Culture

The Singular Robert Conquest

Robert Conquest

I wanted to jot a few notes about Robert Conquest, the great historian who passed away last month. I’m so grateful to have known him. I’d have hated to miss out on him. And we can know him through his writing, too. He had a long life of productivity. We can know him by his fruits.

‐Bill Buckley, when writing appreciations of others, liked to recall “the first time” — the first time he encountered them. I first saw Bob at Harvard in the mid-1980s. He had just published The Harvest of Sorrow, his exposé of the Soviets’ terror-famine in Ukraine. He was giving a speech to students, faculty, and, I guess, the general public. (Can’t quite remember.)

There is something I remember about the speech. Actually, two things, at least. First, he talked softly. Second, he said “Ukraine.”

This really jarred my ear. All my life, I’d said and heard “the Ukraine,” which implied that the place was a region of something larger. From the rostrum, Conquest explained that people who thought of the place as a country, or nation, dropped the article. They said “Ukraine,” regarding “the Ukraine” as both wrong and insulting.

Now, of course, it’s “the Ukraine” that would sound weird!

‐In the mid-1990s, I was working for The Weekly Standard in Washington, and attended an American Spectator dinner. Bob was there. I worked up the courage to introduce myself. He was delightful, of course (though somewhat hard to hear, because speaking softly). He recited for me his most famous limerick. (He wrote many). It goes,

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.

‐In 2002, I wrote a piece about him for National Review: “Conquest’s Conquest.” The occasion was that he was the dedicatee of two new books: one by Martin Amis, the other by Christopher Hitchens.

Actually, the Amis book — Koba the Dread, about Stalin — is dedicated to both Bob and his wife, Liddie. And to Clio, the muse of history!

From that point on, Bob and I became friends, and I cherished this friendship (and Liddie’s — it has been a joint deal, blessedly).

‐Sometime in the 1990s, I believe, Paul Johnson — one of the greatest historians of our time — called Bob “our greatest living modern historian.” Bob was also a poet (of serious poetry, as well as of limericks — which had their own seriousness!). He was an all-around intellectual.

He had that priceless combination of brilliance and moral sense. He had artistry, to boot.

‐He was born in England in the middle of World War I — 1917. I think of other historians I know: Bernard Lewis was born the year before Conquest, also in England. Richard Pipes is a youngster, born in 1923. Age 16, he saw Hitler. The Nazi leader had come to Dick’s hometown, Warsaw, to take a victory lap. Dick and his family got out in time.

‐Bob’s father was American, his mother English. He would always hold dual citizenship. In fact, I think of Bob as a blending of the English and the American. He represents the cousinship of the nations.

‐He went to Magdalen College, Oxford — like Johnson, like David Pryce-Jones, and like many another luminary.

‐He had a flirtation with Communism. He joined the Party, but he was an open member, not a secret one — which I think says something about Bob.

Later, he wrote, “Often at the age of 18 or 20, a student meets some glittering general idea and, far from feeling any responsibility to submit it to serious questioning, henceforward follows it like a duckling imprinted with its mother.”

‐Bob celebrated his 19th birthday in Morocco. The next day, as he was returning home, the Spanish Civil War broke out. Bob was an eyewitness to history, as well as its investigator and chronicler.

‐In World War II, he served in the Balkans — and there he saw Communism and the Communists for exactly what they were, and are.

‐Flash way forward to 1968 — when Bob comes out with his magnum opus, The Great Terror, which catalogued Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. This book helped put the lie to Communism. After Solzhenitsyn, Communism’s reputation in the West could not stand. It had a hard time standing after Bob, too.

‐This is probably one of the most famous stories about Bob: The publisher rang him up and said, “We’re going to republish your book, in a commemorative edition. Would you like to give it a new title?” “Yes,” said Bob. “How about ‘I Told You So, You F***ing Fools’?”

Only it never happened. Bob’s friend Kingsley Amis made it up. He liked to make up stories, including about his friends. One time, he published “a totally untrue story about me and a girl,” Bob told me. When Bob objected, sharply, Amis simply transferred the tale to someone else.

Eventually, unable to take anymore, Bob cut him off entirely. “But I gave him a general amnesty on the occasion of the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

‐In the early ’90s, Richard Nixon said this about Bob Conquest: His “historical courage makes him partially responsible for the death of Communism.” Nixon, I would say, was a fair judge of such matters.

‐The highest tribute of all, I think, came from a member of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party — who denounced, and immortalized, Bob as “anti-Sovietchik Number One.”

‐In 2001, Bob came out with Reflections on a Ravaged Century. He spoke about this book at an event in New York — beautiful place on the Upper East Side. Belongs to one of the former Soviet republics, I think. Can’t remember.

Anyway, Bill Buckley attended this event. I mention this because he did not attend many such events, in this period. It was a mark of his esteem for Conquest.

As we were leaving, he bought two copies of the book, one for me, one for himself. (He greatly overpaid the cashier, not bothering to wait for change. The cashier was confused. Bill was not a waiter.)

‐With Liddie, Bob lived in a community near Stanford. (He was long affiliated with the Hoover Institution.) The place is on an upper floor, amid trees. The leaves are outside the windows. Liddie sometimes refers to their home as “the treehouse.”

‐The address is Peter Coutts Circle. When I first visited, I asked Bob, “Who is or was Peter Coutts?” His face bright, he said, “You know, you’re only the second person who has ever asked me that.” The first was an English poet. (Can’t remember his name.) I was rather flattered.

“Peter Coutts” was the adopted name of a Frenchman who left his homeland when he got into some financial and legal trouble. To read an article about him, go here.

‐I recall many things about my conversations with Bob, including little things — or seemingly little things. He was a man of total intellectual integrity. His judgment was sound as a dollar (to use a phrase that is probably outdated). He once described a writer or a book or an article — I can’t remember — as “good.” Then he immediately changed it to “goodish.”

That was so Bob.

‐From time to time, he would call me up, just to talk. Who does that? Almost no one, in my experience, these days. It was such a pleasure. There was no “purpose” to the call. The purpose was to shoot the breeze — a wonderful purpose.

‐There came a time when he was too faint, really, to understand. Liddie was on the other line, to translate, or amplify. That was a saver.

‐Bob was always cheerful — at least in my experience. Indeed, he was famed for cheerfulness. He spent much of his scholarly life soaked in evil: the Soviet Union, totalitarianism, “nonconsensual societies,” as he would say. And yet he was so cheerful, such a lover of life.

He woke up happy, Liddie said. He sang in the shower.

‐They came on several National Review cruises. They were an adornment. Bob was a gent and a wit, as well as a sage.

‐In 2005, George W. Bush conferred on Bob the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Some other recipients that day: Muhammad Ali, Carol Burnett, Aretha Franklin, Andy Griffith, Frank Robinson, and Jack Nicklaus.

I love that lineup.

‐In 2011, I wrote a piece on a phrase that infects our political talk, especially on the left: “the right side of history.” An utterly specious phrase. Bob said it had a “Marxist twang.” Neatly observed, as always . . .

‐How are we doing in education, especially when it comes to teaching the U.S.-Soviet conflict, or the Free World-Communist World conflict? “They’re still talking absolute balls,” Bob told me. (There he was British, not American.) “In the academy, there remains a feeling of, ‘Don’t let’s be too rude to Stalin. He was a bad guy, yes, but the Americans were bad guys too, and so was the British Empire.’”

Also, “They say that we were Cold Warriors. Yes, and a bloody good show, too. A lot of people weren’t Cold Warriors — and so much the worse for them.”

Right on.

‐In 2012, I asked him to blurb a book of mine — a history of the Nobel Peace Prize. I didn’t know till after that he had been in the hospital. Liddie told me he insisted on doing it regardless.

I was both embarrassed and grateful — and touched.

(You know, I’ve used part of Bob’s blurb for a new book — and will keep on doing it, shamelessly, for as long as possible. It’s such a gratifying thing, as you can understand.)

‐I saw Bob when he was in pretty bad shape, physically, but he had absolute dignity, as well as his customary cheerfulness, elegance, wit, etc. He set an example, and he was marvelous. And if there is a hall of fame for spousal devotion, Elizabeth Conquest ought to be in it.

‐Sometime last year, I was scheduled to participate in a lunch at the Hoover Institution. It didn’t come off, for some reason. I called Liddie and told her this. She said, “Do you want to come to my lunch?” Did I ever. And it was the last time I saw Bob.

‐What was Bob, politically? A writer in Reason described him as a “Burkean conservative.” “I’ll allow that,” Bob told me. He continued, “I’m an anti-extremist. And I’m for a law-and-liberty culture. Those are Orwell’s words: law and liberty. I don’t regard the EU as being any good for that. I am strongly against the EU. I’m against regulationism and managerialism. I’m against activism of any sort.”

And remember, Bob said, “the Nazis were keen statists, and keen on socialism: ‘national socialism,’ they called it.”

How about conservatism, that murky term? “I feel that, when other people and nations are veering from civilization, I would prefer to conserve. I certainly prefer Burke to Locke — but, of course, there’s overlap of various sorts.”

‐Christopher Hitchens begins his 2002 book, Why Orwell Matters, with a poem that Bob wrote about Orwell in 1969. Its first lines are, “Moral and mental glaciers melting slightly / Betray the influence of his warm intent.” That, of course, applies to Bob too.

‐In 1989, as the Soviet Union was fast thawing, Bob returned there for the first time since his student days. Practically everyone had read The Great Terror, in secret. One man asked to pinch Bob, just to reassure himself that he, Robert Conquest, was really there, on Russian soil.

Another man — a poet — came up to him on the street and, without a word, handed him a rose.

‐He cheered me up. I loved him. He was a great man. He was a truth-teller, battling lies, and vanquishing them. The thought of him cheers me up even now.

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