Conquest in 1987
15 July 1917
Great Malvern, Worcestershire, England
|Died||3 August 2015 (aged 98)|
Stanford, California, U.S.
|Notable works||The Great Terror|
|Notable awards||See below|
George Robert Acworth Conquest CMG OBE FBA FRSL (15 July 1917 - 3 August 2015) was a British-American historian and poet. Conquest was most notable for his influential works of non-fiction including The Great Terror: Stalin's Purges of the 1930s (1968). He was a longtime research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He wrote more than a dozen books on the Soviet Union.
Conquest was born on 15 July 1917 in Great Malvern, Worcestershire, to an American father, Robert Folger Wescott Conquest, and an English mother, Rosamund Alys Acworth. His father served in an American Ambulance Field Service unit with the French Army in World War I, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre, with Silver Star in 1916.
Conquest was educated at Winchester College, the University of Grenoble, and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was an exhibitioner in modern history and took his bachelor's and master's degrees in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and his doctorate in Soviet history. In 1937, after studying at the University of Grenoble, Conquest went up to Oxford, joining both the Conservative Carlton Club and, as an "open" member, the Communist Party of Great Britain. Fellow members included Denis Healey and Philip Toynbee.
In Lisbon on an American passport at the outbreak of the Second World War, he returned to England. As the Communist Party of Great Britain denounced the Second World War in 1939 as imperialist and capitalist, Conquest broke with it and was commissioned into the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry on 20 April 1940 and served with the regiment until 1946. In 1942, he married Joan Watkins, with whom he had two sons. In 1943, he was posted to the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, which is today part of University College London, to study Bulgarian. In 1944, Conquest was posted to Bulgaria as a liaison officer to the Bulgarian forces fighting under Soviet command, attached to the Third Ukrainian Front, and then to the Allied Control Commission. There, he met Tatiana Mihailova, who later became his second wife. At the end of the war, he joined the Foreign Office, returning to the British Legation in Sofia where he remained as the press officer. In 1948 he and Tatiana left Bulgaria when he was recalled to London under a minor diplomatic cloud after he had helped smuggle two Bulgarians out of the country. Back in London, he divorced his first wife and married Tatiana. In 1951, Tatiana Conquest was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In 1962 the couple divorced.
In 1948 Conquest joined the Foreign Office's Information Research Department (IRD), a "propaganda counter-offensive" unit created by the Labour Attlee government in order to "collect and summarize reliable information about Soviet and communist misdoings, to disseminate it to friendly journalists, politicians, and trade unionists, and to support, financially and otherwise, anticommunist publications." The IRD was also engaged in manipulating public opinion.
Conquest at the IRD was remembered as a "brilliant, arrogant" figure who had 10 people reporting to him. He continued to work at the Foreign Office until 1956, becoming increasingly involved in the intellectual counter-offensive against communism.
In 1949 Conquest's assistant, Celia Kirwan (later Celia Goodman), approached George Orwell for information to help identify Soviet sympathisers. Orwell's list, discovered after her death in 2002, included Guardian and Observer journalists, as well as E. H. Carr and Charlie Chaplin. Conquest, like Orwell, fell for the beautiful Celia Kirwan, who inspired him to write several poems. One of his foreign office colleagues was Alan Maclean, brother of Donald Maclean, one of the Philby spy ring, who fled to Russia with Guy Burgess in 1951. When his brother defected, Alan resigned, and went to Macmillan and published a book of Conquest's poems. At the IRD Conquest wrote various papers which sowed the seeds for his later work. One, on Soviet means of obtaining confessions, was to be elaborated in The Great Terror. Other papers were "Peaceful Co-existence in Soviet Propaganda and Theory", and on "United Fronts - a Communist Tactic". Much of IRD works was later published in the Soviet Studies Series.
In 1950 he served briefly as First Secretary in the British Delegation to the United Nations.
In 1956, Conquest left the IRD, later becoming a freelance writer and historian. After he left, he says, IRD suggested to him that he could combine some of the data he had gathered from Soviet publications into a book.
During the 1960s, Conquest edited eight volumes of work produced by the IRD, published in London by the Bodley Head as the Soviet Studies Series; and in the United States republished as The Contemporary Soviet Union Series by Frederick Praeger, who had published previously a number of books on communism at the request of the CIA, in addition to works by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Milovan ?ilas, Howard Fast, and Charles Patrick Fitzgerald.
In 1962-63, Conquest was literary editor of The Spectator, but resigned when he found the job interfered with his historical writing. His first books on the Soviet Union were Common Sense About Russia (1960), The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities (1960) and Power and Policy in the USSR (1961). His other early works on the Soviet Union included Courage of Genius: The Pasternak Affair (1961) and Russia After Khrushchev (1965).
In 1968, Conquest published what became his best-known work, The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties, the first comprehensive research of the Great Purge, which took place in the Soviet Union between 1934 and 1939. Many reviewers at the time were not impressed by his way of writing about the Great Terror, which was in the tradition of "great men who make history". The book was based mainly on information which had been made public, either officially or by individuals, during the so-called "Khrushchev Thaw" in the period 1956-64. It also drew on accounts by Russian and Ukrainian émigrés and exiles dating back to the 1930s, and on an analysis of official Soviet documents such as the Soviet census.
The most important aspect of the book was that it widened the understanding of the purges beyond the previous narrow focus on the "Moscow trials" of disgraced Communist Party of the Soviet Union leaders such as Nikolai Bukharin and Grigory Zinoviev, who were executed shortly thereafter. The question of why these leaders had pleaded guilty and confessed to various crimes at the trials had become a topic of discussion for a number of western writers, and helped inspire anti-Communist tracts such as George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon.
Conquest argued that the trials and executions of these former Communist leaders were a minor detail of the purges. By his estimates, Stalinist purges had led to the deaths of some 20 million people. He later stated that the total number of deaths could "hardly be lower than some thirteen to fifteen million."
Conquest sharply criticized Western intellectuals such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Jean-Paul Sartre, Walter Duranty, Sir Bernard Pares, Harold Laski, D. N. Pritt, Theodore Dreiser, Bertolt Brecht, Owen Lattimore, and Romain Rolland, as well as American ambassador Joseph Davies, accusing them of being dupes of Stalin and apologists of his regime. Conquest cites various comments made by them where, he argues, they were denying, excusing, or justifying various aspects of the purges.
After the opening up of the Soviet archives, detailed information was released that Conquest argued supported his conclusions. When Conquest's publisher asked him to expand and revise The Great Terror, Conquest is famously said to have suggested the new version of the book be titled I Told You So, You Fucking Fools. In fact, the mock title was jokingly proposed by Conquest's old friend, Sir Kingsley Amis. The new version was published in 1990 as The Great Terror: A Reassessment; ISBN 0-19-507132-8. The American historian J. Arch Getty disagreed, writing in 1993 that the archives did not support Conquest's casualty figures. In 1995, investigative journalist Paul Lashmar suggested that the reputation of prominent academics such as Robert Conquest was built upon work derived from material provided by the IRD. According to Denis Healey The Great Terror was an important influence, "but one which confirmed people in their views rather than converted them".
Many aspects of his book continue to be disputed by sovietologist historians and researchers on Russian and Soviet history, such as Stephen G. Wheatcroft, who insists that Conquest's victim totals for Stalinist repressions are too high, even in his reassessments. Nevertheless, anti-communist poet Czes?aw Mi?osz asserts that Conquest has been vindicated by history. In 2000, Michael Ignatieff, whose family had emigrated from Russia as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution, wrote "One of the few unalloyed pleasures of old age is living long enough to see yourself vindicated. Robert Conquest is currently enjoying this pleasure." Conservative historian Paul Johnson, one of Thatcher's closest advisers, described Conquest as "our greatest living historian". And, in the phrase of Timothy Garton Ash, he was Solzhenytsin before Solzhenytsin.
In 1996, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who had been previously attacked by Conquest for his book Age of Extremes, while praising Conquest's The Great Terror "as a remarkable pioneer effort to assess the Stalin Terror", expressed the opinion that this work and others were now to be considered obsolete "simply because the archival sources are now available", thus there was not need any more for "using fragmentary sources" and "guesswork" as "when better or more complete data are available, they must take the place of poor and incomplete ones".
In 2002, Conquest replied vehemently to his critics:
They're still talking absolute balls. 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.'
Furthermore, he openly declared himself to have been a Cold Warrior, a title which he rather relished:
They say [disapprovingly] 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.
In 1986, Conquest published The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror-Famine, dealing with the collectivization of agriculture in Ukraine and elsewhere in the USSR, under Stalin's direction in 1929-31, and the resulting famine, in which millions of peasants died due to starvation, deportation to labor camps, and execution. In this book, Conquest supported the view that the famine was a planned act of genocide. However, Conquest later retracted this view in 2003, stating the following in a letter to historians Stephen Wheatcroft and R. W. Davies:
Stalin purposely inflicted the 1933 famine? No. What I argue is that with resulting famine imminent, he could have prevented it, but put "Soviet interest" other than feeding the starving first thus consciously abetting it.
For the Trotskyists, Kirov's murder was the Stalinist equivalent of the Reichstag fire, deliberately started by the Nazis to justify the arrest of German Communists. The Trotskyist-Menshevik view became the dominant one among western historians, popularised in Robert Conquest's influential books.
In The Great Terror, Conquest already undermined the official Soviet story of conspiracy and treason. Conquest placed the murder in 1934 of the Leningrad party boss, Sergei Kirov, one of Stalin's inner circle, as the key to the mechanism of terror.
He returned to this in Stalin and the Kirov Murder (1989), where he argued that Stalin not only sanctioned Kirov's assassination, but used it as a justification for the terror that culminated in 1937–38, though no evidence has been found to confirm Stalin's role in the murder.
In addition to his scholarly work, Conquest was a well-regarded poet whose poems have been published in various periodicals from 1937. In 1945 he was awarded the PEN Brazil Prize for his war poem "For the Death of a Poet" - about an army friend, the poet Drummond Allison, killed in Italy - and, in 1951, he received a Festival of Britain verse prize. During his lifetime, he had seven volumes of poetry and one of literary criticism published.
Conquest was a major figure in a prominent British literary circle known as "The Movement" which also included Philip Larkin and Sir Kingsley Amis. Movement poets, many of whom bristled at being so labeled, rejected the experiments of earlier practitioners such as Ezra Pound.
He edited, in 1956 and 1962, the influential New Lines anthologies, introducing works by them, as well as Thom Gunn, Dennis Enright, and others, to a wider public. He spent 1959-60 as visiting poet at the University of Buffalo. Several of his poems were published in The New Oxford Book of Light Verse (1978; compiled by Amis), under the pseudonyms "Stuart Howard-Jones", "Victor Gray" and "Ted Pauker".
It emerged from the pages of poet Philip Larkin's published letters that Conquest and Larkin shared an enthusiasm for pornography in the 1950s. When Larkin was in Hull, Conquest sent him judicious selections of the latest pornography, and, when he came down to London, Conquest took him on shopping trips to the Soho porn shops. On one occasion Conquest, in 1957, wrote a letter to Larkin purporting to come from the Vice Squad which had found the poet's name on a pornographic publisher's list. Larkin panicked and went to see his solicitor, convinced that he was going to lose his job as librarian at Hull University, before Conquest owned up. The true story of the joke became in 2008, Mr Larkin's Awkward Day, a comedy radio play by Chris Harrald.
Soon after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn met with Conquest, asking him to translate a 'little' poem of his into English verse. This was "Prussian Nights" - nearly two thousand lines in ballad metre - published in 1977.
Conquest had been a member of the British Interplanetary Society since the 1940s, and shared Amis's taste for science fiction. Starting from 1961, the two writers jointly edited Spectrum, five anthologies of new sci-fi writing. He also proposed to Amis a collaboration based on a draft comic novel which Conquest had completed. This was revised by Amis, and then it appeared under both their names as The Egyptologists (1965). The novel is about a secret Egyptological London society that is really a husbands' organization serving as an alibi for philanderers. A reviewer in The New York Times felt that their "elaborate little jokes leave an unpleasant taste". Later, a film version of the novel was canceled when its star, Peter Sellers, was called away to Hollywood.
Conquest published two works of fiction, the one co-authored with Amis, The Egyptologists (1965), and the science fiction novel, A World of Difference (1955).
In 1984, Robert Conquest wrote, with Jon Manchip White, the fictional book What to Do When the Russians Come: a Survivor's Handbook which, however, was intended to be a real survival manual in case of Soviet invasion. This book, as many other works of the mid-1980s in different media, like Sir John Hackett's The Third World War, the movie Red Dawn, and the Milton Bradley game Fortress America, starts from the premise that a Soviet ground-invasion of the United States could be imminent and that the Soviet Union was about to engulf the world.
It is widely accepted that the United States now faces a real possibility of succumbing to the power of an alien regime unless the right policies are pursued. [This book's aim] is, first, to show the American citizen clearly and factually what the results of this possible Soviet domination could be and how it would affect him or her personally; and second, to give some serious advice on how to survive."
Conquest supported the Reagan defense buildup and asked for an increase of expenses on US defense budget, claiming that in the nuclear field NATO was only possibly matching USSR military power:
We live in dangerous times. Such miscalculations are very possible. But they are not inevitable. The American people and their representatives have it in their power to prevent their country from undergoing the ordeal we have described. A democratic government, with all its distractions and disadvantages, ... It is not infallible, it is slow to learn, and it is willing to grasp at comfortable illusions; but it may yet act decisively" "But why should we fear that such an ordeal may face us? The economic potential of the West in gross national product is far greater than that of the Soviet Union....In fact, the Soviet Union is economically far behind the United States. American technology is always a generation ahead of theirs. They have to turn to the United States for wheat. The Soviet economy is at a dead end. The Communist system has failed to win support in any of the countries of Eastern Europe. The Soviet idea has no attractions. On any calculation--of economic power or social advance or intellectual progress there could be no question of the Russians imposing their will. But in terms of actual military power, the West's advantage does not seem to have been made use of. It is at least matched, and many would say overmatched, in the nuclear field; the Western forces in Europe have less than half the striking power of their opponents. It is no good our being more advanced than they are if this is not translated into power--both military power and political willpower."
In 1986, Conquest affirmed that "a science-fiction attitude is a great help in understanding the Soviet Union. It isn't so much whether they're good or bad, exactly; they're not bad or good as we'd be bad or good. It's far better to look at them as Martians than as people like us."
|Booknotes interview with Conquest on Reflections on a Ravaged Century, December 19, 1999, C-SPAN|
|Presentation by Conquest of Reflections on a Ravaged Century, January 19, 2000, C-SPAN|
However, there is much more in this book about Communism than Nazism, partly because of Conquest's greater expertise about the first, and partly because of his claim that comparatively few Western intellectuals became Nazi. Conquest mainly focuses on attacks on intellectuals in the West who became Communists because they felt or believed that this was "anti-fascism" or "anti-Nazism".
In 1964, he married Caroleen MacFarlane, but the marriage failed and they divorced in 1978. In 1978, Conquest then began dating Elizabeth Neece Wingate, a lecturer in English and the daughter of a United States Air Force colonel. He and Wingate married the next year.
In 1981, Conquest moved to California to take up a post as Senior Research Fellow and Scholar-Curator of the Russian and Commonwealth of Independent States Collection at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where he remained a Fellow. In 1985, he signed a petition in support for the anti-Communist Contras (Nicaragua).
Conquest was a fellow of the Columbia University's Russian Institute, and of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; a distinguished visiting scholar at The Heritage Foundation; a research associate of Harvard University's Ukrainian Research Institute. In 1990, Conquest was the presenter of Red Empire, a seven-part mini-series documentary on the Soviet Union produced by Yorkshire Television.
Conquest died of respiratory failure due to complications from Parkinson's Disease in Stanford, California, on 3 August 2015 at the age of 98. He had numerous grandchildren from his sons and stepdaughter.
Conquest was a dual national (British and American) by birth. He was a Fellow of the British Academy, of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of the Royal Society of Literature, and of the British Interplanetary Society, and a Member of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.
His honours include
His awards include: