Dimitri Shevardnadze, Georgian painter, art collector, and intellectual purged during the Stalinist repressions

Soviet Horrors

The Stalinist purges of the 1930s and how The Great Terror came to be written

The following is an extract from the Preface to the 40th anniversary edition of Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror.

Up to 1956, our real sources were almost entirely from émigrés, “defectors,”
and such a rare document as the local files of the “Smolensk Archives,” which was captured by the Germans in 1941 and eventually reached the United States. When it comes to research on this “unofficial material,” were these sources reliable? Even to ask the question is to distort the nature of historical research. No “source” can, strictly speaking, be relied on.

In the Soviet case, as late as 1968 there was still much that had to be deduced from sources judged merely as “hearsay.” These did indeed tend to give much the same general story. Of the testimony given by the anti-Soviet defectors, one — Victor Kravchenko’s — took it that “one can only look into this or that corner and judge the whole from its parts.” Another, the physicist Alexander Weissberg, put it a little differently — that the outside world would note that his and others’ testimony were mutually confirmatory, and eventually draw the right conclusions. Yet they — and the similar evidence of Alexander Barmine, Ivanov Razumnik, and all the others — were still neglected.

Concerning deeper secrets, one often had to consider material still thought to be even more disreputable by some. For example, Alexander Orlov’s The Secret History of Stalin’s Crimes was, for many, a thoroughly dubious source. A high NKVD officer who defected in 1938, he naturally aroused suspicion (and a later book of his was clearly an unreliable potboiler). And later still a further extraordinary revelation came — that he had written promising Yezhov not to give away any state secrets on condition that he and his family were left untouched — and Stalin had approved. The worst result was that the Philby spy ring was able to serve Stalinist nuclear espionage so effectively.

But Orlov’s Secret History (from deep inside the NKVD) was largely validated early on as to one or two points. Now, all his contribution to the Zinoviev Trial, and much elsewhere, is proven. Like all evidence of its type, Orlov is only reliable when he is repeating what he was told at first-hand; when giving more peripheral, indirect hearsay, he is often in error — as with, more recently, Sudoplatov. Yet just because a source may be erroneous or unreliable on certain points does not automatically invalidate all its evidence. It was none other than Edward Gibbon who said that “imperfect and partial” evidence may contribute to a view of the whole, without making the historian “answerable . . . for all the circumjacent errors and inconsistencies of the authors whom he has quoted.

However, since 1956 and Khrushchev’s Secret Speech — followed by his openly published report to the XXII Congress in 1961, with many accounts of torture and falsehood — it was (or seemed) indisputable that a regime of lies and terror had after all been in existence. And, over the next few years, until 1962–1964, the real fates — at one level — of high Party officials, the military, and many intellectuals became known. There were many rehabilitations of those victims deemed never disloyal to the regime, and a number of books or booklets came out about some of the most important, as well as memoirs such as those of General Gorbatov. And above all, there came one of the main unforeseen cracks in the traditional Soviet story — the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which, as Galina Vishnevskaya put it, “let the genie out of the bottle, and however hard they tried later, they couldn’t put it back in.”

Though much, nothing like the whole reality emerged. But by 1968 there was
enough Soviet evidence, taken together with that given over a couple of decades by the various outsiders, to make a coherent whole.


The information now available — even what was available in the late 1960s —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. Enough for generations of archaeologists . . .

Even under glasnost we had to search for information, for evidence. Now, into the twenty-first century, there is so much of it that to produce a truly new “version” of this book would require a regiment of researchers to sift out and to boil down the countless available documents that researchers have meanwhile found. Much has been printed from the Presidential, the State, the Party, and the Police archives, both central and provincial. Russia’s Federal Security Service is reported to have declassified over two million secret documents in the past 15 years, but of course there are more. The sheer amount of material is such that there is still something new every week or so. It is only as I draft this preface that those astonishing 1985–1991 Politburo reports have become available in book form.

A point not adequately covered in The Great Terror was the huge volume of
paperwork produced. Even for minor “criminals” there are long-winded, highly formal orders for arrest and identifications by age, nationality, address, and status, signed by a local NKVD man. Then there are pages of interrogation, question-and-answer sessions, also so signed, with a more senior NKVD officer’s countersignature, then longish verdicts by Troikas or Courts. In fairly important cases, these run into volumes. They often include “confrontations” where the accused are questioned with other suspects — a practice earlier known to have been used with Bukharin, Pyatnitski, and others, with Stalin present. All this was typed up, employing a large secretarial staff. There are several tens of millions of NKVD files of this type in existence and as many relevant party files.

One now has the records of interrogation of major victims — even Yenukidze
from Stalin’s own past (sent to Stalin “for information”), and Yagoda, and (later) Yezhov. Typically, Yagoda’s interrogation on 26 April 1937 is described as “the result of prolonged interrogation” with eyewitness confrontations, during which he denied what was testified by fellow conspirators such as “Pauker, Volovich, Gay and others.” But at a later session he gives nine pages of suitable evidence — an improvement over the first effort also noted of Yezhov, Frinovsky and others.

As to the major high-level victims in general there is, at last, the full list of
those of that description shot at the end of July 1938: 139 of them (countersigned by Stalin). The cemetery records, with prison photograph, of a multitude of such victims are themselves astonishing. The charges are mostly routine, but (for instance) it is odd to find of Kamenev’s widow that in addition to terrorism, she was shot for “a counterrevolutionary conversation with a foreign diplomat.”

The victims even of the mass terror are registered, with each individual’s
identification — in the files and publications of that splendid organization MEMORIAL, and in such collections as Leningradskii Martirolog and local equivalents over the whole country. Each such volume appears with expert editorial prefaces and so on that are often most illuminating.

More generally, there are such collections as the (so far) approaching fifty large volumes of the Rossiya XX Vek series. And, in addition to the new (for us) documentation, there are hundreds of well-researched books in the field, by Russian, Ukrainian, German, English, Dutch, French, and Italian writers (though some excellent Russian research has been unbelievably mis-edited in an English version). Hundreds of sources are quoted, with thousands of footnotes — often to the Archival number of Fond, Register, and file page (the originals are still, of course, in their old sites — though many of them are also copied to Western and other libraries). Some references are to Russian archives that are still, or again, restricted, and only quoted from researchers’ notes or memory.

The result is a long and highly detailed record of total and grotesque falsification, bringing us ever more deeply into the distance between untruth and reality. The sheer magnitude of the former stands out. It is a different world, a different universe.

The Great Terror: A Reassessment, 40th Anniversary Edition by Robert Conquest (Oxford University Press, 2007)

Robert Conquest was the author of some thirty books of history, biography, poetry, fiction, and criticism. The recipient of many honors and awards, he was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, the British Academy, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Image credit: Dimitri Shevardnadze, Georgian painter, art collector and intellectual purged during the Stalinist repressions. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.