Darkness at Noon - Arthur Koestler
Arthur Koestler.
Arthur Koestler 1905 - 1983

Darkness at Noon was one of those books that made a deep impression on me as a teenager. It is a chilling account in fictional form of Stalin's Great Terror in the 1930s. It was published in 1940, i. e. during a short "window of opportunity" before the Soviet Union became an ally in the war against Hitler and revulsion turned into admiration in the West. Its author, a Hungarian living in exile in England, was a reformed communist who had taken part in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) on the loyalist side. His perspective was that of an insider, a sympathizer, a fellow traveller if you will; something that made his horror at Stalin's excesses all the more painful for him. In his novel he tried to explain something that seemed completely incomprehensible to the outside world: the false confessions that gushed forth from the accused, even when they could not have held the slightest hope that their lives would be spared.

Koestler's novel deals with the fate of one senior party official, Rubashov, who is arrested, interrrogated, persuaded to confess, and executed. It seems strangely remote from the fate of the millions of people who fell victim to Lenin's and Stalin's forced collectivization and industrialisation. There is still the impression that, to Rubashov, the original bolsheviks were a bunch of good-hearted idealists who felt that they had to take certain drastic measures to promote the greater good. The starting point for Rubashov's doubts seems to be his personal fate. His soul searching and the dialog with his interrogators Ivanov and Gletkin make up "the meat" of the novel. With the help of standard interrogation techniques (sleep deprivation, Mr. Nice and Mr. Bad interrogators, fate of relatives, etc.), Rubashov is coaxed to confess, so that his death will contribute to strengthening the Party as an "act of sacrifice". But it is clear that Rubashov is filled with doubt at the end. His death is memorably described as a "shrug of eternity". - It is clear that the author himself finally came to the conclusion that communism is not "a great theory that was perverted by the excesses of Stalin". The end cannot justify the means. A human being is more than "a million people divided by a million".

Koestler's description of Rubashov's predicament rings especially true, as just a few years earlier Koestler had himself spent some months in a prison cell awaiting execution during the Spanish civil war, described in "Dialogue with death". (He was ultimately released in an exchange agreement.)

Although repression had been a guiding principle of the Communist Party since it came to power in 1917, the Great Terror is associated with the time period roughly between 1934 and 1938, when hundreds of thousands of party members were accused, expelled and punished with death, or exile in the prison "archipelago". Its purpose was to consolidate Stalin's power by eliminating those suspected of harboring deviating political views, but also by creating an atmosphere of fear that would discourage any potential rivals from seeking power, regardless of their political leanings.

It worked. As late as during the Brezhnev era in the mid-1970s, I visited a Russian colleague's home in Moscow. When I mentioned Stalin's name, my colleague's mother, who was sitting in the kitchen and did not understand English, started to clink her glass of tea with a spoon, louder and louder, as a warning to her son to change the subject.

Estimates of the total number of Stalin's victims (1924-1953) vary between 10 and 50 million. Most of the deaths were due, not to executions, but to starvation and disease among the prison population, and among entire ethnic groups who were shifted around without the means to support themselves. Famines, caused partly as a matter of policy (food was exported to pay for industrialisation), partly by sheer incompetence, killed at least 4 million people from 1932. Millions of civilians lost their lives during WW2 as a result of Stalin's "scorched-earth" tactics, most of them in the Ukraine.

Some historians claim that Stalin suffered from paranoia, and that this was the underlying cause of the recurrent purges and executions of even his closest associates. Be that as it may, one should bear in mind that "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you". In fact, it is widely believed that Beria had Stalin poisoned in March 1953. And no doubt, it was the climate of fear that in turn led to Beria's execution later that year. - By the way, I vividly recall that a page was sent to all registered subscribers of the Soviet Encyclopedia to replace the entry on Beria with an extended article on Bering's Strait. (The regime also routinely doctored images to eliminate "non-persons" from them. This practice continued at least into the 1960s. For instance, previously published images were retouched to remove cosmonaut candidates who had fallen into disgrace!)

To understand the pervasive fear among the general population during the Great Terror, and in particular among the party leadership, it is useful to recall some revelations made by Nikita Khrushchev at the 1956 congress of the communist party in closed session: "Out of the 139 members and candidates of the Central Committee who were elected at the 17th Congress [in 1934], 98 persons, i.e., 70 per cent, were arrested and shot (mostly in 1937-1938). ... Of 1,966 delegates with either voting or advisory rights, 1,108 persons were arrested on charges of anti-revolutionary crimes, i.e., decidedly more than a majority." - Khrushchev reported that Stalin had personally signed 383 execution lists [comprising 44,500 individuals], containing "thousands" of names. This was not the whole picture, perhaps understandably in view of Khrushchev's own record as a political commissar, and of the sensibilities of his audience. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, detailed records from NKVD archives have been published. They show that 681,692 prisoners were executed during the short period of 1937-1938. Many more were put in prison camps or sentenced to internal exile. At the height of the Great Terror, target figures for arrests and executions per geographical area were established centrally. Many regional leaders considered it prudent to exceed those numbers. Of course, this contributed to an environment where denunciations and personal vendettas became an important factor in the struggle for survival. Any contact with foreigners became a liability. - After WW2, those Soviet prisoners-of-war who had survived the war and been liberated by the Red Army were considered unreliable and put in prison camps, or shot for cowardice.

Although it is a cliché that "The revolution eats its own children" (Danton, Robespierre, Röhm, Trotsky...), the Great Terror was unique in that nobody was safe from arrest. It has been described as Stalin's war on his own population. Almost everybody knew somebody who had been arrested and disappeared for no obvious reason. - When I visited the Soviet Union in the mid-70s, as we passed the KGB headquarters, the infamous Lubyanka prison in downtown Moscow, my Russian colleague mentioned that it was "the tallest building in Moscow...". Then he completed the bitter joke: "...because from there you can see all the way to Siberia".

For Swedish readers, I recommend an essay on Stalin's show trials of the 1930s from the perspective of Bucharin's wife, written by Peter Englund. An excerpt from "Brev från nollpunkten" can be found here. See also a list of literature in Swedish on stalinist terror.

There is no doubt in my mind that the perceived threat of communism during the 1920s and 1930s paved the way for Hitler's rise. According to Marxist theory, the communist revolution should start in the industrialized countries. As early as 1918, there was an armed uprising in the German naval base in Kiel. (A relative of mine, Wolfgang Zenker, was killed when he refused to lower the imperial flag on his ship.) During six months in 1918-1919, Bavaria was a socialist republic ruled by Soldiers' and Workers' Councils. In 1919 the Spartakist uprising occurred in Berlin. It was crushed, and its leaders were executed. Street fights between communists and nazis were common throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. - My paternal grandfather, who was a prominent church dean in Leipzig, wrote in his memoirs (1927): "...and the still ongoing persecutions of Christians in Russia, make it seem not impossible to us, that we German Christians perhaps shall be forced to confirm our faith with the death of martyrs ('Zeugentod')."

It seems to me that Stalin's Great Terror has attracted less attention in the West than it should, especially among young people, who need to "study history, or be condemned to repeat it". In the wake of the Holocaust, the central lesson to emerge from the WW2 era has become the evil of racism and its terrible consequences, and the need for democratic rule. This is as it should be, but racial hatred was not what brought Hitler to power, nor was a democratic form of government enough to prevent his rise. The all-important step was acceptance of his suppression of political and human rights "for the greater good". As Benjamin Franklin pointed out: Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both. This observation is just as valid today, perhaps even more so in an era preoccupied with terrorism, and where every citizen's every move and transaction can be electronically traced.

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    Last edited or checked September 22, 2006; fixed or replaced dead links May 17, 2017, March 16, 2018 and February 12, 2024. Dead links to Russian archives have been replaced with secondary sources.  

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