Robert Conquest’s landmark book, The Great Terror, is described by the publisher as being a “portrayal of the death of millions in Stalin’s peacetime consolidation of power”. But anyone who reads it will know that it is more than that. The Great Terror is one of the finest portraits of the soul of the Soviet Communist Party ever written. In a sense, it is the nonfiction counterpart of George Orwell’s 1984. Neither work is concerned with simply ennumerating the unfathomable number of murders, tortures, deportations and “falsifications” of a phenomenon which Conquest characterized as consisting of brute physical violence on the one hand paired to a matchless Western cover-up on the other. What both the Terror and 1984 really aspire to do is get behind the numbers and at the idea of the Terror; why it occurred and more importantly, how it could possibly have been psychologically accepted.
To understand the problem, one must first realize that Stalin didn’t simply kill naive civilians. He annihilated an entire generation of trained revolutionaries. Men who had long underground experience; who had thrown bombs, assassinated rivals; who were masters of conspiracy. They should have been nearly impossible to suppress. And yet Stalin did it with surprising ease, Conquest convincingly shows, simply by getting them to order their own deaths through the paperwork of the Party, knowing as few who have never been real Communists can know, that for the true believer, life — and death — can never occur outside the Party. It may be beyond the power of words to capture the exhilarating experience that possesses participants in a revolution, imprinted at a time of life when loyalties affix their seal. But if anyone can, then Conquest does. He shows how the Old Bolsheviks were trapped by their own dreams and herded into canyons of their own making by an evil genius who understood the revolutionary spell without once being affected by it. To experience revolution, according to the Bolshevik Pyatkov, was to know “a miracle”; the manifestation of the effect of willpower upon history; the proof that man was God or more to the point, that the Party was God. Conquest quotes him:
The real Lenin was the man who had the courage to make a proletarian revolution first, and then to set about creating the objective conditions theoretically necessary as a preliminary … what was the October Revolution, what indeed is the Communist Party, but a miracle? No Menshevik could ever understand what it meant to be a member of such a Party …
Such a Party is capable of achieving miracles and doing things which no other collective of men could achieve … A real Communist … that is, a man who was raised in the Party and had absorbed its spirit deeply enough becomes in a way a miracle man.
The Party had created its own universe, one from which there was no escape. Time and again Stalin would hunt down men who could physically elude his clutches, yet who would not because they were bound by shackles stronger than iron. They would accept exile and plead for readmission into the Party. Even Trotsky never stopped believing. His quarrel with Stalin was that he thought the Georgian was unfit to lead an organization that he himself wished to govern. Like lambs in a corral, the Old Bolsheviks stayed within the Party because they had no life outside of it. Pyatkov said: “they were indeed ‘dead men on furlough’ as Lenin had called them. Nothing could frighten them any more, nothing surprise them. They had given all they had. History had squeezed them out to the last drop, had burnt them out to the last spiritual calorie; yet they were still glowing in cold devotion, like phosphorescent corpses.”
Stalin’s genius was to recognize that he simply had to transform the metaphorical into the literal. But to kill such fine creatures, Stalin needed an animal; more a butcher on two legs than a man. It is one histories ironies that the means of destruction of such sensitive thinkers, such god-men, such remakers of the world, should be a man not much more clever than a worker at an abbatoir. History as it is taught in schools today would be incomplete without mention of Vasili Blokhin, the chief executioner of the NKVD, the man who by his own hand, killed most of the Old Bolsheviks. He received his orders directly from Stalin. Such a man could have worked for only one other head of state in the long and bloody annals of the 20th century, and even that would have been a step down. Here is his Wikipedia entry:
Vasili Mikhailovich Blokhin (1895 – February 1955) was a Soviet Major-General who served as the chief executioner of the Stalinist NKVD under the administrations of Genrikh Yagoda, Nikolai Yezhov and Lavrenty Beria. Hand-picked for the position by Joseph Stalin in 1926 … Blokhin is recorded as having personally executed tens of thousands of prisoners by his own hand over a 26-year period—including 7,000 condemned Polish POWs in one protracted mass execution making him ostensibly the most prolific official executioner in recorded world history. He was awarded both the Order of the Mark of Honor (1937) and the Order of the Red Banner (1941).
Although most common executions were delegated to local Chekists or subordinate executioners from his unit, Blokhin personally performed all of the high-profile executions conducted in the Soviet Union during his tenure, including those of the Old Bolsheviks condemned at the Moscow Show Trials … Blokhin initially decided on an ambitious quota of 300 executions per night, and engineered an efficient system in which the prisoners were individually led to a small antechamber—which had been painted red and was known as the “Leninist room”—for a brief and cursory positive identification, before being handcuffed and led into the execution room next door. The room was specially designed with padded walls for soundproofing, a sloping concrete floor with a drain and hose, and a log wall for the prisoners to stand against. Blokhin—outfitted in a leather butcher’s apron, cap, and shoulder-length gloves to protect his uniform —then pushed the prisoner against the log wall and shot him once in the base of the skull with a German Walther Model 2 .25 ACP pistol. He had brought a briefcase full of his own Walther pistols, since he did not trust the reliability of the standard-issue Soviet TT-30 for the frequent, heavy use he intended. The use of a German pocket pistol, which was commonly carried by Nazi intelligence agents, also provided plausible deniability of the executions if the bodies were discovered later.
The initial quota of 300 was lowered by Blokhin to 250 after the first night, when it was decided that all further executions should take place in total darkness. The bodies were continuously loaded onto covered flat-bed trucks through a back door in the execution chamber and trucked, twice a night, to Mednoye, where Blokhin had arranged for a bulldozer and two NKVD drivers to dispose of bodies at an unfenced site. Each night, 24 to 25 trenches, measuring eight to ten meters total, were dug to hold the night’s corpses, and each trench was covered up before dawn. Blokhin and his team worked without pause for ten hours each night, with Blokhin executing an average of one prisoner every three minutes.
Quite a guy was Blokhin. He died in 1955 as a “suicide”, as did so many of those who knew too much. But in reality there was no point. As Conquest convincingly shows, the men who died in the Lubyanka in some sense knew it all — foresaw it all — and forgave it all even before it happened. No one understood the feeling more than Orwell. In later life, people from the Eastern Block would ask Western intellectuals about Orwell. “How did he know? How did he know?”
The Chestnut Tree was almost empty. A ray of sunlight slanting through a window fell on dusty table-tops. It was the lonely hour of fifteen. A tinny music trickled from the telescreens.
Winston sat in his usual corner, gazing into an empty glass. Now and again he glanced up at a vast face which eyed him from the opposite wall. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said. Unbidden, a waiter came and filled his glass up with Victory Gin, shaking into it a few drops from another bottle with a quill through the cork. It was saccharine flavored with cloves, the speciality of the cafe. …
The music from the telescreen stopped and a voice took over. Winston raised his head to listen. No bulletins from the front, however. It was merely a brief announcement from the Ministry of Plenty. In the preceding quarter, it appeared, the Tenth Three-Year Plan’s quota for bootlaces had been over-fulfilled by 98 per cent.
He examined the chess problem and set out the pieces. It was a tricky ending, involving a couple of knights. ‘White to play and mate in two moves.’ Winston looked up at the portrait of Big Brother. White always mates, he thought with a sort of cloudy mysticism. Always, without exception, it is so arranged. In no chess problem since the beginning of the world has black ever won. Did it not symbolize the eternal, unvarying triumph of Good over Evil? The huge face gazed back at him, full of calm power. White always mates … He put the white knight back in its place, but for the moment he could not settle down to serious study of the chess problem. His thoughts wandered again. Almost unconsciously he traced with his finger in the dust on the table:
‘They can’t get inside you,’ she had said. But they could get inside you. ‘What happens to you here is for ever,’ O’Brien had said. That was a true word. There were things, your own acts, from which you could never recover. Something was killed in your breast: burnt out, cauterized out.
He had seen her; he had even spoken to her. There was no danger in it. He knew as though instinctively that they now took almost no interest in his doings. He could have arranged to meet her a second time if either of them had wanted to. Actually it was by chance that they had met. It was in the Park, on a vile, biting day in March, when the earth was like iron and all the grass seemed dead and there was not a bud anywhere except a few crocuses which had pushed themselves up to be dismembered by the wind. He was hurrying along with frozen hands and watering eyes when he saw her not ten metres away from him. It struck him at once that she had changed in some ill-defined way. They almost passed one another without a sign, then he turned and followed her, not very eagerly. He knew that there was no danger, nobody would take any interest in him. She did not speak. She walked obliquely away across the grass as though trying to get rid of him, then seemed to resign herself to having him at her side. Presently they were in among a clump of ragged leafless shrubs, useless either for concealment or as protection from the wind. They halted. It was vilely cold. The wind whistled through the twigs and fretted the occasional, dirty-looking crocuses. He put his arm round her waist. …
‘I betrayed you,’ she said baldly.
‘I betrayed you,’ he said. …
‘We must meet again,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘we must meet again.’
He followed irresolutely for a little distance, half a pace behind her. They did not speak again. …Something changed in the music that trickled from the telescreen. A cracked and jeering note, a yellow note, came into it. And then — perhaps it was not happening, perhaps it was only a memory taking on the semblance of sound — a voice was singing:
‘Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me –‘
The tears welled up in his eyes. A passing waiter noticed that his glass was empty and came back with the gin bottle. … A shrill trumpet-call had pierced the air. It was the bulletin! Victory! It always meant victory when a trumpet-call preceded the news. A sort of electric drill ran through the cafe. Even the waiters had started and pricked up their ears. … The voice from the telescreen was still pouring forth its tale of prisoners and booty and slaughter, but the shouting outside had died down a little. The waiters were turning back to their work. One of them approached with the gin bottle. Winston, sitting in a blissful dream, paid no attention as his glass was filled up. He was not running or cheering any longer. He was back in the Ministry of Love, with everything forgiven, his soul white as snow. He was in the public dock, confessing everything, implicating everybody. He was walking down the white-tiled corridor, with the feeling of walking in sunlight, and an armed guard at his back. The long hoped-for bullet was entering his brain.
He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark mustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.