The Conquest of History

Back in the 80s when I was still in school I hit a point after my sophomore years (working full time while going to school will do that) where I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to finish with my major.  While quite useful and practical… and it actually ended up being so after college, much to my great surprise… I started fishing around for something else, vacillating between things that would get me out sooner and things that were simply more interesting.

Fortunately I went to a large public university with many, many options to explore.

So it was that I wandered into the Soviet studies program for a few semesters.  I didn’t stop working on my major entirely, but it was deferred a bit.  It was great fun.  I am still hopeless at reading Cyrillic and a lot of what I learned is now more historical trivia rather than useful, applicable information, but I enjoyed myself.  The program itself was changing as, what was once a dry and taciturn nation to study started coming apart at the seams during the Gorbachev era as he tried to implement political reform while attempting to maintain socialist economic unreality.  There were a couple of courses where the syllabus was just thrown out and it became a twice a week Soviet current events discussion.

There was also a good deal of groundwork for the program.  Being a fan of history I went through all of the required and optional reading assignments.  I still have a lot of those books on my bookshelf or in boxes in my office. But I particularly recall reading Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and Robert Conquest‘s The Great Terror.

Both spent time dealing with the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, but while Solzhenitsyn presented personal narratives, what it was like to be swallowed by the machinery of the state, Conquest attempted to assemble the broader story of what happened and nail down the details.  The original version, published back in 1968, had to make due with some sources of less than stellar repute.  There is a section in the book where Conquest detailed how much weight he gave to various defectors and other sources.

It was quite an eye opening duo to read.

Meanwhile, the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union was disbanded, I went back to my major, and we spent several minutes trying to figure out how to spend this so-called “peace dividend” before packing up all our Cold War toys and taking them to Kuwait so we could use them at least once.  Gorbachev was wrong, you cannot give political freedom and keep a command economy.  China, on the other hand, proved (so far at least) that you can allow, and even promote, economic freedom while maintaining a repressive oligarchical machine.  China might be run by the Communist Party, but they are Socialist In Name Only. (Sino! Get it?)

And for a brief time there, between Gorbachev and Putin, the Soviet archives were accessible and Robert Conquest got to essentially fact check and revise his book.  The Great Terror: A Reassessment was the result, though the sub-title could have easily been “I told you so!” from what I understand.  He was substantially right in almost all regards.

I have had a copy on my bookshelf for years and have never gotten around to reading it.  I have read other works by him, including Reflections on a Ravaged Century and just last month Stalin: Breaker of Nations.   But I never quite got back to The Great Terror.

And then the news came up that this past week Robert Conquest had died at age 98, having seen first hand much of what caused him to call the last century a “ravaged century.”

So I have picked up my copy of The Great Terror: A Reassessment and launched into it.  It isn’t often that you get to read a historian who got to write not only the first draft of history, but then was able to get in the second draft as well.

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