This book focuses entirely on Stalin's rise from Lenin's successor as Soviet head-of-state to absolute dictator. Stalin used several waves of purges to arrest, try, and execute his political competetors and opponents. Friends, families, and aquaintences of his victims were also rounded up and exiled to Siberian work camps for years, even decades. The trials were absolute farces, and frequently included forged depositions, confessions ellicited under torture, and false testimony. In one trial, the defense attorney starts his address to the court with an apology for defending such a reprehensible client! The result of such events was to leave the entire Soviet population scared of their government, and untrusting of one another. When lack of enthusiasm (for official policies) was a crime, the mere appearance of impropriety could mean a knock on one's door from the secret police late at night. The entire population was literally terrorized by one man. THE HEGELIAN DIALECTICSo how did Koba (Stalin) get away with this? The same tried-and-true method world leaders continue to use today: the Hegelian dialectic; a handy, three-step program:1) Create a problem.2) Control the public response. (e.g. By allowing only one iterpretation to be aired on official news/opinion outlets; demonize and/or marginalize people with opposing views)3) Offer the pre-planned official solution. (Which was the planner's goal all along.)Ever simplistic in his goals, Stalin's purpose was the elimination of all possible political opposition. The first great purge started small and cautiously in December 1934. The targets were limited to Stalin's old Bolshevik competetors, Kamenev and Zinoviev. In the 1920's they had been allies of Trotsky, and therefore opposed to Stalin. Worse, they both had a grassroots following of admirers who remembered their contributions in the early days of the Russian Revolution. So it began...1) Present a Problem: the murder of a high-ranking Communist Party leader (Kirov). Stalin didn't have to take a hit out on Kirov; he simply arranged for Kirov's personal guard to stand down when a fanatical stalker attacked.2) Control the public/media response: Pravda and the rest of the news media responded with reports of "public outrage", and demand the killers be found and brought to justice.3) Suggest the pre-planned government Solution: The police, firmly loyal to Stalin after years of strategic hiring and firing, link Kirov's murder to Kamenev and Zinoviev's negligence (failure to protect Kirov). A trial is planned to explore their culpability.Now here comes the shocking part: Kamenev and Zinoviev go along with it! It was all very cynical yet predictable up this point, but I must repeat KAMENEV AND ZINOVIEV GO ALONG WITH IT! I am sure they were roughed up a bit during their interrogations, but that is not the critical factor here. Robert Conqest deftly explains that rather than stand up and defend themselves, these Old Revolutionaries perceived that exposing the trial as a political ploy would undermine public faith in the system. In other words, they were willing to sacrifice themselves to save the Party from bad PR. To Stalin, the Communist Party was just a means to an end, but to Kamenev and Zinoviev it was the "baby" they had spent a lifetime nurturing. To grease the wheels of their confessions, Stalin makes them believe they are not admitting to the actual murder, but really just to a general guilt of failing to provide Kirov with sufficient security. Naturally, words get twisted in court... confessions and transcripts of interrogations are taken out of context, etc etc etc. Before they know it, Kamenev and Zinoviev are convicted and sentenced to execution. We see this in present times too, don't we? People choose expediency over justice, and then they're surprised when the result is expedient injustice.Even with sentences passed, the two men relax in prison after the trial, confident that the entire show was just for public consumption. They really believed there would be some sort of intervention, followed by a brief period of exile, and then a quiet political "rehabilitation". Apparently, that sort of progression was not uncommon during the old days of the Czar.Sorry...In a heartwrenching scene, the guards come, and the two Old Bolsheviks realize they've been had. They were tough guys in their day; during the Revolution they no doubt faced death repeatedly in the service of their ideals. Nevertheless, when the end comes so bitterly, so unexpectedly, so coldly, they are reduced to blubbering children. And then they are uncerimoniously dispatched.A few weeks later at some State function, Stalin relishes a retelling of their final moments by a first-hand witness.Wave two: Same as the first, but expand the circle.Noting the success of wave one ("beta testing"), Stalin seeks to remove the rest of his competetors. 1) The Problem: "The murder investigation of the Kirov murder has revealed evidence of a vast Trotskyite conspiracy to overthrow the entire Soviet system. Kirov's murder was actually just the first in a series of strategic assassinations designed to return the Fatherland to its old capitalist masters!" This kind of strains believability, but who was in a position to refute? In times like this, it is nice to have a curious and independent press to root out the facts and speak truth to power... you know, like we have *ahem* here in the United States? *cough* *cough*2) The controlled response: (Pravda)- "Horrendous! We demand the NKVD spare no expense to discover and destroy the entire Trotsky network!"3) The Solution: thousands of lesser-ranking party members are arrested. Anybody with the slightest history of opposition to Stalin (if even on just a single issue) is liquidated. Since wave two is much broader than the first, all participants seem to accept that the police can't always be bothered with formalities like warrants, probable cause, etc. Of course the arrested and executed are replaced with members who have unblemished Stalinist credentials.WASH. RINSE. REPEAT.Wave three- bigger, stronger, faster. No pretense of legality this time. Stalin signs the papers, and the victims are rounded up and shot. Friends and families go to slave labor camps. There are a few perfunctory trials, but this is skipped as often as not. Too late for protest at this point. Insufficient zeal to play along is itself proof positive that you are one of "the terrorists". Wave three is the sweep-up operation: incompetent, disloyal, or insufficiently enthusiastic Stalinists placed in power during wave two are removed. Three waves seems to have been enough, Conquest explains. The public was sufficiently terrorized to accept Stalin's absolute dictatorship without question. His authority to arrest, try, and execute any citizen for any reason whatever was unchallenged by 1941. A baseline level of arrests continued, but no more great purges were needed.Overall, The Great Terror is a satisfying read, and an excellent discussion of the cold, Machiavellian thinking which drove these terrible events. As cliche as it has come to sound, this book powerfully highlights Edmund Burke's somber observation "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."