Posts Tagged ‘Robert Conquest’

Was Robert Conquest’s poetry linked with his politics?

Tuesday, August 1st, 2017
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Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

A trio of essays about historian and poet Robert Conquest is now online at the Hopkins Review. Humble Moi is among them. But so is Richard Davis, a British poet (now transplanted to Ohio State University), who is perhaps the best translator from the Persian ever. (We’ve written about Dick here and here). Both of us were intrigued by the link between Bob’s poetry and his historical work. As Dick points out, “a kind of bedrock common sense” runs through both. British poet John Whitworth rounds out the triad.

Let me first quote a bit from the inestimable Dick Davis’s “The Minds of Poets”:

When it comes to his career as a historian I think there is a sense in which Robert Conquest’s opinions, tastes, and predilections were also to some extent an infuriated reaction to what he saw around him in the 1950s and 1960s. Not that this was where his historical insights and clarity came from of course, but that the writing down of what he had found to be true was partly motivated by an intense desire to show the foolishness of much of the self-deceiving political cant that was current at the time. His book on Stalin’s purges, The Great Terror, was the first to set out in such horrific detail the brutal nature of Stalin’s Russia, and it was written against a great deal of bien-pensant vague pro-Soviet and less vague anti-American sentiment that was current in (especially) British intellectual life in the 1950s and ’60s, a kind of knee-jerk groupthink leftism that meant giving the Soviet Union pretty much a free pass when it came to human rights issues. When a later, revised edition of the book was to be issued, by which time Conquest’s anatomization of the disasters of Soviet rule was coming to be widely accepted as accurate, Conquest jokingly suggested to Kingsley Amis that he title the book I Told You So, You Fucking Fools. And it was true, he had told us so, when far too many of us didn’t want to believe it.

Dick Davis visiting Stanford. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

A confidence in a kind of bedrock common sense runs through Conquest’s poetry, his writings on poetry, and his historical writings, and this confidence goes with what can seem at times a magisterial impatience with those who would obfuscate such common sense by disdainful appeals to ideology, political posturing and blather, or vatic rhetoric that covers and tries to compensate for a simple lack of artistic or political integrity. But what sounds like magisterial confidence comes from a wholly admirable humility before the nature of quotidian reality, before what is demonstrably there in the world, and a preference for recognizing this reality over the comforts of bombast and self-deception. Much of Conquest’s best-known poetry is funny, even absurdly hilarious, but when it is serious it is continuous with the voice that wrote on history and politics. It can remind us of the title of one of Isaiah Berlin’s books of essays, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, and its epigraph from Immanuel Kant, “Out of timber so crooked from that which man is made nothing entirely straight can be built.” Utopian and inevitably murderous visions that try to make something “straight” out of humanity’s crooked timber earned his contempt; what his political voice advocates in his poetry is a pragmatic humanist compromise between absolutes. The absolutes are kept in view because they are what make man’s social life possible, but they can never be realized because they contradict one another (absolute freedom is anarchy with the strong preying on the weak; absolute order is the ultimate prison with no possibility of freedom). The meditative, moving seriousness of this vision is present in the closing section of one of his last and I think most beautiful poems, “The Idea of Virginia”:

The dogwood blooms, the cardinals perch, the lean hounds hunt
Where Pocahontas danced, where John Smith scouted, where Spotswood rode,
Where Washington marched to victory, Jackson to death,
By the slow rivers, the cool woods, the mountains, the marshes.

The Idea, never fulfilled, was never abandoned;
The free order only approaches its goal.
The land lived on imperfect in city and forest,
Its Form half-remembered; as it lay in the minds of poets.

And from my own, “Poetry and Politics”:

Receiving the Medal of Freedom in 2005.

Aristotle sharply distinguished the domains of Clio and Euterpe. So did a Russian poet some centuries later. Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky once remarked that the only thing poetry and politics have in common are the letters “p” and “o.” There are powerful exceptions, however—think of Dante. Surely Brodsky’s attitude had been shaped by his refusal to define himself in terms of the Soviet system both he and Conquest deplored, the system that would eventually exile him. However, at some point, politics intersect with reality, with what happens to real people when governments and policies go wrong. And history, on the large scale of people and events, is inevitably bound up with politics. It is said that Conquest’s revelations of the millions killed in Stalin’s regime did not influence his poetry at all—except for a few poems with overt political references, such as “Get Lost, Gulag Archipelago” and “Garland for a Propagandist.” However, both his muses were intertwined and informed each other, which would quickly move him miles away from the surrealist poems of his youth in the 1930s. World events would also move him far from the fashionable Communist Party of Oxford, where he had briefly been a member before deciding that it was not a place for grown-ups. By enlisting in 1939, he implicitly rejected the party’s line that the war was a capitalist and imperialist venture. His wartime experiences would bring their own understandings and leave their own scars.

In a long poem commemorating his friend, the poet Drummond Allison, who was killed in the fighting in Italy, he tells of his shattering disillusionment about just causes, after a death, as he wrote, “which no future can ever repay.” He listed the clichés—“He died in a good cause,” “We sacrifice our best,” “He lives in our memory”—which caused him to write, “All this is not untrue / But its irrelevance shakes me like a fever . . .” He could not reconcile the public need against the private loss, “the just war and the individual’s unjust / Death. . . .”

He was not going to write the great war poem; he knew that. While describing the war in verse was possible, it was not possible for him. In “Poem in 1944,” he wrote:

. . . I must believe
That somewhere the poet is working who can handle
The flung world and his own heart. To him I say
The little I can. I offer him the debris
Of five years’ undirected storm in self and Europe,
And my love. Let him take it for what it’s worth
In this poem scarcely made and already forgotten.

Read all three articles here.

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.

 

Robert Conquest’s sensual muse: remembering the legendary poet and historian in the TLS

Saturday, November 5th, 2016
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At work in his Stanford home. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I’m at the Times Literary Supplement this week, writing about the historian and poet Robert Conquestand his lifelong balance between Clio and Euterpe:

An excerpt:

Until a few days before his death last year at the age of ninety-eight, Robert Conquest was busy finishing his memoir, completing a poem or two, and sending off a steady stream of letters to a wide international circle of friends. As always, his serenely successful life was divided between poetry and prose. Most of the obituaries concentrated on his groundbreaking work as a historian: The Great Terror (1968), Harvest of Sorrow (1986) and other books had exposed the genocidal horrors of Stalin’s regime and earned Conquest the disapprobation of left-wing intellectuals and the admiration of, among others, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

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With Poland’s Radosław Sikorski in 2009.

But he was also a poet of note; not just for the light verse and bawdy limericks with which he entertained fellow guests at social gatherings (a selection of these, A Garden of Erses, was published in 2010 as the work of “Jeff Chaucer”), but for serious verse that is lyrical, sensual and exactingly observed. …

He wrote about the joys of the flesh even as he wrote, at other times, about the worst atrocities of the twentieth century. For decades after the publication of The Great Terror, Russians would tell Conquest that they had just learned how their loved ones had perished under torture, or by forced starvation, or by being worked to death in Arctic camps. Perhaps his poems were his clearest protest in an age where, as he wrote, “Shiva walks on and on / Down Coventry Street”, of the governments he saw as “the organization of absence of love”. His response to history’s monsters was not only to reveal their horrors; he answered them with his own love poetry, erotic poetry, and even limericks, which asserted an earthy humanity of their own.

Read the whole thing here

Stay tuned… more from Philadelphia, coming up soon!

Friday, June 10th, 2016
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The Book Haven has been unusually silent these last few days. We’ve been at the West Chester Poetry Conference outside Philadelphia, attending workshops, panels, and readings with Dick Davis, Dana Gioia, Sir Andrew Motion, Sam Gwynn, and many, many others.

Humble Moi will be on a panel tomorrow morning to discuss Robert Conquest, the late great historian and poet, who died last year at Stanford.

Just to let you know we mean business, the photo below is taken from Thursday morning’s public conversation with Andrew Motion, former British poet laureate and biographer of Philip Larkin. Dana Gioia was his interlocutor (and no, he’s not as unhappy as he looks). Photograph taken by Gerry Cambridge.

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Dana Gioia ponders a remark from Sir Andrew Motion. (Photo: Gerry Cambridge)

 

Are all happy marriages alike? Two poems that say they aren’t.

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016
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tolstoy

He is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

All happy marriages are alike, but each unhappy marriage is unhappy in its own way. That widely cited passage is from Leo Tolstoy. No, no! Wait! Tolstoy never said any such thing. He said all happy families are alike, et cetera. Never mind. The misquote has been cited so often that it has acquired a truth and authority of its own, separated from its putative author.

Dana Gioia doesn’t agree with it, in any case. And he says so in his poem, “Marriage of Many Years,” the final offering in his brand new collection, 99 Poems: New and Selected. (We wrote about it a few days ago here.) I love this one, for his wife Mary Gioia (who thoroughly deserves it). Here it is:

Most of what happens happens beyond words.
The lexicon of lip and fingertip
defies translation into common speech.
I recognize the musk of your dark hair.
It always thrills me, though I can’t describe it.
My finger on your thigh does not touch skin –
it touches your skin warming to my touch.
You are a language I have learned by heart.

This intimate patois will vanish with us,
its only native speakers. Does it matter?
Our tribal chants, our dances round the fire
performed the sorcery we most required.
They bound us in a spell time could not break.
Let the young vaunt their ecstasy. We keep
our tribe of two in sovereign secrecy.
What must be lost was never lost on us.

99PoemsHere’s another poem for another long and happy marriage – Richard Wilbur‘s “For C.,” for his wife Charlotte, who died a few years ago. He compares their long union to the brief encounters where “bright Perseids flash and crumble”:

We are denied, my love, their fine tristesse
And bittersweet regrets, and cannot share
The frequent vistas of their large despair,
Where love and all are swept to nothingness;
Still, there’s a certain scope in that long love
Which constant spirits are the keepers of,

And which, though taken to be tame and staid,
Is a wild sostenuto of the heart …

Well, you can read the whole thing here.
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(By the way, poet and historian Robert Conquest told me that Dick Wilbur is his favorite American living poet. What excellent taste, as always!)

Robert Conquest remembers Solzhenitsyn: “How should one judge him?”

Saturday, May 21st, 2016
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Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Conquest at work in 2010 (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Next month, I’ll be giving a talk about Robert Conquest – the legendary historian of Russia’s Stalinist period, and also a very fine poet. The occasion will be the West Chester Poetry Conference outside Philadelphia. Tonight, I’m working and thinking about Bob, who died last year at 98. While checking dates on the internet, I found this article from him about his collaboration with the larger-than-life Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

You can read it in its entirety in the Wall Street Journal here. Or settle for a couple excerpts below:

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He’s working too, at Hoover Institution Archives.

Those of us who had long been concerned to expose and resist Stalinism, in the West as in the USSR, learned much from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I met him in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1974, soon after he was expelled from the Soviet Union – the result of … The Gulag Archipelago, being published in Paris. He was personally pleasant; I have a photograph of the two of us, he holding a Russian edition of my book, The Great Terror, with evident approbation. He asked if I would translate a “little” poem of his. Of course I agreed.

The little poem, Prussian Nights, turned out to be 2,000 lines! Thankfully, he and his circle helped. It was an arresting composition, increasing our knowledge of him and his times – something worth reading, and rereading, for its stunning historical background.

Solzhenitsyn was one of the most striking public figures of our time. How should one judge him? As a writer, up there with Pasternak? As a moralist, up there with Czeslaw Milosz? But he should also be judged as one who might have won two Nobel prizes – not just for Literature, but also for Peace.

In his public capacity, he felt bound to stand forward as the conscience of his people. He said, in a July 2007 interview in Der Spiegel, “My views developed in the course of time. But I have always believed in what I did and never acted against it.” Yet above all, he saw himself as a writer – a Russian writer.
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For most of us, Russian literature is like a triangle around Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and ChekhovTolstoy is in his own class. Solzhenitsyn, on the strength of August 1914 alone, competes in the Tolstoy lane.
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***

L.N.Tolstoy

“Class of his own.”

Some giants of Russian literature appear more preachy than is common in the West, a trait that brings us to what many see as weaknesses in the Russian tradition. First is the feeling, without basis, that one is somehow being cheated – as in Gogol; second is a tendency to exaggerate or invent. Yet along with these weaknesses there is also painful honesty.

I did not sense the weaknesses when I met him. He was religious and Russian, but without exhibition – though it became clear he embodied Fyodor Tyutchev‘s famous dictum that “Russia can neither be grasped by the mind, nor measured by any common yardstick – no attitude to her other than one of blind faith is admissible.”

He remained staunchly anticommunist, noting in the July 2007 interview in Der Spiegel that the October Revolution “broke Russia’s back. The Red Terror unleashed by its leaders, their willingness to drown Russia in blood, is the first and foremost proof of it.” He also hoped that “the bitter Russian experience, which I have been studying and describing all my life, will be for us a lesson that keeps us from new disastrous breakdowns.”

Incidentally, I would never call Milosz “a moralist” – he certainly would not have considered himself as such, and was far too aware of his fallibility. Nevertheless, read the whole thing here.

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.

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

 

Helen Pinkerton names “possibly the greatest novel I have ever read.”

Thursday, August 28th, 2014
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Helen, me, and the late, great Turner Cassity

Helen, me, and the late, great Turner Cassity

We’ve known poet and historian Helen Pinkerton for ohhh, a zillion or two zillion years. We’ve written about her on the Book Haven here and here – and also for a Stanford Magazine article here. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, and just received this email this week. We thought it was worth a share with you. You will recognize the book she mentions from our plug for the NYRB Classics’ “Classics and Coffee Club” here.  We showed the book. We showed our cup of coffee. We even had a nice quote from the book: “Life’s grace and charm can never be erased by the powers of destruction…” But alas, we actually haven’t had the time to actually read the book. Not yet. But soon.

Meanwhile, here’s Helen’s mini-review, and more:

“About a year ago Steven Shankman recommended to me Vassily Grossman‘s novel, Life and Fate, and had sent me several essays he has written on it. I finished it recently and found it possibly the greatest novel I have ever read. He creates a world – actually, two worlds, the Russian and the German – of believable human characters, who try to live worthy lives under a totalitarian government that is structured to destroy their humanity by bringing out the worst in each of them. Chapter after chapter unfolds individual dramas, wherein moral choices are made that are lived with and often died by.

nyrb“Meanwhile, spurred by Grossman’s vision, I have been catching up on the history of the period 1917-1945 in Russia, Poland, and other Eastern European countries. I haven’t read Robert Conquest‘s great work, but I know what he has revealed about those years. And I have read some Solzhenitzyn, Winston Churchill‘s history of that period, and others, in a search into what actually took place during the years that I was growing up in Montana, sheltered from those far-off terrors. Now, in my old age, at least I’ve become sharply aware of a potential repeat in our time of the great evil that human beings can inflict on one another, when driven by a false and monstrous ideology. We are this very week presently confronted with the apparition of an Islamic Caliphate, announced by Bakr al-Baghdadi, which is appallingly similar to the rise of Hitler in 1933. I congratulate you on your perception and your ability to write with such good judgment about what is going on. And I agree that ‘nihilism’ is a most appropriate word for the intellectual root of it all. Keep it up!”

The Islamic Caliphate?  That is sooooo last week!  Helen is referring to my discussions of the parsimonious, reluctant, and even timid use of the word “genocide” in the last month here and here, and the grisly slaughter of American journalist James Foley. (Believe me, they’re off to a much faster start than the Nazis were. The Nazis weren’t sending off snuff videos and films of mass executions as part of their world debut.) As for “nihilism” … more on that in the next day or so.

Meanwhile, “Life’s grace and charm can never be erased by the powers of destruction…” But they’re trying. Really they are.

The Many Masks of Conquest

Sunday, March 11th, 2012
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Hat tip to the incomparable tipster Dave Lull for letting the us know about Robert Conquest‘s newest poems in the March issue of The New Criterion … or rather, the poems of poems of “one Fred Faraday (1917–1979),” in a volume Blokelore and Blokesongs, forthcoming later this year from Waywiser Press.

David Yezzi‘s introductory note is coy:

Readers will be forgiven for divining a greater involvement on Conquest’s part than mere amanuensis. Conquest has worn such masks before. In Kingsley Amis’s New Oxford Book of Light Verse (1978), Conquest’s poems appear under four names: his own, as well as the pseudonyms Ted Pauker, Victor Gray, and Stuart Howard-Jones. To these we must add the limerick writer Jeff Chaucer, whose Garden of Erses (2010) includes poems attributed elsewhere to some of these other fellows.

Old Fred, which is Faraday’s pseudonym de plume, may be Conquest’s liveliest poetic invention to date.

When I asked Bob his advice to young poets in 2010, he replied in a beat: “Write under a pseudonym, and pretend it’s a translation from the Portuguese.” Clearly, he takes his own advice to heart.

Other matters of the heart are included in the poems here and here and here.  A sample:

Was she a rose without a thorn?
Fred asks as one of those
Who’s more than once been scratched and torn
By thorns without a rose.

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

A far cry from Bob’s landmark works, which made him one of our greatest living historians. With The Great Terror, published in 1968, he became the conscience of an era, a historian denouncing Stalinism when communism was trendy with the left in the West.

But maybe it’s not so far a cry, after all.  Said Editor Yezzi, “One cannot read ‘Fred on Fascism’ without recalling Conquest’s great limerick on Communism called ‘Progress,’ which John Gross included in his Oxford Book of Comic Verse (1994)”:

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.

New poems, old stories: Robert Conquest balances “the inhuman reign of the lie” with naughty verse

Monday, December 26th, 2011
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Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

When Christopher Hitchens died this month, I thought immediately of Robert Conquest and his wife, Elizabeth, who were close friends of the renowned journalist and author. Believe it or not, Hitchens used to spend a good deal of time in Palo Alto – his wife’s family, as I recall.

No, Bob did not have anything he wanted to share publicly in memoriam; he is not of the “sharing” generation who tweets his thoughts.  But there’s plenty else that is public.

Britain’s Standpoint is printing ten poems from Bob’s new book of light verse: Blokesongs and Blokelore from Old Fred, which will be out from the U.K.’s Waywiser Press in May.  You can read them here.

Here’s the nasty truth: I’ve never been attracted to “light verse.” Limericks are lost on me.  I’ve never, really, seen the point.  But Bob Conquest has devoted years to them, and it occurred to me that the silly poems are a necessary release from his groundbreaking historical work on the effects of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe – the work that earned him an Order of Merit from Poland in 2009.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that, at almost the same moment Standpoint published the new poems, the Daily Beast published Bob’s analysis of the current crisis with the Russian anti-Putin protests following the Dec. 4 elections.

The upshot of the article: “The present regime may have abandoned the compulsive economic ideologies of the Communist past, but it has not developed anything like an open society.”  It comes down to a peculiar relationship to truth:

Honored in 2009

After the disaster of collectivization [1929–33], the leadership had two options: either to admit failure and change policy—perhaps even to relinquish total power—or to pretend that success had been achieved. Falsification took place on a barely credible scale, in every sphere. Real facts, honest statistics, disappeared. History, especially that of the Communist Party, was rewritten. Unpersons vanished from the official record. A spurious past and a fictitious present were imposed on the captive minds of the Soviet people. To focus solely on the physical manifestations of the Communist terror—the killings, the deportations, the people who were driven to suicide—would be to overlook the larger context: what Boris Pasternak called “the inhuman reign of the lie.” Until Gorbachev came to power, the country lived a double existence—an official world of fantasy, grand achievements, wonderful statistics, liberty, democracy, all juxtaposed with a reality of gloom, suffering, terror, denunciation, and apparatchik degeneration.

When lies become part of the national fabric, the result was a thoroughly corrupted society:

Sakharov nailed it. (Photo: RIA Novosti)

Sakharov described the problem in the late 1970s: “A deeply cynical caste has come into being, one which I consider dangerous (to itself as well as to all mankind)—a sick society ruled by two principles: blat [a little slang word meaning ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’], and the popular saw: ‘No use banging your head against the wall.’ But beneath the petrified surface of our society exist cruelty on a mass scale, lawlessness, the absence of civil rights protecting the average man against the authorities, and the latter’s total unaccountability toward their own people or the whole world.”

The Soviet bureaucracy’s reaction to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster demonstrated what Sakharov had been talking about. As David Remnick later noted in The New Yorker, it was typical of the regime that plant director Viktor Bryukhanov, on being told that the reactor’s radiation was millions of times higher than normal, replied that the meter was obviously defective and must be thrown away. Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina rejected a suggestion to order a mass evacuation. “Panic is worse than radiation,” he said.

So what’s changed in 2011?  As everywhere, technology makes certain lies untenable:

Russians are used to electoral fraud. There were never any expectations that the Dec. 4 elections would be carried out with complete honesty, any more than Russia’s past votes were. But this time, instances of ballot irregularity were recorded by mobile devices and then posted on the Internet, to which more than 40 percent of Russians now have access. Outrage—and calls to protest—flashed from computer to computer. Political discourse is thriving in blogs, tweets, posts to Facebook, uploads to YouTube—challenging the regime’s old-media monopoly on news and opinion.

Read it all here.