I had a friend, as far to the left as they come, who was thrilled to see the Soviet Union fall in 1991 since there would no longer be the bad example of socialism in action to deter others from joining the cause. We manage now to dissuade people from joining the Nazi Party, although we do not seem to be able to warn anyone about the dangers of any authoritarian system which are always of the left, no matter what name we given them. After all, Nazi means National Socialist in German. What has brought all this to mind is this: Inhuman power of the lie: “The Great Terror” at 40. It’s now been around 90 years since the start of the Great Terror itself; the 40 years only refers to the date of the publication of Conquest’s book in 1968 while the commemorative article was written in 2008. The story itself never grows old although fewer and fewer see its relevance.
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.
The article is really about Robert Conquest whose books should be read by anyone who wants to understand why every obstacle to political power is essential if you want to preserve your freedom, your prosperity, and ultimately in far too many cases, your life.
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?”
I hope you will forgive the title.