OBITUARY: Robert Conquest, greatest foe of Stalin’s Great Terror, dies at 98

By bne IntelliNews August 10, 2015

Nick Allen in Berlin -


Robert Conquest, born July 15 in the revolutionary year of 1917, would go on to become what Christopher Hitchens called the “single most devastating defector the British Communist Party ever boasted as a member”.

He went to Oxford University in 1937, at the apex of the Stalinist terror that was still unknown in the outside world, but which he devoted his later life to exposing. Graduating with a doctorate in Soviet history, Conquest shared a deep empathy for the Party's ideals with many left-wingers who would later either reject the Soviet system or defend it blindly to the end. Conquest believed the latter group did so because the truth of Stalin’s horrific purges was “beyond the capacity of their provincial imaginations”.

As a British Foreign Office staffer working in Bulgaria after World War II, he changed his views when he saw how a harsh communist yoke was being thrown onto Eastern Europe. He left Bulgaria in 1948, helping his future second wife Tatiana also to escape the new regime.

Conquest's fascination for the region and its upheavals endured, however, and he moved via journalism into the thick of historical analysis of the early Soviet period, publishing books and articles that thrust the knife of revision ever deeper into Stalin’s legacy.

The sheer weight of his half century of writing on the Soviet Union is epitomised by his 1968 work, “The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties”, based mainly on information which had been made public during the "Khrushchev Thaw" in 1956–64, accounts by Russian and Ukrainian émigrés and exiles, and on analysis of official documents like the Soviet census.

The resultant picture ripped the veil off the horrendous scale of the brutality visited upon the Soviet people under Stalin: by Conquest’s most conservative estimates, the years of purges and orchestrated famine cost the lives of 13mn citizens, and as many as 20mn.

Vindicated by time

But not everyone by far accepted his tally or conclusions. He was ridiculed and attacked by many peers and diehard Party supporters, but lived to savour his vindication in 1991, when the Soviet authorities opened the archives under the glasnost policy of openness, and his assertions were largely borne out. So much so, that when Conquest's publisher asked for a follow-up book, he is said to have suggested calling the new version, "I Told You So, You Fucking Fools", after the mock title was jokingly proposed by his old friend Kingsley Amis. (The final title was "The Great Terror: A Reassessment".

Unrivalled in its bold, painstaking and principled execution, the original work had earned the author “the thanks of humanity”, Bernard Levin said, calling it a “major contribution to civilisation”.

“I urge anyone who considers themselves civilised, or even capable of becoming so, to read this mighty and dreadful, fervent and controlled, just and merciless, rolling and detailed, timely and prophetic and – above all – most necessary book," Levin added.

The recognition did not end there. Conquest received numerous honours and awards over the years, and in 2005 he (along with diverse figures like Aretha Franklin and Alan Greenspan) received the US Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush at the White House.

Stalin whispers from the grave

While Conquest's death on August 3 was widely acknowledged overseas, it generated almost no column space in Russia. Practically alone in acknowledging the historian's work, journalist Dmitry Bykov wrote in the oppositional Novaya Gazeta newspaper that the magnitude of the "The Great Terror" lies “not at all in how it opened the world’s eyes to the scale of Soviet crimes. It lies in how it explained the nature of this – and also the nature of everything that is happening in Russia today.”

Having watched Stalin hold sway from the grave over a significant part of the Russian population to his last days, Conquest would probably have expected the silence and predicted an eventual counter-revision of his work. In its stand-off with the West today, President Vladimir Putin's Russia is more willing to overlook Stalin's excesses and extol his role in the nation’s survival in WWII, ignoring the huge damage his purges of the Red Army officer corps caused to the USSR’s battle readiness before the Nazi invasion in 1941.

A sign that Conquest’s appraisal of the period may indeed come under attack again soon is to be found in the recent decision of authorities in Russia's Sverdlovsk region to remove works by historians Anthony Beevor and John Keegan from school libraries, saying they promote Nazi stereotypes. Beevor’s work "Berlin: The Downfall 1945" caused particular outrage in Russia, as it details mass rapes carried out by advancing Soviet soldiers against German women. 

“In some ways I am amazed that it has taken them so long,” Beevor told The Guardian. “What depresses me the most is that once again we are faced with a government trying to impose its own version of history.”

With petition-based moves afoot in Moscow to have a giant statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the dreaded Soviet Cheka secret police, restored to its former spot by the Lubyanka, it seems inevitable that the brush will eventually get to work on Stalin’s image again. And if not banned, Conquest’s works are at least likely to be assailed so that they remain publicly tarnished, although that would surely only have brought out the fighter - and biter - in him again in his last years. 

“In a jungle full of totalitarian monsters, liberal democracy needs teeth,” Conquest once said, among many other memorable observations tinged with his mischievous, acerbic wit. And even the occasional tragi-comic limerick, as quoted by his friend Hitchen’s in his 2011 memoir: There was an old bastard 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 old bastard Stalin did ten in.

OBITUARY: Robert Conquest, greatest foe of Stalin’s Great Terror, dies at 98

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