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"Plus ca change plus la meme chose"
on October 28, 2002
I happened to mention to a few colleagues the other day that I was reading Robert Conquest's "The Great Terror". This drew blank looks. I amplified somewhat, referencing Stalin, Yeshov, Molotov. More blank looks.
I grew up in a cold war household. My father was a something of a rarity, he was a right wing journalist who travelled widely in Russia bringing back a story which, in the 60s and 70s, was largely ignored by the media and everyone else. He knew then what we all know now, that Russian communism was rotten to the core and was a house of cards teetering on abject collapse. Alas, but that house took decades to come down and so condemned a further generation or two to lives of quiet and unrelieved desperation and hopelessness.
What does our society know of this? A society that, in the case of America, can be convulsed with paroxysms of despair when a few thousand people died in a single tragic incident -- genuinely convinced that something without precedent has happened. The most common formulation we hear of this, is the common reference to September 11th as "the day our world changed". For heaven's sake -- there is now a Jenny Craig television advertisement in which a formerly fat person testifies that September 11th changed her world such that she decided to lose wait. Ye Gods.
But what exactly is it that changed? History, as my high school history teacher used to say, tailgates. Conquest tells us that Stalin and Molotov, during a "typical day at the office", would sign liquidation orders for THOUSANDS of innocent people by simply putting their signatures together with the word "liquidate" at the bottom of a sheaf of papers that contained the names. And then they would head for the cinema, a solid day's work done. All that appears to have changed is that moderns have forgotten the nightmares of yesterday. Each fresh outrage is treated as something unique, something personal, something without precedent. "The Great Terror" is an effective antidote to this type of thinking.
"The Great Terror" is a book that was available in the late sixties. It was, like my father, largely ignored. I had school chums who were Marxists. Teachers as well. They either denied the facts or more often, accepted what had happened on the principle that it was necessary to "break a few eggs to make an omelette". And so the regime which was to be responsible for murdering tens of millions of its own citizens, on a scale and in a cold blooded manner that rivals and even surpasses the more famous Hitlerian Holocaust, is ignored or forgotten.
In 1990, communism collapsed. My father, am embittered old cold warrior by then, took little pleasure from having been proven right. Conquest, however, took the opportunity to revise and expand his monumental book. Virtually everything he had written about was confirmed by the glasnost revelations - as he takes pains to demonstrate.
It is true that many of those who died in the execution cellars or the death camps deserved their fate. But the vast majority were innocent wives children, peasants teachers workers and writers. It is estimated that "every other family in the USSR had one of its members in jail". Stalin's purges gave rise to the unthinkable. A slave labour economy. Want to know why they beat us to space or how they got the Bomb so quickly? Well, among other things, they stole virtually all of our secrets and the had slave labour. On the theft of the West's secrets another must read is David Holloway's "Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy 1939-1956".
Conquest writes quite well - he is also an accomplished poet. But the book is also something of a catalogue of horrors and he writes in what is at times a dismayingly dispassionate manner. He is somewhat relentless. As fact piles upon fact, outrage upon outrage we are led to say with each turn of the page, "Dear God in heaven, what fresh hell is this". But the horror is NOT lost on Conquest and he stands, almost alone, as our witness to those terrible times. If not in the pages of this book, then where will we learn the names of those who perished so many years ago. Virtually no one under the age of 40 really understands what went on.
Conquest's book needs to be read by all of us. And in particular those who think that the suicide attack on the WTC was something new; an event that "changed our world". Because it wasn't. ...