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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Naive Apology for Stalin

Robert Thurston's account of Stalin's reign of terror is more than revisionist; it isdangerous. "Stalin was not guilty of mass first-degree murder from 1934 to 1941" is the thesis of this book which portrays Stalin's chief prosecutor Andrei Vyshinsky as a brave legal reformer, Stalin as a rational autocrat, and the purges as no worse than McCarthyism in America. It is a short stop from Thurston's thesis to a denial that the purges happened at all: small terror, few dead.

As Robert Conquest, the veteran historian of the period, pointed out in a damning critique, Thurston's Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia, 1934-1941 is deeply compromised by the author's "honest naivety," and the credence he gives to sources long dismissed by other scholars. Take, for example, that most emotive of numbers games: the death tally. The great purge of 1937-1938 claimed 680,000 lives, says Thurston, citing figures provided by the NKVD to Khrushchev's investigation committee after Stalin's death, and this does not constitute "mass terror." But these figures were prepared at a time when the NKVD (later known as the KGB) was desperate to cover its tracks, explains Conquest, and even the FSB, the NKVD's modern-day successor, acknowledges the real figure to be "many times greater."

Thurston goes on to make the astonishing claim that the purges did not create a widespread climate of fear in the Soviet Union. He draws comparisons with the anti-Communist hysteria created by the McCarthy hearings and the Hiss case in the United States. But while the American version did claim the lives of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and ruined many careers, to compare the activities of the two regimes is beyond facile.

Thurston's thesis revolves around the idea that Stalin did not follow a "master plan" of terror, but instead was responding to the "very real" threat of internal subversion. Furthermore, Thurston argues that Stalin was not the driving force behind the terror. But Conquest refutes this. The vast store of archival material amply demonstrates that Stalin was not only the instigator of the terror, but also took an acute interest in the tiniest details.

"Life and Terror" is a confused and often self-contradictory book. Thurston has neglected effectively to analyze the newly available sources and instead he has joined the ranks of the dangerously politicized school of Russian revisionist historians who are seeking to write the terror out of the history books.

"Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia, 1934-1941" by Robert W. Thurston, Yale University Press, 296 pages, ?19.95 or $30.