Robert Conquest: Chronicler of Communism

I came across a note on the front page of the Wall Street Journal (Aug. 6, 2015) that Anglo-American historian Robert Conquest had passed away at the ripe-old age of 98. The obituary pays tribute to this idiosyncratic and ground-breaking scholar who did so much to counter the decades-long revisionism that had whitewashed the mass murders of Russian Communism.

As a young man I was frankly astounded at the revelations that were ushered forth by Conquest. Like many students at the tail end of the Cold War (when Soviet sympathizers dominated academia) I had no idea that “20 million people perished from famines, Soviet camps and executions—a toll eclipsing that of the Holocaust.” Communist crimes were not only downplayed but often excused. Shortcomings were inevitable, after all, when building utopia.

Mr. Conquest gleefully attacked Western revisionist historians as dupes for Stalin. The 1937-1939 Stalinist show trials, in which Stalin’s political rivals all admitted to serious crimes and were shot, shocked many left-leaning intellectuals in the West. The lurid trials set off mass defections from Communist parties in Europe and the U.S. and helped inspire anti-Communist tracts such as George Orwell’s “1984” and Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon.” But the wider slaughter of Soviet citizens had largely gone undocumented until Mr. Conquest’s narrative.

Hitherto the view most people had of Communist life was giant military parades and long lines in stores. Marxist commissars frequently appeared in Western entertainment as no more than buffoons and comic foils. It would be as if our popular knowledge of Nazism were limited to reruns of Hogan’s Heroes.

Despite the efforts of leftist apologists and detractors, Conquest had the final word. His most important studies are The Great Terror and The Harvest of Sorrow (an archived review of the latter is available at The American Spectator). I also recommend Stalin: Breaker of Nations.

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