Yesterday’s passing of Robert Conquest, the scholar who studied the blood orgies of the Soviet Union in the Stalin Era, brought back memories of how his work intensely interested and educated me almost a quarter-century ago.
A native of England who served in the British Army and Foreign Service, Conquest wrote several books that I devoured in the early 1990s, when Soviet history interested me so much that I seriously considered returning to graduate school to become a scholar of the topic, along the lines of Conquest himself, in my dreams, anyway. That never happened, but Conquest’s research educated me in the horrors of the period, written with the flair and clarity one would expect from a man who was also a published poet.
I still have the three books of his I read, each noting the date I bought it. The first was Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine, on April 20, 1991. The book dealt with how Stalin starved Ukraine, killing millions in the 1930s. Almost 90 years later, with Ukraine independent, the two countries continue their Russia-imposed conflict.
Next I found The Great Terror: A Reassessment (March 14, 1992), Conquest’s masterpiece on the history of the purges of the 1930s. First published in 1968, the book was revised after Soviet records became more open to scholars in the glasnost era. The scholarship is vast, and the details are gruesome, It echoes with analysis, statistics and shocking images of the inhumanity of the era. One passage to give the flavor of the times:
Even when not arrested, families suffered terribly. An attempted mass suicide is reported by a group of four 13- and 14-year old children of executed NKVD officers, found badly wounded in the Prozorovsky forest near Moscow. The daughter of an Assistant Chief of Red Army Intelligence, Aleksandr Karin (who was arrested and shot, with his wife), was 13 in the spring of 1937. The Karin apartment was taken by one of Yezhov’s men, who turned her out into the street. She went to her father’s best friend Shpigelglas, Assistant Head of the Foreign Department of the NKVD, who put her up for the night, but was virtually ordered the next day, by Yezhov’s secretary, to throw her out. Shpigelglas remembered she had relatives as Saaratov and sent her there. Two months later she came back: “She was pale, thin, her eyes filled with bitterness. Nothing childish remained in her.” She had meanwhile been made to speak at a meeting of the Pioneers, approving the execution of her father and mother saying that they had been spies.
Finally, on April 27, 1996, I found Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps, which focused on one part of the gulag system described in The Great Terror.
Conquest was also generous in supporting the work of other scholars. In 1990, he wrote a forward for the book Stalin’s Prosecutor: The Life of Andrei Vyshinsky, by the Russian investigative journalist Arkady Vaksberg. I bought it on May 25, 1991. He opens with an invocation of the rebirth of “historical truth” in the USSR under glasnost as archives opened up, and credit Vaksberg as “one of the supreme examples of this new research. He wrote,
Arkady Vaksberg appears in this book as a sane man quietly gnawing away at the roots of paranoid falsification. he is not, of course, the only Soviet citizen responsible for bringing that rotten enormity crashing to the ground. But he has played a unique role in the process. Above all, as I have said, he has shown that extraordinary instinct for the discovery of records which in principle still remain inaccessible, but of which copies exist i the possession of various institutions or individuals.
Other sources give details about Conquest’s life and enormous impact. I think of him as my guide to the vast stretches of the inferno that was Stalinist Russia. I can only thank God that my ancestors left Ukrainian shtetls around 1900 for the US, or I could have been caught up in the nightmare. His comments on the deluded Western intellectuals who supported the Soviet enterprise and the Stalinist show trials stand as a warning to us in 2015 about those who excuse or rationalize new forms of terror and suppression of free thinking.
His works cannot be studied enough.