Happy Birthday, Robert Conquest

“I think once you accept that you have the answer to everything, you can do anything to bring it about because your enemies are trying to stop you, are enemies of reason, of truth of everything – enemies of the future. You represent the people, you represent the nation, you represent everything that is good and that entitles you to destroy the bad people.” — Robert Conquest

It’s the birthday of Robert Conquest, one of the most important and influential historians of the 20th century. He died in 2015 at the age of 98. He started out as a poet. He palled around with Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, a rowdy trio, all of whom made enemies for various and sundry reasons, some of which had to do with politics. Conquest was a member of the Communist Party as a young man, and then walked away once he saw what was going on. He became a ferocious critic, often branded a “reactionary” by the true-believers, who can’t understand what it means to change your mind about something once more information becomes available. The “reactionary” thing doesn’t hold weight at ALL once you scratch past the surface worrywart-ing about Conquest’s “apostasy”. Such comments are meant to discredit him and it’s a fight he fought all his life.

Conquest’s stunning books about the Stalinist purges, the Soviet Terror, the cataclysmic murder of Kirov (which Conquest referred to as “the murder of the century”), the Ukrainian famine … all came out before perestroika or glasnost, before there was anything even close to accuracy in numbers. He wrote while the Iron Curtain was still impenetrable. He relied on rumors, samizdat literature, as well as his own uncanny sense of how to read the tea-leaves of the bureaucratic double-Newspeak coming out of the Kremlin. You can read the obituary at the New York Times. His books have been enormously important to me, and I’ve read them multiple times.

His great book The Great Terror was originally published in 1968. There he described the scope (as he could guess at it, anyway) of Stalin’s Terror, where the numbers of those killed, disappeared, imprisoned, reached an almost otherworldly level. The numbers were so otherworldly and hard to imagine (how do you even comprehend 20 million? 30 million?) that Conquest was criticized for being overdramatic, for inflating the numbers, for being a reactionary. (Ironic -but not surprising – since Conquest was a not a right-winger by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, he was the opposite. Strict and “pure” ideology views anyone who veers from the party-line as an “apostate.”)

When the Soviet Imperium collapsed, and the Kremlin archives opened, Conquest went back to work, poring through all the newly-available information. He worked on a new and updated edition of The Great Terror. Basically, though, what he was doing – he discovered – was just confirming the truth of what he had already guessed. He found that his initial estimation of those killed during Stalin’s regime was probably off. He hadn’t OVER-estimated the numbers, as his critics had howled for decades: he found that he had UNDER-estimated by about 10 million, and maybe more. He had been CAUTIOUS in his first edition of The Great Terror. The numbers are surreal whatever way you look at it: 10 million, 20 million … what does that even look like? I’ll tell you what it looks like. It looks like a pile of corpses stacked high as the Himalayas.

As Robert Conquest prepared to publish the new edition of The Great Terror in 1990 with his numbers updated and confirmed, his pal Kingsley Amis made a now-legendary joke among Conquest-o-philes that the new edition should be called I Told You So, You Fucking Fools.

The Great Terror is not just interesting, it is also beautifully written, with unforgettable passages. One of the most chilling sentences comes after a long paragraph describing Stalin’s cohorts racing around in a frenzy trying to save their asses (see The Death of Stalin if you haven’t already), still believing that the regime they worked for was logical, somewhere. Stalin’s Terror would eventually burn itself out, right? And then they could get back to the work of government and bringing their revolutionary ideas to some kind of workable fruition. Conquest then wrote: “They didn’t understand Stalin yet.”

Conquest did. And he did so long before it was fashionable. He did so in the midst of the Marxist-drenched late-1960s, when nobody wanted to hear it. There are still those who don’t want to hear it, or who persist in seeing Conquest as a right-wing crackpot. You know who were crackpots and charlatans? Beatrice and Sidney Webb. Walter Duranty. Stalin’s most “useful idiots.” Who bought the lies from the Kremlin, who were propaganda arms for the Soviet regime,, reassuring the “West” that things weren’t so bad, the famine in the Ukraine wasn’t real, and etc. They couldn’t accept that their beloved Socialism had come to this. OR, worse, they were willing to accept that maybe 20 million dead people was an okay price to pay for the eventual Utopia they believed in.

The Left hated Robert Conquest because he claimed, strongly, that Stalin’s Terror did not come about because Stalin was a bad apple who ruined the Utopia “everyone” still believed in, but that the system was set up from the beginning to create a Stalin. The system encouraged the One Strong Man. This is what Orwell laid out in 1984 in the sequence where Winston Smith reads the secret book, where the dirty little secrets are all revealed. (A common attitude among the Stalinist Left in the West – which went on for a disgracefully long period of time, even after the Show Trials of the late 1930s – ran along the lines of, “If only someone had told Stalin about what was happening!” These delusions lasted for the indoctrinated for almost the entire reign of the Politburo, and still persist. I just discovered a pocket of them on Twitter. Pete Seeger, a dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist, didn’t renounce Stalin until the mid-90s. THE MID-90s. I love Pete Seeger’s music, but that’s DECIDING to turn a blind-eye. Many people were wrong about Stalin initially, and it’s not hard to see why. He was seen as a credible threat to Hitler – one of the ONLY credible threats – and Communists – for a time – were the only group willing to stand UP to Hitler. But then the news of the secret Stalin-Hitler pact broke, sending shock-waves of betrayal and horror through the world … and still, many people did not “wake up.” The fact that some DID wake up should be a reminder that delusion is not compulsory.)

Conquest’s work continues to be disputed. Now that we know more about the reality of the regime, now that there is more “out there” about how it all functioned, many have taken on Conquest’s work. Anne Applebaum’s books are hugely important. The Great Terror, though, is unique: it was the first and still, in many cases, the best. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s stunning Gulag Archipelago was published in 1974, acting as confirmation for Conquest: here was a voice from the inside, here was a man who had LIVED it, showing what it was like, how it worked. It lined up with what Conquest had been just guessing at.

Just to round out the portrait: Robert Conquest could rattle off hilarious limericks improvisationally.

I have often said that you cannot fully understand the history of the 20th century if you haven’t read Conquest’s books. His work is as important as Hannah Arendt’s.

I told you so, you fucking fools.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

This entry was posted in Books, On This Day, writers and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Happy Birthday, Robert Conquest

  1. DBW says:

    Hey, indeed! I think even you and I might disagree on which 2+2=4, and which 2+2=5, but your point is evident. We are being fed a load of bullshit 24/7–whether it is Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow, Adam Schiff or Jim Jordan, Nancy Pelosi or Kevin McCarthy, Donald Trump or Chuck Schumer. It’s appalling….and disturbing.

    OTOH–I have been retired the last 14 months, or so, and every minute of it has been a delight.

    • sheila says:

      Not gonna “both sides” this thing, DBW. Orwell and Conquest taught me to recognize tyranny when I see it. And sometimes there aren’t two sides. There’s just one.

      I never thought I’d see the day where the GOP supports treason -literal treason – the ultimate anti-Americanism, by definition. Cozying up to strong-arm leaders. Gerrymandering. Heartlessness. The cruelty is the point. I want everyone responsible for the human rights crisis on the border to face judgment at the Hague for war crimes. We are an international disgrace, and rightly so. I’m heartbroken but filled with rage. I know who the real enemy is and he’s in the White House. And Mitch McConnell is a truly evil man. all of my reading over the years and all of my understanding of how tyranny works – due to my obsession with it since high school – has given me great perspective on what is happening. Posterity will not be kind to those who were complicit with the threat of encroaching fascism in this country and/or silent. I know that tyrant kings always – always fall. But sometimes they take down the whole world with them.

      • Carolyn Clarke says:

        Please keep speaking out, Sheila. You’re are absolutely right and they are wrong. Too many want a balanced view. We don’t need a balanced view. We know what’s right and 45 isn’t it. And he is trying to bring everyone down to his disgusting level. We can’t let him do that.

  2. DBW says:

    I wonder if you still want those responsible for what is now a much worse crisis at the border to face judgment at the Hague, and in our current environment of censorship and silencing of thoughts contrary to the ‘Narrative,’ if you still think the approach of tyranny is as one-sided as you did when you last commented. Not trying to be confrontational, just interested in your thoughts. As I said then, we may disagree about which 2+2=4, and I suspect we still do, and I wholeheartedly believe we are being fed a load of bullshit 24/7, and, in my opinion, to a much greater degree during this Administration than at almost any other time during my life. A pox on all of them on both sides. There are people in current and former leadership and bureaucracy who should be in prison, and none of them ever will be—as they retire on comfortable government pensions, immune from the legal consequences any of we peons would surely face for similar behavior.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.