…on the eve of the sort-of millennium makes for some fascinating reading in retrospect.
I call it the “sort-of” millennium because it took place in late December of 1999, whereas the real millennium would have begun with the year 2001. But no matter; Conquest, who wrote the book (actually, several books) on the Soviet and especially Stalinist crimes of the 20th century, had quite a bit to say in the interview:
ROBERT CONQUEST: Well, we’ve seen the ravages committed by the Nazis and Communists in the huge scale. I mean, millions have killed but in this book I’m not so much concerned to present the actual ravages as to how they came about, how people who went in to perform these horrible operations, what motivated them. Where did they pick up these awful ideas?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It is ideas, ideas you are exactly what you blame for these ravages.
ROBERT CONQUEST: With a capital “I” these things not ordinary idea like you and I would have but an overwhelming idea that we’ve got everything right, we know the answers for everything, and we can do anything to enforce it…
ROBERT CONQUEST: Well, it’s very attractive in some ways. People do want answers; this is natural, but the ordinary man in the street didn’t think he got all full answers. He knew he didn’t – it was the intellectual, creating the single, perfect answer and time and time again this has happened.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You use a term that is — Orwell’s term actually — that I like “the lure of the profound” — what do you mean by that?
ROBERT CONQUEST: Well, that I use because in the book I’m trying to avoid anything plotted and incomprehensible or referring to things that nobody is going to be interested in. I tried to keep it like in Orwell’s terms, clear, and making the points and illustrating with many examples — not just examples of horror or stupidity but striking ones.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But the lure of the profound is also one of the things that at least from what I’ve observed, drives intellectuals into these totalitarian ideas, right?
ROBERT CONQUEST: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: They want the deepest, most scientific, most modern and most profound idea to be theirs?
ROBERT CONQUEST: I think they think it’s modern, that counts as profound…
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So, do you think that there are still in our intellectual life right now, ideas that are like – or remnants of ideas that are still quite dangerous?
ROBERT CONQUEST: Well, I think there are ideas that given much more scope and importance than they are willow wisps on a dangerous marsh. I would include the idea of the European Community, for example. I mean, Europe is not really, cannot be a nation state. So it’s a big thing, horrendous bureaucracy. And it can’t hang together. But that’s nothing like the totalitarian ideas, it’s still an idea with a rather small, capital letter, which is distorting European history and the West –
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What else do you see right now that worries you for the next century?
ROBERT CONQUEST: Well, we’re nearly there. Russia, of course, is in a terrible state. And we don’t know what’s happening today in Chechnya for one thing, in Moscow. And it doesn’t look very nice, and that could cause real trouble. But I still think that -
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Expand on that, what do you mean?
ROBERT CONQUEST: Well, it could spill over into the caucuses, into Azerbaijan or somewhere. But I still think that real trouble is getting the real unity of the democratic countries which will be able to face the troubles together, based, of course, on American alliance, and be able to cope with the really rogue states. There are states worse than Russia that don’t have much arms, but enough to cause trouble.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’re talking about –
ROBERT CONQUEST: North Korea. Iraq. There are rogue states which have to be somehow accommodated or prevented from doing — it’s a dangerous situation.
Conquest is a poet as well as historian, which makes him a rara avis in my eyes. His 95th birthday is due to arrive on July 15. As recently as 2010 he was still actively writing poems, such as this one entitled “Getting On”:
Into one’s ninetieth year.
Memory? Yes, but the sheer
Seethe as the half-woken brain’s
Great gray search-engine gains
Traction on all one’s dreamt, seen, felt, read,
. . And on one’s dead.
-Which makes one’s World, one’s Age, appear
Faint wrinkles on the biosphere
Itself the merest speck in some
Corner of the continuum.
More on Conquest and the intellectuals (and of course he himself is one, but a gadfly to the left rather than a member of it):
[Conquest] accused [left-wing intellectuals] of denying the full scale of the [Stalin-induced] famine, attacking their views as “an intellectual and moral disgrace on a massive scale.” He later wrote that the western world had been faced with two different stories about the famine in the 1930s, and accused many intellectuals of believing the false one: “Why did an intellectual stratum overwhelmingly choose to believe the false one? None of this can be accounted for in intellectual terms. To accept information about a matter on which totally contradictory evidence exists, and in which investigation of major disputes on the matter is prevented, is not a rational act.”
My favorite anecdote about Conquest is the following (which probably is not about Conquest at all but rather his longtime friend, the writer Kingsley Amis):
After the opening up of the Soviet archives in 1991, detailed information was released that Conquest argued supported his conclusions. When Conquest’s publisher asked him to expand and revise [his book] The Great Terror, Conquest is famously said to have suggested the new version of the book be titled I Told You So, You Fucking Fools. In fact, the mock title was jokingly proposed by Conquest’s old friend, Kingsley Amis.
And it comes as no surprise that, like so many illustrious minds on the right who understood the mentality of the left, Conquest was a political changer:
In 1937, after studying at the University of Grenoble, Conquest went up to Oxford [and got a doctorate in Soviet history], joining both the Carlton Club and, as an ‘open’ member, the Communist Party of Great Britain…
In 1944, Conquest was posted to Bulgaria as a liaison officer to the Bulgarian forces fighting under Soviet command, attached to the Third Ukrainian Front, and then to the Allied Control Commission…At the end of the war, he joined the Foreign Office, returning to the British Legation in Sofia. Witnessing first-hand the brutal Stalinist takeover in Bulgaria, he became completely disillusioned with communist ideas…
Conquest joined the Foreign Office’s Information Research Department (IRD), a unit created by the Labour government to “collect and summarize reliable information about Soviet and communist misdoings, to disseminate it to friendly journalists, politicians, and trade unionists, and to support, financially and otherwise, anticommunist publications.”
Conquest has kept on doing so for the bulk of his very long and productive life.