Robert Conquest’s centenary: Balance? “How do you find balance in mass murder?”

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At his Stanford home in 2011, when we met. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

We’re a day late for the centenary of Robert Conquest, who revealed the extent of Stalins atrocities in his landmark 1968 book, The Great Terror, in addition to being a formidable poet. Somehow I feel fireworks and canons should be going off, but … only the sultry mid-July silence. With the Hoover commemoration of his August 2015 death on January 25, 2016, and the West Chester panel on his poetry in June 2016 (we attended both), the hundredth anniversary of his birth was overshadowed by the past and future. “The future,” because a trio of articles from the  current Hopkins Review is about to appear online, and we’ll be publishing excerpts and a link soon.

But nonetheless, he was born on July 15, 1917, and yesterday was the day. He was with me, at least, in spirit. I was hosting a small family gathering last night, and I discussed Bob’s work. The group of millennials had not heard of him, and so I filled them in, as best I could. They found it odd that anyone was still defending Stalinism in the 1970s, and so opposing Bob’s exposé. How can one explain that blindness to them? As Bert Patenaude, a Hoover fellow and author of The Big Show in Bololand, said after Bob’s death: “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.”

On receiving Poland’s Order of Merit in 2009, with Radosław Sikorski, then Poland’s minister of foreign affairs

Stephen Kotkin, Birkelund Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University, called Bob the most prolific and influential Sovietologist ever.  “Two of his books on Soviet history stand out as the most important of the entire cold war,” he said.

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?”

Well, I wrote about the poetic side of Bob last year for the Times Literary Supplement here.

More from Bert Patenaude:

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.

Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

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.

And finally from Anatol Shmelev, Hoover Research Fellow and Curator, Russia and Eurasia Collection

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.

More friends and colleagues remember Bob here. And read my “Indefatigable Spirit” post, shortly after his death, here. And one friend remembered on my Facebook page. The poet R.S. Gwynn (a.k.a. Sam) said: “I miss Bob and can’t imagine what he’d be saying these days.” I can’t imagine either, Sam.

And below, a film that was made for the Hoover commemoration on January 25, 2016. Think the denial is over? Read the two comments below the film.

 


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