July 7th, 2012

An interview with Robert Conquest…

…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?


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,
Loathed, loved…
. . 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.

13 Responses to “An interview with Robert Conquest…”

  1. kolnai Says:

    Conquest, along with Richard Pipes, taught me the history of the Soviet Union.

    Every Westerner should be forced at some point in their education before college to read (at least) parts of The Great Terror and Harvest of Sorrow – forced to be free, I suppose 🙂

    (ant to that end, someone really should create an anthology of Conquest’s writings – I bet ISI would be interested in doing something like that).

  2. George Pal Says:

    There’s much to recommend about Mr. Conquest but in his concerns – rogue states – he seems to have been caught too much in the past. There’s more than rogue states that threaten us particularly, and peace generally. There’s more that’s unconscionable, wicked, and rogue, in our own institutions than in any of the bad actors with big weapons.

    I’ll have Whitaker Chamber make my point for me in one line: “The success of Communism…is never greater than the failure of all other faiths.”

    As we have a bigger stage now, the principle player is now not recrudescent Communism alone but an entire ensemble of evil villains. The EU would do to Western Europe with faux ‘democracy’ what the Warsaw Pact threatened with the stick (tanks) and promised with the carrot (détente, i.e. the western Europe’s appeasements). The United Nations is the most corrupt institution in the world and makes the Russian mob and drug cartels look primitive but preferable nevertheless. NATO, under the auspices of the U S military, is without a mission and its calling card might just as well read “Have Gun, Will Travel”.

    There’s no making a better world with a great moral vacuum, open corruption, and treason implicit in policy and explicit in consequence. And I haven’t even gotten to the greatest social pathogen in the history of the world – Islam.

    The problems of the world are not new; we just haven’t what it takes to solve them. Which is my cue to say I haven’t even gotten to the greatest disappointment in the history of the West and now as much yet another institutional problem as the others … the Christian church.

    Good luck… because prayers might offend.

  3. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    Plato’s Republic was an intellectual blue print for solving all of society’s problems. He may not have been the first to propose a statist solution, but many have followed in his tracks.

    I’m a moron compared to the historical knowledge that commenters like kolnai and others here display. I do know, however, from traveling to many countries and observing the workings of their societies up close that none have come as close to solving the problems of governance as this country. (Every time I return to the USA from traveling I feel so blessed that my parents lived here. There is no place else, even with all our warts, that comes close.)

    When I visited Russia it was enough to make me weep. It is potentially the richest country in the world, but has been undone by the tyranny of the czars, then the communists, now the oligarchs. The same is true of Argentina. All the ingredients to be a prosperous country and yet they’ve been undone by series of socialist reformers or juntas.

    Conquest is correct about the European Community or the Eurozone being untenable. The elites are trying desperately to hold it together in one big statist blob. How can such disparate cultures as Germany, and Spain/Portugal/Italy/Greece meld their political and financial interests into a harmonious whole? Maybe, if they established a PC education program throughout all the countries and brainwashed everyone into being Germans, it could, over a period of thirty years, possibly work.

    During human history we have been transitioning from tribalism (Chefs or Big Men) to kings/emperors, to more democratic governance, to statist collectivism, to truly representative republican goverenment, but much of the world is still mired in either tribalism (Islam, much of Africa), statist collectivism (China, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina, etc.), or a form of kings/emperors ( Russia, Saudi Arabia, etc.). Only the Anglosphere attempts to preserve democracy of sorts, but even there the forces of statism are trying to drag us back to Plato’s Republic. We are a kind of island of freedom and prosperity that is slowly sinking back into the morass of the intellectual’s desire for grand solutions through statism.

  4. rachel Says:

    Another political changer (whose political change I only recently learned of): John Dos Passos. Perhaps you can write about him someday, neo.

    Learned of it from half-watching the Hemingway & Gellhorn HBO movie. When the Dos Passos character last appears (a scene in which he appears to vanish into nothingness, as it were– apt, given Gellhorn’s leftwing perspective), Gellhorn in voiceover says something like “his politics moved far to the right.”

    His character is treated sympathetically, however, and at least one reason for his move rightward is suggested by the movie, though not spelled out. As the Wikipedia article puts it, “Dos Passos broke with Hemingway and Herbert Matthews over their cavalier attitude towards the war and their willingness to lend their names to deceptive Stalinist propaganda efforts, including the cover-up of the Soviet responsibility in the murder of José Robles, Dos Passos’s friend and translator of his works into Spanish.”

  5. rachel Says:

    Re Dos Passos, I wonder if his political change affected his place/ status in the literary canon– e.g. the extent to which his books are studied in university courses on American literature, etc.

  6. neo-neocon Says:

    rachel: I’m way ahead of you :-).

    Wrote about Dos Passos back in November of 2005.

  7. Beverly Says:

    “Which is my cue to say I haven’t even gotten to the greatest disappointment in the history of the West and now as much yet another institutional problem as the others … the Christian church. “….

    This Easter [!!!] our minister gave a perfectly Arian sermon. The refrain? that Everyone’s going to heaven, so let us all be joyful! No need for any nasty and unpleasant Judgements, no need to believe in Jesus in particular, or anything else, for that matter.

    On Easter Sunday. I haven’t been back since, but it breaks my heart. I wasn’t brought up in that kind of “church.”

  8. Beverly Says:

    My Southern university (Vanderbilt, in the 1970s) still had Dos Passos on the modern Am. lit. list.

    But the professors were all preaching The Death of The Absolute in Modern Times. Which annoyed me, agnostic though I then was: who the heck decided that the Absolute was dead? a cabal of professors and slick modern writers, apparently.

  9. Beverly Says:

    Footnote: just clicked over to see which JDP books we were assigned: the ones from his communist era, of course. We weren’t told he’d completely changed his mind in later years.

    You gotta hand it to the professoriate — they’re nothing if not predictable.

  10. rachel Says:

    Heh neo, after my comment it occurred to me that you might’ve written on Dos Passos already. Thanks for the link to your post– fascinating stuff, as always.

  11. Occam's Beard Says:

    When I visited Russia it was enough to make me weep. It is potentially the richest country in the world, but has been undone by the tyranny of the czars, then the communists, now the oligarchs.

    I had exactly the same reaction. The USSR, as it then was, was essentially a Third World country with nuclear weapons and a space program bolted on.

  12. NeoConScum Says:

    I entirely agree with Paul Johnson’s assessment of this Giant:”Robert Conquest is our greatest living Modern Historian.”

    Conquest’s,”Reflections on a Ravaged Century”(2000 & continuously in print), is an earth’s-axis-moving meditation on the monumental horrors and truth of the 20th Century. A Must Read. I’m looking across the study to my Soviet History shelves and can see,”Kolyma:The Arctic Death Camps”, “The Great Terror” and it’s newer “Reassessment”, “Harvest of Sorrow”, “Stalin:Breaker of Nations”, “V.I.Lenin” and “Inside Stalin’s Secret Police”. Wish I could find a reasonably priced copy of,”The Nation Killers”, but, alas, I cannot.

    Thanks N-Neocon, for the homage to this tremendous scholar. Side note: Kingsley Amis and his son, both, were close friends with Conquest, as was the late Christopher Hitchens. Strange bedfellows, perhaps, but great friends nevertheless.

  13. Gringo Says:

    Occam’s Beard: the saying in the 1970s and 1980s was that the Soviet Union was Upper Volta with missiles.

    I knew some people who had visited Moscow in the 1970s. The reaction to the time in Moscow of someone who was a Cold Warrior- no peace in Vietnam from him- was that the US didn’t have that much to fear from such a poorly run society.

    Two anecdotes regarding contact with Russians. A Russian in the street started talking with them- by their dress it was obvious they were from the West. When they commented on his “brazenness” the Russian replied that while the Organs forbid such behavior, they cannot keep track of everyone all the time.

    Some Russians got invited up to a hotel room to visit. Within a short while, there was a phone call for them. The phone conversation got loud. The Russians left the hotel room, visibly shaken. While the Organs couldn’t keep track of everyone, they kept track of enough.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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