August 5, 2015
Robert Conquest, Historian Who Documented Soviet Horrors, Dies at 98
As one of the Movement poets of the 1950s, a group that included Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin and Thom Gunn, Mr. Conquest embarked on a research fellowship at the London School of Economics and produced “Power and Politics in the USSR” (1960), a book that established him as a leading Kremlinologist.
Eight years later, during the Prague Spring, he published “The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties,” a chronicle of Stalin’s merciless campaign against political opponents, intellectuals, military officers — anyone who could be branded an “enemy of the people.”
For the first time, facts and incidents scattered in myriad sources were gathered in a gripping narrative. Its impact would not be matched until the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago” in 1973.
The scope of Stalin’s purges was laid out: seven million people arrested in the peak years, 1937 and 1938; one million executed; two million dead in the concentration camps. Mr. Conquest estimated the death toll for the Stalin era at no less than 20 million.
“His historical intuition was astonishing,” said Norman M. Naimark, a professor of Eastern European history at Stanford University. “He saw things clearly without having access to archives or internal information from the Soviet government. We had a whole industry of Soviet historians who were exposed to a lot of the same material but did not come up with the same conclusions. This was groundbreaking, pioneering work.”
Reaction to the book split along ideological lines, with leftist historians objecting to Mr. Conquest’s thesis that Stalin’s regime was a natural evolution of Leninism rather than an aberration.
“The Great Terror: A Reassessment” included new information made available after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was less a reassessment, however, than a triumphant vindication of the original edition, since newly released material from the Soviet archives supported Mr. Conquest’s findings at every turn.
In a moment of gleeful malice, Mr. Conquest told friends that his suggested title for the new edition was “I Told You So, You Fools” (with a vulgar adjective inserted between the last two words).