the Party and governmental leadership which he was condemming in practice.  Over the past years he had personally launched the system of rule by a centralized Party against- if necessary- all other social forces.  He had creaded the Bolsheviks, the new type of party, centralized and discilpline, in the first palce. He had preserved its identity in 1917, when before his arrival from exile the Bolshevik leaders had aligned themselves on a course of conciliation with the rest of the Revolution.  There seems little doubt that without him, the Social Democrats would have reunited and would have taken the normal position of such a movement in the State.  Instead, he had kept the Bolsheviks intact, and then sought and won sole power- again against much resistance from his own followers…

…In destroying the Deomcratic tendency within the Communist Party, Lenin in effect threw the game to the manipulators of the Party machine.  Henceforward, the appartus was to be first the most powerful and later the only force within the Party.  The answer to the question “Who will rule Russia?” became simply “Who will win a faction fight confined to a narrow section of the leadership?” Candidates for power had already shown their hands.  As Lenin lay in the twilight of the long decline from his last stroke, striving to correct all this, they were already at grips in the first round of the struggle which was to culminate in the Great Purge.

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