The British-American historian Robert Conquest died on August 3, 2015, at age 98.

That name may not ring a bell to you, but it does to students of Soviet history, of which I was one in college. In the 1960s Conquest documented the extent of Stalin’s terror, which outlets such as The NY Times had covered up as they were happening in the 1930s.

For that, Conquest was hated. But eventually recognized, including the 2005 Medal of Freedom.

The Wall Street Journal writes in its obituary:

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 Monday in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 98 years old.

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….

While a spirited combatant in academic debate, Mr. Conquest wrote for a wider audience. “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 and the U.S. and helped inspire anti-Communist tracts such as George Orwell’s “1984” and Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon.”

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….

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.”

The Telegraph obituary summarized some of Conquest’s early background:

Conquest personified the truth that there was no anti-communist so dedicated as an ex-communist….

An ardent Bolshevik as a young man, Conquest became a bitter foe of Soviet “Socialism”. He had first visited Russia in 1937 as a youthful devotee of the great experiment. It was a half century before he returned in 1989, having spent his life between chronicling the horrors the country had endured, and emerging, in the view of the Oxford historian Mark Almond, as “one of the few Western heroes of the collapse of Soviet Communism”. “He was Solzhenitsyn before Solzhenitsyn,” said Timothy Garton Ash.

Here is an interview with Conquest as part of a larger documentary on Stalin’s terror:

The terror also was genocide, as took place during the forced Ukrainian famine, the Holodomor. We wrote about that in a prior guest post:

In 1932-33 Joseph Stalin reinstituted serfdom via collectivization.  Collectivization campaign saw fierce resistance by peasants, particularly wealthy peasants, or kulaks in official Soviet lexicon.

The Soviet regime confiscated crops and deported many kulaks to the GULAG, resulting in artificial famine Holodomor.  The exact number of perished is difficult to estimate, but it’s probably between 6-7 million in the whole of the USSR and over 3 million in Ukraine, most ethnic Ukrainians.

The ethnic dimension of Holodomor is hard to deny.  Andrei Sakharov is quoted as saying that Stalin suffered from Ukrainophobia: The dictator was keen on breaking the backbone of Ukrainian nationalism, and the areas most affected by Holodomor were the ones that most resisted Bolshevik occupation a decade earlier.

Several of Conquest’s commentaries are available on the Hoover Institute website.

Conquest was not just a historian, but a renowned poet. The NY Times obituary quotes Conquest’s short poem comparing the murderous ways of Lenin versus Stalin:

There was a great Marxist called 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.

For me, the exposure of Stalin’s terror — specifically the executions following show trials — became very personal when I was a student in Moscow in 1980.

One of the families with whom I became very close lost relatives in those show trials, one of whom was the Soviet General Iona Yakir (more here), a leading Soviet commander of the Red Army executed in the purges:

On 28 May 1937, the NKVD arrested Yakir, who was accused of being a member of the alleged Trotskyist Anti-Soviet Military Organization and of being a Nazi agent. Yakir maintained his innocence, both in correspondence to Joseph Stalin and at his trial, but Stalin wrote on his letter: “Rascal and prostitute”. Kliment Voroshilov and Vyacheslav Molotov added: “A perfectly accurate definition”. Lazar Kaganovich wrote: “The only punishment for the scoundrel, riffraff and whore is death penalty”.[1] Yakir was executed, in Moscow, together with Tukhachevsky, and several other Soviet officers, immediately after the trial on June 11, 1937. His wife was subsequently arrested and executed, as were several of his relatives. His son, Pyotr Yakir Ionovich (1923 – 1982),[2] then fourteen years old, was arrested shortly after his father’s execution and spent a number of years in prison camps. Yakir’s military writings were banned.[3]

[Iona Yakir, 1966 USSR Stamp]

[Iona Yakir, 1966 USSR Stamp]

The executions were publicized throughout the Soviet Union:

Yakir and the other seven commanders were executed in Moscow, virtually right after their trial at the dawn of the 12th of June, 1937, without even reading their appeals. The man who performed their execution was Vasily Blokhin, the chief executioner of NKVD. The corpses were cremated on-site and the ashes were thrown into a mass grave dug in the courtyard of the Donskoy Monastery. Members of the Yakir family were either immediately executed, like his younger brother, Moris Emmanuilovich (1902 – 1937), or sent to Gulag labor camps: Yakir’s younger sister, Isabella Emmanuilovna (1900 – 1986) served there 10 years while his wife, Sarra Lazarevna (1900 – 1971) and his then-14-year-old son, Pyotr Ionovich (1923 – 1982),[22] spent there almost 20 years. Yakir’s military writings were banned. Plus, to morally finish the generals, newspapers dubbed them “treasonous”, and published articles approving their execution, with the signatures of well-known Soviet artists – no matter if they in fact signed these articles or not (among those that refused was Boris Pasternak).

Some of the family’s suffering as the descendents of an alleged traitor are documented in a 1973 article in The New Republic.

The branch of the family I knew, to whom Iona was an uncle, saw their own grandfather (Iona’s brother, a colonel in the army) executed, their grandmother sent to Siberia, and their father raised under a different name until the Khrushchev rehabilitation of their relatives.

Their cousin Petr’s dissident activies (see above) and their own status as high-profile refuseniks, further cemented the family’s name in the annals of Soviet history.

So, for me, this Soviet history became personal, not just academic.

And so is the death of Robert Conquest.

Here are some other reactions to his death:

(Featured Image via Hoover Institute)


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