10 September 2015

Being Right at the Wrong Moment: Robert Conquest


How could the British make Dahrendorf a baron but Popper only a knight?” said a surprised German politician. He did not understand the British honours system, and indeed few people do. Eric Hobsbawm, never-resigning member of the Communist Party, was made Companion of Honour (to the Queen). Fair enough, for Hobsbawm did have substantial work to his credit. But why not other distinguished exiles, such as Leszek Kołakowski or for that matter Vladimir Bukovski, truly a hero of our age and author of Jugement à Moscou which will count as one of the classics on the Soviet Union and probably read when Hobsbawm is forgotten. There is another such British mystery. Robert Conquest, who has just died, wrote another classic on this subject, The Great Terror, first published in 1968, but re-issued many times. Its subject was the Stalin Purge of the later 1930s, and Conquest went on to write about other vast crimes of that era – the Ukrainian famine that came with the collectivisation of agriculture in 1932–33, and the deportations of whole peoples from the Caucasus or the Crimea in 1943–45. These are landmark books, not just for the Soviet Union, but for the experience of humanity in the twentieth century, and should have had public recognition with the knighting of their author. But no. Robert Conquest had his enemies, as did the historian A. J. P. Taylor; his books, eighty years later, are never out of print, whereas others, much honoured in their own lifetime, are now quite forgotten.
 
Robert Conquest’s sin was to mistime being right. His classic on the Stalin Purge appeared just as the Vietnam War was going badly for the United States. In academe it was very unpopular, and many a time and oft you heard that Ho Chi-Minh was just a sort of Asiatic Tito, standing for social justice and national independence. By extension, a new generation of western academics reacted against its elders’ anti-Communism, and found good things to say about it. E. H. Carr was their spiritus rector, his overall message being that the USSR had turned itself into a World Power, defeating Hitler whereas its Tsarist predecessor had lost to the Kaiser. He especially approved of Communist policies that pushed peasants and small nationalities around. In 1967 quite a to-do was made of “the achievements” of the Revolution. An era of détente followed, and it was not done to criticise the Soviet Union. Neither Vladimir Bukovski nor Leszek Kołakowskifigured on the guest list for the seminars of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and Conquest’s book on the Great Famine was not ordered for its library. By contrast, Polish and Hungarian economists would appear in shiny brown suits, lecturing, beards waggling, on possibilities of market development under socialism, be effusively thanked for their “thought-provoking” remarks, and be discovered subsequently spending their expenses on female underwear in Marks and Spencer.
 
Conquest’s accounts of the Stalin horrors could not be frontally attacked. He had done an enormous amount of work in very difficult sources – the sort of memoir material dismissed by one British Sovietologist as “Solzhenitsyn et al”. His own literary gifts made this grim subject accessible, and the books were smuggled into the Soviet Union such that Conquest became a household word. When he issued a revised edition it was after a great amount of new material emerged from the archives, and of course it just confirmed what Conquest had said (although to this day Conquest’s judgement that the murder of Kirov in 1934, which sparked off the whole gruesome business, was a provocation is not uncontested). At gatherings in the 1990s, Conquest would appear with a name-tab marked, in Cyrillic, “Veteran Kholodnoy voyni”, given to him by some Russians, and he deserved this, in the sense that Margaret Thatcher had used him with much profit in the 1970s and 1980s. It is odd that she did not manage to have him knighted – an oddity that also appeared as regards her own irreplaceable allies among the trade unionists, who, by breaking Communist-inspired strikes, did so much for the economic recovery of the country.
 
His Reflections on a Ravaged Century (1999) established him as a wise student of the disasters of Communism, but also of the ills of the West – especially the decline of education and the rise of political infantilism. Here you can attack him for not providing references. Probably he just could not be bothered. He himself had come under preposterous attack for the Terror book by American academics who in one case pronounced that Stalin’s victims amounted at most to a few thousand, victims of some bureaucratic mistake (he subsequently wrote an apologetic book, saying that the true figure was eighteen million). You can really only answer this sort of statement with reference to what Dr Johnson thought of the plot of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: “It is impossible to criticise unresisting imbecility.” Similarly he would not deal head-on with the wilder claims of the feminists, merely hinting at their absurdity. The Americans launched a long-term enquiry into the lives of children brought up in fatherless homes, and the results, after about thirty years, bore out what anyone with any common sense would have said at the start.
 
But there was much more to Robert Conquest than reactionary old buffer, what the Germans call a Wutbürger. He was a real internationalist, in that, with an American father and a (very) English mother, herself with a background in Imperial India; he lived in various European countries. He had had many lives, including an early spell as a Communist undergraduate, involved in the Spanish Civil War, as a war-time officer, and as a diplomat (no doubt for Intelligence) in post-war Bulgaria, where he learnt to detest Communism and to have no illusions as to the purposes of the Kremlin (he had a great deal of satisfaction in the 1990s, when various Soviet veterans confirmed what he had said). Besides, Conquest was a prodigious linguist, able to appear live on television in three foreign languages. He translated Lamartine for the old BBC Third Programme (I looked up Le Vallon, and, having remembered Lamartine from school as insufferably soppy, revised my opinion). All of this went together with a private life of a sort that poets, sadly, often experience: four wives, and much irregularity besides. He was the sort of lucky divorcé who managed to keep on good terms with all the exes, and in his sixties, at last settled down. America – or at least, the Reagan side of America – was good to him, and he can be declared to have deserved well of the Republic. And for that matter, of humanity.



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