In an enormously productive life, Robert Conquest’s greatest achievement may have been the damage that he did to the argument of some on the west’s mid-century left that they could not have been expected to understand the true nature of the Stalinist state. That was never a credible claim. Enough was already out there—and had been since the 1930s—for anyone who took the trouble to look, even more so after the (not so very) secret speech in 1956 in which Khrushchev denounced the Stalinist “cult of personality” and some of the episodes of Stalinist repression. Nevertheless, downplaying Stalinist atrocities made sense for too many, not only because of the time they had spent in, so to speak, Stalin’s corner, but because of the awkward implications of those horrors for the way they wanted the past to be understood and the future to be organized.
In writing the first (1968) version of the Great Terror, Conquest provided a counter-narrative that cut through all that convenient obfuscation. He set out the core truth of what had happened, placing it in a broader and more accurate context than had been typical before, moving away from a narrow focus on the lethal intra-party battles of the 1930s and towards a broader discussion of Stalinist terror and, in many respects, its inevitability under the system that Lenin had designed. In the 1960s there were plenty of people in the west who conceded that the Soviet experiment was flawed, but argued that it represented a nobler alternative, an alternative that could be made to work with a tweak here and better intentions there. Robert Conquest did not, unfortunately, put them all out of business, but he made their job very much more difficult.
Two decades later, Conquest wrote the The Harvest of Sorrow, the first widely available book in English to describe the Soviet famine of the early 1930s for what it was, not only the product of a cruel and destructive agricultural reform (collectivization), but also part of a deliberate attempt to break Ukraine as a nation, an attempt that left millions of Ukrainians dead. Again, Conquest’s writings had a devastating effect, both in bringing a shamefully little-known horror into full public view, and in highlighting the ‘national’ issues that mattered so much in the politics of the USSR, yet, as the Soviet Union fell apart, came as a surprise to so many in the west.
In a note written for the BBC in the aftermath of Conquest’s death, Stephen Evans, the product of a Welsh communist family, remembers the impact that reading the Great Terror had on him. Evans concludes as follows:
It is said that the Mexican writer Octavio Paz said that Conquest’s books “closed the debate” on Stalinism. They ended the argument. That isn’t true. Nostalgia for the monster remains, perhaps even in Russia today.
But Conquest’s books did open the eyes of those with minds to open. I know. I remember.
That there could be such a debate is incredible. It is also a reminder of how necessary Robert Conquest was. I was lucky enough to meet him at a conference, suitably enough, in Prague a few years or so after the Soviets had left. I thanked him then, and I thank him now.