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Robert Conquest

Robert Conquest


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Robert Conquest, the son of a wealthy American, was born in Malvern on 15th July, 1917. After Winchester he studied politics, philosophy and economics at Magdalen College, Oxford. While at university he became a member of the Communist Party.

In 1939 he joined the British Army after the outbreak of the Second World War. For the next six years he served in the Oxford and Buckingham Light Infantry.

After the war Conquest joined the British Foreign Office and while serving in Bulgaria he saw the communists overthrow the government. In 1948 he moved to the Foreign Office's Information Research Department. Conquest's work included combating Soviet propaganda and acquiring evidence for its secret anti-communist campaign.

In 1963 Conquest became literary editor of the Spectator. He also wrote several books about Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union. This has included Power and Politics in the USSR (1960), Common Sense About Russia (1962), Russia After Khrushchev (1968), The Great Terror (1969), The Nation Killers (1969) and Lenin (1970).

Conquest supported the Labour Party until Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party. In recent years has written speeches for several right-wing politicians including Margaret Thatcher and developed what has become known as Conquest Law: ""Everyone is a reactionary about subjects he understands."

In 1981 Conquest was offered a post at the Hoover Institution in California. Books published in recent years includes Inside Stalin's Secret Police (1985), Stalin and the Kirov Murder (1989), Stalin, Breaker of Nations (1991), Reflections on a Ravaged Century (1999), Harvest Of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivation and the Terror-Famine (2002) and The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History (2006).

He was very influential in that he immensely encouraged one side and was dismissed by the other, because people were in such entrenched positions. This meant that people accepted his facts; but they didn't accept his conclusions. People were detained in condemning him by the fact that he was a very good poet. That was well known. Everyone by then could agree that Stalin was a very wicked man and a very evil one, but we still wanted to believe in Lenin; and Conquest said that Lenin was just as bad and that Stalin was simply carrying out Lenin's programme.

He is also the boldest theorist of the pro-American lobby in British politics. He would like Britain to withdraw from the EU and form part of a much looser association of English-speaking nations, known as the "Anglosphere". This is very close to Mrs Thatcher's visceral loathing of Europe, but informed by a much greater experience of European life and languages.

"Margaret Thatcher is the only person in politics, along with Condi Rice, with whom I am on cheek-kissing terms," Conquest says. Asked through an intermediary to help her with a speech on Russia in 1976, he wrote a draft, "and I met her: that was the first Iron Lady speech".

They get on very well together, according to Garton Ash. He also likes Ronald Reagan, describing him and Alec Douglas-Hume as "the only two politicians who wanted to get something out of you in conversation rather than tell you their views".


Remembering Robert Conquest

The Hoover Institution, today, mourns the loss of a great historian and friend, Robert Conquest. It is with profound sadness that we reflect upon his life and intellectual contributions, which have left a lasting impression around the world. Our thoughts and prayers are with his loved ones during this time.

Conquest spent 28 years at the Hoover Institution where he was a Senior Research Fellow. A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, he was a renowned historian of Soviet politics and foreign policy. Conquest has been known for his landmark work The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties. More than 35 years after its publication, the book remains one of the most influential studies of Soviet history and has been translated into more than 20 languages.

Other awards and honors include the Jefferson Lectureship, the highest honor bestowed by the federal government for achievement in the humanities (1993), the Dan David Prize (2012), Poland's Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit (2009), Estonia's Cross of Terra Mariana (2008), and the Ukrainian Order of Yaroslav Mudryi (2005).

Conquest was the author of twenty-one books on Soviet history, politics, and international affairs including Harvest of Sorrow, Stalin and the Kirov Murder, The Great Terror: A Reassessment, Stalin: Breaker of Nations and Reflections on a Ravaged Century and The Dragons of Expectation. Conquest was literary editor of the London Spectator, brought out eight volumes of poetry and one of literary criticism, edited the seminal New Lines anthologies (1955–63), and published a verse translation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's epic Prussian Nights (1977). He also published a science fiction novel, A World of Difference (1955), and is joint author, with Kingsley Amis, of another novel, The Egyptologists (1965). In 1997 he received the American Academy of Arts and Letters' Michael Braude Award for Light Verse.

Educated at Winchester College and the University of Grenoble, he was an exhibitioner in modern history at Magdalen College, Oxford, receiving his BA and MA in politics, philosophy, and economics and his DLitt in history.

Conquest served in the British infantry in World War II and thereafter in His Majesty's Diplomatic Service he was awarded the Order of the British Empire. In 1996 he was named a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George.

TRIBUTES:

✦ George P. Shultz, Hoover Institution Thomas W. and Susan B. Ford Distinguished Fellow and Former Secretary of State
Robert Conquest set the gold standard for careful research, total integrity, and clarity of expression about the real Soviet Union. He taught us all and he will live on in that spirit.


✦ Robert Service, Hoover Senior Fellow
Robert Conquest was full of life, despite his physical frailty, through to the end, and we're all going to miss him greatly. He was a tireless investigator of Stalin's tyranny. His Power and Policy in the USSR was a landmark, conceptually and empirically, in the analysis of Soviet totalitarianism it was all the more remarkable since he had to glean a lot of his data from that most unpromising source, the Moscow newspaper Pravda. Just as extraordinary was his Great Terror. It was Bob who invented the term to describe the appalling inhumanities perpetrated by Joseph Stalin against his own countrymen and others in their millions. In Harvest of Sorrow he gave a voice to the Ukrainian peasants who starved to death under the impact of agricultural collectivization. In these and later books, he became recognized for his scrupulous attention to factual detail while providing a searing account of the travails of Russia and its borderlands. When he updated The Great Terror for its later editions, there was little he needed to alter in the general picture.

In postwar Britain he was as much a literary figure as a historian. His poems were read out in English secondary-school classes as exemplars of the new clear-writing style that repudiated verbal abstruseness. His verse, like his historical prose, was limpid and engaging. As recently as the collection titled Penultimata he produced brilliant poetry - much of it dedicated to the biggest questions of life and death - that will survive any test of posterity.

People loved his impish sense of humour - in his younger days he was a dedicated practical joker. Grim though his works on history and politics could be, he himself was full of a joie de vivre. He was a handsome fellow, always well-turned out and ready for a jolly evening after a day's work. His close friends included several of the literary giants of the decades after the second world war such as Anthony Powell, Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. With his lovely wife Liddie, who looked after him splendidly in his declining years, he was always an engaging host. Nobody visited their home without coming away with a store of anecdotes.

And what a campaigner he was. Firm of conviction and excellently informed, he provided countless politicians including Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher with guidance about the roots of the USSR's policies around the world. He was equally eager to talk to younger generations. Robert Conquest produced work of fundamental importance that will always be read. Born in the year of the October Revolution, he outlived the Soviet totalitarian experiment by many years. He was a towering political and literary figure who made a difference to the turbulent times that he witnessed.


✦ Stephen Kotkin, Hoover Research Fellow and Birkelund Professor of History and International Affairs, Princeton University
Robert Conquest (1917-2015) published some thirty books of history and policy, and six of poetry, establishing himself as the most prolific, most influential Sovietologist ever. Two of his books on Soviet history stand out as the most important of the entire cold war.

The Great Terror (1968) was a blockbuster in all senses. At a time of doubt and controversy about the menace of Communism, Mr. Conquest massed a mountain of detail and definitively established the vast scale of Soviet terror, and Stalin’s central role in it. Now this is taken for granted. Soviet archives were closed and Soviet publications full of lies, yet he was criticized for relying on the large number of émigré memoirs and the unpublished reminiscences in the Hoover Institution Archives. Mr. Conquest insisted on the validity of the accounts of the victims. The opening of the archives has shown that by and large he was correct. He also made meticulous Kremlinological use of Stalin-era newspapers, and systematically combed through the voluminous “thaw” or Khrushchev-era Soviet publications, which were often very revealing. The leftist slant of Soviet studies in the U.S. limited the acceptance of Mr. Conquest’s scholarly work, even as he dominated discussion among the public and policy-makers. In the late stages and aftermath of the Soviet Union, The Great Terror, translated into Russian, became the most widely influential Western publication on Soviet history in that country. Mr. Conquest pulled off a similar feat with The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986), written here at Hoover. Once again, he definitively established the colossal scale of Soviet horrors, correctly identified their source in Marxist ideas and practices, and underscored the legions of Western dupes who retailed Soviet lies, from when Stalin was alive and decades thereafter.

I first met Mr. Conquest in the archive reading room at Hoover, in the mid-1980s, when he was already a legend (I was a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley). He had sparkling eyes and a wry smile, and relished chatting about obscure sources and discoveries. In November 1987, I had the privilege of serving as his Russian language translator at the annual convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies Convention in Boston. (Mr. Conquest spoke fluent Bulgarian from his service in the British legation in Sofia and one of his marriages, but did not speak Russian conversationally, although he read it fluently). His interlocutor that day was the writer Anatoly Rybakov, who was enjoying wide acclaim for his novel Children of the Arbat, but effervescing over meeting the great Bob Conquest. “Is it true,” a spellbound Rybkaov kept asking me, “that he also writes poetry?”


✦ Paul Gregory, Hoover Research Fellow
Robert Conquest died today in Palo Alto, California at the age of 98. In addition to being a noted poet and writer of memorable limericks, Conquest wrote two of the most influential works on the history of Stalinist Russia – The Great Terror (1958) and The Harvest of Sorrow (1986). His Great Terror was the first to describe the magnitude and horrors of Joseph Stalin’s repressions, which killed not only thousands of the state and party elite, but executed and imprisoned millions of ordinary people who had done nothing wrong. His Harvest of Sorrow described the Stalin-made famine that accompanied the forced collectivization of agriculture and that needlessly killed millions of Russians, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, and other peoples of Russia. Robert Conquest somehow pieced together his two historical masterpieces out of scraps and bits of information from émigrés, newspaper accounts, and statistical publications that remarkably allowed him to penetrate the deepest secrets of the Soviet Union as a lone researcher. He was an ardent supporter of collecting microfilm of the secret archives of the Soviet Communist Party after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a project conducted by his own Hoover Institution Library and Archives. Robert Conquest was widely attacked by the British and American left for his “exaggerations” of the excesses of Soviet communism, but subsequent research in the official Soviet archives substantiated the accuracy of his brutal accounts of the USSR. Remarkably, he was able to issue new editions of the Great Terror in 1990 and 2008 leaving the basic contents largely untouched from the original edition. Robert Conquest was deeply disturbed by the so-called revisionist historians, who somehow argued that Joseph Stalin was simply responding to what Soviet society and his regional underlings demanded of him. His irritation rose as evidence of Stalin’s micromanagement of mass killings was revealed in official documents, such as the famous “shooting lists” and Stalin’s signature on the telegrams that set in motion the “mass operations” of 1937 and 1938. Robert Conquest remained an active scholar after his retirement. The Hoover Institution arranged for research assistants to deliver the latest materials from the Soviet archives to him on a weekly basis. Visitors, bearing tidings of new findings, were surprised to learn that he knew this information already. Well past his 90th birthday, Robert Conquest and his wife Liddy received guests in their home to engage in animated discussions of poetry, history, and tales of the shenanigans and pranks of his literary circle “The Movement.” On an interesting historical note, Bob enjoyed relating his conversations with Margaret Thatcher on the economy and communism as she prepared herself for Britain’s highest political office. Today marks the passing of a giant.


✦ Bert Patenaude, Hoover Research Fellow
The long and full life of Robert Conquest—poet, historian, Cold Warrior, and much more—deserves to be warmly celebrated. I was introduced to Bob shortly after I arrived at Stanford in the fall of 1978 to begin my doctoral studies in history. For a young student of Russia and the Soviet Union to meet the author of The Great Terror was no minor event, and I was a bit nervous about it, but Bob's friendly and unassuming manner quickly put me at ease. And as the conversation came to an end he responded to my "Thank you, Dr. Conquest" with a generous "Call me Bob."

Those were the days when most scholars in Soviet studies regarded Conquest's works on the USSR with skepticism at best, and often outright hostility. In "the field," The Great Terror, was widely perceived as an ideological polemic that would not stand the test of time. Bob loathed political correctness, and he scorned those who professed to seek "balance" in their scholarly publications about Soviet history—"How do you find balance in mass murder?" He enjoyed dismissing such people as "wafflers." The collapse of Soviet Communism brought revelations from the Kremlin archives that bore out Bob's general view of Stalin's USSR, and he had the great pleasure of publishing a new version of the book in 1990, at the moment of his vindication. The revised version was called The Great Terror: A Reassessment, but most reviewers of the book recognized that it was in fact an emphatic reassertion of the original thesis rather than a revision.

Among his considerable gifts, Bob was a superb conversationalist. He had a wicked sense of humor and he loved to laugh: the look of playful delight that animated his face as he nailed a punch line is impossible to forget. His poems and limericks convey a sense of his mischievousness—and naughtiness—and his late poems chronicle the aging process with sensitivity and, one is easily persuaded, acute psychological insight.

Bob's final speaking appearance on the Stanford campus may well have been his participation in an annual book event, "A Company of Authors," where he came to present his latest book of verse, Penultimata, on April 24, 2010. Bob seemed frail that day, and at times it was difficult to hear him and to understand his meaning, but no one in the room could doubt that the genial elderly man up there reciting his poetry could have carried the entire company of authors on his back. Seated next to me in the audience was a Stanford history professor, a man (not incidentally) of the political left, someone I had known since my graduate student days—not a person I would ever have imagined would be drawn to Bob Conquest. Yet he had come to the event, he told me, specifically in order to see and hear the venerable poet-historian: "It's rare that you get to be in the presence of a great man. Robert Conquest is a great man." Indeed he was.


✦ Anatol Shmelev, Hoover Research Fellow and Curator, Russia and Eurasia Collection
Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, which first appeared in 1968 and withstood many editions, was his most widely known and monumental contribution both to scholarship and to the West’s struggle against communism. Based on a close reading of all the sources then available, Conquest traced in detail the events, decisions and personalities involved in Stalin’s purges and the system of terror that marked his rule. To call the evidence of Stalin’s terror available to scholars at that time incomplete would be a massive understatement. Moreover, the evidence that was available, culled not so much from Soviet official sources as from accounts by defectors and emigres, was often contradictory and unreliable. But such was the brilliance of Robert Conquest’s intellect and the precision of his intuition that he was able to sift through the available sources, ascertain their value, weigh their reliability and contextualize them in such a way as to create a work of scholarship that retained validity in all its major arguments to the present day. This is a rare achievement for scholars even with full access to open archives, and therefore all the greater considering the obstacles present in the 1950s and 1960s.

For decades Conquest’s work – and in particular The Great Terror – stood as a warning and reproach to those in the West who would seek to justify the Soviet regime and communist ideology. In the Soviet Union itself The Great Terror circulated illegally as Samizdat and Tamizdat (a Russian translation, issued by an Italian publisher, was designed in height (17 cm.) to be easily transportable into the USSR, but at over 1000 pages, despite the thinness of the paper it was still a massive work and hard to smuggle in).

The Great Terror, like other of Conquest’s works, was subjected to heavy criticism in the 1980s by revisionists who felt that he had overstated the role of the regime and of Stalin himself in orchestrating the terror, but the opening of the Soviet archives in the late 1980s and 1990s vindicated Conquest and his argument, leaving historians by and large only the duty of verifying small details and retallying the actual figures of victims. Conquest wrote in the preface to the 1990 edition of The Great Terror: A Reassessment, “while the new material extends our knowledge, it confirms the general soundness of the account given in The Great Terror. And while in this reassessment I have thus been able to give a greatly enhanced account of these years, I have not made any changes for their own sake.” In private conversation, however, he said that the title of this book should have been “I told you so, you (vulgarity omitted) fools.”

Robert Conquest was not only a brilliant scholar, but a true gentleman, who went out of his way to make everyone who visited him for advice, conversation or just an autograph feel welcome. The bearer of a high intellect, Conquest could be very down-to-earth, full of entertaining anecdotes and stories, and always not only willing to hear out his guests, but actively engaging them with questions. His charm was genuine and born of a sense of humility that won over those who knew him. Though he was the recipient of many high awards and honors, including the Order of the British Empire, the title he most liked to recall was that of Antisovetchik nomer 1 (“Anti-Soviet #1”), an appellation bestowed upon him by the Soviet propaganda apparatus. This was, perhaps, because the title cut to the core of who Robert Conquest was: a champion of human freedom and a sworn enemy of oppressive and totalitarian regimes and the ideologies that stood behind the tragedies of the twentieth century.


Robert Conquest and the Uses of History

E. H. Carr suggested in his lectures that formed What is History? that one can only really understand history through understanding the historian. To understand the historian, one then casts an eye towards circumstances, the background of gestation, product and ultimate shaping behind that process.

Robert Conquest, accomplished poet and historian who died on August 3, was the great example of the historian as process. He gathered his material with what amounted to an almost penitent objective (many historians do, feeling that the truth is beavering its way to the pen of revelation). Such histories do become political weapons, furnishings for furious assaults against opponents and positions. They form dossiers of conviction and documents of condemnation.

Conservative historians and commentators would see in Conquest an example of relentless exposure of the Soviet project, taking the form of over 20 books. In the US, he was awarded the presidential medal of freedom for fighting the Cold War with his pen, a point that does raise the curtains on the role of the historian.

Such awards tend to politicise analysis, lending weight to the illusory nonsense that it teaches us much at all. Conquest did, as a case in point, publicly support the botched US involvement in Vietnam, giving the impression that an abundant knowledge of the Soviet gulag justified the murderous stalemate in Indochina. Clear eyes are sometimes better reserved for the past.

“In 1968,” wrote George Will, “five years before the first volume of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago was published in the West, Conquest published The Great Terror, a history of Joseph Stalin’s purges during the 1930s.”[1] Just as Conquest misread contemporary times, his critics, mainly on the left, refused to read the blood-stained record of an overly stacked ledger.

Stalin’s corpse filled gulags were coming to light, the still fresh blood a subject of Conquest’s interest. This was Conquest as the arm of the anti-utopian brigade, puncturing holes in the Soviet edifice and, implicitly, the communist program. But he came later to the mission – he had himself been an enthusiast of Stalin, having paid a visit to Moscow in 1937. This was hardly surprising to those who believed that the communist mission transmogrified into the Soviet state was the only genuine show of change in town. Conservatism was in cynical decay capitalism was in a Depression inflicted shambles, and fascism was making stomping gains on the European continent.

The denunciation of Stalinist terror would come from within, via the “secret speech” of Nikita Khrushchev. This had a disingenuous flavour to it – for all of Khrushchev’s anger, he had been a Stalinist product, a keen butcher in his own right. But the change there involved a spring clean on the cult of personality. It was this cleansing that began what amounted to revisionism, with historical works forming the basis of expiation.

Conquest kept company with others who swayed from what was considered the hoodwinked left to a sober, steely reasoned right. There were the intellectual popularisers such as the polymath Arthur Koestler who were railing against such systems and grieving over the God that failed. The Cold War was being waged, not merely in the journals of the academy but the broadsheets and media outlets. The CIA also did its best to keep such individuals in leaf and clover. The central assumption here was that the Soviet system could not reform. Conservative authoritarianism, however, could.

Conquest was always best when sticking to history, rather than the flimsier notion of history as policy. His The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986) was a grim account of the famine in Ukraine between 1932 and 1933, one which saw the death by starvation of at least 7 million people. This war against the kulaks packed quite a punch, bringing to light an event that had been dismissed as elaborate fabrication. Propaganda can prove to be Clio’s evil twin.

A vital, if gruesome feature of Conquest’s work was an extensive discussion of the deportation program that Stalin endorsed with monomanic conviction. It saw the removal of Crimean Tartars, the targeting of Chechens, the expulsion of the Volga Germans. Kazakhstan became the dumping ground of nationalities par excellence.

A conspicuous tendency to enlist Conquest into modern political struggles, unsheathing him to cut rivals and opponents, remains. His work, argues Will, is the precursor to understanding the Putin system. Putin is not merely an echo of what came before, but its product, the work of officials “thoroughly marinated in the morals of the regime Lenin founded”.

Similarly Stephen Schwartz, executive director of the Centre for Islamic Pluralism, contemporises such historical analysis, making that classic, and erroneous leap between past system and present policy. “Another Robert Conquest will be needed, sooner or later, to account for the new chapter in Russian imperialism.”[2] This is less history as ideological supposition. Differences matter less than similarities.

Conquest was himself, till his death, at the chopping coalface, refusing to give liberal education its due and riding the wave of the Thatcher revolution, becoming, in fact, its speech writer. The musty archive and the sanguinary record only made him cynical. The communist may have been criminally delusional, but the liberal was dangerously complicit in providing him truck. “Stalinism and Maoism may be dead,” he asserted in his 1999 essay Liberals and Totalitarianism, “but they still pollute the intellectual atmosphere.”[3]

Miseducation is the persistent theme, reflected by such dangerous notions as “peace studies” that are inflicted on “helpless teenagers” even if Conquest, along with his admirers, also had the habit of eviscerating ideologies of change they disliked while omitting errors within their own canon.

A final point on the issue of using Conquest to, as it were, conquer. Such history is on the look out for betrayers and sell outs, a form of vanguard McCarthyism. Will, to take a glaring example, is not even that bothered by Putin, whom he deems Lenin’s distant grand child. It is the apologist as true target, and here, Conquest becomes a weapon for Will to attack Bernie Sanders and his “moral obtuseness” which saw him spend his honeymoon in the Soviet Union in 1988. This is no longer history but well worn agitprop.


Stanford historian Robert Conquest, expert on Soviet Union, dies at 98

A Renaissance-style thinker, Robert Conquest was a prolific Soviet historian who became the conscience of an era in the war of ideas between communism and Western democracy. As a poet, his work was considered among the most influential in British literary circles.

Stanford historian Robert Conquest, who died Monday at 98, was a poet and novelist as well as a celebrated expert on the Soviet Union. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

A preeminent Cold War scholar who chronicled the abuses of the Soviet regime, Robert Conquest passed away at 98 on Monday at Stanford.

Conquest was a Hoover Institution senior research fellow emeritus at Stanford University. Pneumonia was the cause of his death, according to his wife, Elizabeth Neece Conquest. Plans for a memorial service have not yet been announced.

A dual British and American citizen by birth, he was born on July 15, 1917, in England. Conquest studied at Winchester College, the University of Grenoble and Magdalen College, Oxford, and took his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy, politics and economics, and his doctorate in Soviet history. While at Oxford he became a member of the Communist Party a few years later, he left the party.

Conquest served through World War II in the British infantry and afterward in the British diplomatic service. In the immediate postwar period, he saw the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, an experience that left him decidedly anti-communist. Conquest joined the Foreign Office’s Information Research Department, a unit created to counter Soviet propaganda in the West.

In 1981, Conquest moved to California to become a senior research fellow and scholar-curator of the Russian and Commonwealth of Independent States Collection at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He retired in 2007.

John Raisian, the director of the Hoover Institution, said in a news release, “It is with profound sadness that we reflect upon his life and intellectual contributions, which have left a lasting impression around the world.”

George P. Shultz, a Hoover Institution distinguished fellow and former U.S. secretary of state, said, “Robert Conquest set the gold standard for careful research, total integrity and clarity of expression about the real Soviet Union. He taught us all and he will live on in that spirit.”

History and poetry

The author of 21 books on Soviet history, politics and international affairs, Conquest wrote the classic The Great Terror (1968), the first comprehensive research of the Stalinist-era purges that took place in the Soviet Union between 1934 and 1939. The book remains one of the most influential studies of Soviet history and has been translated into more than 20 languages.

During an era when Western intellectuals were conspicuously uncritical of the Stalinist regime, Conquest led the way in shedding light on life behind the Iron Curtain. His characterization of Soviet policy in the 1930s proved accurate.

He also penned The Harvest of Sorrow (1986), which dealt with the collectivization of agriculture in Ukraine and elsewhere in the USSR and the subsequent famine.

Conquest was also a poet and novelist he authored seven volumes of poetry and one of literary criticism, a science fiction novel and another novel authored jointly with Kingsley Amis. In 1945, he was awarded the PEN Brazil Prize for his war poem, For the Death of a Poet, and six years later he received a Festival of Britain verse prize.

Medal of Freedom

In 2005, Conquest received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civil award given by the U.S. president “to any person who has made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, or world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

His other awards and honors include the Jefferson Lectureship, the highest honor bestowed by the federal government for achievement in the humanities (1993), the Dan David Prize (2012), Poland’s Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit (2009), Estonia’s Cross of Terra Mariana (2008) and the Ukrainian Order of Yaroslav Mudryi (2005).

Conquest was a fellow of Columbia University’s Russian Institute and of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars a distinguished visiting scholar at the Heritage Foundation and a research associate of Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute. He was also a fellow of the British Academy, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society of Literature and the British Interplanetary Society and a member of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.

In addition to his wife, Conquest is survived by sons from his first marriage, John and Richard a stepdaughter, Helen Beasley and five grandchildren.


Robert Conquest

Robert Conquest passed away on August 3, 2015. He was a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

His awards and honors include the Jefferson Lectureship, the highest honor bestowed by the federal government for achievement in the humanities (1993), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2005), the Dan David Prize (2012), Poland's Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit (2009), Estonia's Cross of Terra Mariana (2008), and the Ukrainian Order of Yaroslav Mudryi (2005).

He was the author of twenty-one books on Soviet history, politics, and international affairs, including the classic The Great Terror—which has been translated into twenty languages—and the acclaimed Harvest of Sorrow (1986). His most recent works are Reflections on a Ravaged Century (1999) and The Dragons of Expectation (2005).

Conquest has been literary editor of the London Spectator, brought out eight volumes of poetry and one of literary criticism, edited the seminal New Lines anthologies (1955–63), and published a verse translation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's epic Prussian Nights (1977). He has also published a science fiction novel, A World of Difference (1955), and is joint author, with Kingsley Amis, of another novel, The Egyptologists (1965). In 1997 he received the American Academy of Arts and Letters' Michael Braude Award for Light Verse.

He was a fellow of the British Academy, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society of Literature, and the British Interplanetary Society and a member of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. He has been a research fellow at the London School of Economics, a fellow of the Columbia University Russian Institute and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a distinguished visiting scholar at the Heritage Foundation, and a research associate at Harvard University's Ukrainian Research Institute.

Educated at Winchester College and the University of Grenoble, he was an exhibitioner in modern history at Magdalen College, Oxford, receiving his BA and MA in politics, philosophy, and economics and his DLitt in history.

Conquest served in the British infantry in World War II and thereafter in His Majesty's Diplomatic Service he was awarded the Order of the British Empire. In 1996 he was named a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George.


How Robert Conquest. s History Book Made History

History books can be historic events, making history by ending important arguments. They can make it impossible for any intellectually honest person to assert certain propositions that once enjoyed considerable currency among people purporting to care about evidence.

The author of one such book, Robert Conquest, an Englishman who spent many years at Stanford. s Hoover Institution, has died at 98, having outlived the Soviet Union that he helped to kill with information. Historian, poet, journalist, and indefatigable controversialist, Conquest was born when Soviet Russia was, in 1917, and in early adulthood he was a Communist. Then, combining a convert. s zeal and a scholar. s meticulousness, he demolished the doctrine that the Soviet regime was a recognizable variant of the European experience and destined to . convergence. toward Western norms.

Books do not win wars, hot or cold, but they can help to sustain the will to win protracted conflict, producing clarity about the nature of an evil adversary. In 1968, five years before the first volume of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. s The Gulag Archipelago was published in the West, Conquest published The Great Terror, a history of Joseph Stalin. s purges during the 1930s. In one episode, which could have come from Arthur Koestler. s classic 1941 novel Darkness at Noon, Conquest recounted a conversation between Stalin and an aide named Mironov, who was failing to extract a confession . to a political crime . from a prisoner named Kamenev:

. Do you know how much our state weighs, with all the factories, machines, the army, with all the armaments and the navy.
Mironov and all those present looked at Stalin with surprise. . Think it over and tell me. demanded Stalin.

Mironov smiled, believing that Stalin was getting ready to crack a joke. But Stalin did not intend to jest. . . .

. I. m asking you, how much does all that weigh. he insisted.

Mironov was confused. He waited, still hoping Stalin would turn everything into a joke. . . . Mironov . . . said in an irresolute voice, . Nobody can know that. . . . It is in the realm of astronomical figures.

. Well, and can one man withstand the pressure of that astronomical weight. asked Stalin sternly.

. No, answered Mironov.

. Now then, don. t tell me any more that Kamenev, or this or that prisoner, is able to withstand that pressure. Don. t come to report to me. said Stalin to Mironov, . until you have in this briefcase the confession of Kamenev.

In 1968, Conquest. s mountain of evidence of the diabolical dynamics of the Soviet regime disquieted those, and they were legion, who suggested a moral equivalence between the main adversaries in the Cold War, which, they argued, had been precipitated by U.S. actions.

In 1986, Conquest published The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine, his unsparing account of the deliberate starvation of Ukraine in 1932 and 1933, which killed, at a minimum, 7 million people, more than half of them children. At one point, more Ukrainians were dying each day than Jews were to be murdered at Auschwitz at the peak of extermination in the spring of 1944.

Conquest. s work is pertinent to understanding Vladimir Putin. s Russia. Conquest. s thesis was not that Soviet leaders studied Lenin. s turgid writings but that they were thoroughly marinated in the morals of the regime Lenin founded and that produced the repression machinery that produced Putin.


How Robert Conquest’s History Book Made History

H istory books can be historic events, making history by ending important arguments. They can make it impossible for any intellectually honest person to assert certain propositions that once enjoyed considerable currency among people purporting to care about evidence.

The author of one such book, Robert Conquest, an Englishman who spent many years at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, has died at 98, having outlived the Soviet Union that he helped to kill with information. Historian, poet, journalist, and indefatigable controversialist, Conquest was born when Soviet Russia was, in 1917, and in early adulthood he was a Communist. Then, combining a convert’s zeal and a scholar’s meticulousness, he demolished the doctrine that the Soviet regime was a recognizable variant of the European experience and destined to “convergence” toward Western norms.

Books do not win wars, hot or cold, but they can help to sustain the will to win protracted conflict, producing clarity about the nature of an evil adversary. In 1968, five years before the first volume of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago was published in the West, Conquest published The Great Terror, a history of Joseph Stalin’s purges during the 1930s. In one episode, which could have come from Arthur Koestler’s classic 1941 novel Darkness at Noon, Conquest recounted a conversation between Stalin and an aide named Mironov, who was failing to extract a confession — to a political crime — from a prisoner named Kamenev:

“Do you know how much our state weighs, with all the factories, machines, the army, with all the armaments and the navy?”

Mironov and all those present looked at Stalin with surprise.

“Think it over and tell me,” demanded Stalin. Mironov smiled, believing that Stalin was getting ready to crack a joke. But Stalin did not intend to jest. . . . “I’m asking you, how much does all that weigh?” he insisted.

Mironov was confused. He waited, still hoping Stalin would turn everything into a joke. . . . Mironov . . . said in an irresolute voice, “Nobody can know that. . . . It is in the realm of astronomical figures.’

“Well, and can one man withstand the pressure of that astronomical weight?” asked Stalin sternly.

“No, answered Mironov.

“‘Now then, don’t tell me any more that Kamenev, or this or that prisoner, is able to withstand that pressure. Don’t come to report to me,” said Stalin to Mironov, “until you have in this briefcase the confession of Kamenev!”

In 1968, Conquest’s mountain of evidence of the diabolical dynamics of the Soviet regime disquieted those, and they were legion, who suggested a moral equivalence between the main adversaries in the Cold War, which, they argued, had been precipitated by U.S. actions.

In 1986, Conquest published The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine, his unsparing account of the deliberate starvation of Ukraine in 1932 and 1933, which killed, at a minimum, 7 million people, more than half of them children. At one point, more Ukrainians were dying each day than Jews were to be murdered at Auschwitz at the peak of extermination in the spring of 1944.

Conquest’s work is pertinent to understanding Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Conquest’s thesis was not that Soviet leaders studied Lenin’s turgid writings but that they were thoroughly marinated in the morals of the regime Lenin founded and that produced the repression machinery that produced Putin.


The Singular Robert Conquest

I wanted to jot a few notes about Robert Conquest, the great historian who passed away last month. I’m so grateful to have known him. I’d have hated to miss out on him. And we can know him through his writing, too. He had a long life of productivity. We can know him by his fruits.

&dashBill Buckley, when writing appreciations of others, liked to recall “the first time” — the first time he encountered them. I first saw Bob at Harvard in the mid-1980s. He had just published The Harvest of Sorrow, his exposé of the Soviets’ terror-famine in Ukraine. He was giving a speech to students, faculty, and, I guess, the general public. (Can’t quite remember.)

There is something I remember about the speech. Actually, two things, at least. First, he talked softly. Second, he said “Ukraine.”

This really jarred my ear. All my life, I’d said and heard “the Ukraine,” which implied that the place was a region of something larger. From the rostrum, Conquest explained that people who thought of the place as a country, or nation, dropped the article. They said “Ukraine,” regarding “the Ukraine” as both wrong and insulting.

Now, of course, it’s “the Ukraine” that would sound weird!

&dashIn the mid-1990s, I was working for The Weekly Standard in Washington, and attended an American Spectator dinner. Bob was there. I worked up the courage to introduce myself. He was delightful, of course (though somewhat hard to hear, because speaking softly). He recited for me his most famous limerick. (He wrote many). It goes,

There was a great Marxist named Lenin,

Who did two or three million men in.

That’s a lot to have done in,

But where he did one in

That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.

&dashIn 2002, I wrote a piece about him for National Review : “Conquest’s Conquest.” The occasion was that he was the dedicatee of two new books: one by Martin Amis, the other by Christopher Hitchens.

Actually, the Amis book — Koba the Dread, about Stalin — is dedicated to both Bob and his wife, Liddie. And to Clio, the muse of history!

From that point on, Bob and I became friends, and I cherished this friendship (and Liddie’s — it has been a joint deal, blessedly).

&dashSometime in the 1990s, I believe, Paul Johnson — one of the greatest historians of our time — called Bob “our greatest living modern historian.” Bob was also a poet (of serious poetry, as well as of limericks — which had their own seriousness!). He was an all-around intellectual.

He had that priceless combination of brilliance and moral sense. He had artistry, to boot.

&dashHe was born in England in the middle of World War I — 1917. I think of other historians I know: Bernard Lewis was born the year before Conquest, also in England. Richard Pipes is a youngster, born in 1923. Age 16, he saw Hitler. The Nazi leader had come to Dick’s hometown, Warsaw, to take a victory lap. Dick and his family got out in time.

&dashBob’s father was American, his mother English. He would always hold dual citizenship. In fact, I think of Bob as a blending of the English and the American. He represents the cousinship of the nations.

&dashHe went to Magdalen College, Oxford — like Johnson, like David Pryce-Jones, and like many another luminary.

&dashHe had a flirtation with Communism. He joined the Party, but he was an open member, not a secret one — which I think says something about Bob.

Later, he wrote, “Often at the age of 18 or 20, a student meets some glittering general idea and, far from feeling any responsibility to submit it to serious questioning, henceforward follows it like a duckling imprinted with its mother.”

&dashBob celebrated his 19th birthday in Morocco. The next day, as he was returning home, the Spanish Civil War broke out. Bob was an eyewitness to history, as well as its investigator and chronicler.

&dashIn World War II, he served in the Balkans — and there he saw Communism and the Communists for exactly what they were, and are.

&dashFlash way forward to 1968 — when Bob comes out with his magnum opus, The Great Terror, which catalogued Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. This book helped put the lie to Communism. After Solzhenitsyn, Communism’s reputation in the West could not stand. It had a hard time standing after Bob, too.

&dashThis is probably one of the most famous stories about Bob: The publisher rang him up and said, “We’re going to republish your book, in a commemorative edition. Would you like to give it a new title?” “Yes,” said Bob. “How about ‘I Told You So, You F***ing Fools’?”

Only it never happened. Bob’s friend Kingsley Amis made it up. He liked to make up stories, including about his friends. One time, he published “a totally untrue story about me and a girl,” Bob told me. When Bob objected, sharply, Amis simply transferred the tale to someone else.

Eventually, unable to take anymore, Bob cut him off entirely. “But I gave him a general amnesty on the occasion of the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

&dashIn the early ’90s, Richard Nixon said this about Bob Conquest: His “historical courage makes him partially responsible for the death of Communism.” Nixon, I would say, was a fair judge of such matters.

&dashThe highest tribute of all, I think, came from a member of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party — who denounced, and immortalized, Bob as “anti-Sovietchik Number One.”

&dashIn 2001, Bob came out with Reflections on a Ravaged Century. He spoke about this book at an event in New York — beautiful place on the Upper East Side. Belongs to one of the former Soviet republics, I think. Can’t remember.

Anyway, Bill Buckley attended this event. I mention this because he did not attend many such events, in this period. It was a mark of his esteem for Conquest.

As we were leaving, he bought two copies of the book, one for me, one for himself. (He greatly overpaid the cashier, not bothering to wait for change. The cashier was confused. Bill was not a waiter.)

&dashWith Liddie, Bob lived in a community near Stanford. (He was long affiliated with the Hoover Institution.) The place is on an upper floor, amid trees. The leaves are outside the windows. Liddie sometimes refers to their home as “the treehouse.”

&dashThe address is Peter Coutts Circle. When I first visited, I asked Bob, “Who is or was Peter Coutts?” His face bright, he said, “You know, you’re only the second person who has ever asked me that.” The first was an English poet. (Can’t remember his name.) I was rather flattered.

“Peter Coutts” was the adopted name of a Frenchman who left his homeland when he got into some financial and legal trouble. To read an article about him, go here.

&dashI recall many things about my conversations with Bob, including little things — or seemingly little things. He was a man of total intellectual integrity. His judgment was sound as a dollar (to use a phrase that is probably outdated). He once described a writer or a book or an article — I can’t remember — as “good.” Then he immediately changed it to “goodish.”

&dashFrom time to time, he would call me up, just to talk. Who does that? Almost no one, in my experience, these days. It was such a pleasure. There was no “purpose” to the call. The purpose was to shoot the breeze — a wonderful purpose.

&dashThere came a time when he was too faint, really, to understand. Liddie was on the other line, to translate, or amplify. That was a saver.

&dashBob was always cheerful — at least in my experience. Indeed, he was famed for cheerfulness. He spent much of his scholarly life soaked in evil: the Soviet Union, totalitarianism, “nonconsensual societies,” as he would say. And yet he was so cheerful, such a lover of life.

He woke up happy, Liddie said. He sang in the shower.

&dashThey came on several National Review cruises. They were an adornment. Bob was a gent and a wit, as well as a sage.

&dashIn 2005, George W. Bush conferred on Bob the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Some other recipients that day: Muhammad Ali, Carol Burnett, Aretha Franklin, Andy Griffith, Frank Robinson, and Jack Nicklaus.

&dashIn 2011, I wrote a piece on a phrase that infects our political talk, especially on the left: “the right side of history.” An utterly specious phrase. Bob said it had a “Marxist twang.” Neatly observed, as always . . .

&dashHow are we doing in education, especially when it comes to teaching the U.S.-Soviet conflict, or the Free World-Communist World conflict? “They’re still talking absolute balls,” Bob told me. (There he was British, not American.) “In the academy, there remains a feeling of, ‘Don’t let’s be too rude to Stalin. He was a bad guy, yes, but the Americans were bad guys too, and so was the British Empire.’”

Also, “They say that we were Cold Warriors. Yes, and a bloody good show, too. A lot of people weren’t Cold Warriors — and so much the worse for them.”

&dashIn 2012, I asked him to blurb a book of mine — a history of the Nobel Peace Prize. I didn’t know till after that he had been in the hospital. Liddie told me he insisted on doing it regardless.

I was both embarrassed and grateful — and touched.

(You know, I’ve used part of Bob’s blurb for a new book — and will keep on doing it, shamelessly, for as long as possible. It’s such a gratifying thing, as you can understand.)

&dashI saw Bob when he was in pretty bad shape, physically, but he had absolute dignity, as well as his customary cheerfulness, elegance, wit, etc. He set an example, and he was marvelous. And if there is a hall of fame for spousal devotion, Elizabeth Conquest ought to be in it.

&dashSometime last year, I was scheduled to participate in a lunch at the Hoover Institution. It didn’t come off, for some reason. I called Liddie and told her this. She said, “Do you want to come to my lunch?” Did I ever. And it was the last time I saw Bob.

&dashWhat was Bob, politically? A writer in Reason described him as a “Burkean conservative.” “I’ll allow that,” Bob told me. He continued, “I’m an anti-extremist. And I’m for a law-and-liberty culture. Those are Orwell’s words: law and liberty. I don’t regard the EU as being any good for that. I am strongly against the EU. I’m against regulationism and managerialism. I’m against activism of any sort.”

And remember, Bob said, “the Nazis were keen statists, and keen on socialism: ‘national socialism,’ they called it.”

How about conservatism, that murky term? “I feel that, when other people and nations are veering from civilization, I would prefer to conserve. I certainly prefer Burke to Locke — but, of course, there’s overlap of various sorts.”

&dashChristopher Hitchens begins his 2002 book, Why Orwell Matters, with a poem that Bob wrote about Orwell in 1969. Its first lines are, “Moral and mental glaciers melting slightly / Betray the influence of his warm intent.” That, of course, applies to Bob too.

&dashIn 1989, as the Soviet Union was fast thawing, Bob returned there for the first time since his student days. Practically everyone had read The Great Terror, in secret. One man asked to pinch Bob, just to reassure himself that he, Robert Conquest, was really there, on Russian soil.

Another man — a poet — came up to him on the street and, without a word, handed him a rose.

&dashHe cheered me up. I loved him. He was a great man. He was a truth-teller, battling lies, and vanquishing them. The thought of him cheers me up even now.


Isegoria

Of the Second Law, Conquest gave the Church of England and Amnesty International as examples. Of the Third, he noted that a bureaucracy sometimes actually is controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies — e.g. the postwar British secret service.

John Moore thinks the third law is almost right it should read “assume that it is controlled by a cabal of the enemies of the stated purpose of that bureaucracy.”

Francis W. Porretto notes that Cyril Northcote Parkinson studied the same phenomenon of bureaucratic behavior:

Parkinson promulgated a number of laws of bureaucracy that serve to explain a huge percentage of its characteristics. They’ve exhibited remarkable predictive power within their domain. The first of these is the best known:

Parkinson’s First Law: Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

Parkinson inferred this effect from two central principles governing the behavior of bureaucrats:

  1. Officials want to multiply subordinates, not rivals.
  2. Officials make work for one another.

Like most generalizations, these are not always true…but the incentives that apply specifically to tax-funded government bureaucracies make them true much more often than not. They make a striking contrast with the almost exactly opposite behavior observable in private enterprise.
[. ]
That young bureaucrat will profit from deliberate ineffectiveness to the extent that he can get himself viewed as an asset by his superiors and a non-threat by his peers. His superiors want him to produce justifications for the enlargement of their domains. His peers simply ask that he not tread on their provinces.

Miltion Friedman noted that bureaucratic resource allocation involves spending other people’s money on other people, so there are no compelling reasons to control either cost or quality — but a bureaucrat will learn, given time, how to “spend on others” in such a fashion that the primary benefit flows to himself.

To do this, bureaucrats must manage perceptions, so that their work seems both necessary and successful:

Von Clausewitz and others have termed war “a continuation of politics by other means,” but when viewed from the perspective of the State Department official, war is the declaration that his organization has failed of its purpose. He sees it as bad public relations for his entire function. Thus, even when the nation’s interests would be overwhelmingly better served by war than by the continuation of diplomacy, the State Department man will prefer diplomacy. It’s in his demesne, and enhances his prestige by enhancing the prestige of his trade.

It’s not too much to say that averting war regardless of its desirability or justifiability is near the top of every State Department functionary’s list of priorities. In this pursuit, the State Department will often find itself opposing even peacetime operations of the military designed to improve its effectiveness, such as the acquisition of new weapons or the enlargement of its ranks.


Robert Conquest: Profiled by Hitchens

Those who were born in Year One of the Russian Revolution are now entering their 10th decade. Of the intellectual class that got its vintage laid down in 1917, a class which includes Eric Hobsbawm, Conor Cruise O'Brien and precious few others, the pre-eminent Anglo-American veteran must be Robert Conquest. He must also be the one who takes the greatest satisfaction in having outlived the Soviet "experiment."

Over the years, I have very often knocked respectfully at the door of his modest apartment ("book-lined" would be the other standard word for it) on the outskirts of Stanford University, where he is a longstanding ornament of the Hoover Institution. Evenings at his table, marvelously arranged in concert with his wife Elizabeth ("Liddie"), have become a part of the social and conversational legend of visitors from several continents.

I thought I would just check and see how he was doing as 2007 dawned. When I called, he was dividing his time between an exercise bicycle and the latest revision of his classic book "The Great Terror": the volume that tore the mask away from Stalinism before most people had even heard of Solzhenitsyn. Its 40th anniversary falls next year, and the publishers need the third edition in a hurry. Had it needed much of an update? "Well, it's been a bit of a slog. I had to read about 30 or 40 books in Russian and other languages, and about 400 articles in journals and things like that. But even so I found I didn't have to change it all that much."


Watch the video: A Tribute to Robert Conquest (June 2022).


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