Some of the most famous intellectuals of the West, including the French writer and Nobel Laureate Andre Gide and American conservatism’s Whittaker Chambers, turned to communism in the 1920s and 1930s only to reject it when they discovered that communism was built on deceit and terror. Gide wrote, “I doubt whether in any country in the world…have the mind and the spirit ever been less free, more bent, more terrorized over and indeed vassalized than in the Soviet Union.” But only a few of them then spent the rest of their lives making it their business to expose communism as the most deadly ism of the 20th century.
No one—not Alexander Solzhenitsyn, not George Orwell, not the six authors of The Black Book of Communism—was a more compelling chronicler of communism than the historian Robert Conquest, an ardent Bolshevik as a young man, who passed away this week at the age of 98. His most famous work is The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties, published in 1968 at the time of the Prague Spring and based mainly on unofficial sources. Conquest estimates that under Stalin some 20 million people died from executions, forced labor camps (the Gulag), and famines. Dismissed as gross exaggerations at the time by apologetic leftists, Conquest’s figures were corroborated in time by Soviet historians and opened archives. In a 1991 edition of The Great Terror, Conquest writes that the archives “show[s] things to be rather worse than I originally suggested.”
Not as well-known but equally commanding in its careful research and powerful writing is The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. Conquest recounts how in the early 1930s, Stalin’s attempt to collectivize Russia’s vast agricultural system resulted in the deaths—from famine—of millions. He estimates that “in the actions here recorded about 20 million human lives were lost, not for every word, but every letter, in this book.” Together, The Great Terror and The Harvest of Sorrow provide a definitive history of the horrific crimes of the Stalin era.
The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation knew Robert Conquest well. In 1994, he was among the very first historians to join our National Advisory Board, along with Harvard’s Richard Pipes and former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. In 2010, I traveled to Palo Alto, California, where he was a resident scholar at the Hoover Institution, to present him with the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom. I described him as “the dean of Russian historians,” a title I borrowed from Russia where The Great Terror had been widely serialized in major newspapers.
One of VOC’s most prized possessions is the Nikolai Getman collection of paintings of life and death in the Gulag; Getman spent eight years in a Siberian camp. Conquest wrote a special introduction for the catalogue, saying of the paintings that they portrayed a system in which “death was caused by unbearable toil, by cold and starvation, by unheard of degradation and humiliation, by a life that could not have been endured by any other animal.”
Bob Conquest was a man of many interests and tastes. He was a member of the Movement poets of the 1950s, along with Kingsley Amis, and a lover of science fiction, even writing a sci-fi novel in the same decade. But it was his ground-breaking work as an historian and Kremlinologist for which he will be remembered and honored. Because of this work, in 2005 he was awarded our highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President George W. Bush.
In 2001, we asked Conquest to give us a few words about our work. Here is what he wrote:
“It is important for all of us to keep our memories of these dreadful events fresh. It is not only that we mourn the victims. We must also, for their sake and our own, keep before us a major historical truth—and one that was for long denied or distorted the world over. The lessons must be learnt, and the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation will serve as a constant education.”
Inspired by his example, we promise that we shall continue to be a constant educator and a constant teller of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about communism.