The Terrors

One of the foremost scholars of Soviet history assesses an ambitious new biography of Stalin

In this regard it is instructive to compare the Stalinist epoch with that of the czars. For example, in the earlier period the execution of Lenin's brother on genuine grounds of treason (he participated in a terrorist plot) did not affect Lenin's academic career, much less result in his own execution. The decline in the government's humanity is remarkable. So is the difference between life in Stalin's gulag, whose inhabitants were starved and sweated, and the relatively comfortable "exile" to Siberian villages imposed on offenders by the czarist regime.

The impact of the terrors on Party members and other elites has long been known. Our most substantial gain in understanding the Stalinist era concerns how and to what extent they struck at the general population. This is now decisively documented, in papers signed by Stalin and specifying quotas for death and imprisonment by category and locale; these decrees resulted in nearly 770,000 executions in 1937-1938. In addition, over the whole of his career Stalin signed 44,000 individual death sentences. The "anti-Soviet elements" targeted included former kulaks, former officials of the czarist state and army, former members of non-Bolshevik parties, religious activists, and "speculators"—a wide swath of society. Those carrying out the orders were required to send "albums" of the victims to Moscow, to confirm that the quotas had been met.

There is no longer much serious dispute about what the terrors unleashed, or about the extravagant falsification practiced by the regime. If anything is still missing in Western understanding, it is a full recognition of the mental degradation inflicted by the regime. The entire population was forced to accept a supposedly all-explaining dogma, along with the notion that it was living in a social and political utopia—when what it actually experienced, of course, was the opposite. A Russian academic told me recently that many Westerners he meets still don't realize how horrible and psychologically exhausting a life it was. Much of the new evidence speaks directly to this point. For example, we now have official reports of meetings at secondary schools in which young Komsomols would harangue their classmates about parents who had turned out to be "enemies of the people"—after which the children of those arrested would have to come forward and join in the denunciations.

One aspect of the Soviet experience whose aftereffects are still manifest was the progressive lowering of mental standards. The attack on the intelligentsia is well known: from writers to scientists, they perished in droves. At the same time, society experienced, at every level, a loud and insistent influx of the narrow, the hysterical, and the untrue. Stupidity reigned at the highest levels—evidenced, for example, by the propagation of pseudo-science, the chief instance of which was the biologist Trofim Lysenko's uninformed doctrines of agricultural genetics. And members of the apparat class proper, including the political elite, were mentally so constricted and desensitized that they were largely unable to operate intelligently. The intellectual mediocrity of Leonid Brezhnev and the clumsy activism of Nikita Khrushchev were direct legacies of Stalin's rule.

The most remarkable thing about the Soviet phenomenon, however, was not its complete control over the minds of Soviet citizens but its extraordinarily successful effort to instill its falsifications in the minds of many abroad, who were under no compulsion to accept them. Although this is not Sebag Montefiore's concern per se, a full view of Stalinism can hardly fail to note the worldwide propagation of its ideology and myths.

The Western misreading of the Soviet system was largely the product of a simple reflex. The Soviet order—indeed, the practice of communism everywhere —was seen as a form of "progressive" hostility to established Western politics and, particularly, economics. It seemed to represent a new system that had rid itself of the market, of exploitation. Whatever its doubtless temporary—or invented—faults (so the thinking went), the Soviet ideology stood for a better world. Thus many Western writers, including Lion Feuchtwanger, Henri Barbusse, and even Romain Rolland, the sensitive follower of Gandhi, spoke out in defense of the purges. In the United States a number of authors, poets, professors, and artists, including Theodore Dreiser and Corliss Lamont, signed a manifesto attacking the Dewey Commission—a body formed in 1937 to examine the charges against Leon Trotsky, and whose findings were an unsparing, irrefutable indictment of the realities of the Soviet system. From 1939 to 1941, Soviet sympathizers went so far as to oppose the effort to stop Hitler. After Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, Stalinist devotees in the West simply switched their stance on Nazi Germany. Even today some of their survivors imply that their anti-fascism was never interrupted.

The Holocaust stood clearly as a monstrosity from the start. The communist record was more blurred, more polymorphous; and for a long while it retained remnants of its initial luster (something that National Socialism never enjoyed outside Germany). As a result, many Western intellectuals, though no longer approving, remained nonjudgmental for many years.

There will probably always be an alienated intelligentsia, especially in tolerant, democratic societies. But the extent to which this stratum was penetrated, misled about reality, and to some degree fanaticized by Moscow's manipulations is striking. William James wrote that philosophical opinion is largely a matter of temperament. This applies to political and other types of opinion as well. The sort of temperament we have seen during the twentieth century, combining at its worst a blend of zealotry and unteachability, can be found in earlier eras. It will doubtless always be lying in wait for us. Knowledge of its recent embodiments, although useful, will not eradicate it. The evil will, alas, simply take new forms.

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Robert Conquest is a fellow of the Hoover Institution and the author of The Harvest of Sorrow (1986) and The Great Terror (1990). His most recent book, The Dragons of Expectation will be published later this year.

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