Review: "The Great Terror: A Reassessment"
Throughout historian Robert Conquest’s book, The Great Terror: A Reassessment, the author provides a detailed and descriptive account of the Great Purges that seeks to trace the rise of Joseph Stalin and his consolidation of power in the 1930s. In this work, Conquest argues that the Purges were implemented by Stalin as a means of strengthening his power and silencing individuals that posed a threat to his rule (including family, friends, and loyal party members). Unlike historian Peter Whitewood – who later argued that Stalin’s purges resulted from a sense of paranoia and fear that enveloped the Soviet regime – Conquest makes the case that Stalin’s decision to arrest, imprison, and execute millions of citizens was a deliberate and intentional move that involved a great deal of strategic planning to implement. Once set in motion, Conquest points out that Stalin was able to effectively eliminate any political opposition that remained within the Bolshevik party; he was able to institute a system of fear and obedience within the Soviet Union; finally, and perhaps most importantly, Conquest argues that Stalin accomplished all of this in a manner that completely relieved him of all blame and guilt. By using the NKVD secret police to do his biddings and by playing political opponents against one another, Conquest makes the point that Stalin effectively shifted all guilt away from himself to the secret police and to individuals who were forced to admit to their “crimes.” This, he argues, established Stalin as the preeminent figurehead of the Soviet Union with absolute and complete control invested within his hands alone.
Conquest’s rendition of the purges is particularly interesting as it deviates significantly from modern historiography. Whereas other interpretations stress that Stalin did not act alone in the purges, Conquest argues differently by positing that Stalin’s actions were part of a clear, calculating, and strategic move with murderous intent. To substantiate his claims, Conquest relies heavily upon archival materials such as letters, police reports, and correspondences between Stalin and party officials. This reliance on such a wide variety of sources, in turn, makes Conquest’s book feel both informative and very scholarly in its overall approach. Conquest also possesses a superior writing style that showcases itself time and again throughout each chapter. The end result is a historical work that reads more like a novel with its narrative-driven style.
All in all, I give Conquest’s book 5/5 Stars and highly recommend it to anyone interested in a history of the early Soviet Union – particularly the years of the Great Terror. Both amateur and professional historians, alike, can benefit from the contents of this work. Definitely check it out if you get the opportunity!
Questions to Facilitate Group Discussion
1.) What was the author's main points/thesis? Do you agree with his rendition of the Great Terror? Why or why not?
2.) What were some of the strengths and weaknesses of this work? Were there any areas of this book that Conquest could have improved upon?
3.) Did the author organize this work in a logical manner? Did each of the chapters flow naturally with one another?
4.) What did you learn from reading this book? Were you surprised by any of the facts and figures presented by Conquest?
5.) How likely would you be to recommend this work to a friend?
Do you agree with Conquest's main argument?
Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: A Reassessment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
© 2017 Larry Slawson