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The Great Terror
A Reassessment

By Robert Conquest
Oxford University Press, 570 pp, 1990

Wednesday, March 5, 2003 was the fiftieth anniversary of Joseph Stalin's death. As historian and poet Robert Conquest makes clear in this epic book, old Uncle Joe couldn't have died soon enough. After the sheer misery and abject terror to which he subjected the Russian people, he, if there is any justice in the afterlife (as I believe there is), is suffering the fiery torment of hell for all eternity. The man was an unspeakable monster.

I don't say this casually. But there's no other way to put it and remain honest. He wasn't merely a bad man, or mistaken, or misguided. He was pure evil, and, fittingly enough, the perfect ruler to reign over the other evil that was communism. Communism and Stalin deserved each other - without the other, neither could reach its full potential for plunging its citizenry into squalor and despair.

Not much is known about Stalin's character or personal beliefs or even political philosophies. Smart enough but no intellectual, politically cunning and manipulative, extremely paranoid to the point of delusion, his sole overriding purpose in life seems to be power. He had to succeed in whatever it was he was doing, and it didn't matter who he had to kill, torture, or maim to accomplish his goals.

Joseph Stalin took over the Communist Party and Politburo, and hence the Soviet Union, after Lenin's also long-overdue death. Stalin immediately moved to consolidate his power by cynically switching allegiances and taking competition from both the left and right. He gathered henchmen like Molotov who were just as cruel and ruthless - these men unquestionably carried out Stalin's orders. He also launched a government-orchestrated famine in the Ukraine, killing millions of peasants, to subject the labor movement to the Party and himself (this is covered in Conquest's The Harvest of Sorrow, which is also on my reading list).

Other Party members moved against him but he held them all off and then urged their execution for their "treason" against the Soviet Union. Many Central Committee members, while they had no problem going along with state-sponsored famines and suppression, opposed capital punishment for the ambitious comrades. This put them on Stalin's hit list.

But before he could begin his purges, he had to further solidify his position. He hired stooges in the NKVD to arrest and harass Party members and their families. He used the NKVD to murder a prominent oppositionist, Kirov, framed innocent men, and killed lower level allies who had been involved in his plot. He then staged a mock trial for the wrongly accused and had them convicted (there was no independent judiciary in the Soviet Union - the judges who tried these innocent men were Stalin lackeys). This was the first great trial of the purges, and though he promised to spare the innocent men's lives if they pleaded guilty, he had them shot anyway. 

Stalin and his henchmen were the original McCarthyites. Anyone with any real or imagined connection to Trotsky, his associates, his beliefs, his writings, anything, was imprisoned and put to death. The question "Are you now, or have you ever been, a Trotskyite?" was a serious question in Stalin's Soviet Union and one of the bases of the purges. 

In April 1935, the Soviet Union decreed that all legal penalties, including death, applied to children as young as twelve. This allowed Stalin to threaten the families of prisoners, which he often did. Many wives and kids were tortured and put to death for the imaginary crimes of husbands and fathers. Additionally, the Soviets reduced the population of homeless and parentless children - orphans - by indiscriminately shooting them. Whatever works, I suppose.

Some claimed that the purges and terror affected only Party officials, and not the population at large. That's not true. Anyone was a potential victim. Millions were jailed and sent to labor camps - artists, musicians, actors, peasants, laborers. No one was immune. Jails were packed, with often dozens and hundreds jammed into cells meant to hold far fewer people. Some cells were so packed that the prisoners could not lie or sit down. The labor camps were really death camps, where prisoners were forced to work on tiny rations until they died. 

Stalin did his best to ruin the Soviet Army by purging virtually all of its experienced, successful, and high-ranking officers. He even collaborated with Hitler to frame a decorated Soviet general, while at the same time he was trying Party officials for collaborating with Hitler! The defendants were innocent, of course. This stupid action made it much easier for the Germans to invade Russia in World War II, despite the huge advantage the Red Army had over the Germans in men and materiel.

The fact is that Stalin ground his country's people and morale under his boot. I've just scratched the surface of his depravity. I haven't mentioned the torture sessions, the starvation camps, the informants, the betrayals. On and on it goes.

Incredibly, there are still people today who think Stalin was a great man. Such people are ignorant and stupid and need to read this book.

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