Historian, journalist, poet, novelist and fierce combatant in the cause of liberty, the great chronicler of Stalin’s empire and evil was a giant, not least for his honesty in re-evaluating and rejecting the revolutionary passions of his youth. He will be missed
Robert Conquest, chronicler of Soviet evil and one of the great historians of our age, has died in California at 98. London’s Daily Telegraph reports:
“Conquest personified the truth that there was no anti-communist so dedicated as an ex-communist. His career illustrated also what the Italian writer Ignazio Silone, another former communist, meant when he said to the communist leader Palmiro Togliatti that “the final battle” of the 20th century would have to be fought between the two sides they represented.
An ardent Bolshevik as a young man, Conquest became a bitter foe of Soviet “Socialism”. He had first visited Russia in 1937 as a youthful devotee of the great experiment. It was a half century before he returned in 1989, having spent his life between chronicling the horrors the country had endured, and emerging, in the view of the Oxford historian Mark Almond, as “one of the few Western heroes of the collapse of Soviet Communism”. “He was Solzhenitsyn before Solzhenitsyn,” said Timothy Garton Ash.”
Below, a thumbnail biography, courtesy of his publisher:
Conquest was born in Malvern, Worcestershire, in 1917, to an American father and his English wife. Educated at Winchester College, the University of Grenoble, and Magdalen College, Oxford, he took his B.A. and (later) M.A. degrees in politics, philosophy, and economics, and his D. Litt. in Soviet history.
In Lisbon on an American passport at the outbreak of the Second World War, he returned to England to serve in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and in 1944 was sent from Italy on Balkan military missions awkwardly attached to the Soviet Third Ukrainian Front – and later the Allied Control Commission in Bulgaria. From 1946 to 1956, he worked in the British Foreign Service – first in Sofia, then in London, and in the U.K. Delegation to the United Nations – after which he varied periods of freelance writing with academic appointments.
Conquest’s poems were published in various periodicals from 1937. In 1945 the PEN Brazil Prize for a war poem was awarded to his “For the Death of a Poet” – about an army friend, the poet Drummond Allison, killed in Italy (published in The Book of the PEN 1950) – and in 1951 he received a Festival of Britain verse prize. He brought out eight volumes of poetry previous to Blokelore & Blokesongs, and one of literary criticism (The Abomination of Moab). He has published a verse translation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s epic Prussian Nights (1977), and two novels, A World of Difference (1955), and (with Kingsley Amis) The Egyptologists (1965). In 1955 and 1963 Conquest edited the influential New Lines anthologies, and in 1962-1963 he was literary editor of the London Spectator.
He was the author of twenty-one books on Soviet history, political philosophy, and international affairs, including The Dragons of Expectation (2004). His classic, The Great Terror, has appeared in most European languages, as well as in Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew and Turkish.
In 1959-60 he was Visiting Poet and Lecturer in English at the University of Buffalo, and has also held research appointments at the London School of Economics, the Columbia University Russian Institute, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Heritage Foundation, and Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute.
In 1990 he presented Granada Television’s Red Empire, a seven-part documentary on the Soviet Union which was broadcast in the UK, the USA, and in various other countries, including Australia and Russia.
Conquest was a Fellow of the British Academy, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society of Literature, and the British Interplanetary Society; he is also a member of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies (contributing to Britannia an article on the Roman Place Names of Scotland). His honours and awards include the Presidential Medal of Freedom; the Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George; the Order of the British Empire; the Commander Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland; the Ukrainian Order of Yaroslav Mudryi; the Estonian Cross of Terra Mariana Order of Merit; the Jefferson Lectureship; the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Michael Braude Award for Light Verse; the Richard Weaver Award for Scholarly Letters; the Fondazione Liberal Career Award; and the Dan David Prize.
He worked as a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.