[ As his classic work is republished, Robert Conquest reflects on how it threw open the doors of the Gulag’s secrets. ]
In the late Sixties when my book The Great Terror came out, it was still true that, as the great historian François Furet noted, after the war and the demise of fascism, “all the major debates on postwar ideas revolved round a single question: the nature of the Soviet regime.” He adds the paradox that communism had two main embodiments—as a backward despotism and as a constituency in the West that had to be kept unaware of the other’s reality. And, up to the last, this was often accompanied by a view of the Cold War as an even exchange—with the imputation that any denigration of the Soviet regime was due to peace-hating prejudice.
What was the condition of our previous knowledge of Stalinist actuality before, let us say, 1956? We had for decades had a large amount of real information about the purges, all often rejected or ignored, while little truth and much falsehood had emerged from Moscow. However, since 1956, starting with the revelations of Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech it was (or seemed) indisputable that a regime of lies and terror had indeed been in existence. Over the years that followed came the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich [by Alexander Solzhenitsyn], 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.”
So by 1964 or 1965 it had gradually become plain that a huge gap in history needed to be filled, and that the facts released over the past few years, plus the often denied testimony of some of the regime’s hostile but increasingly justified witnesses, could be put together, if carefully done, to produce a veridical story, a real history.
When my book came out in 1968, the publishers were surprised to have to reprint it time and time again to meet demand. Reviews, from left and right, were almost all very favorable. And it was soon published in most Western languages—and also Hindi, Arabic, Japanese, and Turkish.
Over the decades that followed, “the period of stagnation” as it became known in Russia, there was little further public addition to our knowledge—or to that of the Soviet citizen. But in those years came many breaches of the official silence. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn “illegally” gave us The Gulag Archipelago. From Andrei Sakharov came striking interviews and interventions. There was a flowering of samizdat and, to counter it, many arrests (and confinement in penal “psychiatric” wards— as reported by my friend Vladimir Bukovsky and others—as well as the Gulag). And there was Roy Medvedev’s Let History Judge —from, what is more, a devoted Leninist: a deeply detailed blow at the Stalin terror. There was a liberalism of the catacombs.
Above all, the old falsifications lost credibility among anything describable as an educated class in Russia. The public acceptance of what they knew to be not merely falsehoods, but stupid and long-exposed falsehoods—the mere disgrace of it ate into the morale of even the official intelligentsia, as I remember noting in conversations with Soviet diplomats. Meanwhile, the original 1968 edition of The Great Terror had been published in a Russian version (in Florence, in 1972) and was soon being smuggled into the USSR, where it was welcomed by many outside—and, as we now know, inside—official circles.
In the early 1980s came the realization by some in Moscow that the whole regime had become nonviable economically, ecologically, intellectually— and even militarily—largely because of its rejection of reality. When it came to Soviet history, and Stalin’s Terror, there was, as on other themes, some sharp disagreement in the Politburo—later to produce the attempted coup of 1991. The highest leadership itself had not managed to find the facts about the fate of its own relatives! It is only years later that records of these disputes have been published.
One finds Mikhail Gorbachev telling his colleagues, “Millions rehabilitated— that is the great service done by Nikita Khrushchev.” Why did this “stop short?” he asked. “Because Khrushchev too had blood on his hands.” As to his successors, they had done their best to keep the truth unknown: “Under Brezhnev, under Andropov, under Chernenko, even members of the Politburo had no information.” As to what followed, Stalin’s “use of the Kirov murder to bring in repression,” the only motive was “the struggle for power.” And Gorbachev adds: “Plots against him—that’s all rubbish (chepukkha).”