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The Great Terror at 40

Stalin’s terror was ordered at the top. Mass action against a section of the population was taken on “ideological” grounds, disguising it as a purge of terrorists, spies, and saboteurs.

My book has been faulted for giving too little attention to the context of Russia and of the Russian historical and mental backgrounds. We find what seem to be contradictions. Any reader of the country’s great literature may feel an especially Russian humanism arising from the depths of the “national character.” On the other hand, Ronald Hingley (in his classic The Russian Mind) saw the fictional and the real Russian as living in great dullness interspersed with, or accompanying, extreme outbursts, but also possessed by a view of the country’s past and present as deplorable yet containing as recompense a wonderful future with some sort of national glory compensating for everything. A complementary trait often reported is the fear that a Russian, or Russia, is being deceived or cheated—the sort of thing we see in Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls and in Soviet xenophobia.

But this does downgrade Russia’s other options—liberalism or pluralism. As Boris Pasternak put it, in the 1880s came “the birth of an enlightened and affluent middle class, open to occidental influences, progressive, intelligent, artistic.” There are many historical and modern examples of this more “Western” style of thought in Russia, deep-set, and though often disenchanted continuing to present a more viable and civilized future. The present leadership has, at least to a large extent, given up Soviet-type economics. But one can have “reform” without liberalism— as with Peter the Great and Pyotr Stolypin. Above all, we are still far from the rule of law—much more important than “democracy.” As elsewhere, the problem seems to be to free the idea of the “nation” from both archaic barbarism and from the more recently bankrupted verbalisms that have partly melded into it.

One can have “reform” without liberalism. Above all, Russia today is still far from the rule of law—much more important than “democracy.”

The history of the period covered by The Great Terror sees the enforcement of Stalin’s totally intolerant belief system—with terror as the decisive argument. Terror means terrorizing. Mass terror means terrorizing the whole population, and must be accompanied by the most complete public exposure of the worst enemies of the people, of the party line, and so of the truth. We know the results. One of the strangest notions put forward about Stalinism is that in the interests of “objectivity” we must be—wait for it—“nonjudgmental.” But to ignore, or downplay, the realities of Soviet history is itself a judgment, and a very misleading one.

 

 

The Great Terror at 40” was originally published in the 2008 No. 2 issue of the Hoover Digest and is republished here by the Global Museum on Communism with the permission of Robert Conquest.