Historian who played a leading role in stiffening western resolve in the Cold War by chronicling the horrors of Soviet communism
4 August 2015
Photo: Charles Hopkinson
Robert Conquest, the writer on Soviet Russia who has died aged 98, was a polemicist and a serious, published poet; but above all he was an historian, one of the outstanding scholars of his time, whose books did as much as any other man’s to alter our view of the communist experience.
Conquest personified the truth that there was no anti-communist so dedicated as an ex-communist. His career illustrated also what the Italian writer Ignazio Silone, another former communist, meant when he said to the communist leader Palmiro Togliatti that “the final battle” of the 20th century would have to be fought between the two sides they represented.
An ardent Bolshevik as a young man, Conquest became a bitter foe of Soviet “Socialism”. He had first visited Russia in 1937 as a youthful devotee of the great experiment. It was a half century before he returned in 1989, having spent his life between chronicling the horrors the country had endured, and emerging, in the view of the Oxford historian Mark Almond, as “one of the few Western heroes of the collapse of Soviet Communism”. “He was Solzhenitsyn before Solzhenitsyn,” said Timothy Garton Ash.
Of his many works on the subject, perhaps the most important was The Great Terror, published in 1968 and detailing the full enormity of what Stalin had done to the Russian people in the 1930s and 1940s. The Mexican writer Octavio Paz paid the most succinct tribute to this book when he said in 1972 that The Great Terror had “closed the debate” about Stalinism.
In the 1970s Conquest was invited to meet the opposition leader Margaret Thatcher to discuss the Soviet threat. According to her authorised biographer Charles Moore, Mrs Thatcher was advised that Conquest liked plenty to drink, so she laid in supplies of champagne. The meeting began at 9.30 am and they were still talking at noon.
In June 1978 Mrs Thatcher drew heavily on an advance manuscript of one of Conquest’s books, Present Danger (1979), for a major speech on foreign policy she made in Brussels. The theme of the book (and the speech) was, in Conquest’s words, “there’s nothing the Russians can do so long as we keep the level of our arms right,” and he dedicated the work to Mrs Thatcher.
In the run-up to the 1979 general election, Conquest floated the idea that she might appoint him ambassador to the UN once she became Prime Minister, but she declined to do so, believing that the Civil Service should not be supplanted at the public expense, although she took the unusual step of shifting the file of her correspondence with Conquest into No 10, whereas most of her files from opposition were sent to Conservative Central Office for storage.
Conquest subsequently left Britain for well-paid American academe, but he remained in touch and became one of her “Downing Street irregulars”, a group of intellectuals, many of them defectors from the Left, who gave her ideas relating to the nature and danger of Soviet communism. What worried Conquest particularly was the loss of nerve he detected during the presidency of Jimmy Carter. “I feel the real urgency,” he wrote to her in August 1979, “to stiffen up Washington” – a sentiment which she underlined in green ink and to which she found a receptive ear when Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981.
George Robert Acworth Conquest was born a few months before the October Revolution on July 15 1917, in a hotel at Great Malvern, Worcestershire, the son of Robert Folger Acott Conquest, an American of Virginian stock, and his English-born wife Rosamund. His grandfather, HA Acworth, was a friend of Elgar’s, for whose opera-cum-oratorio Caractacus he wrote the libretto.
Young Bob was educated at Winchester, winning an exhibition to Magdalen College, Oxford, although he was rusticated from the latter after a college servant found what the dean called “amorous engines” (or contraceptives) in his room.
Between school and Oxford he had wandered through Switzerland and France, where he made friends with Walter Bernstein, an American his own age, himself later a screenwriter (and communist). He remembered Conquest in 1936 as “a very militant communist”, on his way to Spain for an anti-fascist “Workers’ Olympics”.
Robert Conquest: considered himself as much a poet as an historian (Television Stills)
At the outbreak of the Second World War Conquest volunteered for military service and was commissioned into the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. Transferred to the Intelligence Corps towards the end of the war, from 1944 he served in Bulgaria as a liaison officer to the Bulgarian forces fighting under Soviet command, and later as a press attaché with the British military mission to the Allied Control Commission in Sofia. In 1945 his poem For the Death of a Poet won the PEN Brazil Prize for the best long poem of the Second World War.
After demobilisation Conquest joined the Foreign Office, but continued to serve in the same job for the British legation in Sofia. In 1948, however, he was recalled to London under a minor diplomatic cloud, after helping to smuggle two Bulgarians out of the country, now in the grip of hard-line Stalinism.
Conquest continued to work at the Foreign Office until 1956, becoming increasingly involved in the intellectual counter-offensive against communism. For several of those years he worked for the FO’s shadowy Information Research Department where, like George Orwell, he fell for the beautiful Celia Kirwan, who worked in the department and who inspired him to write several poems, among them Generalities, which appeared in The Oxford Book of Contemporary Verse.
At the IRD he 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” describing the fate of the democratic parties in east European countries as they were taken over.
The IRD was sometimes called a propagandist operation, but just how serious and scholarly its work was could be seen when much of it was later published in the Soviet Studies Series. When an American leftist accused Conquest of “falsification” and “black propaganda”, Conquest challenged him to find a single falsehood in this series. There was no response.
After leaving the Foreign Office, Conquest held a number of academic posts. The first was as Sidney and Beatrice Webb Fellow of the London School of Economics in 1956-8 (he was tickled to have a fellowship named after the authors of what he considered the single most preposterously credulous book on Soviet Russia ever written). Then, after a spell as Visiting Poet at the University of Buffalo, he was literary editor of The Spectator in 1962, before returning to America as Fellow of Columbia in 1964-5. In the 1970s and early 1980s he was a regular contributor to The Daily Telegraph’s “Personal View” column. He held other American research appointments, in Washington and at the Hoover Institution in California, and it was at this last that he finally settled in 1981.
His first books on Russia, Common Sense About Russia (1960), Power and Policy in the USSR (1961), and Russia After Khrushchev (1965) were solid, rather than exciting. But it was The Great Terror that really established his reputation as an historian. By the time it was published the Cold War was into its third decade and there were seemingly few illusions about Soviet Russia. All the same, Conquest opened many eyes to the full scale of that horror and everything he wrote was to be vindicated as the Soviet archives were finally opened. In fact, the figures of Stalin’s victims which Conquest had given, and for which he had once been derided, have been steadily revised upwards by younger Russian historians to at least 25 million. Most of their deaths were not ordered by the dictator in person, but plenty were. Conquest described how one day in 1937 Stalin and Molotov personally approved 3,167 death sentences, and then went to watch a film.
That book was followed by other major works on Soviet Russia. These included The Nation Killers (1970), about Stalin’s quasi-genocidal war on smaller nationalities, re-examined in Stalin: Breaker of Nations (1991). Then came Lenin (1972), Kolyma (1978), which dealt with the Gulag camps, Inside Stalin’s Secret Police (1985) and The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror-Famine (1986).
In Stalin and the Kirov Murder (1989), Conquest examined the assassination by “opportunists”, in 1934, of the Leningrad party secretary, an event used by Stalin as a pretext for unleashing the first wave of terror. As Conquest demonstrated, Kirov’s death was indeed a pretext, and had been ordered by Stalin himself.
Despite his views on communism, Conquest continued to call himself a man of the moderate left, voted Labour until the arrival of Mrs Thatcher, and emphasised that his warmest American political allies were Democrats.
He was one of the first to grasp the weakness of post-Stalinist Russia, and the ineptitude of its leadership which, he told a Senate committee in Washington in 1970, was “intellectually third-rate and likely to commit blunders”. He was also one of the first to foresee the Soviet Union’s disintegration.
In his last two works, Reflections on a Ravaged Century (1999) and The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History (2004), Conquest drew on decades of historical study to trace how seductive ideas have come to corrupt modern minds to often disastrous effect and discuss why and how people could have been so blind to what was going on.
Conquest always considered himself as much a poet as an historian (he chose Two Muses as the title of an unfinished memoir written before his death). Maurice Bowra once told Conquest that he found his poetry “much more satisfying than almost anyone else’s now writing”. Alongside his historical works, Conquest published several volumes of his own poems and in 1956 edited an anthology, New Lines, which included nine poems by Philip Larkin who became a close friend. So did Kingsley Amis, with whom Conquest wrote the squib, The Egyptologists, in 1966, and who included some of Conquest’s light verse (under the pen-name “Victor Gray”) in his New Oxford Book of Light Verse.
Conquest had a particularly felicitous gift for reducing the classics to doggerel. In a riff on Jacques’s soliloquy, he wrote “Seven ages: first puking & mewling; Then pissed off to hell with your schooling; Then f---s, & then fights; Then judging chaps’ rights; Then sitting in slippers; then drooling.” Larkin quoted this to a friend with the words, “He’s a genius.”
More disconcertingly for their admirers, it emerged from the pages of Larkin’s published letters that Conquest and Larkin shared an enthusiasm for pornography. On one occasion Conquest 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.
Among other interests, Conquest was a lifelong member, later fellow, of the British Interplanetary Society, to which he was recruited by a young civil servant called Arthur C Clarke. He also published a science fiction novel, A World of Difference. In 2009 he published Penultimata, a collection of poetry. His last collection, Blokelore & Blokesongs, was published in 2012 when Conquest was 95.
Conquest was appointed OBE in 1955 and CMG in 1996. In 2005 he was presented with the US Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Robert Conquest was married four times. By Joan Watkins (1942-48) he had two sons. He then married Tatiana Mihailova (1948-62) and Caroleen McFarlane (1962-78). There were other entanglements, though Larkin was exaggerating when he referred to Conquest’s “limitless number of 24 yr old girls”.
From 1979 he enjoyed an exceptionally happy marriage to Elizabeth “Liddie” (née Neece), who survives him with his children.
Robert Conquest born July 15 1917, died August 3 2015