AP PhotoIn 1968, Conquest's most important book, The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties, affronted sympathizers by demonstrating that Soviet communism was worse than most of the world imagined. Stalin, in concentrating his power, had become a mass murderer.
Readers who didn’t know the background must have been puzzled by the obituary of Robert Conquest that appeared in the Guardian last month. Why was it so mean?
One reader responded by calling it carping, another called it sneering. Certainly Eric Homberger, who wrote it, went as far as he safely could to denigrate an academic author of books about the Soviet Union. He acknowledged that Conquest had become known in Russia as the historian who told the truth about Stalin. Still, he seemed eager to make Conquest appear unappetizing.
That’s the Guardian’s way. It’s become the favourite global newspaper of lefties by consistently appealing to reflexive left-wing prejudices.
In the middle of the 20th century, liberals and socialists tried to think kind thoughts about the Soviet Union. It was a dictatorship, but they believed it was anti-imperialist. It was on the side of the underdog. It was the enemy of capitalism.
In 1968, Conquest’s most important book, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties, affronted sympathizers by demonstrating that Soviet communism was worse than most of the world imagined. Stalin, in concentrating his power, had become a mass murderer.
Socialists denied the killings, or excused them. Those arguments ended when the Soviet Union did, but the melodies linger on: socialists still resent people who made a point of embarrassing Russia.
Homberger said Conquest criticized Marxism, “perhaps a few times more than was strictly necessary.” While Conquest uncovered the truth about the Moscow trials of the 1930s, he himself “could be a proper little Vyshinsky” when dealing with communism’s friends in the West. (Andrey Vyshinsky was the state prosecutor in Stalin’s Moscow trials.)
Those who admire Conquest believe he was the academic equivalent of George Orwell, a man of courage who saw the truth
Homberger recalled Conquest’s friendships with Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin and their shared interest in pornography and bawdy limericks. Conquest testified on U.S. foreign policy before a Senate committee. He helped Margaret Thatcher with some of her speeches. Homberger pictured Conquest as a shrewd careerist: “All this made him a welcome presence in the richly endowed circuit of conservative thinktanks,” and got him “an academic perch” at Stanford University in California.
Those who admire Conquest believe he was the academic equivalent of George Orwell, a man of courage who saw the truth and stared down those whose lives were dominated by wishful thinking and fantasy. But the reaction of his critics in the West tells us even more: their impulse has always been to call him obsessed; a man haunted by a need to find the Soviets evil. They felt violated by his books. And it’s no wonder.
In democracies, leftist ideologues ground their opinions in hostility toward capitalism. That system has made them, in most cases, richer, better educated and freer than they would otherwise have been. To admire it, or to be grateful for its accomplishments, would shame them. They refuse any sense of gratitude for their own society and look elsewhere for something more spiritually nourishing. For generations, the Soviet Union filled that need and provided intellectual comfort. The echoes of that era are fading but they still matter.
Unconsciously, perhaps, leftist ideologues are uncomfortable whenever the West is praised. They are above all loyal to their self-image as rebels against their own society’s principles. That impulse enhances their feelings of righteousness.
Conquest was a British-American, the son of a Virginian father and an English mother, educated in England. In the 1930s, he attended Oxford and eventually received a doctorate in Soviet history. He was a member of the Communist Party until he saw the Soviet empire in action. In 1944, the British army sent him to Bulgaria as a liaison officer with the Bulgarian forces. In the army, and later as a representative of the Foreign Office, he saw democracy destroyed by the merciless communist takeover of Bulgaria. That stirred his curiosity about the Soviet system and, for the rest of his 98 years, he did his best to satisfy it, becoming a key figure in the most important controversy of his time: the nature of totalitarianism.
As the old documents from the Kremlin appeared, validating Conquest’s views, Michael Ignatieff 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.” Conquest’s publishers asked him to deal with the new information in a book that appeared eventually as The Great Terror: A Reassessment. Kingsley Amis said it should have been titled, “I Told You So, You F–king Fools.”