Ihave looked again at Robert Conquest’s writings of the 1960s and 1970s and I remain of the opinion that at that time he claimed figures for excess deaths amounting to at least 17 million in 1930–38. The section in The Great Terror headed ‘Death in the Camps’ refers to ‘3½ million who perished in the collectivization itself plus the similar number sent to camps where virtually all died in the following years’; in addition, he estimated that two million persons died in the camps in 1937–38 and 1 million were executed—ten million in all.footnote3 I must be pardoned for assuming that he did not intend this figure to include the famine. Earlier in his book (p. 23) he stated in relation to the famine that ‘about 5½ million deaths from hunger and from the diseases of hunger is the best estimate’, and there is no hint that this figure forms part of the 7 million (3½ + 3½) peasant deaths discussed on pp. 532–3. His alternative figures in Harvest of Sorrow lead to a similar conclusion: on his own present statement, we must add his estimate of non-peasant deaths in camps, the famine, and so forth in 1930–36 to the 11 million peasant deaths in 1930–36 and the 3 million total deaths in the purges of 1937–38. I must leave it to your readers to consult his publications of those years and make up their own minds.

I welcome Conquest’s admission that his figure in The Great Terror for those in confinement in 1938 was too high. It is worth recalling the extraordinary disparity between Conquest’s old figure for those in confinement in The Great Terror and the figures which emerged from the Russian archives. According to Conquest, the number in prisons and camps at the end of 1938 was 9 million, not including ‘criminals’; according to the archives, the number in prisons and camps on 1 January 1939, including all types of prisoner, was 1,668,000, and the total number in prisons, camps, colonies and special settlements on the same date was 2,962,000. Conquest is right to conclude that the disparity occurred partly because he overestimated the number in nkvd hands at the beginning of 1937, and partly because he overestimated the number of arrests in 1937–38. But it remains to be seen whether he is also right to believe that his estimate of 1 million executions during the Great Purge was too low. Stephen Wheatcroft recently consulted the leading Russian specialists in this area, Oleg Khlevnyuk, Viktor Zemskov and Arsenii Roginsky, and found that they all agreed that a figure of 1 million was possibly correct, and that ‘none of them were prepared to accept the 1.5 million figure currently being advocated by Conquest.’footnote4

It is clear, in any case, that even the official figure of 681,692 executions in 1937–38 is an appalling indictment of the Soviet regime. How did this come about in a system which claimed to be a new socialist civilization?

In his letter Conquest attaches great importance to his conclusion that the figures in the archives for arrests minus executions in 1939–52 by the special courts of the ogpu and other bodies which dealt with alleged ‘counter-revolutionary’ offences (1.1 million) are entirely incompatible with Zemskov’s figures for total intake into the camps in the same period (9.9 million). In this connection, he strangely refers to my ‘continued attachment to the Shvernik Report figures’. I have never cited the Shvernik report. Instead I used the much fuller tables and memoranda in the nkvd and other archival funds, the most important of which have been reprinted in Russian publications. For the years 1946–52 these include annual data for sentences by both the civil courts and the special courts from which it can be confirmed that sentences by the civil courts were indeed far more numerous than those by special courts. Adding up the annual figures in Otechestvennye arkhivy, no. 2, 1992, pp. 20–31:

Total sentences by special courts in these years amounted to 495,000, total sentences by civilian courts (including sentences to confinement for less than three years) amounted to as many as 7,299,000.footnote6 It is certain that most people confined in camps were sent there by civil courts. Moreover, Zemskov’s figure for Gulag intake in the longer period 1939–42 (9.8 million) includes transfers from one camp to another—transfers from ‘other places of detention’ to Gulag camps were 5.3 million.footnote7 This figure is not at variance with the statement that there were 1.1 million arrests in the same period on charges considered by special courts. Conquest’s alleged contradiction between the number sentenced or arrested by the special courts and Zemskov’s figure for Gulag intake does not exist.

These figures cannot of course be taken simply at face value. Many of those arrested on charges of ‘counter-revolution’ were loyal supporters of the Soviet system; many of those dealt with by civilian courts were really arrested on political grounds. But even after further research has enabled such adjustments to be made, it is certain that most inhabitants of the Gulag were there on criminal rather than political charges. This aspect of the system has so far been neglected or underplayed by historians.