How important are obituaries? And do they serve any significant purposes other than informing us that someone important has died and comforting the bereaved that the worth of his life has been widely recognized? I’ve had cause to ponder that in the days since my friend Robert Conquest died and obituaries, tributes, and reflections on his work and life have flooded the internet. Among these are the obituary on Quadrant Online to which John Whitworth contributed here and an earlier piece by John on Conquest’s poetry and literary criticism. And there are more to come. Quadrant on paper will be publishing assessments by Clive James and Peter Coleman in our next issue.
From the most detached viewpoint this attention is richly deserved. Conquest was the single most important historian of the Soviet Union and its crimes while also being eminent in other fields, notably literature and criticism, and not least an influential advisor to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan at a key turning-point in the Cold War. One can hardly sum up such a life in a single article, especially when the task has to be completed by journalism’s arbitrary deadlines. No single obituarist can mention everything. So one or two achievements may fail to be mentioned anywhere. I may be mistaken but I don’t believe that any obituary has yet mentioned Bob’s highly readable but also profound 1980 book, We and They, which examines the differences between civic and despotic cultures and the importance of which, alas, did not vanish with the end of the Cold War.
To get a full picture of the man, therefore, you would have to read several obituaries and use one to correct the deficiencies of the other. Reasonably enough, very few readers are prepared to do that. And in almost all cases it doesn’t matter much. Most of Bob’s obituaries were in fact very good — focussing on the most important aspects of his historical work (namely, The Great Terror on Stalin’s purges and the Harvest of Sorrow on Stalin’s forced Ukrainian famine) while giving the general impression of a life devoted to truth and crowned by honours, reputation, a happy marriage and a contented private and professional life.
That was the admiring message from the obituaries in London’s Daily Telegraph, the BBC, the Independent, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and most major media. The “Murdoch press” was particularly generous with strong, comprehensive, and well-written obituaries in the Wall Street Journal and The Australian, and an obituary, an editorial, and a feature (all well done) in the London Times. Admiration for Bob’s achievements also spanned a very wide range of opinions outside the major media, uniting for instance the Catholic Church (in the form of Commonweal magazine, which especially enjoyed his limericks, and the National Secular Society (which regretted that he would not be around to subject radical Islamism to the same meticulous examination that had undermined the claims of Soviet communism. In fact the NSS can find that in We and They.)
Admittedly, some otherwise strong obituaries were marred by minor errors. Roger Kimball has cited some of them in his New Criterion tribute. For instance, Bob was not rusticated from Oxford for possessing contraceptives or what, according to The Telegraph,an inquisitive dean anathematized as “amorous engines.” He thought war was about to break out, which would save him from exams. So he spent his last term in The Trout public house, composing the bawdy Mexican Pete with his friend, John Blakeway, later a British diplomat. He got a second for misjudging the date when the Second World War would begin. As Roger concedes, Bob wouldn’t have minded these minor infelicities too much. He was a stickler for accuracy in his own writings — partly through temperament and partly because he had so many enemies on so many hotly contested topics that he couldn’t afford any errors at all. But he forgave innocent errors in others. His ire was aroused by pretension, fraud, and persistence in error once detected. Yet both the errors and the occasional private sins shrink into insignificance alongside the achievements.
That central reality is clearest in those tributes that combine biographical accuracy with a deep understanding of the intellectual character and political impact of Bob’s achievement. A charming personal version of such a tribute at arm’s length is on the BBC website. Its author, Stephen Evans, the grandson of a devout Welsh Stalinist, describes how reading The Great Terror and being impressed by its methodical accumulation of the overwhelming evidence of mass murder liberated him from the ideological prison in which he had been brought up. Multiplied by thousands, even millions, of readers, it explains the collective, gradual, often reluctant awakening to the truth that Bob’s two great books delivered to people.
As two other tributes illuminate, however, it was not only the truth that set their readers free. It was the teller too. Bob balanced the large collective truths (how many millions Stalin murdered) with the small revealing personal details of callousness (after signing more than 3000 death warrants, Stalin went to the movies.). He revealed terrible crimes by presenting the evidence for them. He refuted the casuistical Marxist justifications of such crimes with more evidence and without raising his voice. He had an instinct for detecting dishonesty and a talent for exposing it — qualities evident in his literary criticism as well as in his historical research. He himself claimed what the facts supported, and not an iota more. So he was always well-armed when he was attacked, and the more he was attacked, the more he gained the readers’ trust.
These qualities, though manifested in his work, were even more evident in his person. Michael Weiss in the Daily Beast, and Joe Joffe in Politico both knew Bob. Weiss met him through a mutual friend, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Joffe was his close friend and Hoover Institution colleague for several years. Their tributes are affectionate, Joffe’s especially and understandably, but also highly informative. Rather than summarize them, however, I will urge you simply to read them. Their joint portrait of him explains how Bob persuaded millions of readers he had never met, like Stephen Evans, that he was a good and trustworthy chronicler.
There is, alas, always a “but.” The Guardian ran an obituary by Eric Homberger, that managed to sound favourable for a full paragraph. It ended: Robert Conquest “had become, for a broad Russian readership, the man who told the truth about the terror, and Stalin’s murderous tyranny.” By the second paragraph, however, the qualifications were setting in and that one ended “no smoking-gun evidence has yet been found to confirm Stalin’s role [in Kirov’s murder.]” And before long we are reading an exercise in cloaking the dagger in which the dagger is more visible than the cloak. Thus,
… His brisk contributions to cold war foreign policy appeared in Present Danger (1979). All this made him a welcome presence in the richly endowed circuit of conservative think tanks…
…a vigorous polemicist, arguing on numerous occasions (perhaps a few times more than was strictly necessary) the many failings of socialist and Marxist thought…
…often seemed to be addressing audiences who needed little by way of nuance or documentation…
…His work makes references to “some circles” and their grievous misunderstandings, and much worse, needs proper sourcing of quotations…
…In the footsteps of Stalin’s purge prosecutor, he could be a proper little Vyshinsky when dealing with fellow travelers… (emphasis added)
…proposed to [Kingsley] Amis the idea of a collaboration based on a draft comic novel which . . . appeared under both their names as The Egyptologists (1965) [a comic romp about adultery]. . . A reviewer in the New York Times felt that their “elaborate little jokes leave an unpleasant taste”.
…Larkin shared his robust political enthusiasms with Conquest: “F*** the students … f*** the Common Market … Hurray for Ian Smith, Ian Paisley…”
On this last quote: unless it is being hinted that Bob “shared” these opinions as opposed to receiving a letter in which they appeared, it is hard to see why they are being quoted in his obituary. It is even doubtful that Larkin held these views as opposed to expressing them in a self-parodying letter to a friend. But coming after a list of failings that add up to the implication that criticism of the Soviet Union indicates some sort of character flaw, it was presumably meant to sketch the vulgar stupid venal reactionary skulking behind the statue of the Great Historian.
The Guardian has long been split between its liberal and radical halves. Its liberal half had been evident in 2003, when Andrew Brown wrote an interview-based feature on Bob Conquest that — though it too has a few errors — remains a very informative profile. You can find it here
Homberger’s obituary with its grudging and spiteful tone — comparing a man who exposed Stalin’s purges with one of their legal enforcers — looks like an apology by the radical Guardianistas for their paper’s deviationism in publishing a favorable account of Cold Warrior Conquest twelve years ago.
Then something interesting happened: the paper’s ambivalence took another turn and the Guardian’s commentary section began to fill up with indignant letters from readers expressing shame and anger that the paper should have published such an obituary. At present the ratio is running something like ten to one against Homberger, which causes me to reconsider my attitude to Guardian readers. Some have come up trumps.
But there is seemingly a small minority that is vesting its hopes for a revival of Soviet socialism in one Grover Furr, who denies Stalin committed any crimes at all and is the author of Blood Lies: The Evidence that Every Accusation against Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union in Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands Is False. On reading this, my first reaction was that Furr must be a fictional character or teasing internet hoax. Revisionist historians nostalgic for “really existing socialism” have long sought to minimize the number of Stalin’s victims and the scale of Soviet crimes. But the extravagance of Furr’s claims – every accusation against Stalin false! — made it hard to take them seriously. They amount less to revisionism than to outright denial of historical reality.
Well, I was wrong to doubt Furr’s existence. He is a professor specializing in medieval English literature at Monclair State University in New Jersey, but he seems to devote most of his time to advancing such theses as that the Soviet did not murder the Polish officers at Katyn or that Krhushev lied in his “secret speech” denouncing Stalin’s cult of personality. He is undoubtedly productive, and he has an audience in Russia, China, and the Marxist redoubts in American academia.
Might Furr become a successor to those Americans—academics, actors, folk singers, hack journalists –who, during the Cold War, were more or less unknown in the West but were celebrities the moment they landed in the Soviet Union. Visiting Russians would sometimes ask innocently “what do you think of Fergal McDaid?” and when you looked blank, explain: “McDaid, the great Scottish comic novelist. He’s a best-seller in Moscow.” The Soviets almost never managed to persuade free audiences of the worth of their Western celebrities. But the Putin propaganda machine is more sophisticated; it is dealing with audiences in the West that are increasingly ill-informed about their own histories, let alone those of Russia, China, and Eastern Europe; and its modus operandi (as Peter Pomerantsev has brilliantly delineated in his book Nothing is True and Everything is Possible) is to spread the cynical interpretation that all “narratives” are corrupt, deceitful, and self-interested — whether Stalin was a mass murderer, a much maligned statesman, or something in between. Sure, Furr might be useful to any project of confusing us all about Stalinism, but he might also be much too exotic fare, mplausible and self-discrediting, for it. And, indeed, I haven’t found any evidence that Russia Today has been running respectful interviews with him. Truth still has some independent standing in debate.
So I doubt that Furr or less extravagant revisionists will seriously challenge the consensus on Stalin’s crimes established by Bob Conquest, not even if Homberger manages to snag the coveted Guardian review of Furr’s next book. The obituary tributes to Robert Conquest stand in the way. Not only are they a memorial to the millions whose fates and names he rescued from forced amnesia as well as to Bob himself. But they also mean that when someone types an inquiry into Stalin’s crimes into Google, Bob’s name and main achievement will be among the first entries to appear on the screen. And another Stephen Evans will be drawn into discovering the crimes and mourning the dead.