The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror-Famine 
by Robert Conquest.
Hutchinson, 347 pp., £16.95, September 1986, 0 09 163750 3
Show More
Show More

The ‘peasant question’, in some form or other, was one that Russian governments faced for hundreds of years. Although it presented itself in many aspects, the essential problem was how to harness a dispersed and backward agriculture to state needs. In the 20th century a transformation-minded Bolshevik Party wrestled with peasant traditionalism, capitalism, low agricultural output and its own ideological preconceptions in an attempt to modernise along socialist lines. Economic development and industrialisation were at the top of the Bolshevik agenda after the Russian Revolution. To meet these goals it was necessary, among other things, to accumulate investment capital for expansion while assuring the kind of expanding food supply necessary for industrial revolution. At first, they tried to do all this within the framework of a mixed capitalist/socialist economy. From 1921 to 1929, after winning a bitter and devastating civil war, the Bolsheviks retreated temporarily from their goals of nationalisation and collectivisation and allowed private land ownership and a free-market agriculture. In 1929 the position changed abruptly when the party leadership decided on a radically leftist scheme involving the ‘liquidation’ of private trade, rapid and state-planned industrialisation, and collectivisation of agriculture. Today’s five-year plans and collective farms are the legacy of that late Twenties decision.

At that time, Stalin gave his backing to radicals in the Party who saw the mixed economy of the Twenties as an unwarranted concession to capitalism. These leftists, for whom Stalin was spokesman and leader, argued that the free market in grain confronted the state with an unpredictable, inefficient and expensive food supply. The need to pay peasants the market price for grain and to subsidise food prices for their urban working-class supporters meant that there were few funds left for the Bolsheviks to use for capital investment and industrial expansion. These radical activists, who became the shock troops of the voluntarist ‘Stalin Revolution’ which swept the Soviet Union in the Thirties, were concentrated in working-class and youth groups. Enthusiastic, determined and inflexible urban agitators descended on the countryside to destroy capitalism and build socialism according to their lights.

The collectivisation of agriculture from 1929 to about 1934 proceeded in several fitful campaigns characterised by confusion, lurches to left and right, and the substitution of enthusiasm, exhortation and violence for careful planning. Hard-line officials and volunteers forced reluctant peasants into improvised collective farms. Peasants resisted by slaughtering animals and refusing to plant, harvest or market grain. Neither side would give way. By 1934 the Stalinists had won, at least insofar as the collective farm system was permanently established, but they had paid a painful price: catastrophic livestock losses, social dislocation and, in some places, famine. Millions of people died from starvation, deportation and violence.

Robert Conquest, author of The Great Terror and many other works on the Soviet Union, provides an account of these events. He begins with an informative four-chapter survey of the peasant problem and of Bolshevik attempts to solve it before 1928. Part Two, ‘To crush the peasantry’, takes the story to 1930 and deals with the campaigns to dispossess the kulaks – the well-to-do peasants whom the Stalinists blamed for withholding grain – and to implement crash collectivisation. Part Three, ‘The Terror Famine’, discusses the tragic 1932 famine in the Ukraine and offers a controversial thesis: that the famine was intentionally organised and maintained by Stalin as a conscious act of genocide against the Ukrainian people.

Conquest’s hypothesis, sources and evidence are not new. Indeed, he himself first put forward his view two years ago in a work sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute. The intentional famine story, however, has been an article of faith for Ukrainian émigrés in the West since the Cold War. Much of Conquest’s most graphic description is taken from such period-pieces as The Golgoltha of the Ukraine (1953), The Black Deeds of the Kremlin (1953) and Communism the Enemy of Mankind (1955). Conquest’s book will thus give a certain academic credibility to a theory which has not been generally accepted by non-partisan scholars outside the circles of exiled nationalities. In today’s conservative political climate, with its ‘evil empire’ discourse, I am sure that the book will be very popular.

We might profitably wonder about the resurgence of the intentional famine story just now. It seems to be part of a campaign by Ukrainian nationalists to promote the idea of a ‘terror-famine’ in the West. Efforts are under way in several US States to place the Ukrainian genocide in school curricula, and a rather lurid film with the same name as Conquest’s book is making the rounds. The not-so-hidden political message behind the campaign coincides with long-standing political agendas of émigré groups: given that the Soviets could murder so many of their own people, might they not be willing to launch a destructive nuclear war in order to spread their evil doctrine? Because the Soviets are like the Nazis, we must avoid appeasement, maintain our vigilance – and stop deporting accused World War Two war-criminals to Eastern Europe.

Conquest does not conceal his political sympathies. For him, ‘the main lesson seems to be that Communist ideology provided the motivation for an unprecedented massacre of men, women and children.’ And although he is not concerned with stopping Nazi-hunting, he argues that his terror-famine lesson ‘cannot be shrugged off as part of the dead past’ but is relevant to today’s international political situation. He admiringly chronicles the survival and growth of Ukrainian nationalism over the past half-century, and even uses Ukrainian place-names rather than their more standardised Russian versions. Is it then understandable that he should omit any mention of the Ukrainian nationalist anti-Communists who pulled the triggers at the Babi Yar death-pits and elsewhere in co-operation with the SS, and the substantial numbers who chose to follow the Nazis out of the USSR at the end of the war? Of course, it would be wrong to tar all Ukrainians (or Soviets) with the same brush, or to deny the legitimacy of Ukrainian grievances and aspirations. At the same time, scholars are obliged to eschew polemic in favour of balanced analysis.

Robert Conquest is a seductive writer and master stylist. He skilfully interweaves stories of pain and suffering (the chapters on nomads and children are particularly heart-rending) with selected passages from official sources to produce a powerful effect. The most striking tales of atrocity are generally second-hand and unverifiable; they seem to compete with one another in their body-counts and depiction of savagery. Some of them are surely true. That notwithstanding, the relentless presentation of increasingly shocking scenes creates a special effect on the reader. Conquest’s book shows that Biafra and Ethiopia have not jaded our response to suffering, and as we read, our pain turns to anger and indignation: we despise those responsible and are ready to believe anything about them.

There is, incidentally, no doubt about responsibility for the disaster. Stalin must be primarily answerable as the leading advocate of excessive demands on the peasantry and the prime backer of hard-line collectivisation. But there is plenty of blame to go around. It must be shared by the tens of thousands of activists and officials who carried out the policy and by the peasants who chose to slaughter animals, burn fields and boycott cultivation in protest. Beyond fixing blame, however, the tempting conclusion of intentionality is unwarranted: the case for a purposeful famine is weakly supported by the evidence and relies on a very strained interpretation of it.

Conquest’s argument for a planned genocidal famine in 1932 runs as follows. Stalin had been informed by Ukrainian Bolsheviks, and therefore knew that his proposed grain requisitions would produce disaster. Later, when he knew what was happening there, he maintained his course because he regarded famine as a political weapon. The USSR’s strategic military food reserves were not committed to the Ukraine and its borders were sealed to prevent mass flight from and diversion of food to the Ukraine. According to Conquest, these measures constitute genocide. At first glance, the case seems convincing. Why otherwise would Stalin have set his demands so high? Why did the Ukraine have to be sealed off?

Yet there are reasons why the majority of scholars have so far rejected the theory. First, we actually know very little about the scale of the famine. Using census calculations of excess mortality, Conquest arrives at a figure of some five million victims of the Ukrainian famine. Yet such respected economic and demographic experts as S.G. Wheatcroft, Barbara Anderson and Brian Silver have examined the same census data and have suggested that the numbers Conquest supports are much too high. Additionally, Conquest notes that the famine varied greatly from place to place in the Ukraine. According to post-World War Two interviews with Ukrainian émigrés, some places saw little or no shortage of food. What regional or local differences could explain this? Were grain quotas arbitrarily set by local officials? Did high levels of peasant resistance or boycott contribute to famine? We do not know.

Second, Conquest has failed to establish a convincing motive for genocide. Certainly Stalin was capable of vindictive cruelty and cold-hearted repression, but those who knew and dealt with him during the war and after, and they include many Westerners, agree that he was not insane or irrational. Although he certainly meant to break peasant resistance to his brand of socialism, one must wonder why any national leader would deliberately imperil the country’s survival, its military strength and thus his own security, by methodically setting out to exterminate those who produced the food – and then stopping short of completing the presumed genocide. One can, of course, minimise the importance of these considerations. Maybe we do not need direct evidence for genocide, maybe a circumstantial case will do. Perhaps the famine was of the magnitude Conquest claims; maybe Stalin was insane. Even so, our knowledge of the sources suggests that a genocidal Stalin is unnecessary to explain the events of the famine as we know them. More convincing explanations can be advanced if we consider elements of the ideology, administrative practice and political sociology of early Stalinism.

By the late Twenties, many Bolsheviks shared a particular stereotypic view of peasants and their psychology. The muzhik was seen as a crafty and stubborn sort whose native cunning, greed and hostility to change were hidden beneath a veneer of amiability and innocence. The dubious accuracy of this image (which had precedents in Russian literature) is not the question. It is clear in any event that Stalin and the party majority which sided with him accepted it. It was therefore easy to believe that kulaks and other peasants were routinely understating the harvest, hoarding grain and sabotaging the national transformation. Accordingly, those who saw peasants as mendacious connivers got in the habit of demanding 90 per cent to get 50. Complaints and protests from below were interpreted as the misplaced whinings of those who had been taken in by peasant dissimulation. Stalin displayed this perception fairly clearly in a letter to the novelist Mikhail Sholokhov: ‘the esteemed grain-growers of your district ... -carried on an “Italian strike” (sabotage!) and were not loath to leave the workers and the Red Army without bread ... the esteemed grain-growers are not so harmless as they could appear to be from afar.’ Hardship in the Ukraine thus resulted, at least in part, from an inflexible theoretical and psychological conception which came to shape policy.

Conquest’s argument for the terror-famine assumes a situation in which the Stalin leadership was always able to realise its will in the country. We might first observe that nearly all the students of the Thirties agree that Stalin’s power was not absolute even in the upper leadership until the Great Purges of 1937-1939. Any intentional genocide would have been a joint project. Second, the more scholars learn about the Thirties, the more they are struck by the limits and inhibitions on Moscow’s exercise of power in the provinces. Kremlin orders, which were vague and frequently contradictory to begin with, were routinely stalled, transformed, ignored or even reversed as they made their way down the chain of command. From the works of Lynn Viola, Peter Solomon, Sheila Fitzpatrick and others, we now have much evidence on this bureaucratic compartmentalisation, inefficiency, and local autonomy in agriculture, administration of justice, party structure and industry. Stalinist bureaucracy of the Thirties was more disjointed than efficient. Conquest himself cites numerous instances in which local implementation of collectivisation differed sharply from Moscow’s presumed intentions. In some places, Stalin’s original projections for kulak expropriation were wildly exceeded. In others, local leaders minimised or even ignored Moscow’s calls for full collectivisation.

Within rather broad and vague parameters, local party leaders ran their satrapies largely as they saw fit. Moscow was far away and the infrequent inspectors, plenipotentiaries, and threats from Moscow could often be ignored. Officials protected each other, lobbied and negotiated for themselves and their regions in Moscow, and ruled their territories arbitrarily. In the Thirties, politics and policy were made at all levels. Nils Erik Rosenfeldt has recently said that Moscow did not control very many of the information ‘gateways’, as he puts it, below the top of the structure. Insofar as the Stalinists set the broad policies of the period, they are responsible for the consequent tragedy. But we can no longer be sure that what happened on the ground accurately reflected their plans. It was surely easier to ignite a social revolution – to give uncontrollable urban militants carte blanche in the countryside, to give a radical but unclear mandate to small-time local politicians and to exhort the populace to class struggle – than it was to predict or control the results.

As Conquest points out, the Stalinists did not always know what they wanted to do. In 1929 ‘it is not clear that the leadership yet understood what it had done.’ Subsequently, there were no clear directives on the disposition of kulaks, the collectivisation of livestock, or the organisation of collective farms. Moscow’s stated goals were frequently contradictory. In January 1930, Stalin ordered crash-collectivisation, only to put the brakes on sixty days later. In August 1932, Stalin demanded heavy repression of political enemies, but in May 1933 ordered an end to mass arrests and the release of large numbers of political prisoners. It is not hard to imagine the effect of this confusion and poor preparation on local life. One unfortunate collective farm, cited by Conquest, began in early 1930 by collectivising all farm animals and tools. In June 1930, it returned tools and animals to private hands. In November, it recollectivised the tools and the following June, the livestock.

Rigid ideological preconceptions, weak administrative centralisation, bad information and a surplus of enthusiasm combined with poor planning and irresponsible leadership to produce the disaster. Argument from analogy may help to show the weakness of Conquest’s genocide story. In 1941, Stalin was informed of Hitler’s imminent attack on the USSR, just as the Ukrainians had warned him of the possibility of a food shortage in 1932. In both cases he had reason to believe that his policies or dispositions would result in tragedy, yet chose to change nothing. His suspicious nature led him to disbelieve, in the one case, his own intelligence services and, in the other, the representations of untrustworthy local interests and to press on with his flawed and reckless strategies. Yet there is no more evidence for the claim that Stalin planned to destroy the Ukraine than there is for the theory that he wanted the Germans to invade.

Once the 1932 cataclysm unfolded, the Stalinists tried to cope with what they had done. As Conquest shows, some grain quotas were lowered, highly-prized grain exports were cut to 1 or 2 per cent of the harvest, and some grain reserves were opened. Although famine was limited to certain areas, food was not plentiful anywhere in the USSR in 1932. To contain the famine, to prevent runs on meagre food supplies in non-famine areas, and to keep disaster from overwhelming the entire country, the Ukraine is said to have been partially sealed off. (The evidence for this isolation comes exclusively from memoir sources.) Such a cold, hard way to cope with the famine would resemble Stalin’s 1941 decision to strip resources from Leningrad to save Moscow from falling to the Germans. His leadership contributed directly or indirectly to both disasters, and millions of Ukrainians and Leningraders paid the price for his policies and raison d’état. But it is a long and polemical leap from this to the assertion that Stalin deliberately brought about either holocaust.

It was the Stalinists who in the Thirties developed the theory of objective guilt to convict their purge victims legally. Lacking any proof of complicity or guilt on the part of the accused, Stalin’s prosecutors reasoned that objective effect was the same as subjective intent: if the objective result of your actions was to produce harm to the state, then it could be said that you had planned the actions and were guilty of premeditation. While it might seem a tempting bit of poetic justice to apply the same standards of proof to Stalin, especially given the magnitude of the suffering involved, to do so would again sacrifice historical accuracy and cloud the lines of responsibility in the name of political expediency.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 9 No. 9 · 7 May 1987

SIR: I have only just seen your ‘review’ of my The Harvest of Sorrow, by J. Arch Getty (LRB, 22 January). Though it is largely self-refuting, there are a few assertions which an uninstructed reader might believe to be true.

First, he maintains that there is serious doubt about my figures for the casualties of the dekulakisation and the terror-famine. Fortunately I now find that the leading Soviet scholar in the field confirms, or rather increases, my estimate. My basic figure is of a Soviet population deficit of 13.5 million (from 1930) on 1 January 1937. V.P. Danilov, in an article not available to me when I wrote, gives it as 15-16 million. (Arkheographicheskiy Ezhegodnik sa 1968 god, Moscow 1970). I did describe my own as ‘conservative’: it now appears rightly so.

As to the rest, Getty takes the extraordinary position that anything written on the subject in the West during the ‘Cold War’, or by émigrés, is thereby invalidated, though in every case in fact confirmed in detail by material published before and after and by détentists and Communists too. (This aberration also occurs in his own book, which I reviewed not quite as badly as it deserved in the TLS last year – though it was indeed given a fulsome and misleading notice in your own pages by one of his sponsors.) Getty belongs to a gaggle of ‘revisionists’ who have achieved, like David Irving in another sphere, a certain notoriety. They are for some reason concerned to deny that much of a terror took place in the USSR in the Thirties, a stance only achievable by rejecting (as with the ‘Cold War’ argument above) the vast corpus of evidence to the contrary. How unfitted such minds are to understand the Stalin phenomenon is made clear, for example, in Getty’s assertion that I advance no plausible reason for Stalin to have ravaged the Ukrainian countryside. But there is nothing new in a khan ‘laying waste’ a subject territory which had given trouble: he with a sword, Stalin with starvation – a mere technical difference. This is only implausible if one imagines Stalin to have been more like Jefferson than Jenghiz. This view has not even the virtue of novelty, being a mere regurgitation of the absurdities advanced by the Webbs fifty years ago.

This stance is particularly futile when translated into a preference for Stalinist evidence. Of course all evidence, including émigré, must be used critically: but the one source which is not merely dubious but known to have produced falsifications on a gigantic scale is the then Soviet government. Try reading the hundreds of pages of the Proceedings in the Case of the Anti-Soviet Centre.

As to particulars, one cannot let pass the irresponsible libel that it was Ukrainian nationalists who carried out the Babi Yar massacres. There were indeed Ukrainian war criminals – about eleven thousand on the Israeli lists from a population of nearly forty million, a smaller proportion than some other occupied countries. The case of the Ukrainian nationalists was different. They hoped for political collaboration with the Nazis – like, and for the same reason as, the Finns. But (unlike Stalin’s collaboration of 1939-1941) this got nowhere. Their leaders went to concentration camps or underground, where their very effective partisan army fought a bitter guerrilla war against both Nazis and Communists, as Khrushchev points out in his memoirs. Several million Ukrainians were killed by the Nazis, and nearly a hundred villages got the Lidice/Oradour treatment. The greatest Soviet spokesman on Nazi crimes was the Jewish writer Vasily Grossman, author of The Hell of Treblinka and joint editor of the Soviet section of the Black Book on the Hitler terror. Not only does he make no such accusations, but he is also the most moving recorder of the sufferings of the Ukrainians in the terror-famine: giving, moreover, both the geographical limits and the mens rea of that event (both, needless to say, denied by Getty): ‘the decree required that the peasants of the Ukraine, the Don and the Kuban be put to death by starvation.’

But I am wrong in comparing Getty to David Irving. Irving, though perverse and absurd in his conclusions, does not lack a certain ability to discover and present facts. Come to that, there are pro-Soviet, even pro-Stalin writers who are, at least in this sense, qualified scholars. Getty is not among them.

Robert Conquest
Stanford, California

Vol. 9 No. 10 · 21 May 1987

SIR: Robert Conquest portrays recent writers on the Stalin period as a ‘gaggle of “revisionists" ’ and makes the most silly and manifestly false claims about their work (Letters, 7 May). Neither I nor any other scholar has ever written that Cold War-era works or the writings of émigrés are invalid as a genre. Neither I nor any other scholar has ever denied that large-scale terror took place in the Stalinist Thirties. Neither I nor any other scholar has written that Stalin was anything other than evil or that he bears any resemblance to Thomas Jefferson.

The scholars whom Conquest excoriates are hardly the crackpots he suggests. Their writings have been published by Oxford and Cambridge University Presses and have appeared in all the leading scholarly journals in the field. They incorporate archival and other sources (which Conquest alternately derides and ignores) from the period and originated independently in France, Britain, America, Germany and Japan. Conquest gives the impression that those who disagree with him are perverse and few in number. But the readers whom Conquest in his letter presumes to instruct should also know that none of the leading scholars on Stalinist collectivisation agree with Conquest’s claim of a deliberate ‘terror-famine’. If there are any gaggles involved here, they centre on the Hoover Institution – the conservative think-tank which has sponsored practically all of the ‘terror-famine’ research in the US. Perversity is in the eye of the beholder.

Conquest is equally misleading in his selective discussion of excess mortality in the Thirties. Although he derides Soviet sources as untrustworthy, he cites a 17-year-old Soviet article as authoritative. He predictably ignores recent empirical work by such trained demographers as Anderson and Silver (Slavic Review, Fall 1985) and S.G. Wheatcroft (Soviet Studies, April 1981 and April 1983) who have explicitly attacked his own sources, methods, assumptions and conclusions. And these experts are not even members of a gaggle.

Conquest’s work belongs to the genre of the great 19th-century idealist historians who used personal accounts and literary sources to write about heroes and anti-heroes, good and bad. These are tales of evil and omnipotent princes, innocent populations, and happy kingdoms ravaged by inhuman conquerors. This accessible and pleasant format makes for good reading, but it does not facilitate careful understanding. Using stories as if they were documents, it paints the big picture without worrying about how well the pieces fit. (Typically, Conquest cites a novel as his primary source on ‘the geographical limits and the mens rea’ of his ‘terror-famine’.) We do not read here of social classes, conditions or agendas. There is no troublesome detail on the effects of economic transformation, bureaucratic infrastructure or the conflicts of political sociology. Historical studies in the last fifty years or so have taken a different path. Influenced by research in the sciences, the trend has been a series of close, detailed studies of particular topics. Among modern researchers in all disciplines one finds the empiricist’s reluctance to reach grand conclusions until the necessary preparatory studies are done. Conquest has elsewhere derided this production of specialised studies as useless and unimportant. One can sympathise with a reader’s frustration at the inability of some authors (including myself) to make quick and sweeping assertions and to provide politically useful answers. But since I believe that precise information and careful scientific understanding are more valuable than simple answers, I am glad that most historians – and cancer researchers for that matter – follow this method and not Conquest’s.

Finally, I am saddened and disappointed that Conquest has chosen to reduce a productive debate to the level of personal attack. He now gratuitously complains that he reviewed my book ‘not quite as badly as it deserved’ and writes that I am not a qualified scholar. It is of course easier to cry ‘perversity’ than it is to explain and interpret new evidence. For many reasons, I regret that, in Conquest’s eyes, my social-science training and approach disqualify me from the field as he understands it. But, after all, not everyone can be a poet.

J. Arch Getty
University of California, Riverside

Vol. 9 No. 17 · 1 October 1987

SIR: I have only just seen the issue in which J.A. Getty replied to me (Letters, 21 May), and by now I might let it go had he merely further maligned and misrepresented myself. But since he extends this to an entire scholarly body, I have a certain duty to rebut him. Getty complains that my attacks on him are personal. They are not: I criticise the sort of thing he imagines to be scholarship, but not his motives (which, indeed, I find quite mysterious). He is confusing content with tone: and there I admit to a certain robustness commoner in British than in American controversy. He, on the other hand, while employing the pseudo-objective tone so often used to conceal opinion, continues to imply more or less discreditable political prejudices, and not only mine. He now denies that this is his practice. Skimming the last ten to fifteen pages of his book, I find several references to ‘cold war’ or ‘cold war attitudes’ dictating both evidence and opinion; Khrushchev’s Secret Speech described as ‘almost entirely self-serving’ and Roy Medvedev’s work as ‘a pro-Bukharin polemic’. And now he asserts that my book was ‘sponsored’ by the Hoover Institution, which has, he adds, ‘sponsored practically all the terror-famine research’. (By ‘terror-famine research’ he presumably means research leading to the conclusion that the 1932-33 famine was purposely inflicted on the peasantry.) He thus represents the Hoover as a pariah organisation sponsoring crackpot work of a type shunned by other scholarly bodies.

No doubt it is only to the uninformed (Getty’s presumed audience) that defence is needed for the scholarship of the Hoover Institution, with its five Nobel Prize-winners and others as distinguished, such as our newest fellow, Sir Karl Popper. But in fact the Hoover has not sponsored such work, and did not sponsor my book. At the time I also had an appointment at Harvard, and the book was sponsored by the Harvard University Ukrainian Research Institute. This is stated half-way down page one of my book. (Such research is, in fact, being done by a variety of institutions, including a Joint Administration-Congressional Commission.)

This alleged, and allegedly disqualificatory, Hoover sponsorship leads Getty on to asserting that no scholars agree with me about the ‘terror-famine’ – that is, that it was inflicted on purpose. Perhaps some don’t agree, but I see that both Peter Wiles, Professor of Russian Social and Economic Studies in London University (in the New York Review of Books) and Geoffrey Hosking, Director of the School of Slavonic Studies (in the TLS), write that though they had previously been uncertain, they now accept that I have proved the case conclusively (than which no better compliment could be paid a historian). These, and comparable Americans, are men of vastly higher erudition than those Getty cites.

On the other points he raises, it is good to note that current writing in the USSR itself is at this very moment massively and continuously refuting all the ‘revisionist’ estimates and assertions.

Getty asks if I think his training in social studies has had a bad effect. Yes. It (or something) has incapacitated him for the study of history, at any rate of Soviet history. As his letter shows, he still does not understand the nature of historical evidence. And he doesn’t understand that terror on the Stalin scale is a social and political event more determinative than administrative changes or disinformatory official speeches. Better sociologists than he, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, have made fools of themselves by applying such methods to Stalin’s Russia. They too were incapable of understanding the nature of evidence, historical or otherwise.

The establishment of historical fact is not a simple and mechanical matter. All evidence is in one way or another imperfect, but truth may yet be derived from it by the exercise of judgment based on experience (and in the Soviet case by a background of knowledge of the nature of alien cultures). The skills of a historian are no doubt difficult to master. Yet one should not try to write or criticise history until one has them.

Robert Conquest
Stanford, California

Vol. 9 No. 19 · 29 October 1987

SIR: The exchange between Robert Conquest and myself which began as a controversy over the Ukrainian famine of the early Thirties has unfortunately gone beyond the interpretation of historical sources and by now probably risks boring your readers. But I should like to clear up one point contained in Mr Conquest’s recent letter (Letters, 1 October). He writes that historical revelations in the USSR are ‘at this very moment massively and continuously refuting all the “revisionist" estimates and assertions’. This is not true; indeed it is Conquest’s estimates that are being refuted. On 13 April of this year, a lecture at the Central House of Writers in Moscow became the forum for the release of important new information on political repression in the Thirties. A young scholar named Dmitrii Iurasov announced the results of his research in the Special and Military Collegium Archives of the USSR Supreme Court. According to his lengthy remarks from the floor (which were apparently pre-arranged and continued without interruption), the Chairman of the Supreme Court had written to Nikita Khrushchev that 612,500 persons had been rehabilitated (exonerated) from 1953-1957: about 200,000 by military tribunals, another 200,000 by local courts and the balance by other bodies. Among them, the Military Collegium had rehabilitated 31,000 who had been sentenced to death, all apparently between 1935 and 1940.

These are horrifying but interesting figures. If, as Roy Medvedev and others have written, the Khrushchev-era rehabilitations included the vast majority of those arrested in the Thirties, then we now have something resembling solid numbers on Stalinist repression. It is not clear whether the 612,500 rehabilitations include those arrested in the Forties and Fifties, or pertain only to the period of the Great Purges of the Thirties. In either event, if these figures are accurate, we might presume that the total number of arrests in the Great Purges was well under a million and the total number of executions was near 31,000. Readers might be interested to know that Mr Conquest in his classic The Great Terror estimated, in a series of curious extrapolations from literary sources, some seven to eight million arrests and roughly one million executions. Conquest’s arrest estimates would appear to be high by about elevenfold; his execution guess by a factor of nearly 32. Even if some of the 612,000 arrested were subsequently shot – and we know this sometimes happened – it is clear that Conquest’s estimates are, as we Americans say, not even in the ball park, while those of the revisionists are closer to the mark. Once again, archival evidence has contradicted rumours and stories. Of course 31,000 executions are in no way ‘better’ than a million and the lower numbers must not diminish the moral revulsion we feel at this criminality. Lives were taken and ruined on a massive scale. At the same time, it seems important to be accurate and careful in our scholarship and to avoid inflating the truth for polemical purposes.

J. Arch Getty
Riverside, California

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences