Robert Conquest (1917-2015)
By: Diana West
Robert Conquest has died at age 98. He was a gigantic hero of truth and the voiceless.
On a professional note that is also personal, Robert Conquest’s tremendous body of work — and, I would add, the consternation and controversy his work engendered amid the “intelligentsia” — has been and will remain a guiding inspiration.
In many ways, American Betrayal is itself a paean to Conquest.
Some relevant passages from the book follow.
British historian Robert Conquest is one such magnificent exception. Conquest’s special branch of Soviet history might well be called Soviet exterminationism—a new “ism,” perhaps, but one that fittingly encapsulates the history of mass murder Conquest has immersed himself in, cataloging and analyzing the boggling scale of murder and tragedy deliberately wrought by the Communist regime in Russia. His macabre exercise began, most notably, with his history of Stalin’s purges of the 1930s, The Great Terror. The book came out in 1968, a time when no other historians were even acknowledging the existence of this hulking wound of a subject, a time when, amazingly, Joseph E. Davies’s twenty-seven-year-old pro-Stalin tract, Mission to Moscow, was still the first and last word on the subject. Noting the Conquest book’s uniqueness in 1968, Andrew and Mitrokhin called it “a sign of the difficulty encountered by many Western historians in interpreting the Terror” (emphasis added).45 When Conquest finally marshaled the available research and put a number on the horror— twenty million killed during the Stalin period—it was as though the historian had additionally become a cold-case criminologist and, further, by implication, a hanging judge. As crunched by columnist Joseph Alsop, commenting in 1970 on a particularly callous review of the Conquest book and its themes, those twenty million souls killed by the regime represented one-eighth of the entire Russian population “of that period, in peacetime and without provoking a whisper of protest.”46
How could that be? Without understanding the extent of Communist pen- etration into the decision-and-opinion-making echelons of the West—and, as important, into the decision-and-opinion-making minds of the West—the question is baffling, a mystery without clues, a historical brick wall. From our vantage point, blanks and all, it is almost impossible to comprehend how it could have been that our relatives and forebears, apparently sentient, apparently decent Americans, could have looked on in neutral silence as the Soviet state, year after year, starved and brutalized and enslaved millions of its own people to death—news of which did indeed spread throughout the West despite Soviet censorship and prevarication, although it remained outside consensus.47 Dalton Trumbo, as we’ve seen, took pride in the silence on the Hollywood front. He’s hailed as a martyr of idealism. Historians, as we’ve seen, looked the other way, strenuously, to protect their precious “basic symmetry.” They remain figures of respect and authority. How—and when—did these and other inversions of logic and morality, common sense and common decency, begin to take place?
On his real-life return to the USSR, [journalist] Eugene Lyons would see and eventually understand. He writes of finding the familiar old mind games, the sifting techniques, no longer effective on his return. “With every week after my return I came to feel more ashamed of my mealy-mouthed caution while at home,” he writes. “Deep under those excuses I had made for myself, I now was forced to admit, had been the subconscious desire to remain persona grata with the masters, retain my job. I was protecting my status as a ‘friendly’ correspondent. And at that I had just about crawled under the line.”60
There Lyons was to stay at least long enough to participate in a seminal event in Soviet crime and Western turpitude: what Robert Conquest would much later identify as the very first successful implementation of the “Big Lie”—the concerted assault on truth to form world opinion, in this original case, to deny the regime-engineered Famine in the Ukraine. It was a Faustian turning point.
On the face of it, this [deception] might appear to have been an impossible un- dertaking. A great number of true accounts reached Western Europe and America, some of them from impeccable Western eyewitnesses . . .
But Stalin had a profound understanding of the possibilities of what Hitler approvingly calls the Big Lie. He knew that even though the truth may be read- ily available, the deceiver need not give up. He saw that flat denial on the one hand, and the injection into the pool of information of a corpus of positive false- hood on the other, were sufficient to confuse the issue for the passively in- structed foreign audience, and to induce acceptance of the Stalinist version by those actively seeking to be deceived.
Flat denial plus a corpus of positive falsehood: Sounds like another black hole of antiknowledge, another corroding attack on the basis of the Enlightenment itself. Conquest describes this concerted effort to deceive the world about the truth of the state-engineered famine, Stalin’s brutal war on the peasantry, as “the first major instance of the exercise of this technique of influencing world opinion.”61
This instance, then, was a seminal moment in the history of the world. The seminal moment, perhaps, of the twentieth century, a moment in which history itself, always subject to lies and colorations, became susceptible to something truly new under the sun: totalitarianism; more specifically, the totalitarian in- novation of disinformation, later expanded, bureaucratized and, in effect, wea- ponized, by KGB-directed armies of dezinformatsiya agents.
More than three decades later, in 1968, when Robert Conquest came along with his testimonies, his figures, and his footnotes attesting to the colossal horror of the Soviet regime, first regarding the Moscow show trials, and then, in 1985, with his testimonies, his figures, and his footnotes attesting to the Terror Famine in the Ukraine, there was no need to meet in a hotel room with a Soviet censor and work out a conspiracy of denial and drink to it with vodka. Nor was there consciousness of such a need. The legacy of denial had become so powerful in the interim as to have become imperceptible and stunningly effective. “The main lesson seems to be that the Communist ideology provided the moti- vation for an unprecedented massacre of men, women and children,” Conquest wrote, but class was incapable of learning.70
“People accepted his facts, but they didn’t accept his conclusions,” British writer Neal Ascherson said to the British newspaper The Guardian in 2003, perfectly crystallizing the intelligentsia’s permanent reaction to Conquest.71 This facts-sans-implications formulation is key. It sounds so reasonable. Come, come, dear boy; no one is rejecting your facts, just your conclusions. There may indeed be extreme “food shortages,” but widespread mortality is due to diseases associated with “malnutrition,” not famine. Facts, yes. Conclusions, no. However, such facts are conclusions because they are crimes. Soviet exterminationism is Soviet exterminationism (emphasis on Soviet), just as Nazi genocide is Nazi genocide (emphasis on Nazi). Reject the conclusion and the facts, the crimes, become meaningless. Indeed, such facts demand judgment, just as such crimes demand a verdict. As Conquest put it:
The historian, registering the facts beyond doubt, and in their context, cannot but also judge. Die Weltgeschischte ist das Weltgericht—World History is the World’s Court of Judgment: Schiller’s dictum may seem too grandiose today. Yet the establishment of the facts certainly includes the establishment of responsibility.72
The Left tried to drive a wedge between the facts as Conquest marshaled them and the conclusions as he drew them, making efforts to taint both due to his evident “dislike” of purges, terror, and death camps—or, as Eugene Lyons might have put it ironically, his middle-class liberal “hang-overs of prejudice” against dictatorship, mass slaughter, and the crushing of the human spirit. Conquest writes:
It was believed that a “Cold Warrior” became opposed to the Soviet system be- cause of some irrational predisposition . . . The idea seems to be that if one can show that opposition to the Soviet threat was in part based on dislike of Soviet actualities and intentions—that is, “emotions”—then the opposition cannot have been objective. But, of course, the Soviet system was indeed disliked, even detested, because of its record and intentions.73
What Conquest’s detractors dismissed as “emotions”—namely, “dislike of Soviet actualities and intentions” (including twenty million killed by Stalin)— was in fact a historian’s verdict of responsibility regarding such crimes. Visceral feelings aside, it is a judgment based on evidence, logic, and moral analysis. These are the same underpinnings of any rational investigation into Nazi “ac- tualities and intentions” and subsequent finding of their detestable nature. No one would pause over the following slight reworking of a Conquest line quoted above: “The main lesson seems to be that the Nazi ideology provided the motivation for an unprecedented massacre of men, women and children”— but insert “Communist ideology” into the sentence and boy, look out.
“No one could deal with this,” he writes of his Great Terror research, “or other themes I wrote of later, unless judgmental as well as inquisitive; and those who denied the negative characteristics of Soviet Communism were deficient in judgment and in curiosity—gaps in the teeth and blinkers on the eyes.”74
To be able to “deal with” the evil of Communist extermination history, then, as Conquest writes, is to be judgmental as well as inquisitive. This suggests a continuum between such fruits of curiosity and academic labor—the repugnant facts of Communist extermination history—and our judgment of them. The gap-toothed and blinkered ones, however, set out to interrupt this continuum, to sunder these facts from their conclusions, to explode the whole logical exercise that begins in facts and ends in conclusions into senseless fragments—to decontextualize it (and everything else while they’re at it). Yes, the Nazi system killed six million people (fact), and yes, the Nazi system was evil (conclusion); and yes, the Soviet system killed twenty million people (fact), but how dare that “cowboy” Ronald Reagan call the Soviet Union the “evil empire”?
Like postmodernism itself, this massive inconsistency on Nazism and Communism doesn’t make a shred of sense. If making sense were the goal, the phrase “evil empire” would have been a trite truism, a hoary cliché long before Ronald Reagan uttered the words, which, like the most potent incantation, drove tribes of intelligentsia the Western world over into fits of mass hysteria and rage—against evil Reagan, not the empire. If the words today no longer conjure the same teeth-gnashing indictment of Old West simplicity they once did, they still manage to strike a spark or two of faux outrage. Also, the quotation marks of irony have yet to fall away.
I went back to the original Reagan speech recently, realizing I’d never heard or read any more of it than that signature phrase. Reagan was addressing evangelical Christians at a time when the so-called nuclear freeze, which we now know to have been a colossal Soviet influence operation,75 was under debate in Congress and Reagan was proposing to deploy Pershing missiles in Europe. Two weeks later, he would announce his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which, even as it became the obsession that would drive the final Soviet dicta- tors to exhaust the Communist system in their futile efforts to compete, was endlessly caricatured in Western media as a “cowboy’s” comic-book ray gun of choice straight from Star Wars—no doubt a Soviet-encouraged moniker.
The speech is surprisingly mild. I was surprised to learn that by the time Reagan gets around to mentioning the “evil empire,” he was not inveighing against the USSR directly but rather against the creed of moral equivalence, at the time the very definition of intellectual chic. It’s hard to convey the intensity of the drumbeat for moral equivalence in those days. It was background noise and op-ed commentary, the premise of debate (“Resolved: There is no moral difference between the world policies of the United States and the Soviet Union,” Oxford Union debate, February 23, 1984) and the endings of movies (Three Days of the Condor , Apocalypse Now , Reds ). The era Reagan was trying to end was one of entrenched belief in “ambiguities” between capitalism and Communism, between liberty and tyranny. It was too much for one man to do, even Ronald Reagan.
“We’re all the same, you know, that’s the joke,” East German agent Fiedler remarks to British agent Leamas in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, le Carré’s stunningly successful 1963 novel that instituted the le Carré brand. This joke was an old story by the 1980s, the conventional wisdom, the Establishment point of view. It still is. By 2008, le Carré was confiding to The Sunday Times of London, over fragrant, amber-colored glasses of Calvados, as the waves crashed at the foot of the cliffs below the author’s Cornwall home, that he had himself been tempted to defect to the Soviet Union.76
“Well, I wasn’t tempted ideologically,” he reasserts, in case there should be any doubt, “but when you spy intensively and you get closer and closer to the border . . . it seems such a small step to jump . . . and, you know, find out the rest” [ellipses in original].
The rest about the twenty million killed? Heavens, no. The Times explains:
This is maybe less surprising than at first it seemed: we are in true le Carré territory, nuanced and complex, where the spying is sometimes an end in itself and where there is rarely an easy, Manichaean split between the good guys and the bad guys. Defecting was a temptation the writer resisted, to our good fortune [em- phasis added].
To each our own. What is remarkable here is less the “news” about le Carré than the ease with which the reporter absorbs this point of moral cretinhood, conveying the author’s view as a beguilingly piquant eccentricity even as it skirts the charnel houses the man found himself fascinated and not repelled by. Such enthusiasm would not have greeted a thriller writer who expressed a temptation to “jump . . . and, you know, find out the rest” about, say, the Third Reich.
If an unhealthy attraction to the Soviet Union was still respectable as re- cently as 2008, imagine how outrageous the phrase “evil empire” sounded twenty-five years earlier. This is what Reagan actually said:
In your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride—the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunder- standing and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.77
Reagan’s exhortation to face “the facts of history” was a broad challenge, his reference to “the aggressive impulses of an evil empire” an “Emperor’s New Clothes” moment. The cataclysmic histories of Ukraine, Finland, Bessarabia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Korea, East Germany, Vietnam, China, Cuba, Angola, and on and on were not the shining raiment becoming an empire of peace. Reagan was challenging us to acknowledge the implications of this fact, to fight the paralysis of “moral equivalence,” and see not two bullies in a playground, as the East-West struggle was repetitiously framed, but one aggressor seeking to impose a totalitarian system over as much of the world as possible. Good and Evil. Reagan may have had to struggle to explain this to the West, but the Soviets, as Robert Conquest reminds us, looking back from the vantage point of 2005, were never unclear, morally or otherwise, about their intentions:
The Soviet Union, right up to the eve of its collapse, was committed to the con- cept of an unappeasable conflict with the Western world and to the doctrine that this could only be resolved by what Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko de- scribed, as officially as one can imagine (in his 1975 book The Foreign Policy of the Soviet Union) as world revolution: “The Communist Party of the Soviet Union subordinates all its theoretical and practical activity in the sphere of foreign relations to the task of strengthening the positions of socialism, and the interests of further developing and deepening the world revolutionary process.”78
As Conquest added, “one could hardly be franker.”
And he is gone from us now. A permanent loss. R.I.P.