“The West’s herds of saurian still roam our intellectual jungles.”
In his last book, The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History (2005), historian Robert Conquest lamented the sobering truth that Marxism was still being spread throughout America and the West. He had fought Marxism and its sympathizers throughout his entire career, and although the West had won the Cold War and his assertions about the horrors of the Soviet Union had been vindicated, there were still legions of academics who refused to take the atrocities of communism seriously.
Once upon a time, Conquest had been one of those enamored with the Great Soviet Experiment. As a young man in 1937 he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, a step of which he remarked years later: “When I joined the Communist Party, we didn’t know the first thing about it, strictly speaking … we were mostly contrarians, or it was a general lefty feeling.” Believing, as many did in those days, that communism was the wave of the future, Conquest was a faithful member until shortly before World War II, when he broke with the Party, citing its naiveté over the good faith relations between Hitler and Stalin. After the war, he worked in the British Foreign Service Office in Bulgaria, where he witnessed Stalin’s takeover of an entire nation firsthand. From that point forward, he was an enemy of world communism.
It is now an established historical truth that the Soviet Union was one of the most brutal empires the world has ever seen, but when Conquest wrote his landmark book The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties in 1968, it was still only a rumor. Reporters who were granted the privilege of witnessing the Great Soviet Experiment during the Lenin and Stalin years were shown Potemkin villages of triumphant utopianism. Their subsequent reports were filled with glowing praise for the future of mankind that had been established in Russia. Official Soviet reports were fabricated and adjusted to show the false rapid “progress” of Russia and the Ukraine. Scores of academics bought the lie and readily defended the Soviet Dream.
Conquest, however, remained unconvinced. He set out to give voice to the dissidents, escapees, and survivors who had fled to the West. The Great Terror was the amalgamation of the stories and figures he gathered from those who had seen and heard them firsthand. No collection of its kind had ever been published in the West before (it predated Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago by 5 years). Its impact was immense: in the words of columnist George Will, it “demolished the doctrine that the Soviet regime was a recognizable variant of the European experience and destined to ‘convergence’ toward Western norms.”
Although The Great Terror is one of the most important books on communism ever written, it was not easy to publish. It elicited fierce opposition, Conquest noted, because it “ripped to pieces” the persistent myth of communist benevolence. Standing against Marxist and fellow-traveling academics, the book is an exploration of the Soviet atrocities that began with Lenin and reached their crescendo with Stalin.
One of the most important myths it shattered was that of the Russian Revolution (one which still persists in numerous textbooks and documentaries). Academics persisted in teaching that it was a popular uprising of workers and peasants. In his opening chapter, Conquest demolishes this idea:
It is clear from the reports of the meeting of the Central Committee nine days before the October Revolution in 1917 that the idea of the rising was ‘not popular,’ that ‘the masses received our [Bolsheviks] call with bewilderment.’ Even the reports from most of the garrisons were tepid. The seizure of power was, in fact, an almost purely military operation, carried out by a small number of Red Guards, only partly from the factories, and a rather larger group of Bolshevized soldiery. The working masses were neutral.
All throughout the Russian Civil War, the masses were constantly terrorized at the behest of Lenin in order to compel their allegiance to Bolshevism. Those who refused were hung, shot, or tortured – often publicly. Once in power, the Bolsheviks were continually at odds with the trade unions, factory workers, peasants, and farmers. Recognizing his weak position, Lenin authorized the use of terror as a tool of state policy for the reeducation of the masses.
Conquest’s book also detailed the extent of Stalin’s terror, hitherto only guessed at on the basis of rumors and scattered evidence. Marxist academics the world over ran a campaign throughout the 1940s and 50s to silence those who testified about Stalin’s terror. Accusations of faked documents and evidence abounded in the press and courts, with Marxists always on the lookout for the next whistleblower. Their devotion ran to the absurd. In The Great Terror, Conquest notes that eminent French intellectual and Marxist Jean-Paul Sartre advocated ignoring stories about the Gulag altogether “on the grounds that otherwise the French proletariat might be thrown into despair.” This pervasive smear campaign was so successful that the Western public had no conception of the suffering caused by the Gulag system, the Ukrainian famine, or the general terror unleashed by Stalin in his purges. Conquest’s book was radical simply by flying against this purposeful deception. After the downfall of the Soviet regime, The Great Terror was slated to be updated and reprinted, but Conquest found that it needed only minimal changes and essentially could be reprinted exactly as it was. His publisher asked if he would like to change the title or subtitle of the book. His friend Kingsley Amis had an idea: “How about I Told You So, You F—–g Fools.”
Conquest’s subsequent books continued to unearth the carefully buried secrets of Soviet communism. The Great Terror illuminated the reality of the Soviet Union’s forced labor camp system. Years later, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s famous Gulag Archipelago would make “Gulag” a household word for suffering and injustice, but even Solzhenitsyn recognized that he hadn’t experienced the worst of the forced labor system—the camps in Kolyma in the Siberian far east, sometimes known as the “Soviet Auschwitz.” Conquest’s 1978 book Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps detailed the horrors of this chain of the Archipelago, where the brutal climate of the Arctic circle claimed roughly a million lives. Originally, prisoners had been sent there to mine gold and other minerals, but eventually the camps were designated as the places where prisoners, including many anti-Soviet academics and “counter-revolutionaries,” were sent to die – literally. The intolerable suffering of Kolyma made short work of the prisoners. “Kolyma – the threat and the actuality of Kolyma,” Conquest wrote, “was the way the Soviet government imposed itself on its subjects.”
Conquest’s examination of the Stalin years produced another groundbreaking book in 1986, entitled The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. The Ukrainian famine of 1929-33 stands as the worst of Stalin’s inhuman plans, meant literally to starve Ukrainian resistance out of existence. When the people of Ukraine resisted Soviet collectivization of their farms, Stalin and the Soviet government created a plan to confiscate all grain, bread, and wheat from the populace until they submitted. Millions died. Conquest notes that during the entire period (including the worst years of 1932-33), “the number dying in Stalin’s war against the peasants was higher than the total deaths for all countries in World War I.” He continues, “There were differences: in the Soviet case, for practical purposes, only one side was armed, and the casualties…were almost all on the other side. They included, moreover, women, children and the old.” Based on interviews with survivors, Conquest’s book paints a gruesome and painful picture of communist rule. The book demolished the claim that Stalin was wholly unaware of the suffering in the Ukraine and would have stopped it if he had known. This absurd defense drew the ire of Conquest, who concluded, “The facts are established; the motives are consistent with all that is known of Stalinist attitudes; and the verdict of history cannot be other than one of criminal responsibility.”
Conquest wrote scores of books throughout his life focusing on the myths and realities of communism. His work earned him the praise of George W. Bush, who, in 2005, awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Spending his final years at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, Conquest passed away on August 3, 2015. For over half a century, he was devoted to correcting the historical record of communism and unearthing the secrets Marxist academics had tried (and were continuing to try) to deny or hide. His efforts to give the true measure of communism in the Soviet Union earned him legions of enemies.
Setting the record straight was of the utmost importance to Conquest, but he believed that his work could serve an even higher purpose:
Terror and falsehood have been repudiated. As the organ of the Soviet Government lately wrote, ‘Not only did they annihilate people physically, but they also hoped to destroy even the memory of them.’ They succeeded in the first, but not in the second. And the restoration of truth is not the concern merely of historians, but of Soviet society as a whole, and emerges not only in the journals, but also in the activities of a great public movement – Memorial – which works to discover the fates of the mass victims, long-mourned relatives of so many living citizens.
Conquest’s efforts in unearthing the truth about communist atrocities helped to memorialize the victims of one of the most destructive governments that has ever existed.