Asked before his death about his proudest achievement, liberal actor Paul Newman stated, “making Nixon’s enemies’ list.” And that is a view shared by many 70s-era liberals (their counterparts today are probably hoping that Trump keeps such a list and that they will soon be on it). But to my mind, the more dangerous list, given their penchant for overseas’ liquidations, at least during the 30s and 40s, would be that compiled by the Soviet Union.
And the person who made the top of the list, a title he held from 1968 to 1989, from the Brezhnev era to the collapse of the Soviet Union, was not a Trotskyite, or a KGB defector but a British historian/poet.
Robert Conquest, born 100 years ago, made the title of “anti-Sovietchik No. 1” on the strength of one book, The Great Terror (1968), which settled once and for all with impeccable research that Stalin’s Purge Trials were rigged by the dictator in order to murder off his opposition, along with their families. The title was bestowed upon him by no less than Soviet premiere Leonid Brezhnev, who was a hard-line replacement for the ruler who, from the Soviet side, outed Stalin in terms similar to Conquest’s, Nikita Kruschev in his 1956 “Secret Speech.” Without knowing it at the time, Conquest was provided validity by none other than the KGB who considered his book truthful enough to warrant using as a source guide to see what Stalin had been up to.
In a roundabout way in the West, Conquest’s conclusions were also validated by the behavior of the more violent branches of the anti-Vietnam protesters, the Black Panthers and the Weatherman, who, searching for an appropriate figure to represent their homicidal actions, settled on Stalin, (Mao was also popular as representative figure).
But at the same time The Great Terror was published in a not-so propitious year for Conquest’s particular group, the liberal anti-Communists, or as Conquest liked to call it, the “premature anti-Stalinist:, for they were blamed by both peace-nicks and Vietcong cheerleaders for the Vietnam War (oddly, the William F. Buckley crowd was omitted).
Conquest didn’t care about what was fashionable. Save for a brief stint as an “open” member of the British Communist Party while at 1937 Oxford as did many of his contemporaries–a membership viewed tolerantly by the British establishment as youthful folly, Conquest bucked the tide. Even though leftists in the West accepted Kruschev’s accusations against Stalin, the victim count was contained around only Party members. Conquest widened its scope, to include a total of 20 million due not only to the Purge Trials but also to Stalin’s imposed famine in the countryside.
Like Orwell, whose anticommunism came from what he witnessed during the Stalinist heresy hunts in Spain, Conquest too was disillusioned when he witnessed, while a member of the British Foreign Office in 1944, the brutal Soviet takeover of Bulgaria. Henceforth, he knew the enemy and brought to bear the techniques of historian and the mocking irony of a poet.
But Conquest’s banishment by the Left was dully noted by him, evidenced by his proposed amendment to the title of The Great Terror when the Soviet archives validated him in 1991: “I Told You So You Fucking Fools.”
Even as an ex-communist, Conquest bucked fashion. Rather than the usual lurch from the far Left to the far Right, a road taken by many of his contemporaries, Kingsley Amis among them, his politics remained social democratic in outlook. As Amis praised the American effort in Vietnam, Conquest turned against it early on. As the born-again Tory Amis attacked welfare spongers, Conquest believed that the government had a responsibility to help the poor. While Amis thundered about his new-found Catholicism, Conquest remained an agnostic. Asked which was worse, the Holocaust or Stalinism, Conquest didn’t take the fashionable view on the Right of equating them. Despite Stalin’s much-higher body counts, Conquest saw the Holocaust as worse. When asked what he based this on, he replied, “I feel it in my gut.”
These days Ronald Reagan is praised for alone predicting the Soviet collapse. But this minority of one status was shared by Conquest. While others such as liberal anticommunist Arthur Schlesinger Jr. saw a bustling economy, Reagan and Conquest saw the regime’s only hope was to democratize or perish (It did both). This too came from his gut, an assertion common to conservatives and derided by liberals.
And what a gut it was. He knew–felt– what he saw in Bulgaria was typical of what happened in Russia. Orwell had his own gut-check, and it was over the Purge Trials. He stated he knew they were a monstrosity because he “felt it” in their literature. Conquest knew early on as well and had to face the same kind of leftist hatreds in the 60s and 70s that Orwell did in the thirties (some of whom were old enough to attack both).
As academic history remains dominated by vengeful Marxists who never got over seeing McDonald’s in Red Square and workers–not CIA plants–pulling down statues of Lenin, Conquest, in death as in life, provides the example of what historians should do: to follow where the evidence leads no matter how unwelcome or unfashionable it is.