Robert Conquest could easily have missed being . . . well, Robert Conquest, the most morally significant historian of the second half of the twentieth century. Now that he’s slipped away—dying in California on August 3 at age 98—it’s possible to see that he might well have failed to find his way.
In other words, Robert Conquest wasn’t destined to become a key chronicler of Soviet atrocity, a Cold War adviser to prime ministers and presidents, a central analyst of the corruption of modern intelligence in service of political ideology. He didn’t have to be the man he was, and his times pushed against him in any number of ways. The son of a trust-funded American father and an English mother, Conquest probably ought to have broken in some other fashion—say, a minor poet, earning a paycheck as a literary editor or a university librarian, a footnote in other, more famous people’s biographies.
He was intelligent, of course, but then the England of his time was full of intelligent young men, adrift after their service in the Second World War. He was brilliantly educated, at Winchester and Oxford, but that too wasn’t terribly rare, and the world seemed to be slipping away from all the bright young lights of the time. For years after the war, the vast majority of the intellectual class was convinced that, for good or for ill, Soviet communism was the destiny of civilization.
Besides, to read the literature of the era is to find a sense of Great Britain as a terribly dreary place: as barren in mind and spirit as it was in weather and economics. England seemed—at least, to the intellectualized English—like a narrow bed in a small, meanly proportioned Kensington walk-up on a rainy Thursday afternoon.
Sheer talent helped Conquest’s close friends, the novelist Kingsley Amis and the poet Philip Larkin, transcend that bleakness. And yet, even in the brio of the comedy in Amis’s 1954 Lucky Jim or the perfect diction of the poems in Larkin’s 1955 The Less Deceived, you can feel the cheerlessness that was their sense of their own place and time.
In Conquest’s case, what allowed him to escape was his unexpected seriousness—the moral cast of his mind that both kept him a precise historian and directed him to oppose communism. Recent commentators, reminiscing after his death, have delighted in speaking of his personal impishness, his literary range in everything from biography to science fiction, and his fine (if often prurient) touch at comic verse. And fair enough. In his letters, even Larkin can’t resist mocking his friend Conquest precisely for his meticulously documented work on Stalin: “What an old bore Bob is.”
His work for the Foreign Office from the end of the war until 1956—first as a press officer in Bulgaria and then at the Information Research Department—established him as a significant Sovietologist, producing such Cold War documentation as his 1961 Power and Policy in the USSR and 1965 Russia After Khrushchev. But all that could have been understood as merely his hobby, with his literary friendships his real vocation. His role in putting together the “New Lines” anthologies, for example, helped define the new “Movement” poetry of the 1950s—identifying a rebellion among young English poets against the high modernism of Eliot and Pound, and making stars of such figures as Thom Gunn, Amis, and Larkin along the way.
What made Robert Conquest different, however, was that, unlike so many of his clever contemporaries, he could bring himself to cry murder while studying something like the day in 1937 when Stalin and Molotov signed 3,167 death sentences and then went to watch a movie. Conquest had, in the structure of his mind, a moral seriousness that compelled his move from a youthful and unthinking communism to a mature understanding, in his 1986 book The Harvest of Sorrow, of what Stalin’s industrialization-induced famine did in Ukraine in the 1930s: “About 20 human lives were lost,” he wrote in his preface, “not for every word, but for every letter, in this book.”
Living now more than 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, we can forget how much Conquest and The Great Terror mattered in the years after its publication in 1968. Conquest’s historical documentation was as meticulous as the thin sources of the time allowed, and his historical intuition about what those sources meant was matchless. He saw that the Soviet system had murdered millions, and unlike so many of his time he refused to blink or turn away.