RIP Robert Conquest, 1917-2015

Robert Conquest, the historian and Sovietologist whose “The Great Terror” and “The Harvest of Sorrow” left a lasting imprint on our understanding of the Stalin regime, passed away at the ripe old age of 98. Roger Kimball has an obituary, as do the Wall Street Journal, the Daily Telegraph, and Steven Hayward at Powerline.

The first book by Conquest I encountered was the Harvest of Sorrow, on the man-made famine in the Ukraine (a.k.a. holodomor). For somebody who still believed European left-wing pieties about the Soviet regime, it was extremely disturbing reading. Only later did its contents thoroughly sink in.

Conquest apparently had a rather cheerful personality at odds with the extreme seriousness of his historical work. He appears to also have been something of a ladies’ man, although apparently his fourth and final marriage was a very happy one. Poetry (some of it quite ribald) was an apparent outlet for his more puckish side.

He started political life as a Communist, then had a ‘Road to Damascus moment’ once he saw the “workers’ paradise” from up close and joined the staff of the IRD, a bureau inside the Foreign Office that was created (during the postwar Labour government) to counter Communist agitation. After a career in England on the seam line between academia and politics, he crossed the pond and spent the rest of his life in US academia and think tanks. He was most closely associated with the Hoover Institute at Stanford University.

One of the more amusing quotes attributed to him was actually not his. When preparing an updated edition of his The Great Terror (drawing on newly available documents following the collapse of the Soviet Union), he was asked for a subtitle and allegedly suggested “I told you so, you f*cking fools!” Conquest himself clarified that the suggestion was actually by Kingsley Amis, who put it in Conquest’s mouth. (Hat tip: Ed Driscoll guestblogging at Instapundit.)

No obituary of Robert would be complete without Conquest’s Three Laws:

  1. Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.
  2. Any organization not explicitly and constitutionally right-wing will sooner or later become left-wing.
  3. The behavior of any bureaucratic organization can best be understood by assuming that it is controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies.

May his memory be for a blessing.

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