Robert Conquest: scholars pay tribute to pioneering historian

Poet and Russia scholar has died at the age of 98

August 7, 2015
Robert Conquest
Source: Rob C. Croes (ANEFO)

Leading academic experts on the Soviet Union have paid tribute to the poet and historian Robert Conquest, who died this week at the age of 98.

For Robert Gellately, Earl Ray Beck professor of history at Florida State University, he was “a pioneer in the study of Soviet terror, though because he was often deemed a conservative opponent of communism, everything he said could safely be ignored”.

“Many academics in particular were deaf to the abuses of communism, and many still find it difficult to question the utopian dream that so obviously turned into a nightmare,” Professor Gellately said. “Conquest was one of the few to have the courage to tackle the daunting research task, even to question his own once-cherished beliefs, and to devote a lifetime’s energy to get people to see the light.”

Stephen Kotkin, professor in history and international affairs at Princeton University, described Conquest as “a phenomenon – an accomplished poet, a scholar of surpassing erudition, and a witty, mischievous raconteur. He wrote some 30 history and policy books, one of which was among the two most important on the Soviet Union during the entire Cold War. The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (1968) was a masterpiece of connect-the-dots research and storytelling. The only other work on the same plane is Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (1973).”

Although Professor Kotkin acknowledged that “Conquest might be faulted for having an insufficiently complex theory of power”, he was working at a time “when Soviet archives were effectively closed to legitimate researchers” and yet still managed to “demonstrate with massive detail, by recourse to memoirs, Khrushchev-era publications and Kremlinology, what the Soviet Union and Stalin’s rule really were. His impact in academia was blunted by the politics of the profession, but his impact on the public and policymakers was profound.”

Orlando Figes, professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, noted that after the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991, Conquest was “practically a hero [in Russia] for having told the truth about the Stalin terror when everybody else was telling lies. The opening of the Soviet archives more than vindicated Conquest’s original findings (he published a second edition of The Great Terror with the sub-heading ‘a Reassessment’ [1990]), which had never been accepted by left-wing ‘revisionists’ – inclined as they were not only to underestimate the numbers killed and destroyed in the terror but to fail to understand the impact of the terror on Soviet society.”

A mildly dissenting note was struck by Sheila Fitzpatrick, honorary professor of history at the University of Sydney: “Robert Conquest was a bit too much of a Cold Warrior for my taste, but his Great Terror was an important contribution to the scholarship when it first came out, and then had an interesting afterlife in Russia as a much-prized ‘truth about the purges as told in the West’ in the early post-Soviet period. Of course, by that time, there were better data on the numbers than he had (Conquest was never good on numbers; my impression was that he just went for high ones), but the Russians didn’t mind about that.”

Robert Conquest was born on 15 July 1917 and died 3 August 2015.

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