Psychopathy and Totalitarianism: A Review of Conquest’s The Great Terror

Psychopathy is usually analyzed as an individual psychological phenomenon. As we’ve seen, the term describes individuals without conscience, with shallow emotions, who are able to impersonate fully developed human beings and mimic feelings of love, caring and other-regarding impulses to fulfill their deviant goals: be that stealing your money,  stealing your heart or both. This phenomenon becomes all the more toxic, and dangerous, when such individuals rise to national power and manage to create totalitarian regimes ruled by mind-control, deception, lack of individual and collective rights and freedoms, and  arbitrary displays of power.

Psychopathic, or at least seriously disordered rulers, such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Ceausescu show what happens when (their) pathology spreads to a whole country. Given that psychopaths are estimated to be, at most, only 4 percent of the population, it’s difficult to imagine how they manage to rise to positions of authority over more or less normal human beings to impose a social pathology in every social sphere: from education, to the police force, to the juridical system, to the media. Few books explain this strange and extremely dangerous political and psychological phenomenon better than Robert Conquest‘s classic, The Great Terror. This book traces both Stalin’s rise to power within the ranks of the Bolsheviks and, concurrently, the spreading of the totalitarian system like a fatal virus throughout Soviet society (and beyond).

The book also exposes the underlying lack of principles even among seemingly ideological rulers like Joseph Stalin. When it suited his purposes, Stalin strategically oscillated siding with the left wing of the communist party (Trotsky, Kamenev and Zimonev) or the right of the Bolshevik party (Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky), turning each side against the other, to weaken them both and consolidate his own power. He surrounded himself with equally ruthless, unprincipled and sadistic individuals who did his dirty work–Yakov, Yagoda and Beria–placing them in positions of power in the NKVD, or Secret Police.

Stalin engaged in arbitrary displays of power, sending tens of millions of people to their deaths in prison or labor camps. Even his army leaders weren’t spared. In a very poor strategic move that showed he cared more about acquiring total control than about his country’s victory, Stalin decimated the ranks of his army elite right before the war against Hitler, when the Soviet Union would have needed them most. Nobody was safe from the gulag; nobody could maintain ideological purity. Anybody could be accused of deviationism from communist principles at any time.

Totalitarianism is a pathological system imposed upon an entire country or area. Like a disease, it spreads through the healthy aspects of society. It conditions even ordinary human beings, through the inculcation of fear and through brainwashing, to lose their conscience, their empathy and their humanity. Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror is a testament to human corruptibility. This magnificent book will continue to remain historically relevant  for as long as we allow disordered individuals to have power over us, our families and our social institutions.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction


  1. The power of Psychopaths is frightening. I personally believe psychopathy is responsible for child abuse in religious organisations and other organisations where the weak and vulnerable could be exploited freely and where a blind eye was turned by the general populous – as though the treatment was somehow deserving. The people were largely controlled by the church at that time, but it’s still going on anywhere that power can be abused. We have to watch those who seek power and make sure their motives are not self serving.
    This is a great site and I have learned a lot here. It is my medicine which I take most days – having been the victim of a psychopath who almost destroyed me. Im lucky to have found the necessary information to help me understand what the hell had happened to me. I still struggle but Im getting there.
    Im hoping to help in the awareness of this personality type. Most people just associate psychopathy with serial murderers and dont feel it’s ever going to be relevant to their lives. Four years ago, I would have felt the same! The truth is its relevant to everybody and if people can look out for the warning signs they can be on guard – both men and women as its not just a male problem (although more prevalent in males).

  2. Tricia, yes, psychopaths–as you state, both male and female–can rise to power over a country, in government or over a church. Most of them keep a low profile and change jobs, and control just their families and supply of girlfriends and boyfriends. But a few can maintain the mask of sanity to rise to power. Those are the most dangerous ones. This is why books like Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin and Conquest’s The Great Terror are so important. They remind us what happens when we allow psychopaths to rise to power in our midst and cultivate authoritarian institutions which are the perfect forum for disordered personalities. Claudia

  3. If acting conventionally virtuous proves effective in controlling the people and winning their obedience the Prince is urged by Machiavelli to do so.

  4. That’s right. For psychopaths conventional morality is one of the most effective masks in fooling and controlling others. They can’t keep it on indefinitely, however, since that mask is instrumental to harming others. Eventually this, and the contradiction between the mask and the reality of their actions, becomes obvious. Claudia

  5. Please look at Iran. This is so true. Everyday life under that regime requires living a double life, manipulation, trickery, “using” other people to do things for you, sidelining, deception, and worse. Then some new generation Iranians come to the US or abroad and us Shah-era Iranians wonder why they seem like they are from Mars. Enough psychopaths in power, the whole nation becomes somewhat psychopathic.

  6. Valjean, you’re right, Iran is a good example of a dictatorship run by a personality disordered person masking oppression under the guise of religious or ideological righteousness. Claudia

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