Death of the author of ‘The Great Terror’… “The softest voice that ever brought down an ideological tyranny”. So wrote Christopher Hitchens about Robert Conquest, historian and poet who died this week aged ninety eight.
Born in Malvern, England Conquest grew up on the Italian Riviera, following an education which culminated in a doctorate in Soviet history, he became a member of the British Communist Party but left when they denounced the war in 1939. After joining the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry he studied Bulgarian in London before taking up his post as a Liason Officer attached to the Bulgarian Army which was fighting alongside Soviet forces on the Ukrainian Front. In 1945 his poetry first came to prominence with the PEN award-winning ‘For the Death of a Poet’ winning the best long poem award of World War Two. At the end of the war he joined the Foreign Office and took up residence in Sofia. It was here, in 1946 when he saw at first hand Stalin’s form of communism as Soviet forces swept through Bulgaria imposing their rule whilst erasing any lingering admiration Conquest still felt for the ideology.
Having visited Russia in 1937 as a committed follower of Soviet Communism, Conquest now found himself having to discreetly leave Bulgaria after being caught helping smuggle two Bulgarian’s out of the country. Back in London he was instructed to organise a new department within the Foreign Office designed to counter pro-Soviet propaganda. With the aid of his assistant, Celia Kirwan he successfully recruited George Orwell into revealing the names of known Soviet sympathisers which included Charlie Chaplin and EH Carr. Like Orwell, Conquest fell in love with Kirwan prompting him to write several poems which were more successful than his advances on her. From the 1950s onwards he began writing papers on the Soviet system, his first book on Russia, Common Sense about Russia was published in 1960 and was soon followed by Power and Policy in the USSR in 1961 and the 1965 publication of Russia After Kruschchev. But it was the 1968 release of The Great Terror which catapulted Conquest to global recognition. Whilst much had been said of Stalin and his reign nobody had uncovered the true detail and horror of his brutal regime which would later be confirmed by the Soviet’s own release of its official archives.
By the 1970s Conquest was firmly ensconced in a career in academia in the United States, further major works on the Soviet Union were released and despite his renouncement of Communism he continued to vote Labour until Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979. Having sought out Conquest’s advice on the current Soviet threat to national security, Thatcher, who was then opposition leader came to rely heavily upon Conquest and took much of what he wrote in his 1979 book Present Danger for a major speech in Brussels on foreign policy. Although she later declined his proposal to give him the role of ambassador to the United Nations they remained close and Conquest returned to the States and a lucrative career in academe. A close friend of Philip Larkin with whom he shared a fondness for girlie magazines and related practical jokes he also co-wrote The Egyptologists with Kingsley Amis winning national recognition on both sides of the Atlantic.
Awarded an OBE in 1955 and CMG in 1996 he was presented with the US Presidential Medal of Freedom by George Bush Jnr in 2005. Conquest’s contribution to the unravelling of communism and the detailing of Stalin’s great purges cannot be underestimated, his works were translated into Russian following the collapse of the empire and for many Russian’s he became the voice of truth about their former leader and the ideology that wreaked so much terror upon them. Robert Conquest 1917-2015
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