THE TRIUMPH OF ROBERT CONQUEST

Wall Street Journal on August 4, 2015, reported that Robert Conquest, an Anglo-American historian whose works on the terror and privation under Joseph Stalin made him the pre-eminent Western chronicler of the horrors of Soviet rule, died in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 98 years old. In an obituary (excerpts below) WSJ wrote:

Mr. Conquest’s master work, “The Great Terror,” was the first detailed account of the Stalinist purges from 1937 to 1939. He estimated that under Stalin, 20 million people perished from famines, Soviet labor camps and executions—a toll that eclipsed that of the Holocaust. Writing at the height of the Cold War in 1968, when sources about the Soviet Union were scarce, Mr. Conquest was vilified by leftists who said he exaggerated the number of victims. When the Cold War ended and archives in Moscow were thrown open, his estimates proved high but more accurate than those of his critics.

Born in Malvern, Worcestershire, to a British mother and an American father, he served in World War II and then in Britain’s diplomatic corps before a series of stints at think tanks and universities, largely in the U.S. In recent decades he was affiliated with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, moving to emeritus status in 2007.

…“The Great Terror” reached millions of readers and won him a following among leaders including Ronald Reagan. Margaret Thatcher consulted Mr. Conquest on how to deal with the Soviet Union and her former advisers said she trusted him more than any other Soviet expert.

Mr. Conquest gleefully attacked Western revisionist historians as dupes for Stalin. The 1937-1939 Stalinist show trials, in which Stalin’s political rivals all admitted to serious crimes and were shot, shocked many left-leaning intellectuals in the West. The lurid trials set off mass defections from Communist parties in Europe…

But the wider slaughter of Soviet citizens had largely gone undocumented until Mr. Conquest’s narrative. Citing sources made public during the thaw under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev as well as émigré accounts, the Soviet census and snippets of information in the Soviet press, Mr. Conquest portrayed the trials as a mere sideshow to the systematic murder carried out by the Kremlin, which routinely ordered regional quotas for thousands of arbitrary arrests and shootings at burial pits and execution cellars.

These executions came on top of millions of earlier deaths amid the forced famines and collectivization of Soviet agriculture, which Mr. Conquest detailed in a later book, “The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine.” Mr. Conquest wrote that Stalin summarily executed millions of people by cutting off food to entire regions, particularly Ukraine.

While the opening of Soviet-era archives sparked some attacks on Mr. Conquest, his overall narrative of the purges was confirmed. “The Great Terror” was serialized in Russian newspapers and the revelation of mass graves, such as 20,000 in the Moscow suburb of Butovo, confirmed a wholesale execution system.

Though Mr. Conquest’s body count was on the high end of estimates, he remained unwavering at the publication of “The Great Terror: A Reassessment,” a 1990 revision of his masterwork. When Mr. Conquest was asked for a new title for the updated book, his friend, the writer Kingsley Amis, proposed, “I Told You So, You F—ing Fools.”

A colorful private life didn’t distract Mr. Conquest from honing a spectrum of interests. He read French, German, Italian, Czech, Russian, Bulgarian, Greek and Latin. In addition to Sovietology, he became an expert on the twilight stage of the roughly 400-year period when Britain was part of the Roman Empire.

Mr. Conquest’s first two books, published in 1955, were a collection of poems and a science-fiction novel.

“It’s far better to look at them as Martians than as people like us,” he said. “George Orwell said that it needs an effort of the imagination as well as of the intellect to understand the Soviet Union.”

“Penultimata,” a critically acclaimed collection of Mr. Conquest’s poetry, was published in mid-2009 by the Waywiser Press. He was also an enthusiastic crafter of limericks, a form in which his irreverence and flair for language flourished. One version of an often-quoted one reads:

There was a great Marxist named Lenin
Who did two or three million men in.
—That’s a lot to have done in,
But where he did one in
That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.

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