A Reassessment

By Robert Conquest

Oxford University Press. 570 pp. $24.95

Between the fall of 1936 and late summer 1938, an unprecedented reign of terror gripped the Soviet Union. From Moscow to Vladivostok, and in all the cities and hamlets between, Stalin's police took victims by the millions, killed more than one in 10, and swept the rest into that terrifying archipelago of forced labor camps that stretched across the frozen wastes of Russia's Far North.

When it was first published in 1968, Robert Conquest's "The Great Terror" was widely regarded as the best work about the horrors of this terrible era in the Soviet Union's history, and the years that have intervened have not diminished its importance. Conquest now has updated his book, integrated into its pages new material (some of it recently published in the Soviet press), and added a new conclusion about "The Terror Today." This new version of "The Great Terror" does not change in any substantial way the story of the Great Purge that Conquest told 22 years ago, but it dots many of the i's and crosses the t's of his earlier account with much greater emphasis.

Hundreds of thousands of Communist Party faithful, including all but 29 of the 139 Central Committee members and candidate members elected at the 17th Party Congress in 1934, disappeared into graves or labor camps before the end of 1938. All who had served in Lenin's Politburo (except for Trotsky, who would be assassinated in 1940, and Stalin) perished. So did most of the Old Bolsheviks who had struggled so valiantly to bring their party to power in October 1917.

A list of the Great Purge's most prominent victims reads like an honor roll of Lenin's confidants and Bolshevik Civil War heroes. Kamenev, Zinoviev and Bukharin are there. So are Marshals Blyukher and Tukhachevsky and most of the Soviet Union's senior officer corps. Three of the Red Army's five marshals, 13 of its 15 army commanders, eight of its nine senior admirals, 50 out of 57 corps commanders, 154 out of 186 division commanders, all of its 16 army commissars, 25 out of 28 corps commissars, 58 out of 64 divisional commissars, all 11 deputy commissars of defense and 98 out of the 108 men who sat on its Supreme Military Council -- all were caught up in the Great Purge's fury.

The Great Purge's dimensions were far greater than even these shocking casualty lists indicate. Conquest estimates (in statistics many of which are now supported by data recently published in the Soviet Union) at least 7 million Soviet citizens were arrested during those two years. Of these innocent victims, more than 1 million were executed and another 2 million died or were killed in forced labor camps that, by the end of 1938, held between 6 million and 7 million prisoners. What scattered shards of a civic conscience that had remained among the Russians after the bloodletting of the Civil War and the struggles for collectivization were eradicated and a veritable army of men and women of talent and initiative were swept away. Their loss deprived the Soviet Union of its best writers, poets, musicians, professors, engineers, military strategists and technicians, none of whom it could afford to lose.

Official censuses did not include among the Great Purge's casualties those who "died in custody," although many of them perished as a result of repeated and vicious tortures. "Anything was permitted," the historian Roy Medvedev wrote at the end of 1988 when he recalled those terrible times. "If it was necessary to cut you to pieces, they cut you to pieces; if it was necessary to whip you, they whipped you; if it was necessary to rape your daughter before your eyes, they raped your daughter." To fill out this already horrendous picture of death and suffering, the KGB (according to an account published in Moscow less than a year ago) reported that its Stalinist predecessor, the NKVD, had carried out just under 20 million arrests and inflicted about 7 million purge-related deaths for the somewhat longer period between the beginning of 1935 and Hitler's attack against the Soviet Union in mid-1941.

By the end of 1938, the Great Purge had obliterated every trace of opposition, dissent, criticism or debate about Stalin's leadership and had consumed some of its own leading architects, most notably two NKVD chiefs. At that point, Stalin, whose grip on the party and the Soviet Union had seemed less than certain at the time of the 17th Party Congress, had become the undisputed dictator of the Soviet Union with greater power than any Russian autocrat since the time of Ivan the Terrible. So confident -- and so arrogant -- about his absolute power had Stalin become that he reportedly warned Lenin's widow, Krupskaya, that the party would nominate another widow for Lenin if she continued to complain about the imprisonment, torture and execution of her old comrades.

After almost a quarter of a century, it is good to see Conquest's fine book again. It reminds us not only of the brutality of Stalinism but also that, even a quarter century ago, a great deal could be discovered about the darkest recesses of the Soviet experience if a historian was willing to apply the noble scholarly virtues of dedication, care and skepticism to the scattered and incomplete sources of the pre-glasnost era.

The reviewer is the author of eight books about Russia, including "Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War."