Magazine | September 7, 2015, Issue

The Truth-Teller

Robert Conquest exposed the horrors of the USSR

Robert Conquest has just died at the age of 98, and the world’s shadows seem a little darker. To declare an interest, he and I have been friends since the days when he was foreign editor of the U.K. Spectator and I was the magazine’s literary editor. One of Bob’s particular bêtes noires was Ezra Pound, whose fascist sympathies and pretentious poetry he disliked in more or less equal proportions. Since the end of the war, Pound had been confined to a hospital in prison-like conditions. A number of poets were pressing for his release on compassionate grounds. Bob would not have it. A poet himself, he had offered to write the very last word on Pound in the literary pages I had just taken over. But when the piece did not arrive, I had to persuade him to devote the weekend to writing it, otherwise the next issue would have blank pages. The secret, I discovered, was to involve Bob in a good political skirmish.

At that time, Bob was engaged in researches for The Great Terror, published in 1968. That book was the first to document the mass murder Joseph Stalin had initiated and supervised in the name of Communism. For three years at the end of the 1930s, the Soviet Union was a cauldron of denunciation and arbitrary arrest, rigged trials and confessions extracted by torture, and blackmail that ended in deportation to the Gulag or execution. Basing his study on the available primary sources, especially the demographic evidence to be deduced from censuses, Bob calculated that somewhere on the order of 20 million people had been killed.

The crime itself is one of the most horrific in history, and the cover-up on a worldwide scale made it still worse. Assorted Marxists, Stalinists and Trotskyites, the likes of E. J. Hobsbawm and Isaac Deutscher, sanctified state terror then and afterward by insisting that the Communist Party was always right and merely doing natural justice to traitors and class enemies by getting rid of them. Under the illusion that Communism was progressive, innumerable people, including reputed intellectuals and politicians, suspended their critical faculties. Bob had all such useful idiots in his sights, and the character to take them on: “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.”

Compression of the Soviet catastrophe into a limerick that makes people smile displays a certain genius. Bob spoke softly, applying the slightly outdated word “chaps” to ideological enemies, but he was unanswerable. At a journalistic gathering in a London that believed it was better to be red than dead, his name came up and the lefties present said that someone as anti-Soviet as Bob was objectively a fascist — so much for his attacks on Pound and fascism. If I was his friend and colleague, then I had to be a fascist too.

Son of an American father and a British mother, Bob was educated at Winchester, a famously highbrow school, and Magdalen College, Oxford. At one Spectator conference, I can also recall, he pointed out that the whole lot of us attending were of mixed parentage and none of us, or the country, was the worse for it. He had firsthand experience of Communism, briefly as a member of the Party, then as an officer with the wartime Military Mission in Bulgaria. He might recite Bulgarian poetry or reminisce about Frank Thompson, a Communist colleague on the Military Mission who was elevated into something of a legend after he lost his life in a firefight with the Germans (a subway station in Sofia is named in his honor).

The Soviet takeover of Bulgaria made Bob feel pity for people he had come to know, and anger on their behalf. The imagination that something similar could happen here was the basis of his friendship with the like-minded Kingsley Amis. Amis’s novel Russian Hide and Seek has an opening scene in which an elegant young officer riding through the English countryside is revealed to belong to the victorious Soviet army occupying Britain. When the Conservatives unexpectedly won the general election of 1970, I saw Kingsley celebrate at a party by standing on the table, doing a little dance, and shouting at disappointed socialists all around the room, “Five more years outside the barbed wire.” Kingsley is credited with suggesting, when an American publisher proposed to reprint The Great Terror,  a new title, “I Told You So, You F***ing Fools.” The dismissive and reactionary attitudes he and Bob adopted and shared with the poet Philip Larkin were designed as protective jokes. Collaborating to write limericks mocking critics they did not respect, or exchanging schoolboy smut, the three of them formed what might be called an underground resistance movement of the Right.

Bob’s books ranged over Cold War topics, for instance the persecution of Boris Pasternak for publishing his novel Doctor Zhivago; the Arctic gulag of Kolyma; and the assassination of Sergei Kirov, almost certainly at Stalin’s behest. Published in 1986, The Harvest of Sorrow is the authoritative account of the collectivization of agriculture in Ukraine around 1930, another of the historic crimes for which Stalin is responsible. Using primary sources again, Bob computed that something on the order of 7 million people had then died either of starvation or because they had been deported and exiled in some gulag.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, its archives became accessible and revealed that Bob’s scholarship had been impressively thorough. If anything, he had underestimated the number of victims. Bob had fulfilled the classic purpose of the historian to represent reality. Russians were quick to lionize him. President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a counterweight to the prestigious Companion of Honour that Prime Minister Blair saw fit to give Hobsbawm.

Marxist historians work under an ideological obligation to misrepresent reality. Events have to satisfy the determined pattern that Karl Marx ordained for them. Isaac Deutscher, a Marxist writer with a good many disciples, showed what the manipulation of evidence could achieve.

Eric Hobsbawm, surely the most flagrant apologist in the English language for Communism, was a master of selectivity, exaggerating everything he believed helped the cause and omitting whatever he thought harmful. Unconcerned with primary sources, he seems never to have gone in for reality checks. So he performed the remarkable feats of justifying Stalin’s show trials and praising the Soviet Union’s invasion of Finland in 1939 and its subsequent repression of Hungary in 1956, while his magnum opus about the 20th century did not, in more than 600 pages, mention the Soviet secret police, Soviet slave labor, the terror famine in Ukraine, the Soviet murder in wartime of the Polish elite, and more atrocities besides. In 1994, Hobsbawm told a BBC interviewer that the death of 15 to 20 million was a price worth paying to have a Communist society. Although his cast of mind brought him closer to the superstitions of a witch doctor than to the procedures of a professional historian, he was a university professor and member of the British Academy, with some 30 honorary degrees. Bob had just two.

Does it matter, now that the Cold War is over? Yes: This is vital unfinished business. Bob’s criticism of Soviet Communism was combative, that’s true — but he’s a great man because he had the same approach toward all the totalitarian chaps who keep on coming and by the look of it always will.

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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