Robert Conquest

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Robert Conquest
Robert Conquest (cropped).jpg
Conquest in 1987
Born George Robert Acworth Conquest
(1917-07-15)15 July 1917
Great Malvern, Worcestershire, England
Died 3 August 2015(2015-08-03) (aged 98)
Stanford, California, United States
Occupation Historian, poet
Notable awards See below
Spouse Joan Watkins (m. 1942; div. 1948)
Tatiana Mihailova (m. 1948; div. 1962)
Caroleen MacFarlane (m. 1964; div. 1978)
Elizabeth Wingate (m. 1979; his death 2015)
Children 3

George Robert Acworth Conquest, CMG, OBE, FBA, FAAAS, FRSL, FBIS (15 July 1917 – 3 August 2015) was a British-American historian and poet, notable for his influential works on Soviet history including The Great Terror: Stalin's Purges of the 1930s (1968). He was a longtime research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

The Soviet Union was Conquest's lifetime obsession.[1] In the early 1990s, Richard Nixon said, “[Conquest's] historical courage makes him partially responsible for the death of Communism.”[2]

Conquest was not merely an “anti-Stalinist,” but an anti-Communist, period: in Russia, in Vietnam, in Europe, in the Caribbean — everywhere.[3] He maintained throughout his career that the core problem with the USSR began with Marxism as a mode of political economy, which he considered fraudulent and discredited.[2] He affirmed: "The mere existence of the U.S.S.R., and its ideas, distorted the way in which many people over the whole world thought about society, the economy, human history".[4] He also called Marxism a “misleading mental addiction”.[5]

He was denounced in 1990 at the very last plenum of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party by Alexander Chakovsky[6] as “anti-Sovietchik number one”[3] emerging, in the view of the Oxford historian Mark Almond, as “one of the few Western heroes of the collapse of Soviet Communism”.[7]

Early career[edit]

Conquest was born on 15 July 1917 in Great Malvern, Worcestershire,[8] to an American father (Robert Folger Wescott Conquest) and an English mother (Rosamund Alys Acworth Conquest).[9][10] His father served in an American Ambulance Service unit with the French Army in World War I, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre, with Silver Star in 1916.[11]

Conquest was educated at Winchester College, the University of Grenoble, and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was an exhibitioner in modern history and took his bachelor's and master's degrees in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and his doctorate in Soviet history. In 1937, after spending what would now be called a gap year at the University of Grenoble and in Bulgaria, Conquest went up to Oxford, joining as an "open" member, the Communist Party of Great Britain. He did not find it a hotbed of fanaticism; in fact he was able to join the Carlton club while still an open communist. Fellow members included Denis Healey and Philip Toynbee.[12] During this period, to celebrate the coronation of George VI in 1937, he placed nine pisspots, red white and blue, the white ones labelled GR, in an inaccessible but visible position on the roof of Magdalen. It took all morning for the authorities to get them down. Denis Healey remembers: "He always tended to extremes. He had become rather an extremist rightwinger within 10 years."[12]

Robert Conquest had himself been an enthusiast of Stalin,[13][14] and visited Moscow in 1937 as a youthful devotee of the great soviet experiment.[7] Conquest then professed that “girl trouble” took up too much of his time at university to preoccupy him with surplus value; also, he thought zealous adherents to be “bloody fools”.[2] He later recalled: "I found the communists very dull and rather stupid".[7] When the Communist party in Britain denounced the Second World War in 1939 as imperialist and capitalist, Conquest broke with it and enlisted in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry ,[5] serving with the regiment from 1939 to 1946. In 1942, he married Joan Watkins, with whom he had two sons. In 1943, he was posted to the School of Slavonic and East European Studies to study Bulgarian, which is today part of University College London.[7] In 1944, Conquest was posted to Bulgaria as a liaison officer to the Bulgarian forces fighting under Soviet command, attached to the Third Ukrainian Front, and then to the Allied Control Commission. There, he met Tatiana Mihailova, who later became his second wife. At the end of the war, he joined the Foreign Office, returning to the British Legation in Sofia where he remained as the press officer.[15] In 1948 he was recalled to London under a minor diplomatic cloud, after helping to smuggle two Bulgarians and left Bulgaria with Tatiana. Back in London, he divorced his first wife and married Tatiana. But in 1951, Tatiana Conquest was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and in 1962 the couple divorced.[7]

The IRD years[edit]

In 1948 Conquest joined the Foreign Office's Information Research Department (IRD), a "propaganda counter-offensive" unit created by the Labour Attlee government[16] in order to "collect and summarize reliable information about Soviet and communist misdoings, to disseminate it to friendly journalists, politicians, and trade unionists, and to support, financially and otherwise, anticommunist publications."[17] The IRD was also engaged in manipulating public opinion.[18]

Conquest at the IRD was remembered as a brilliant, arrogant figure who had 10 people reporting to him.[12] He continued to work at the Foreign Office until 1956, becoming increasingly involved in the intellectual counter-offensive against communism.[7] During those years, Conquest wrote, for example, a memorandum on the show trials in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, addressing the intriguing question of what it was that made the defendants confess to all the accusations. His articles were circulated within the Foreign Office and commented upon within the East European and Soviet Russian departments of the ministry.[18] In 1947–1949, the IRD started to collect materials on the issue of forced labor in Stalin’s Russia and decided to publish pamphlets and prepare news articles and bulletins on the forced labor camps. It had been decided that one or two names of Soviet camps should be hammered into the mind of the public, until these names were as clearly linked with Communist terror as the names “Auschwitz” and “Treblinka” were linked with Nazism. The Soviet camps chosen for the purpose was Karaganda and Vorkuta. Later, Kolyma in the Soviet Far East was added.[18] The image of the Stalinist terror system geared towards public opinion continued to make its appearance in the works that Conquest later published, notably in The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge in the 1930s and in Kolyma — The Arctic Death Camps.[18]

In 1949 Conquest’s assistant, Celia Kirwan (later Celia Goodman), approached George Orwell for information to help identify Soviet sympathisers. Orwell's list, discovered after her death in 2002, included Guardian and Observer journalists, as well as E. H. Carr and Charlie Chaplin.[5] Conquest, like Orwell, fell for the beautiful Celia Kirwan, who inspired him to write several poems.[7] One of his foreign office colleagues was Alan Maclean, brother of Donald Maclean, one of the Philby spy ring, who fled to Russia with Guy Burgess in 1951. When his brother defected, Alan resigned, and went to Macmillan and published a book of Conquest's poems.[12] At the IRD Conquest wrote various papers which sowed the seeds for his later work. One, on Soviet means of obtaining confessions, was to be elaborated in The Great Terror. Other papers were “Peaceful Co-existence in Soviet Propaganda and Theory”, and on “United Fronts – a Communist Tactic”.[7] Much of IRD works was later published in the Soviet Studies Series.[7] In frank interviews, Conquest would later admit that many topics he wrote on in the 1960s and 1970s had actually been fairly thoroughly prepared earlier, during the IRD period, and he recognized the importance of the factual materials gathered by his associates and himself at the IRD, until his departure, for his later, more academic works on these topics.[18]

In 1950 he served briefly as First Secretary in the British Delegation to the United Nations.

First years as an historian[edit]

In 1956, Conquest left the IRD, later becoming a freelance writer and historian.[7] After he left, he says, IRD suggested to him that he could combine some of the data he had gathered from Soviet publications into a book.[19] During the 1960s, Conquest edited eight volumes of work produced by the IRD, published in London by the Bodley Head as the Soviet Studies Series; and in the United States republished as The Contemporary Soviet Union Series by Frederick Praeger, who had published previously a number of books on communism at the request of the CIA,[19] in addition to works by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Milovan Đilas, Howard Fast, and Charles Patrick Fitzgerald.[20]

In 1962–63, Conquest was literary editor of The Spectator, but resigned when he found the job interfered with his historical writing. His first books on the Soviet Union were Common Sense About Russia (1960), The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities (1960) and Power and Policy in the USSR (1961). His other early works on the Soviet Union included Courage of Genius: The Pasternak Affair (1961) and Russia After Khrushchev (1965).[7]

The Great Terror[edit]

Main article: The Great Terror

In 1968, Conquest published what became his best-known work, The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties, the first comprehensive research of the Great Purge, which took place in the Soviet Union between 1934 and 1939. Many reviewers at the time were not impressed by his way of writing about the Great Terror, which was in the tradition of “great men who make history”.[18] The book was based mainly on information which had been made public, either officially or by individuals, during the so-called "Khrushchev Thaw" in the period 1956–64. It also drew on accounts by Russian and Ukrainian émigrés and exiles dating back to the 1930s, and on an analysis of official Soviet documents such as the Soviet census.[21]

The most important aspect of the book was that it widened the understanding of the purges beyond the previous narrow focus on the "Moscow trials" of disgraced Communist Party of the Soviet Union leaders such as Nikolai Bukharin and Grigory Zinoviev, who were executed shortly thereafter. The question of why these leaders had pleaded guilty and confessed to various crimes at the trials had become a topic of discussion for a number of western writers, and helped inspire anti-Communist tracts such as George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon.[22]

Conquest argued that the trials and executions of these former Communist leaders were a minor detail of the purges. By his estimates, Stalinist purges had led to the deaths of some 20 million people. He later stated that the total number of deaths could "hardly be lower than some thirteen to fifteen million."[23]

Conquest sharply criticized Western intellectuals such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Jean-Paul Sartre, Walter Duranty, Sir Bernard Pares, Harold Laski, D. N. Pritt, Theodore Dreiser, Bertold Brecht, Owen Lattimore, Romain Rolland, and even American ambassador Joseph Davies, accusing them of being dupes of Stalin and apologists of his regime. Conquest cites various comments of them where, he argues, they were denying, excusing, or justifying various aspects of the purges.[24]

After the opening up of the Soviet archives in 1991, detailed information was released that Conquest argued supported his conclusions. When Conquest's publisher asked him to expand and revise The Great Terror, Conquest is famously said to have suggested the new version of the book be titled I Told You So, You Fucking Fools. In fact, the mock title was jokingly proposed by Conquest's old friend, Sir Kingsley Amis. The new version was published in 1990 as The Great Terror: A Reassessment; ISBN 0-19-507132-8.[25] The American historian J. Arch Getty disagreed, writing in 1994 that the archives did not support Conquest's casualty figures.[26] In 1995, investigative journalist Paul Lashmar suggested that the reputation of prominent academics such as Robert Conquest was built upon work derived from material provided by the IRD.[27] According to Denis Healey The Great Terror was an important influence, "but one which confirmed people in their views rather than converted them".[12]

Although many aspects of his book continue to be disputed by sovietologist historians and researchers on Russian and Soviet history, according to anti-communist poet Czesław Miłosz Conquest has been vindicated by history.[28] In 2000, Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff, whose family emigrated from Russia as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution, wrote "One of the few unalloyed pleasures of old age is living long enough to see yourself vindicated. Robert Conquest is currently enjoying this pleasure."[29] While the anti-communist conservative popular historian Paul Johnson, one of Thatcher's closest advisers, described Conquest as "our greatest living historian". And, in the phrase of Timothy Garton Ash, he was Solzhenytsin before Solzhenytsin.[12]

Anyway, in 1996, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who have been previously attacked by Conquest for his book Age of Extremes,[30] while praising Conquest's The Great Terror "as a remarkable pioneer effort to assess the Stalin Terror", expressed the opinion that this work and others were now to be considered obsolete "simply because the archival sources are now available", thus there was not need any more for "using fragmentary sources" and "guesswork" as "when better or more complete data are available, they must take the place of poor and incomplete ones".[31]

Indeed, at a workshop on Communist regimes, organized by the Swedish Research Council in Sigtuna, Sweden, in June 2000, Conquest mentioned that given all the new empirical evidence that has been made available, he wished that he could completely rewrite The Great Terror, the revised edition of which had come ten years too early in 1990.[18] Conquest answered to professor of Economic History Lennart Samuelson, who was puzzled by his use of literary sources, such as memoirs by defectors and ex-Communists:

“Alas! Such were my preconditions, even after the ‘Thaw’ and Khrushchev’s light de-Stalinization in the 1960s. I now regret that my updated 1990 version with the subtitle A Reassessment was actually published several years too early.”[32]

In the foreword to his “40th Anniversary Edition” of The Great Terror, Conquest points to how he, in the old days, daringly but hesitantly used to quote from Soviet defectors, and that some of them did indeed turn out to be unreliable.[18]

However, in 2002, Conquest replied vehemently to his critics:

“They’re still talking absolute balls. 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.’”

Furthermore he openly declared himself to have been a Cold Warrior:

“They say [disapprovingly] 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.” [3]

Later works[edit]

In 1966 Robert Conquest wrote an article, "Immobilism and decay", later included in the book Dilemmas of Change in Soviet Politics (1969), which was a collection of authors edited by Zbigniew Brzezinski.

He saw Soviet Union as "a country where the political system is radically and dangerously inappropriate to its social and economic dynamics. [...][change] may be sudden and catastrophic."[33][34]

Dilemmas of Change in Soviet Politics contained fourteen articles dealing with the Soviet Union's future. Six of them, by Brzezinski himself, Robert Conquest and others considered "[USSR] collapse as a serious possibility although not immediately." [34]

Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps (1978)[edit]

In 1978, Conquest published Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps, on the infamous Kolyma camps in the Soviet Far East.

Conquest contended that the primary purpose of these camps was not gold extraction, but systematic extermination of the prisoners on a scale rivaling Hitler’s Final Solution.[35] But, in recent years, few Western historians have argued that any series of events, except for the famine in Ukraine in the fall of 1932 and spring of 1933, can be termed genocide as defined by the UN convention.[35] And, in 2003, historian Martin J. Bollinger made an in-depth analysis of Conquest’s calculations revealing them as inaccurate and presenting more realistic estimates of the total prisoners kontingenty and their mortality during the whole Stalinist period.[35]

"In general, the CIA's [early 1950s] and Robert Conquest's [1990] estimates were consistently about twice the numbers subsequently revealed by the Soviet archives, an error Conquest at least has subsequently acknowledged."[36]

What to Do When the Russians Come: a Survivor's Handbook (1984)[edit]

In 1984, Robert Conquest wrote, with Jon Manchip White, the fictional book What to Do When the Russians Come: a Survivor's Handbook which, however, was intended to be a real survival manual in case of Soviet invasion. This book, as many other works of the mid-80s in different media, like Sir John Hackett's "The Third World War", the movie "Red Dawn", and the Milton Bradley game "Fortress America", starts from the premise that a Soviet ground-invasion of USA could be imminent and Soviet Union was about to engulf the world.

"It is widely accepted that the United States now faces a real possibility of succumbing to the power of an alien regime unless the right policies are pursued. [This book's aim] is, first, to show the American citizen clearly and factually what the results of this possible Soviet domination could be and how it would affect him or her personally; and second, to give some serious advice on how to survive."[37]

Conquest supported the Reagan defense buildup and asked for an increase of expenses on US defense budget, claiming that in the nuclear field NATO was only possibly matching USSR military power:

"We live in dangerous times. Such miscalculations are very possible. But they are not inevitable. The American people and their representatives have it in their power to prevent their country from undergoing the ordeal we have described. A democratic government, with all its distractions and disadvantages, [...] It is not infallible, it is slow to learn, and it is willing to grasp at comfortable illusions; but it may yet act decisively"[38] "But why should we fear that such an ordeal may face us? The economic potential of the West in gross national product is far greater than that of the Soviet Union.[...]In fact, the Soviet Union is economically far behind the United States. American technology is always a generation ahead of theirs. They have to turn to the United States for wheat. The Soviet economy is at a dead end. The Communist system has failed to win support in any of the countries of Eastern Europe. The Soviet idea has no attractions. On any calculation—of economic power or social advance or intellectual progress there could be no question of the Russians imposing their will. But in terms of actual military power, the West’s advantage does not seem to have been made use of. It is at least matched, and many would say overmatched, in the nuclear field; the Western forces in Europe have less than half the striking power of their opponents. It is no good our being more advanced than they are if this is not translated into power—both military power and political willpower."[39]

The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror-Famine (1986)[edit]

Main article: The Harvest of Sorrow

In 1986, Conquest published The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror-Famine, dealing with the collectivization of agriculture in Ukraine and elsewhere in the USSR, under Stalin's direction in 1929–31, and the resulting famine, in which millions of peasants died due to starvation, deportation to labor camps, and execution. In this book, Conquest supported the view that the famine was a planned act of genocide.[7]

Stalin and the Kirov Murder (1989)[edit]

For the Trotskyists, Kirov’s murder was the Stalinist equivalent of the Reichstag fire, deliberately started by the Nazis to justify the arrest of German Communists. The Trotskyist-Menshevik view became the dominant one among western historians, popularised in Robert Conquest’s influential books.[40]

In The Great Terror, Conquest already undermined the official Soviet story of conspiracy and treason. Conquest placed the murder in 1934 of the Leningrad party boss, Sergei Kirov, one of Stalin’s inner circle, as the key to the mechanism of terror.

He returned to this in Stalin and the Kirov Murder (1989), where he firmly affirmed that Stalin not only sanctioned Kirov's assassination, but used it as a justification for the terror that culminated in 1937 and '38, though no smoking-gun evidence has yet been found to confirm Stalin’s role in the murder.[5][41][42]

Poetry and Literature[edit]

In addition to his scholarly work, Conquest was a well-regarded poet[43] whose poems have been published in various periodicals from 1937. In 1945 he was awarded the PEN Brazil Prize for his war poem "For the Death of a Poet" – about an army friend, the poet Drummond Allison, killed in Italy – and, in 1951, he received a Festival of Britain verse prize.[44] During his lifetime, he had seven volumes of poetry[45] and one of literary criticism[46] published.

Conquest was a major figure in a prominent British literary circle known as "The Movement" which also included Philip Larkin and Sir Kingsley Amis. Movement poets, many of whom bristled at being so labeled, rejected the experiments of earlier practitioners such as Ezra Pound.[22]

He edited, in 1956 and 1962, the influential New Lines anthologies, introducing works by them, as well as Thom Gunn, Dennis Enright, and others, to a wider public.[47] He spent 1959–60 as visiting poet at the University of Buffalo. Several of his poems were published in The New Oxford Book of Light Verse (1978; compiled by Amis), under the pseudonyms "Stuart Howard-Jones", "Victor Gray" and "Ted Pauker".[48]

It emerged from the pages of poet Philip Larkin’s published letters that Conquest and Larkin shared an enthusiasm for pornography in the '50s.[7] When Larkin was in Hull, Conquest sent him judicious selections of the latest pornography, and, when he came down to London, Conquest took him on shopping trips to the Soho porn shops.[5] On one occasion Conquest, in 1957, wrote a letter to Larkin purporting to come from the Vice Squad which had found the poet’s name on a pornographic publisher’s list. Larkin panicked and went to see his solicitor, convinced that he was going to lose his job as librarian at Hull University, before Conquest owned up.[7] The true story of the joke became in 2008, Mr Larkin's Awkward Day, a comedy radio play by Chris Harrald.[49]

Soon after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn met with Conquest, asking him to translate a ‘little’ poem of his into English verse. This was "Prussian Nights" – nearly two thousand lines in ballad metre – published in 1977.[50]

Science Fiction Novels[edit]

Conquest had been a member of the British Interplanetary Society since the 1940s, and shared Amis’s taste for science fiction. Starting from 1961, the two writers jointly edited Spectrum, five anthologies of new sci-fi writing.[5] He also proposed to Amis a collaboration based on a draft comic novel which Conquest had completed. This was revised by Amis, and then it appeared under both their names as The Egyptologists (1965).[5] The novel is about a secret Egyptological London society that is really a husbands' organization serving as an alibi for philanderers.[22][51] A reviewer in the New York Times felt that their “elaborate little jokes leave an unpleasant taste”.[5] Later, a film version of the novel was canceled when its star, Peter Sellers, was called away to Hollywood.[52]

Conquest published two works of fiction, the one co-authored with Amis, The Egyptologists (1965), and the science fiction novel, A World of Difference (1955).[8]

The Abomination of Moab (1979)[edit]

Robert Conquest’s 1979 book of criticism, The Abomination of Moab, sought the total destruction of Ezra Pound as a serious poet due in part to his fascist sympathies. Conquest attached what he described as Pound’s classical pretensions and mistakes, in an attempt to undermine the poet’s carefully cultivated authority. Conquest was the first critic ever to dare question the revered status of Pound's Pisan Cantos.

His view was that (a) Pound’s bigotry is reflected in his poetic work and (b) - and perhaps only contingently - that his poetic work is mostly fifth-rate. For him it was still theoretically possible for a "fascist crank" to be a good poet, but this particular one was not.[53]

Conquest also noticed that lousy poetry was a good if not exact predictor of bad faith in politics.[53]

Conquest considered Pound, against the canting fashions of the day, as a poseur of the highest order, not to mention a lousy poet who garbled his own allusions to classical mythology and did so without any redeeming ingenuity or creativity. Also, in Conquest's opinion, Pound’s notorious fascism and egoism only added to his artistic debit.[2]

“It is politically and morally relevant that we are called upon by admirers of Pound to find the Pisan Cantos a moving expression of the poet’s suffering. In fact, people go so far as to imply that the American army behaved with disgraceful brutality in keeping him in a wired camp without adequate protection from the weather. One may regret all the suffering, or even discomfort; but this took place at a time when the smoke had scarcely ceased to rise from Auschwitz, and millions were still in a far worse case than Pound’s. He had supported the anti-Semitic policies of the Axis (and even now when the facts have long been available to him, I do not think that he has shown much sympathy or pity for the victims of the gas-chambers). In the circumstances one may feel, in one’s heartless way, that having to sleep out in the rain for a bit was a suffering he might have done better to keep quiet about. And in any case, a humanity and sympathy which is mainly expressed for oneself can seldom be particularly moving.”[54]

Having in passing attacked Pound’s claim to have rendered Latin classics into verse, Conquest concluded:

“Pound’s greatest feat, perhaps, was that by sheer persistence he wore down opposition to the extent that many critics hardly dared to do other than take quite seriously a great deal of what was quite clearly boring nonsense”.[55]


In the 1960s Conquest was a pro-American-nuclear-bases-in-Britain man, regarded as a damnable reactionary by members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.[51] Conquest was also a founder and attender of the weekly "fascist lunches" at Italian restaurant Bertorelli's in Covent Garden, arranged by Kingsley Amis. Conquest and the elder Amis campaigned against the expansion of university education, on the grounds that it would dilute standards. "More will mean worse" was their slogan and they never retract that judgment. From this period dates "Conquest's Law", which states that "Everyone is a reactionary about subjects he understands".[12] (His Second Law is: “Every organization appears to be headed by secret agents of its opponents.”) [2]

In 1967, Conquest, along with Kingsley Amis, John Braine and several others, signed a letter to The Times entitled "Backing for U.S. Policies in Vietnam", supporting the US government in the Vietnam War.[56]

In the 1970s he contributed to a so-called "Black Paper" on British education, lamenting how standards of learning were being eroded.[51] Larkin shared his robust political enthusiasms with Conquest: “Fuck the students … fuck the Common Market … Hurray for Ian Smith, Ian Paisley …”[5]

Conquest was advisor of Margaret Thatcher and US anti-Communist Democrat Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson[2] and voted Labour until the arrival of Mrs Thatcher.[7]

In the 1970s Conquest was invited to meet the opposition leader Margaret Thatcher to discuss the Soviet threat.[7] "Margaret Thatcher is the only person in politics, along with Condi Rice, with whom I am on cheek-kissing terms," Conquest said. Asked to help Thatcher with a speech on Russia in 1976, he wrote a draft, and that was, in his words, "the first Iron Lady speech".[12]

In June 1978 Mrs Thatcher drew heavily on an advance manuscript of one of Conquest’s books, Present Danger (1979), for a major speech on foreign policy she made in Brussels. The theme of the book (and the speech) was, in Conquest’s words, “there’s nothing the Russians can do so long as we keep the level of our arms right,” and he dedicated the work to Mrs Thatcher. In the run-up to the 1979 general election, Conquest floated the idea that she might appoint him ambassador to the UN once she became Prime Minister, but she declined to do so.[7]

What worried Conquest particularly, in those years, was the loss of nerve in US foreign politics he believed was a problem during the presidency of Jimmy Carter. “I feel the real urgency,” he wrote to her in August 1979, “to stiffen up Washington”.[7] At the contrary, he really liked Ronald Reagan[12] and became one of his adviser.[52]

In 1986, Conquest affirmed that "a science-fiction attitude is a great help in understanding the Soviet Union. It isn't so much whether they're good or bad, exactly; they're not bad or good as we'd be bad or good. It's far better to look at them as Martians than as people like us."[51]

He was also the boldest theorist of the pro-American lobby in British politics. He would like Britain to withdraw from the EU and form part of a much looser association of English-speaking nations, known as the "Anglosphere". This was very close to Mrs Thatcher's visceral loathing of Europe.[12]

About his political affiliations, British writer Christopher Hitchens said that Conquest “might not want to be identified as a full-out conservative, because he is an ex-Marxist and was a committed social democrat — and even voted for Clinton in 1992! — but he has found a sort of home on the civilized Right”. Anyway Conquest replied: “Ex-Marxist? Oh, come on! I was a Marxist when I was 20, and I wasn’t a committed social democrat ever.” As for Clinton, “I don’t vote! I might have said something in Clinton’s favor, knowing nothing about him in those days. I didn’t think the Bush administration was doing very well. I might have hoped that Clinton was a Scoop Jackson type. And, it’s true, I’d like to see at least some Democrats who’d be solid, in the Jackson way.”[3]

Later life[edit]

In 1964, he married Caroleen MacFarlane, but the marriage failed. In 1978, Conquest then began dating Elizabeth Neece Wingate, a lecturer in English and the daughter of a United States Air Force colonel. He and Wingate married the next year.[12]

In 1981, Conquest moved to California to take up a post as Senior Research Fellow and Scholar-Curator of the Russian and Commonwealth of Independent States Collection at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where he remained a Fellow.[7]

Conquest at his home, 2010

Conquest was a fellow of the Columbia University's Russian Institute, and of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; a distinguished visiting scholar at the Heritage Foundation; a research associate of Harvard University's Ukrainian Research Institute.[8] In 1990, Conquest was the presenter of Red Empire, a seven-part mini-series documentary on the Soviet Union produced by Yorkshire Television.[57]

Conquest died of pneumonia in Stanford, California, on 3 August 2015 at the age of 98.[8][22] He had numerous grandchildren from his sons and stepdaughter.[8]

Awards and honours[edit]

Conquest (left) receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Aretha Franklin (middle) and Alan Greenspan (right) at the White House, 2005

Conquest was a dual national (British and American) by birth.[8] He was a Fellow of the British Academy, of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of the Royal Society of Literature, and of the British Interplanetary Society, and a Member of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.[7]

His honours include

His awards include:


Historical and political[edit]

  • Common Sense About Russia (1960)
  • Power and Policy in the USSR (1961)[59]
  • The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities (1960)[59]
  • Courage of Genius: The Pasternak Affair (1961)[59]
  • Russia After Khruschev (1965)[59]
  • The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties (1968)
    • The Great Terror: A Reassessment (1990)[59]
    • The Great Terror: 40th Anniversary Edition (2008)[59]
  • Where Marx Went Wrong (1970)[59]
  • The Nation Killers (1970)
  • Lenin (1972)[59]
  • Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps (1978)[59]
  • Present Danger: Towards a Foreign Policy (1979)[59]
  • We and They: Civic and Despotic Cultures (1980)[59]
  • Inside Stalin's Secret Police: NKVD Politics, 1936–1939 (1985)[59]
  • What to Do When the Russians Come: A Survivor's Guide (with Jon Manchip White, 1984)[59]
  • The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986)[59]
  • Tyrants and Typewriters: Communiques in the Struggle for Truth (1989)[59]
  • Stalin and the Kirov Murder (1989)[59]
  • Stalin: Breaker of Nations (1991)[59]
  • History, Humanity, and Truth (1993)[59]
  • Reflections on a Ravaged Century (1999)[59]
  • The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History, W. W. Norton & Company (2004), ISBN 0-393-05933-2


  • Poems (1956)[59]
  • Between Mars and Venus (1962)[59]
  • Arias from a Love Opera, and Other Poems (1969)[59]
  • Forays (1979)[59]
  • New and Collected Poems (1988)[59]
  • Demons Don't (1999)[59]
  • Penultimata (2009)[59]
  • A Garden of Erses [limericks, as Jeff Chaucer] (2010)[59]
  • Blokelore and Blokesongs (2012)[59]


  • A World of Difference (1955)[8]
  • The Egyptologists (with Kingsley Amis, 1965)[8]


  • The Abomination of Moab (1979)[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Coplon, Jeff (January 12, 1988). "In Search of a Soviet Holocaust". Village Voice (New York: Retrieved 18 September 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Robert Conquest the man who unearthed the big soviet lie". Retrieved 18 September 2015. 
  3. ^ a b c d "Robert Conquest an appreciation". Retrieved 18 September 2015. 
  4. ^ "The Triumph of Robert Conquest". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 30 September 2015. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Robert Conquest obituary". Retrieved 11 September 2015. 
  6. ^ Hitchens, Christopher. "Anti-Sovietchik No. 1". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 30 September 2015. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u "Robert Conquest – Historian – Obituary". Retrieved 4 August 2015. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Robert Conquest, Seminal Historian of Soviet Misrule, Dies at 98". New York Retrieved 4 August 2015. 
  9. ^ Encyclopedia of British Writers, 19th and 20th Centuries by Christine L. Krueger page 87
  10. ^ Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, Volume 2 By R. Reginald, Douglas Menville, Mary A. Burgess
  11. ^ Supplement to the Alumni Register (October 1920), "Pennsylvania; A Record of the University's Men in the Great War", University of Pennsylvania General Alumni Society, 1920, page 40.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Brown, Andrew (14 February 2003). "Scourge and poet". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 August 2015. 
  13. ^ "Robert Conquest and the uses of history". Retrieved 18 September 2015. 
  14. ^ "Robert Conquest, Stalinism, and the Soviet Muslims". Retrieved 18 September 2015. 
  15. ^ "Robert Conquest historian". Retrieved 18 September 2015. 
  16. ^ Death of the department that never was from The Guardian, 27 January 1978
  17. ^ Timothy Garton Ash. "Orwell's List" (review), New York Review of Books, 23 September 2003.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h Samuelson, Lennart. "A pathbreaker. Robert Conquest and Soviet studies during the Cold War". Baltic Worlds. Retrieved 22 September 2015. 
  19. ^ a b "David Leigh recounts the 30-year history of the Foreign Office's covert propaganda operation". The Guardian (27 jan 1978). Retrieved 11 September 2015. 
  20. ^ Richard D. Lyons. "Frederick A. Praeger Dies at 78; Published Books on Communism", The New York Times, 5 June 1994.
  21. ^ Conquest, Robert (1968). The Great Terror (1st edition). 
  22. ^ a b c d "Robert Conquest, Seminal Historian of Soviet Misrule, Dies at 98". The Wall Street Retrieved 4 August 2015. 
  23. ^ Robert Conquest, Preface, The Great Terror: A Reassessment: 40th Anniversary Edition, Oxford University Press, USA, 2007. p. xviii
  24. ^ Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment, Oxford University Press (1990) ISBN 0-19-507132-8, pp. 466–75.
  25. ^ Conquest, Robert. "Letter to the Editors", The New York Review of Books, 12 April 2007.
  26. ^ J. Arch Getty; Gábor T. Rittersporn; Viktor N. Zemskov (October 1994). "Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-War Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence". American Historical Review 98 (4): 1043. 
  27. ^ Defty, Andrew (2 Dec 2013). Britain, America and Anti-Communist Propaganda 1945-53: The Information Research Department. Routledge. p. 3. ISBN 131779169X. 
  28. ^ "Czeslaw Milosz: 'The Poet Who Was Right'", National Review, 17 August 1992.
  29. ^ Michael Ignatieff. "The Man Who Was Right", New York Review of Books, Vol. 47, No. 5 (23 March 2000).
  30. ^ Michael Moynihan (20 August 2011). "How a True Believer Keeps the Faith". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 9 January 2012. 
  31. ^ Hobsbawm, Eric (2011). On History. Hachette UK. p. Chapter 19. ISBN 1780220510. 
  32. ^ Samuelson, Lennart. "In Memoriam Robert Conquest". Baltic Worlds. Retrieved 30 September 2015. 
  33. ^ Conquest, Robert (1966). "Immobilism and Decay". Problems of Communism (15): 37. Retrieved 27 September 2015. 
  34. ^ a b Lipset, Seymour Martin; Gyorgy Bence (April 1994). "Anticipations of the failure of communism". Theory and Society 23 (2): 169–210. doi:10.1007/BF00993814. (Paper) 1573-7853 (Online). 
  35. ^ a b c Samuelson, Lennart. "Inflationary use of a political concept. Reinterpreting "genocide"". Baltic Worlds. Retrieved 22 September 2015. 
  36. ^ Bollinger, Martin J. (2003). Stalin's Slave Ships: Kolyma, the Gulag Fleet, and the Role of the West. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 82. ISBN 0275981002. Retrieved 22 September 2015. 
  37. ^ Conquest, Robert; Manchip White, Jon (1984). What to Do When the Russians Come: a Survivor's Handbook. Stein and Day. p. 7. ISBN 0812829859. Retrieved 24 September 2015. 
  38. ^ Conquest, Robert; Manchip White, Jon (1984). What to Do When the Russians Come: a Survivor's Handbook. Stein and Day. p. 175. ISBN 0812829859. Retrieved 24 September 2015. 
  39. ^ Conquest, Robert; Manchip White, Jon (1984). What to Do When the Russians Come: a Survivor's Handbook. Stein and Day. pp. 176–177. ISBN 0812829859. Retrieved 24 September 2015. 
  40. ^ Priestland, David (May 2011). "The Kirov Murder and Soviet History". History Today 61 (5). Retrieved 27 September 2015. 
  41. ^ The Whisperers, Orlando Figes, Allen Lane 2007, p. 236n
  42. ^ Getty, J. Arch, Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-38, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 207.
  43. ^ David Yezzi, Yale Review, Volume 98, Issue 2 (April 2010), p. 183 ff.
  44. ^ Note on Robert Conquest .
  45. ^ Haven, Cynthia (16 August 2010). "Stanford legend Robert Conquest: new books at 93 for the historian and poet". Stanford Report. Retrieved 4 August 2015. 
  46. ^ "Robert Conquest". United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved 4 August 2015. 
  47. ^ Zachary Leader, ed., The Movement Reconsidered, Oxford University Press, 2009.
  48. ^ John Whitworth. "The Extraordinary Robert Conquest", Quadrant, October 2009, pp. 121–23.
  49. ^ BBC Radio 4 Publicity (29 April 2008). "Mr Larkin's Awkward Day". BBC Radio 4. 
  50. ^ Robert Conquest, 'Solzhenitsyn, A Genius with a Blindspot', Sunday Times, 10 August 2008; p. A15
  51. ^ a b c d HILLIER, BEVIS (19 November 1986). "Harvest' of Soviet Terrorism Reaped by Historian Conquest". LA Times. Retrieved 4 October 2015. 
  52. ^ a b O'Sullivan, John. "What to Make of the Guardian’s Shameful Robert Conquest Obituary?". National Review. Retrieved 27 September 2015. 
  53. ^ a b Hitchens, Christopher. "Against sinister perfectionism". Times Literary Supplement. Retrieved 25 September 2015. 
  54. ^ Conquest, Robert (1979). The abomination of Moab. Temple Smith. p. 252. Retrieved 25 September 2015. 
  55. ^ Conquest, Robert (1979). The abomination of Moab. Temple Smith. p. 255. Retrieved 25 September 2015. 
  56. ^ John Wakeman, World Authors 1950–1970: A Companion Volume to Twentieth Century Authors. New York : H.W. Wilson Company, 1975. ISBN 0824204190. (pp. 444–48).
  57. ^ McCannon, John (Fall 1998). "Red Empire". The Journal for Multi Media History. Retrieved 23 June 2014. 
  58. ^ "Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipients". Retrieved 14 January 2014. 
  59. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af "Robert A. Conquest". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 August 2015. 
  60. ^ "Ukraine honors Robert Conquest with Presidential Medal of Honor". 24 September 2006. Retrieved 14 January 2014. 
  61. ^ "Stanford Report, 21 June 2006". 21 June 2006. Retrieved 14 January 2014. 
  62. ^ "The Dan David Prize". Retrieved 6 August 2015. 
  63. ^ National Advisory Council. Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Archived from the original on 20 May 2011. Retrieved 20 May 2011.

External links[edit]