Posts Tagged ‘Bert Patenaude’

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

Sunday, July 16th, 2017
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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.

 

Indefatigable spirit: Remembering the legendary Robert Conquest (1917–2015)

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015
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Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

My favorite photo of him, by the matchless Linda Cicero.

 

To each of those who’ve processed me
Into their scrap of fame or pelf:
You think in marks for decency
I’d lose to you? Don’t kid yourself.

Robert Conquest wrote these lines in his last collection of poems, Penultimata (Waywiser, 2009). I suppose, although he was too polite to say so, I might be included in his roster, since we met when I interviewed him – here.  Although the interview form is a kind of exploitation, I suppose, it didn’t exactly bring me either fame or pelf, but something much better. I expect my own “processing” will continue for some time now, as I digest, in future years, his work over a long lifetime. As everyone now knows, the Anglo-American historian and poet died on Monday, after long illness. He was 98.  (Obituaries from the New York Times here, the Wall Street Journal here, and London’s Telegraph here.) He was working until his last few weeks on an unfinished memoir called Two Muses. I hope there’s enough of it to publish.

The short quatrain above refers, I expect, to his dirty limericks and light verse, rather than his sobering prose and more serious poems. “Limericks are not very gentlemanly – or it’s a special kind of gentleman,” he told me. But perhaps the lightness of much of his verse was a necessary psychological counterbalance to the grim history he relentlessly documented in the books that were his major achievement, chronicling the devastation caused by the Soviet regime, throughout its existence. His landmark book, The Great Terror reads like a thriller, and is a detailed log of Stalin’s assassinations, arrests, tortures, frame-ups, forced confessions, show trials, executions and incarcerations that destroyed millions of lives. The book instantly became a classic of modern history, and other titles followed, including The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986) and a 1977 translation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn‘s 1,400-line poem, Prussian Nights, undertaken at the author’s request.

The late Christopher Hitchens, a close friend, praised Bob’s “devastatingly dry and lethal manner,” hailing him as “the softest voice that ever brought down an ideological tyranny.” Timothy Garton Ash said“He was Solzhenitsyn before Solzhenitsyn.”

When he revised The Great Terror for republication in 1990, his chum Kingsley Amis proposed a new title, I Told You So, You Fucking Fools.” Catchy title, although Bob settled for the more circumspect The Great Terror: A Reassessment. 

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Mentor and mentee, 2009.

“His historical intuition was astonishing,” Norman Naimark told the New York Times (we’ve written about Norm here and here and here). “He saw things clearly without having access to archives or internal information from the Soviet government. We had a whole industry of Soviet historians who were exposed to a lot of the same material but did not come up with the same conclusions. This was groundbreaking, pioneering work.”

My 2010 interview, however, wasn’t my first encounter with the poet-historian, although it was his first encounter with me. I was one of a throng of people who attended a 2009 ceremony at Hoover event when Radosław Sikorski, then Poland’s minister of foreign affairs, awarded him the country’s Order of Merit. (I wrote about the occasion here. Incidentally, Bob received a U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.)

“His books made a huge impact on the debate about the Soviet Union, both in the West and in the East. In the West, people had always had access to the information about Communism but were not always ready to believe in it,” said Sikorski at that time. “We longed for confirmation that the West knew what was going on behind the Iron Curtain. Robert Conquest’s books gave us such a confirmation. They also transmitted a message of solidarity with the oppressed and gave us hope that the truth would prevail.”

An excerpt from my 2010 article:

Susan Sontag was a visiting star at Stanford in the 1990s. But when she was introduced to Robert Conquest, the constellations tilted for a moment.

“You’re my hero!” she announced as she flung her arms around the elderly poet and acclaimed historian. It was a few years since she had called communism “fascism with a human face” – and Conquest, author of The Great Terror, a record of Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, had apparently been part of her political earthquake.

Sitting in his Stanford campus home last week and chatting over a cup of tea, the 93-year-old insisted it’s all true: “I promise. We had witnesses.” His wife, Liddie, sitting nearby confirmed the account, laughing.

Conquest, a Hoover Institution senior research fellow emeritus, moves gingerly with a walker, and speaks so softly it can be hard to understand him. But his writing continues to find new directions: He published his seventh collection of poems last year and a book of limericks this year, finished a 200-line poetic summa and is working on his memoirs.

He’s been a powerful inspiration for others besides Sontag. In his new memoir, Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens described Conquest, who came to Stanford in 1979, as a “great poet and even greater historian.” The writer Paul Johnson goes further, calling Conquest “our greatest living historian.”

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He deserved the medal. In 2005.

I made a few return visits to that immaculate and airy Stanford townhouse on the campus. Liddie was always bubbly, intelligent, and hospitable – a thorough Texan, and always a charming and welcoming hostess. Often the two of us were talking so quickly and with such animation Bob couldn’t keep up – he spoke barely above a whisper. He was still a terrific conversationalist, one just had to listen harder. Among his considerable gifts, “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,” said Bert Patenaude (I also wrote about Bert here). “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.”

Another of our mutual friends, the poet R.S. Gwynn, agreed: “As a poet Bob is funny, intensely lyrical and deeply reflective,” he said. “Whenever I read him I think of how rarely we are allowed to see a mind at work, and what a mind it is.” (I’ve written about Sam Gwynn here and here.)

Bert said that 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 discussed 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.”

In the last few months, I tried to visit – but the Conquests were either traveling or packing, or else, more distressingly, he was in the hospital or recovering from a round of illnesses. And finally time ran out altogether. Time always wins. We don’t have time; it has us.

Postscript on 8/7: My publisher Philip Hoy pointed out in the comments section below that Penultimata was not Bob’s final collection of poems, it was (as the name suggests) a penultimate one. Blokelore & Blokesongs was published by Waywiser in 2012.

conquest3

A pleasure to know you, sir. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

 

Remember the Lusitania! Five-day Stanford exhibition commemorates the centenary of a shipwreck.

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015
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lusitania_postcard_final“In 1982, Gregg Bemis made the cheapest and most expensive financial transaction of his career: For one dollar he acquired full ownership of the RMS Lusitania, the British transatlantic passenger liner struck by a German torpedo in 1915. Given the legal battles he’s fought and millions of dollars he’s spent since then to verify his ownership and access the wreck that lies 300 feet below the waves in the North Atlantic, Bemis concedes the venture was ‘a personality failure on my part. I like to stick to things, I like to see them through to the end.’ No end is in sight, though, because what started as a business interest has become a personal mission. Bemis wants to finally settle a long running controversy: Why did the ship sink so fast, and was there a cover-up?”

Poster Collection, UK 524, Hoover Institution Archives.So begins Joshua Alvarez‘s article in the current Stanford Magazineabout Bemis, a Stanford alum. The article is a preview for a five-day exhibition at the Hoover Tower Rotunda.

Quick! Hurry! The exhibition begins Wednesday, May 20, and ends Sunday, May 24. It showcases artifacts recovered from the wreck of the Lusitania on loan from Bemis and Oceaneering International (such as the porthole pictured above), together with photographs, posters, documents, newspapers, medals, maps, and other artifacts permanently housed at the Hoover Institution Library & Archives. The event commemorates the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania.

Below, two photos of then 76-year-old Bemis as he makes his own dive to the wreck in 2004. He was a lot older than the Lusitania itself, which was launched in 1907 and destroyed in 1915. Bert Patenaude wrote an introduction to the Hoover exhibition; we wrote about Bert and his own book in “Forgotten Tale of How America Saved a Starving Russia,” here – this is what he had to say about the Lusitania:

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Poster Collection, UK 198, Hoover Institution Archives.“On the afternoon of May 7, 1915, the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine about a dozen miles off the southern coast of Ireland. The ship rapidly began listing heavily to starboard and sank by the bow in only eighteen minutes. Nearly 1,200 of the 1,959 men, women, and children on board perished that afternoon, 128 of them Americans.

“When the Lusitania sailed from New York on May 1, 1915, the ship faced dangers that the British government and Cunard, the ship’s owner, fully understood. Three months earlier, the Imperial German government had declared the seas around the British Isles a war zone and gave notice that Allied ships entering the area would be sunk on sight. The day of the Lusitania’s departure, the German embassy in Washington published an advertisement in US newspapers warning passengers of the risks involved in a transatlantic voyage aboard a British passenger ship.

“Today, one hundred years after the disaster, people learning about the fate of the Lusitania and the furious reaction it triggered will likely be surprised that the United States somehow managed to maintain its neutrality and stay out of the European conflict for another two years. In retrospect, however, it seems the incident ignited a long coiling fuse that would lead, in April 1917, to America’s entry into the First World War.”

Read more about the exhibition here. Or read Alvarez’s article here. But most of all hurry and go see the exhibition before the weekend is over.

Bemis dive to wreck 6-25-04

Above and below, Bemis dives 300 feet to the wreck. (Photos courtesy Gregg Bemis)

Bemis - after diving to Lusitania