The Great Terror, Robert Conquest

When away from the demands of Chico Chica, I teach guitar in schools. For many children, guitar classes are a chance to get away from the boring lessons. A couple of pupils turned up and said how they were pleased to get away from History. This surprised me because I used to like History. They explained it’s all “Nazis, Nazis, Nazis – BORING!”.

In one school I teach at, Graveney School, Tooting, they have a good Russian section so in one of my rare forays into non-fiction, I picked up The Great Terror by Robert Conquest. I first came across this name in Andrew Motion’s life on Philip Larkin. The two poets were good friends but Conquest had a day job as a historian. His area of expertise is ‘the other holocaust’, the one school kids know nothing about. After reading this book I came to the conclusion that Stalin is deemed less evil than Hitler because, despite his faults, he was an equal opportunities psychopath. He killed millions irrespective of race, religion, sexual orientation etc. There were no glass ceilings in the gulag. The fact the mere randomness of the terror made life in the Soviet Union so terrifying is neither here nor there.

Boris Pasternak said that reading non-fiction was like eating a plate of pickles. A novel is a balanced meal. I like a good roast dinner with the plate divided by a Mercedes Benz logo shape into a third potatoes, a third vegetables and a third meat. And there’s gravy to fill the gaps and mustard on the edge to provide a kick every now and then. Ideas should be served in the form of a novel where history, philosophy, geography, religion can be served in a palatable form.

This lack of balance meant reading The Great Terror became a bit too much. It was an endless litany of cruelty and suffering. Most of us know the outline of what happened but here we learn of the characters, the tactics, the show trials, the conditions in the gulag, and the sheer scale of the slave-labour population. But at the end, Conquest tries to get some meaning and groped for ways in which we can learn from the whole brutalised system. He was particularly scathing of the Western ‘intelligentsia’ who were duped and how later, when the whole appalling truth became unbearably obvious, writers such as Jean Paul Sartre ‘even defended the proposition that the evidence about the Soviet forced-labour-camp system should be ignored, even if true, on the grounds that otherwise the French proletariat might be thrown into despair.’

People will defend an institution’s wrongdoing for the greater good. We all like to present a good face to the world and cover up the cracks that may prevent this. So what’s the rule? It’s simple really, we need to expose and eradicate cruelty. If in doubt take refuge in the truth if that truth exposes cruelty. Edward Snowden’s revelations of the US Government data may have exposed subterfuge and duplicity but not, as far as I am aware, cruelty. This may seem like over-dramatising, but I started to see patterns and parallels in organisations I come into contact with in my own life. I notice how most people who work in a large organisation look after their own interests by going with the flow. It’s natural but by reading The Great Terror, I feel vindicated that I followed the music career path.

The other great Conquest book is Harvest of Sorrow. This covers the even more murderous forced collectivisation of agriculture in the early 1930s so should really be read before The Great Terror if you can handle a double bill of death. I think I’ll give it a miss. I was glad to have finished this before going on holiday. I took with me Jude The Obscure by Thomas Hardy. It’s tragedy at a macro level. I will blog about it very soon.

Chico Chica will be appearing at The Crypt, St Martins in the Field, Trafalgar Square on Wednesday 13th August 2014. I do hope you can come along. Tickets:



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