Robert Conquest has died aged ninety-eight. He was one of the first to document and broadcast the realities of Stalin’s rule.
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.
Conquest was of the Cold War generation. He was friends with Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, who called him “a kind of advertisement for life”. They bonded over dirty poetry (examples here and here).
“Everyone is a reactionary about subjects he understands.” Robert Conquest.
Update (h/t Facebook threads):-
Conquest’s aphorisms (Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics):
Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.
Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.
The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.
Of the Second Law, Conquest gave the Church of England and Amnesty International as examples. Of the Third, he noted that a bureaucracy sometimes actually is controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies – e.g. the postwar British secret service.
Article by Conquest (from 1961 and relevant to today)
“The round robin on behalf of some supposedly Leftist cause is a well-established little nuisance which we should all have got used to by this time. [It is now a well-established tradition.] The letter sent by Mr. Kenneth Tynan and others to the Times on Cuba has, I find, been felt as more than customarily irritating by a number of writers and others to whom I have spoken about it – all of them people thoroughly devoted to social and racial equality, internal and international, none of them Fascists, parachutists, or employees of American, Spanish or Portuguese secret agencies – in fact, not even Conservatives. So, as a special exception, in spite of the arguments against paying any attention to such stuff, I feel impelled, just, to give some expression to a distaste which is not only my own.
Most of the signatories seem to be critics or dramatists. It is difficult to think of any reason (or rather any reputable reason) why they should feel their names particularly impressive appended to a letter on a political issue about which, one might have thought, they were not outstandingly well-qualified to speak.”. [Times have not changed.]
Anyway read for an enjoyably haughty put-down of the Choir of Massed Signatories.
(Also, it’s not really a round robin, if the signatories appear in a vertical line.)
The famous story of Conquest’s idea for a new title to The Great Terror, “I told you so, you fucking fools” turns out to be an embellishment/downright lie by Kingsley Amis.