George Robert Acworth Conquest CMG, OBE, FBA, FAAAS, FRSL, FBIS (15 July 1917 – 3 August 2015) was an Anglo-American historian and poet notable for his influential works of Soviet history which include The Great Terror: Stalin's Purges of the 1930s (1968). He was a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
Conquest was born in Great Malvern, Worcestershire, to an American of independent means and an English mother. His father served in an American Ambulance Service unit with the French Army in World War I, being awarded the Croix de Guerre, with Silver Star in 1916.
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 studying at the University of Grenoble, Conquest went up to Oxford, joining both the Carlton Club and, as an "open" member, the Communist Party of Great Britain. Fellow members included Denis Healey and Philip Toynbee. When World War II broke out, Conquest joined the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. 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, where he studied Bulgarian for four months.
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. Witnessing first-hand the communist takeover in Bulgaria, he became completely disillusioned with communist ideas. He left Bulgaria in 1948, helping Tatiana escape the new regime. Back in London, he divorced his first wife and married Tatiana. In 1951, Tatiana Conquest was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and after many years, in 1962 the couple divorced.
Conquest joined the Foreign Office's Information Research Department (IRD), a unit created by the Labour government 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."
In 1950 he served briefly as First Secretary in the British Delegation to the United Nations. In 1956, Conquest left the IRD, later becoming a freelance writer and historian. 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, whose U.S. company published, in addition to works by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Milovan Đilas, Howard Fast, and Charles Patrick Fitzgerald, a number of books on communism.
In 1962–63, Conquest was literary editor of The Spectator, but resigned when he found it 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).
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.
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. 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.
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 after summary show trials. 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 had underlain books such as George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. Conquest argued that the trials and executions of these former Communist leaders were a minor detail of the purges. By his estimates, Stalinist famines and purges had led to the deaths of 20 million people. He later stated that the total number of deaths could "hardly be lower than some thirteen to fifteen million."
Conquest criticized western intellectuals for "blindness" with respect to the Soviet Union, and argued that Stalinism was a logical consequence of Marxism-Leninism, rather than an aberration from "true" communism. Conquest did not accept the assertion made by Nikita Khrushchev, and supported by many Western leftists, that Joseph Stalin and his purges were an aberration from the ideals of the "revolution" and were contrary to the principles of Leninism. Conquest argued that Stalinism was a natural consequence of the system established by Vladimir Lenin, although he conceded that the personal character traits of Stalin had brought about the particular horrors of the late 1930s.
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 and Romain Rolland for being dupes of Stalin and apologists for his regime, citing various comments they had made denying, excusing, or justifying various aspects of the purges.
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. The American historian J. Arch Getty disagreed, writing in 1994 that the archives did not support Conquest's casualty figures. Although some aspects of his work continue to be disputed by those on the left, according to poet Czeslaw Milosz he has been vindicated by history. Michael Ignatieff 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."
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.
In addition to his scholarly work, Conquest is a well-regarded poet 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. Since then he has brought out seven volumes of poetry and one of literary criticism.
A major figure in a prominent British literary circle known as "The Movement" – which also included Philip Larkin and Sir Kingsley Amis – Conquest 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. 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".
Soon after 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. Conquest has published two novels: one of science fiction, A World of Difference (1955), and, co-authored with Amis, The Egyptologists (1965).
In 1964, he married Caroleen MacFarlane; this marriage was dissolved in 1978. In 1979, he married Elizabeth Neece Wingate, a lecturer in English and the daughter of a United States Air Force colonel. 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 remains a Fellow. He has numerous grandchildren from his sons and stepdaughter.
Conquest has been 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.In 1990, Conquest was the presenter of Red Empire, a seven-part mini-series documentary on the Soviet Union produced by Yorkshire Television.
Conquest died of pneumonia in Stanford, California on 3 August 2015 at the age of 98.
Awards and honors
Conquest was a dual national (British and American) by birth. 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.
His honors include
- Presidential Medal of Freedom (2005);
- Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (CMG; 1996)
- Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE; 1956)
- Commander Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland (2009)
- Estonian Cross of Terra Mariana (2008)
- Ukrainian Order of Yaroslav Mudryi (2005).
His awards include:
- Selection by the National Endowment for the Humanities to deliver the 1993 Jefferson Lecture (the highest honor the U.S. government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities)
- Richard Weaver Award for Scholarly Letters (1999)
- Michael Braude Award for Light Verse (American Academy of Arts & Letters,1997)
- Peter Shaw Memorial Award (National Association of Scholars, 2001)
- Alexis de Tocqueville Award, (1992)
- Dan David Prize (2012). Conquest is a member of the advisory council of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
Historical and political
- Common Sense About Russia (1960)
- Power and Policy in the USSR (1961)
- The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities (1960)
- Courage of Genius: The Pasternak Affair (1961)
- Russia After Khruschev (1965)
- The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties (1968)
- The Great Terror: A Reassessment (1990)
- The Great Terror: 40th Anniversary Edition (2008)
- The Nation Killers (1970)
- Where Marx Went Wrong (1970)
- Lenin (1972)
- Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps (1978)
- Present Danger: Towards a Foreign Policy (1979)
- We and They: Civic and Despotic Cultures (1980)
- Inside Stalin's Secret Police: NKVD Politics, 1936–1939 (1985)
- What to Do When the Russians Come: A Survivor's Guide (with Jon Manchip White, 1984)
- The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986)
- Tyrants and Typewriters: Communiques in the Struggle for Truth (1989)
- Stalin and the Kirov Murder (1989)
- Stalin: Breaker of Nations (1991)
- History, Humanity, and Truth (1993)
- Reflections on a Ravaged Century (1999)
- The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History, W. W. Norton & Company (2004), ISBN 0-393-05933-2
- Poems (1956)
- Between Mars and Venus (1962)
- Arias from a Love Opera, and Other Poems (1969)
- Forays (1979)
- New and Collected Poems (1988)
- Demons Don't (1999)
- Penultimata (2009)
- Blokelore and Blokesongs (2012)
- A World of Difference (1955)
- The Egyptologists (with Kingsley Amis, 1965)
- The Abomination of Moab (1979)
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