Excerpts from

Robert Conquest

Learning to Unlearn the Leninist Mindset

The Great Terror


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Excerpts from

Learning to Unlearn the Leninist Mindset

By Robert Conquest

The Providence Journal and Bulletin,
September 22, 1992




We all know the economic and ecological disasters of the Soviet era. What has perhaps not been stressed enough is the moral and intellectual collapse of the regime. One reason for this is that for more than half a century the whole system had, as a major characteristic falsification on an enormous scale. History, production figures, census results—all were faked. Even more demoralizing, the whole sphere of thought was controlled and distorted.

As truth penetrated, it became increasingly the case that only the stupidest and most abject could really accept this delusional world. One of the most difficult things to convey to a Western audience is how disgusting the rank and file of the old Soviet ruling class really were—how mean, treacherous, shamelessly lying, cowardly, sycophantic and ignorant. ... the Soviet system underwent a long process of decay.

The political situation in the former Soviet Union .... the people there are rid of Marxism-Leninism. They may not quite know what they want. But they know what they don’t want....It was the ideas possessing the minds of the Leninists that caused the disasters    ...  has the lesson been learned here in the West? ... A not inconsiderable number of members of the West’s elite were to one degree or another deceived, or self-deceived, about the communist regime. Some saw it as, in all essentials, more advanced than ourselves. This view was mainly held by “idealists.” Others argued that the USSR was a normal state, one like any other, and that it should be treated as such. This view was mainly held by "pragmatists." Both were wrong: far from being advanced, it was based on an archaic fantasy; far from being normal, it was a revolting aberration.

One reason for such delusion was factitiousness. Argument in America about the nature of Sovietism became confused, quite illogically, with internal liberal-conservative disputes....Many were seduced by the comfortable word “socialism,” even to the extent of rejecting the Western Ideas of free discussion, political compromise, plural society, piecemeal practicality and change without chaos. Moreover, this socialism carried with it the primitive belief that the state could solve all problems. Connected with this, the other great lesson of the Soviet regime is, of course, the destructive effect of a pervasive bureaucracy. It is clear that this lesson has not been learned, or not adequately so. Examples proliferate from the European Community bureaucracy in Brussels to General Motors in Detroit.

Parochialism played a major part in the self-deception, usually involving an ignorance of world history. Admirers of the Soviets could not believe that a regime could kill millions of its own subjects. The decimation of the peasantry because it would have been "economically counterproductive" could not have happened: just as, presumably, Tamerlane could not have built that pyramid of 70,000 skulls.

Nevertheless, work such as my own was for long by no means slandered, seldom even rejected, except by a few sub-Stalinists (and oddballs like Jerry Hough). It was only in the mid-1980s that a more or less concerted “revisionist” effort began in Sovietological academe. The revisionists argued, in effect, that there had never been much of a terror, against either the peasantry or the population as a whole, and that what there was had been of little importance compared with administrative and personnel changes. Moreover, they accepted the facts and figures provided by the Soviet authorities as truthful.

Historians” with little knowledge of history believed Soviet documents. Demographers with little knowledge of the Soviet Union believed Soviet census figures. Bad timing! It was precisely at this juncture that Moscow started to make the facts public, and the whole enterprise collapsed amid general contempt."

How do fanaticism and dogmatism of, or resembling, the Soviet type arise? Often at the age of 18 or 20, a student meets some such glittering general idea and, far from feeling any responsibility to submit it to serious questioning, henceforward follows it like a duckling imprinted with its mother. Is this adequately discouraged? Is the student induced to think, to aim for intellectual responsibility; to seek knowledge and practice judgment; to avoid formulas?

I am afraid that much of the education we now find does not, to put it mildly, even approach these criteria. Indeed, it is an educated, or half-educated, stratum whose minds are still infested with what in the language of computers we would call viruses, which distort their calculations.

It has been wisely said that the two great causes of human troubles are impatience and laziness. Intellectually, these are precisely the phenomena that produce such destructive fantasies. Ideological quick fixes for all intellectual and social problems are sought, rather than an understanding of their real complexities. The Soviet Union was a proving ground for such approaches. We in the West still have much to learn, and to unlearn, from the events in the former communist countries.



Excerpts from

The Great Terror and
The Great Terror,


by Robert Conquest



.The frightful slaughter of the thirties was not, like the terrors of Lenin and Robespierre, launched in time of crisis and war. It was not even done - like Stalin's own liquidation of the kulaks - for misconceived but at any rate debatable ends. On the contrary it was launched in the coldest of blood, when Russia had at last reached a comparatively calm and even moderately prosperous condition.

The Purge was not a sudden and total surprise. It had its roots in the Soviet past. It would doubtless be false to argue that it followed inevitably from the nature of Soviet society and of the Communist Party. It was itself a means of enforcing violent change upon that society and that party. But all the same it could not have been launched except against the extraordinarily idiosyncratic background of Bolshevik rule; and its special characteristics, some of them hardly credible to foreign minds, derive from a specific tradition. The dominating ideas of the Stalin period, the evolution of the oppositionists, the very confessions in the great show trials, can hardly be followed without considering not so much the whole Soviet past as the development of the Party, the consolidation of the dictatorship, the movements of faction, the rise of individuals and the emergence of extreme economic policies. Moreover, Lenin had established within the Party all the seeds of a centralised bureaucratic attitude. The Secretariat, long before Stalin took it over, was transferring Party officials for political reasons. In destroying the 'democratic' tendency within the Communist Party, Lenin in effect threw the game to the manipulators of the Party machine. As Lenin lay in the twilight of the long decline from his last stroke, they were already at grips in the first round of the struggle which was to culminate in the Great Purge. From the point of view of the purges, the period from July 1935 to August 1936 was to all outward appearances something of an idyllic interlude. There were no deaths of Politburo members, no trials of important oppositionists, no removals of leading political figures. The harvest too, was reasonably good. Moreover, it was announced, that the purge of the Party ordered in 1933 was now complete.

The draft of a new Constitution had been occupying the minds of Bukharin and Radek, as the active members of the Commission set up for the purpose in February1935. It was ready in June 1936, and Bukharin, in particular, thought of it as a document which would make it impossible for the people any longer to be 'pushed aside'.

It was indeed a model document, giving, for example, guarantees of freedom from arbitrary arrest (Article 127), inviolability of the home and secrecy of correspondence (Article 128) and indeed freedom of speech, of the press, of meetings, and of demonstrations (Article 125). That Bukharin, who was mainly responsible for it, thought that it might be implemented shows that even he imagined a genuine relaxation was taking place. Bukharin is even quoted as wanting the intelligentsia to put up candidates under the new Constitution as a sort of 'second party', not to oppose the regime, but to give constructive criticism - a vague utopianism indeed.

...The last serious pretense that persuasion, or even economic pressure, was to be the method of enforcing the Party will on the peasantry has disappeared. Pure force, a frontal assault, was the chosen method. Without serious preparation or planning on the economic side, the Party was launched into a civil war in the rural areas. It as the first great crisis of the Stalin regime, and it marks the beginning of a whole new era of terror.

On 5 January 1930 the Central Committee issued a decision, switching from the original plan of collectivizing 20 percent of the sown area during the Five-Year Plan to the complete collectivization of the more important regions by the autumn of 1930 or at the very latest the autumn of 1931, and in other areas by the autumn of 1931 or at the very latest the autumn of 1932. In one way or another, everything got out of hand, and in a few weeks the Party had been carried to the brink of disaster.

Between January and March 1930, the number of peasant holdings brought into the collective farms increased from 4 million to 14 million. Over half of the total peasant hold holds had been collectivized in five months. And in the countryside the peasants fought back with 'sawed-off shotgun, the axe, the dagger, the knife.' At the same time, they destroyed their livestock rather than let if fall into the hands of the State.
Kalinin, Ordzhonikidze, and other members of the Politburo visited the provinces and seem to have reported realistically about the disaster. But Stalin is said not to have bothered to obtain Politburo permission for his key article 'Dizziness With Success' published in Pravda on 2 March 1930. The article put most of the blame on excesses committed by local party workers, and this, it is said, came as a shock to local enthusiasts. It was followed on 14 March by a condemnation of "distortions" of the Party line in the application of compulsion to the peasantry---which, the statement said, was a Leftist deviation which could only help to strengthen right-wing elements in the Party. Bauman, who had replaced Uglanov as First Secretary in Moscow and candidate member of the Politburo, was now made a scapegoat on charges of Left deviation, removed from his post, and sent to a lesser position in Central Asia. 
Defeat has been accepted. The peasants left the kolkhozes. Stalin's policy lay in ruins. 

In any other political system, this would have been the moment for the opposition to stand forward. They had been proved right. And support for the Rightist leadership sprang up spontaneously in Party branches all of the country. Among the people as a whole, they were of course stronger still. But to this vast potential support, Bukharin, Tomsky and Rykov gave no lead. On the contrary, they went out of their way to say that to come out against 'the Party,' especially with the support of peasants, was unthinkable. So Stalin's policy defeat was accompanied by a political victory. Tomsky was removed from the Politburo in July 1930, and Rykov in December. Henceforth, it was purely Stalinist.
The Rightist leaders regarded Stalin's leadership as catastrophic and hoped for his fall (Summer, 1930), but advised their closest adherents to wait in patience for a change in the Party mood. Bukharin favored working up a general support of the idea of a change without any direct organized struggle for the time being. He is described as having counseled the younger oppositionists to rely on the masses, who must sooner or later realize the fatal consequences of the Stalin line. Patience would be necessary. So he accepted defeat in the vague hope of some improvement later on.
The Trotskyists voiced a similar hope for a change. Ivan Smirmov, a 'capitulator,' now considered, 'In view of the incapacity of the present leadership to get out of the economic and political deadlock, the conviction about the need to change the leadership of the Party is growing.'

Stalin, though retreating, had not given up his plans for collectivization. He now proposed to bring it into being over a longer period----by means just as inhuman but not so ill-prepared. Everywhere in the countryside, the Party, faced with a hostile peasantry, regrouped and prepared further desperate action.
The peasants remaining in the villages were now subjected to demands for amounts of grain which they were unable to produce. in 1932 and 1933, the Ukraine, the North Caucasus, and the Lower Volga suffered a terrible famine. There was enough grain, but it was taken away to the last kilogram. As recent Soviet accounts put it, 'this famine was organized by Stalin quite consciously and according to the plan.'
The main weight of the assault was against the Ukraine, and the (then) Ukrainian-speaking areas of the Kuban, in the North Caucasus. It was combined with a devastating attack on the Ukrainian intelligentsia and the Ukrainian Party itself. In fact, the campaign may be said to resemble the 'laying waste' of hostile subject territories practiced by Jenghiz Khan and other figures of the past.

But is was not until 1988 that, on this as on other aspects of Stalinism, full accounting of the impact, the method, and the motives appeared in Soviet publications. The deaths in the terror-famine cannot have been lower than 6 to 7 million. The death toll among the peasantry over the whole period 1930 to 1933 is given in the recent Soviet literature as around 10 million---higher than the dead of all the belligerents put together in the First World War. That is, it was all on a scale as large as that of the subsequent "Great Terror." ...

There seems little doubt that the main issue was simply crushing the peasantry, and the Ukrainians, at any cost. One high official told a Ukrainian who later defected that the 1933 harvest 'was a test of our strength and their endurance. It took a famine to show them who is master here. It has cost millions of lives, but the collective farm system is here to stay. We have won the war, 'In fact, we find that mass terror was now already in existence in the countryside, and thousands of police and Party officials has received the most ruthless operational experience." 


Excerpts from


By Robert Conquest

National Review, 10 March 1989,


The extent of the long-drawn-out  Stalin terror is now at last being  fully  and  irrefutably  demonstrated.   The  key question remains, how many suffered?
   The Soviet press has lately --  so far in piecemeal fashion -- been giving figures for those killed, imprisoned, and deported in Stalin's time which  match those long since  deduced in the West, but  denied  in  Moscow  and   often  rejected  as  excessive  or incredible by  some in  the West  as well.   In a  book published twenty years ago  [The Great Terror  (1968)], I was  able, by the careful handling of a variety of  sources, to reach a rough total of twenty million deaths  -- with the proviso  that this might be an underestimate by as much as 50 per cent.    There  is  now   talk  in  Moscow   of  high-placed,  official demographers and  statisticians having  used unpublished material to produce a set of figures  for terror deaths in the same range. They hope to be able to publish these in the fairly near future.

The  scent  had been  confused  by  the Soviet  census  of the period.   The results  of  a census  taken  in January  1937 were suppressed  and members  of  the Census  Board  were shot  as ``a serpent's   nest  of   traitors  in   the  apparatus   of  Soviet statistics,''  who  had  ``exerted  themselves  to  diminish  the
numbers of the population of the  USSR.''  A new census was taken in 1939.  It naturally failed to  carry much conviction -- but it has even now been used as authentic by some Western ``scholars.'' Soviet   statisticians   have,  indeed,   lately   rebuked  them, explaining that there were two reasons for rejecting the figures: first, that Stalin had announced them before the Census Board had examined the data;  second, that deaths in  prison or labor camps had not been included.  Such were  the problems, or some of them, that bedeviled the research.

 Reasonably accurate estimates of the numbers sent to the labor camps have  been available  for forty  years at  least.  But they were based on  evidence that, though  varied and cumulative, came from defectors, escapees,  Poles, and others  ill-affected to the regime: so they were rejected.  They  still are, by a few Western (mostly American) academics.   This year, Soviet  accounts by the dozen confirm them.

A Moscow scholar  prominent in the  field estimates 15 million peasants were  deported to the  Arctic in 1930-2,  two million of  the able-bodies males among them  to the forced-labor camps.  (My deportation estimate in  The Harvest of Sorrow,  1986, was ten to 12  million.)  At  least a  third  of them  are believed  to have perished.  Then  Moscow has published  the figure  of six million dead (I made  it around seven  million) for the  terror famine of 1933,   now   referred  to   bluntly   as   a  ``murder-famine,'' ``artificial,'' and ``consciously''  planned.  Figures indicating seven to eight million arrests  in 1937-38 have also appeared; 17 million in the  labor camps over  the whole period  have been put forward;  16   million  post-Stalin   rehabilitations  have  been mentioned  publicly.   And  at  least  a  million  executions for 1937-38 (not counting executions inside camps) have been given -- the same figure  as my own,  reached in 1968.   But in now looks, from other Soviet evidence, that this may be an underestimate.

For  the  Kuropaty  NRVD execution  site  has  been discovered outside the Byelorussian capital,  Minsk.  The Soviet estimate of the  bodies  in mass  graves  in  the area  already   examined was 102,000;  but  the  chief  investigator  has  just  published  an estimate of 250,000 to 300,000 for  the whole site.  And this for
the capital of a  minor Soviet republic --  with five other sites around  still   awaiting  investigation,  and   others  near  the Byelorussian  provincial capitals!   Even  allowing for  the fact that these  executions include, after  1939, many  from the newly annexed Western Byelorussia,  the numbers imply  a slaughter on a rather larger scale than any of us imagined.

The Russian poet  and Nobel Prize  winner, Joseph Brodsky, has written that Westerners  simply cannot face the  idea of a regime (a  ``socialist''  one  too)  that  killed  tens  of  millions of innocents,   so   they  turn   their   indignation   against  the ``mustachioed  colonels'' and  other comprehensible  targets.  In
fact, the main reason Westerners  -- including alleged experts -- failed to  understand the Soviet  phenomenon was  that they could not believe  Stalin's acts  were possible.

It  does  indeed  require such  an  effort  to  understand the enormity of the blow to  the consciousness of the Soviet peoples, the hideous effect of  the vast slaughter, of  year after year of fear,  of forced  falsification,  of denunciation  and treachery. For when we  register the millions  of dead, we  must also recall that even larger  numbers underwent various  phases of the terror and just  survived.  One Soviet  article, in  a government organ, has already stated  that in the terror  against the peasantry, in 1930-33, 25 million  people were ``dead  or half-alive'' and that ``no fewer'' suffered in the  post-1937 phases.  Another tells us that even  for the ``few''  who did not  have relatives arrested, extreme fear  penetrated their  whole existence.   The effect has not yet worn off.


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