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The Great Terror at 40

“And this was Stalin,” Gorbachev told his colleagues. “How can that be accepted, let alone forgiven?”

He then speaks of “3 million sentenced, and that the most active part of the nation. A million shot. And that is not counting the share of dekulakization and the fate of people at the time of deportations. And this was Stalin. How can that be accepted, let alone forgiven?”

This was not for publication. But the whole direction of glasnost, amongst other things, brought a mass of officially banned knowledge out of hiding. The first public mention in Russia of my book was when Katrina vanden Heuvel interviewed me for Moskovskie Novosti in April 1989. When I was in Moscow later that year, it was all over. Through the decade there had been little reply to the book from the party establishment. But now the Stalinist writer Aleksandr Chakovsky called me “anti-Sovietchik number one” at the last plenum of the Central Committee. By that time the Russian edition was being serialized (in a million copies each month) in Neva.

The new openness had produced so much new material that it became possible, and even necessary, to produce a new edition of this book. The Great Terror: A Reassessment was published in 1990. Over the next four or five years, I was welcomed in Russia, making many friends, speaking to cultural and other groups and at conferences hosted by the Soviet Foreign Ministry. Going into Izvestiya to collect payment for a contribution to a Moscow journal, I saw a portrait of Nikolai Bukharin (purged and executed in 1938) hanging alongside those of the other former editors. I spent some weeks being filmed there for the documentary series Red Empire, made by Granada Television. As I encountered those I had met earlier abroad, it was hard not to relish Andrei Voznesensky’s saying he could hardly believe I was there: could he pinch me to make sure?

Russians’ acceptance of what they knew to be not merely falsehoods, but stupid and long-exposed falsehoods—the mere disgrace of it ate into the morale of even the official intelligentsia.

The information now available established the story clearly as to historical essentials, and in a generally correct way as to almost all crucial details. But we were soon like modern historians of an ancient empire who have had to rely on a few inscriptions, some only recently deciphered, when a huge store of firsthand records is discovered under some pyramid. It was enough for generations of archaeologists. . . . So eventually we come to the 2008 edition.

By far the most substantial additions, or amendments, to our knowledge have been the set of decrees on “Mass Operations” in 1937–38. The lists of those sentenced by the Military Collegium were sent to Stalin, and given his approval, with only a few Politburo members also signing. Nor did this informal leadership group have much time to spare. Records show that they had to make so many decisions on other urgent matters of policy that these terror orders were usually handled in twenty or thirty minutes. But when it comes to the Mass Operations, one finds that the number of victims in these accounted for nearly twenty times the number of victims of the Military Collegium and other lesser tribunals.

The mass terror was ordered in detail from the top, and was directed, with the numbers to be repressed laid down for each province and republic, for each stratum of the population—with individual crimes of terrorism, espionage, and so on added later by the local troika—and the lists of names then submitted to Moscow for final approval. That is to say, the strata were condemned as such, and the mass terror was seen as a removal of all that seemed unassimilable to the Stalinist order. Stalin’s mass action against a section of the population was thus taken on “ideological” grounds, merely disguising it as a purge of terrorists, spies, and saboteurs necessary to the safety and survival of the regime.

In the 2008 edition we have much new material on the personalities and activities of the key secret police operators and of the whole mechanism of terror.