In 1937, a very nasty year for much of Europe and Asia, Moscow was, next to Nanking, the city whose citizens were most likely to be massacred – indiscriminately, following Stalin’s insane logic and the manic processes devised by Nikolai Yezhov, ‘the bloody dwarf’ he had put in charge of the secret police. The original plan to shoot 70,000 and imprison 140,000 Soviet citizens was exceeded tenfold. In this ‘Great Terror’ Moscow was home to more than a proportionate share of the 700,000 shot and 1.5 million sent to the Gulag, mostly to perish. The year 1937 needs to be understood as more than just a date: the decision, three years after the slaughter of some seven million peasants, to undertake the prophylactic killing of the urban classes, particularly mature professional males, was taken in principle in the summer of 1936; and after the arrests of the last leading non-Stalinist political figures and the total suborning of the Party’s Central Committee, the orgy of violence began in April 1937 and reached a climax in the summer of 1938, when Stalin realised he had dangerously undermined the technological and intellectual base on which his power rested. He brought to Moscow another Georgian, Lavrentiy Beria, first to check, and then to execute Yezhov.
The story has been told in a dozen fine books, each based on more documentary evidence than the last, but few are as fine as the first, Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror. Karl Schlögel, however, has a different approach. He does not attempt a chronological narrative, nor an overall explanation