By Tom Switzer
There are those whose memory fades with time. There are others whose importance only grows. Such a man was Robert Conquest, the West’s pre-eminent chronicler of Soviet terror.
Conquest, who spent his last 30-odd years at Stanford’s Hoover Institution in California, had written poetry and fiction. But it was his 20-plus books on Soviet history — most notably The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties in 1968 and The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror-Famine in 1986 — that define his legacy.
Both tomes exposed the true nature of Joseph Stalin’s crimes and the gulag system and the suffering caused by the collectivisation of agriculture. Both were also smuggled into the Soviet Union and eastern bloc states, influencing major dissidents. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was so impressed that shortly after he was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974 he asked Conquest to translate his 2000-line poem on freedom.
Born in Britain and educated at Oxford University (where for a short time he was an open member of the Communist Party), Conquest served in World War II before he got mugged by reality, discovered the error of his ways and did everything he could to make amends. Much to the chagrin of Soviet apologists in Australia, Western Europe and North America, Conquest showed Stalin was no aberration, but a logical consequence of Marxism-Leninism and the Bolshevik Revolution.
Before 1968, the prevailing wisdom among Western intellectuals was to deny or minimise the extent of Stalin’s devastation. In the 1930s, when Stalin was launching murderous Moscow trials, socialists such as George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb portrayed the Soviet dictator as a popular and humane leader.
Even after Stalin’s death in 1953, left-wing historians such as Manning Clark and Eric Hobsbawm claimed ignorance of his reign of terror.
Such people, Conquest remarked, “had an ability to dupe themselves”, especially if “you start using the word ‘socialist’ ”.
Although The Great Terror was coldly received on the Left, the evidence was irrefutable: a terror involving millions of deaths. The book was an overnight sensation.
Above all else, Conquest highlighted the unprecedented reign of horror that had gripped the Soviet Union in the mid to late 1930s. From Moscow to Vladivostok, Stalin’s security thugs took victims by the millions, killing more than a 10th, and sweeping the rest into forced labour camps. Their loss deprived the Soviet Union of its best writers, artists, academics, engineers and technicians. On one day alone in 1937, Stalin approved 3167 death sentences — and then went to the movies.
Since the publication of The Great Terror in 1968, the book’s significance has endured. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet empire and the opening of the Russian archives in the early 1990s, Conquest’s publishers asked him for a new subtitle to a revised edition. In his typically witty and quirky manner, he replied: “How about ‘I Told You So, You F..king Fools’?” He was surely entitled to say that.
In Harvest of Sorrow, he used witness accounts and official Soviet publications to record the Kremlin’s campaign to collectivise Soviet agriculture. This was designed to gain greater control of the kulaks, or peasantry, and to transfer resources from the land to industry in urban areas.
Nowhere was this deliberate famine more evident than in the Ukraine, which, by Conquest’s estimate, led to the plummeting of grain production and the deaths of more than 14 million people from 1929 to 1933. More people were killed by Stalin’s brutal collectivisation of agriculture than were killed in either World War I or Hitler’s genocide years later.
“The waste was extraordinary,” he argued. “Enough grain rotted in the fields to have saved the lives of all the millions who died in the famine.” His evidence included the Soviet census of 1937, which disclosed the drastic decline in the population over the preceding decade, and was suppressed by Moscow. The Kremlin, Conquest revealed, “arrested the census board and shot them”.
When he received the Alexis de Tocqueville Memorial Award from the San Francisco-based Independent Institute in 1992, Conquest declared: “One of the most difficult things to convey to a Western audience is how disgusting the rank-and-file of the old Soviet ruling class really were: how mean, treacherous, shamelessly lying, cowardly, sycophantic and ignorant. Unfortunately, those concepts are unknown to ‘political science’.”
Along with other Cold Warriors such as Sidney Hook, Irving Kristol, and Australia’s Peter Coleman, Conquest supported the anti-communist, pro-American Congress for Cultural Freedom. The organisation, funded in part by the CIA, exposed Stalinist lies, promoted the principles of democracy and capitalism and destroyed communism as a force in Western cultural life, especially through its magazines, such as Quadrant in Australia and the now-defunct Encounter in Britain. Of the former, Conquest said it “has flourished in a jungle full of pygmies with personal arrows” and Australia was fortunate to have it and “so are we in the world at large”.
Conquest was a traditional conservative. He advised Margaret Thatcher on the Soviet Union and, according to her biographer Charles Moore, helped draft her speeches, including the one that got her dubbed “The Iron Lady” by the Red Army newspaper. But he was also difficult to pigeonhole. He voted for Labour leaders Harold Wilson in 1974 and Tony Blair in 1997 and he was a friend of Kingsley Amis and his son Martin. Like other Cold Warriors, such as George Kennan, Paul Nitze and Owen Harries, he opposed NATO expansion in the 1990s lest it needlessly provoke a humiliated and wounded Russia.
In more recent times, he supported the notion of an “Anglo-sphere” in world affairs. In 2007, he told Christopher Hitchens (who dedicated his 2002 book on Orwell to Conquest) about his great admiration for “that historic arc of law, tradition and individual liberty that extends from Scotland to Australia and takes in the two largest multicultural democracies on the planet — the US and India.”
Conquest was honoured in his adopted country of the US in 2005 when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It was a satisfying moment for a scholar who had published the most fearless and devastating accounts of the brutality of Stalinism.
This article was originally published in The Australian