Robert Conquest

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Robert Conquest
Robert Conquest

Dr. George Robert Ackworth Conquest (born July 15 1917), British historian, became one of the best-known writers on the Soviet Union with the publication in 1968 of his classic account of Stalin's purges of the 1930s, The Great Terror.



Conquest was born in Malvern, Worcestershire, England, the son of an American businessman and an English mother. His father served in an ambulance unit with the French Army in World War I, winning a Croix de Guerre in 1916. Robert 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 politics, philosophy, and economics, and his doctorate in Soviet history. Conquest is sometimes disparagingly referred to as a "mere journalist" so it is important to note that he is a professionally qualified historian, despite not having had a conventional academic career. (Indeed, in 1994 he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy.)

In 1937, after his year studying at the University of Grenoble and travelling in Bulgaria, Conquest returned to Oxford and joined the Communist Party. Fellow members included Denis Healey and Philip Toynbee. These were the years of the Popular Front against fascism, when many western intellectuals were attracted to Communism. It was also the period of Stalin's purges, although few in the west were aware of this at the time. Conquest later made light of his commitment to Communism, but the journalist Christopher Hitchens, who knows Conquest well, says that he was a more serious Communist than he now admits.

When World War II broke out Conquest joined the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (enlisting was a sign that he was out of sympathy with the Communist Party's anti-war line), and became, like many intellectuals, an intelligence officer. That a known Communist should have been allowed to join the intelligence service seems extraordinary in retrospect, but the Army seems to have taken the view that the political skills of people like Conquest outweighed any possible security risk. Unlike similar figures like Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, Conquest has never been accused of having used his position to spy for the Soviet Union. In 1940 he married Joan Watkins, with whom he had two sons. In 1942 he was posted to the School of Slavonic Studies, where he studied Bulgarian for four months.

In 1944 Conquest was posted to Bulgaria as a liaison officer to the Bulgarian forces fighting under Soviet command. There he met Tatiana Mihailova, who later became his second wife. At the end of the war, he was transferred to the diplomatic service and became the press officer at the British embassy in Sofia. He witnessed the gradual rise of Soviet Communism in the country, becoming completely disillusioned with Communist ideas in the process. He left Bulgaria in 1948, helping Tatiana escape the new regime. Back in London he divorced his first wife and married Tatiana. This marriage later broke down when Tatiana was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Conquest then joined the Foreign Office's Information Research Department (IRD), a unit created for the purpose of combatting Communist influence and actively promoting anti-Communist ideas, by fostering relationships with journalists, trade unions and other organisations. Conquest's time with the IRD has sparked some controversy, becoming a favourite topic of many critics (particularly on the political Left) who claim that his later historical work was intentional anti-Communist propaganda. Generally, these assertions are viewed with skepticism by other historians who have studied Conquest's work. Conquest is unapologetic about his work with the IRD, arguing that the organization was only responding to the pro-Communist actions of the Soviet Union.

In 1956 Conquest left the IRD and became a freelance writer and historian. In 1962-1963 he was literary editor of The Spectator, but resigned when he found it interfered with his historical writing. His first books, Power and Politics in the USSR and Soviet Deportation of Nationalities, came out in 1960. He also published two volumes of poetry, a science fiction novel and the first of five anthologies of science fiction he co-edited with Kingsley Amis. His other early works on the Soviet Union included Soviet Nationalities Policy in Practice, Industrial Workers in the USSR, Justice and the Legal System in the USSR and Agricultural Workers in the USSR.

The Great Terror

Main article: The Great Terror

In 1968, Conquest published what became his best-known and most hotly contested 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.

The first critical inquiry into the Great Purge had been made as early as 1937, by the Dewey Commission, which published its findings in the form of a 422-page book entitled Not Guilty (this title referred to the people who had been charged with various crimes by Stalin's government and therefore purged; the Dewey Commission found them not guilty). The most important aspect of Robert Conquest's The Great Terror was that it widened the understanding of the purges beyond the previous narrow focus on the "Moscow trials" of disgraced Communist Party leaders such as Nikolai Bukharin and Grigori Zinoviev.

The book was met with the hostility of western intellectual circles for two main reasons: Conquest's sharp criticism of western intellectuals for "blindness" with respect to the Soviet Union, and Conquest's position that Stalinism was a logical consequence of Marxism-Leninism, rather than an aberration from "true" communism. Both of these assertions were (and remain) a matter of intense controversy.

Later works

In 1986 Conquest published The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror-Famine, another exhaustively researched work, dealing with the collectivisation of agriculture under Stalin's direction in 1929-1931, in which millions of peasants died of starvation or through deportation to labour camps. By the 1980s the Soviet Union was disintegrating, and access to first-hand accounts and archives in Russia and Ukraine was far easier. This meant that this book was more thoroughly based in archival sources than it was possible for The Great Terror to have been, and also that it attracted much less publicity, and certainly less hostile comment, than the earlier book.

In this book Conquest was even more scathing about western left-wing intellectuals than he had been in The Great Terror. He accused them of denying the full scale of the famine, attacking their views as "an intellectual and moral disgrace on a massive scale." He later wrote that the western world had been faced with two different stories about the famine in the 1930s, and accused many intellectuals of believing the false one: "Why did an intellectual stratum overwhelmingly choose to believe the false one? None of this can be accounted for in intellectual terms. To accept information about a matter on which totally contradictory evidence exists, and in which investigation of major disputes on the matter is prevented, is not a rational act."

After the full opening of the Soviet archives in the later years of the rule of Mikhail Gorbachev, Conquest was able to publish The Great Terror: A Reassessment, a consideration of his 1968 book in the light of newly available evidence. He concluded (as other post-Soviet scholars have done) that the account he had given of the purges was broadly correct, and that if anything the figures he had given for the loss of life during the Stalin years had been an underestimate. Although some aspects of his work continue to be disputed, no such dispute reaches the magnitude of the one during the 1960s, and he is often regarded as having been vindicated by history. Michael Ignatieff wrote in the New York Review of Books: "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 most recent works are Stalin and the Kirov Murder (1989), Stalin: Breaker of Nations (1991), History, Humanity, and Truth (1993) and Reflections on a Ravaged Century (1999), which may be seen as his summation of his career. In this last work he devotes more attention (in the section "The Great Error: Soviet Myths and Western Minds") to the attraction that totalitarian systems of thought seem to hold for many western intellectuals. He traces this attitude back to the Age of Reason and its culmination in the French Revolution. This is a familiar theme of conservative intellectual writers (who often tend to forget the parallel phenomenon of the attraction that many of them felt to fascism in the 1930s). Even sympathetic reviewers, however, commented that Conquest's political philosophy was largely a re-hashing of the works of Friedrich von Hayek, and that Conquest's real strength was in empirical history.

Later life

In 1962 Conquest was divorced from his second wife and in 1964 he married Caroleen MacFarlane. This marriage was dissolved in 1978 and in 1979 he married Elizabeth Neece Wingate, a lecturer in English and the daughter of a United States Air Force colonel. This marriage proved lasting. In 1981 Conquest moved to California to take up a post at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a traditional home of anti-Communist scholarship on Russia, and has lived there ever since.

Conquest is now senior research fellow and scholar-curator of the Russian and Commonwealth of Independent States Collection at the Hoover Institution. He is also an adjunct fellow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D. C., and a research associate of Harvard University's Ukrainian Research Institute. He is a member of the board of the Institute for European Defence and Strategic Studies. He is a fellow of the British Interplanetary Society and a member of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies and the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies.

Conquest has remained a British subject and in 1996 he was made a CMG. His other awards and honors include the Jefferson Lectureship in the Humanities, the Richard Weaver Award for Scholary Letters and the Alexis de Tocqueville Award. Conquest has a substantial reputation as a poet. He has brought out six volumes of poetry and one of literary criticism, edited the seminal New Lines anthologies, and published a verse translation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's epic Prussian Nights. He received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 1997. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement and other journals.


Much of the biographical material in this article is drawn from Andrew Brown, "Scourge and Poet, a profile of Robert Conquest," which appeared in The Guardian in February 2003 (see link below).

Historical works

(Dates shown are not necessarily the dates of first publication)

  • Common Sense About Russia (1960)
  • Power and Politics in the USSR (1960)
  • Soviet Deportation of Nationalities (1960)
  • Courage of Genius: The Pasternak Affair (1961)
  • Industrial Workers in the USSR (1967)
  • Soviet Nationalities Policy in Practice (1967)
  • Agricultural Workers in the USSR (1968)
  • The Soviet Police System (1968)
  • Religion in the USSR (1968)
  • The Soviet Political System (1968)
  • Justice and the Legal System in the USSR (1968)
  • The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties (1968)
  • The Nation Killers: The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities (1970)
  • Where Marx Went Wrong (1970)
  • V I Lenin (1972)
  • Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps (1978)
  • Inside Stalin's Secret Police: NKVD Politics, 1936-1939 (1985)
  • The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986)
  • Tyrants and Typewriters: Communiques in the Struggle for Truth (1989)
  • Stalin and the Kirov Murder (1989)
  • The Great Terror: A Reassessment (1990)
  • Stalin: Breaker of Nations (1991)
  • History, Humanity, and Truth (1993)
  • Reflections on a Ravaged Century (1999)

External links


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