The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

July 15, 2017

July 15, 1917

We learn from his Stanford obituary, that Robert Conquest (July 15, 1917 to August 3, 2015) was:

The author of 21 books on Soviet history, politics and international affairs, ....[including] the classic The Great Terror (1968), the first comprehensive research of the Stalinist-era purges that took place in the Soviet Union between 1934 and 1939. The book remains one of the most influential studies of Soviet history and has been translated into more than 20 languages....

He also penned
The Harvest of Sorrow (1986), which dealt with the collectivization of agriculture in Ukraine and elsewhere in the USSR and the subsequent famine.

Conquest was also a poet and novelist; he authored seven volumes of poetry and one of literary criticism, a science fiction novel and another novel authored jointly with Kingsley Amis. In 1945, he was awarded the PEN Brazil Prize for his war poem, "For the Death of a Poet", and six years later he received a Festival of Britain verse prize.
[Besides the Medal of Freedom Conquest received].. the Jefferson Lectureship, the highest honor bestowed by the federal government for achievement in the humanities (1993), the Dan David Prize (2012), Poland's Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit (2009), Estonia's Cross of Terra Mariana (2008) and the Ukrainian Order of Yaroslav Mudryi (2005).

Conquest was a fellow of Columbia University's Russian Institute and of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; a distinguished visiting scholar at the Heritage Foundation; and a research associate of Harvard University's Ukrainian Research Institute. He was also a fellow of the British Academy, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society of Literature and the British Interplanetary Society and a member of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.

Conquest's Wall Street Journal obituary provides a bigger picture:

Robert Conquest,...
[was an] Anglo-American historian whose works on the terror and privation under Joseph Stalin made him the pre-eminent Western chronicler of the horrors of Soviet rule...

Mr. Conquest’s master work, “The Great Terror,” was the first detailed account of the Stalinist purges from 1937 to 1939. He estimated that under Stalin, 20 million people perished from famines, Soviet labor camps and executions—a toll that eclipsed that of the Holocaust. Writing at the height of the Cold War in 1968, when sources about the Soviet Union were scarce, Mr. Conquest was vilified by leftists who said he exaggerated the number of victims. When the Cold War ended and archives in Moscow were thrown open, his estimates proved high but more accurate than those of his critics.

Mr. Conquest also was a much-decorated writer of light verse and a figure in the “Movement” poetry of 1950s England. He continued to publish into his 90s, applying an unyielding zest to poetry and prose alike.

Born in Malvern, Worcestershire, to a British mother and an American father, he served in World War II and then in Britain’s diplomatic corps before a series of stints at think tanks and universities, largely in the U.S. In recent decades he was affiliated with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, moving to emeritus status in 2007.

While a spirited combatant in academic debate, Mr. Conquest wrote for a wider audience. “The Great Terror” reached millions of readers and won him a following among leaders including Ronald Reagan. Margaret Thatcher consulted Mr. Conquest on how to deal with the Soviet Union and her former advisers said she trusted him more than any other Soviet expert.

Throughout his career Mr. Conquest kept abreast of ivory-tower squabbles “but he eschewed what he saw as the arcane and parochial nature of some academic literature,” said Mark Kramer, a professor of Cold War history at Harvard.

Mr. Conquest gleefully attacked Western revisionist historians as dupes for Stalin. The 1937-1939 Stalinist show trials, in which Stalin’s political rivals all admitted to serious crimes and were shot, shocked many left-leaning intellectuals in the West. The lurid trials set off mass defections from Communist parties in Europe and the U.S. and helped inspire anti-Communist tracts such as George Orwell’s “1984” and Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon.”

But the wider slaughter of Soviet citizens had largely gone undocumented until Mr. Conquest’s narrative. Citing sources made public during the thaw under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev as well as émigré accounts, the Soviet census and snippets of information in the Soviet press, Mr. Conquest portrayed the trials as a mere sideshow to the systematic murder carried out by the Kremlin, which routinely ordered regional quotas for thousands of arbitrary arrests and shootings at burial pits and execution cellars. The latest data show that during a 16-month stretch in 1937 and 1938, more than 800,000 people were shot by the Soviet secret police.

These executions came on top of millions of earlier deaths amid the forced famines and collectivization of Soviet agriculture, which Mr. Conquest detailed in a later book, “The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine.” Mr. Conquest wrote that Stalin summarily executed millions of people by cutting off food to entire regions, particularly Ukraine.

While the opening of Soviet-era archives sparked some attacks on Mr. Conquest, his overall narrative of the purges was confirmed. “The Great Terror” was serialized in Russian newspapers and the revelation of mass graves, such as 20,000 in the Moscow suburb of Butovo, confirmed a wholesale execution system. Since then the debate among historians has been mostly settled over the immensity of the human toll exacted under Stalin’s rule.

Though Mr. Conquest’s body count was on the high end of estimates, he remained unwavering at the publication of “
The Great Terror: A Reassessment,” a 1990 revision of his masterwork. When Mr. Conquest was asked for a new title for the updated book, his friend, the writer Kingsley Amis, proposed, “I Told You So, You F—ing Fools.”

A heart stopping perspective in Conquest's account concerns someone Stalin brought from provincial obscurity in the 1920s, and promoted to the highest circles, a fellow named Yezhov. Conquest was later told that secretaries were frightened to encounter this guy in the corridors of the Kremlin offices.

The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties
(1968) contains this detail:

..[An old communist is quoted describing Yezhov as like] "one of those slum children whose favorite occupation was to tie paraffin-soaked paper to a cat's tail and set fire to it—and this was long before Yezhov had shown his full potential."

The grisly fare of Mr. Conquest’s research was at odds with his puckish charm and wit. While a schoolboy at Winchester College in Hampshire and at Oxford, he was a desultory student but a fervent reader and writer of poetry. Along with Mr. Amis, he was something of a bon vivant, holding court at uproarious lunches and tumbling into romances that seemed inevitable given his surname. Mr. Conquest, who married four times, poured much of himself into his poetry, examining love, sex, wartime and loss in more than a half-dozen collections of poems.
A colorful private life didn’t distract Mr. Conquest from honing a spectrum of interests. He read French, German, Italian, Czech, Russian, Bulgarian, Greek and Latin. In addition to Sovietology, he became an expert on the twilight stage of the roughly 400-year period when Britain was part of the Roman Empire.....
In the 1960s, Messrs. Conquest and Amis edited a sci-fi anthology, “Spectrum,” and collaborated on a novel, “The Egyptologists,” about a secret London society that served as an alibi for philanderers.

Mr. Conquest was one of a handful of influential postwar English poets known collectively as The Movement. The unofficial group, which included Mr. Amis and Philip Larkin, favored a gritty and grounded approach that was seen by many as a reaction to modernism. Movement poets, many of whom bristled at being so labeled, rejected the experiments of earlier practitioners such as Ezra Pound. Instead, they hewed to craftsmanship and discipline, whether in light verse or more serious works, favoring the real over the fanciful.

While the Movement’s ranks were fluid, Mr. Conquest had been considered the last surviving original member. He edited two anthologies of the group’s poems: “New Lines,” published in 1956 and “New Lines II,” published in 1963.

In the 1970s, when Mr. Amis was editing “The New Oxford Book of Light Verse,” he chose several of Mr. Conquest’s works for the volume.

“Penultimata,” a critically acclaimed collection of Mr. Conquest’s poetry, was published in mid-2009 by the Waywiser Press. He was also an enthusiastic crafter of limericks, a form in which his irreverence and flair for language flourished. One version of an often-quoted one reads:

There was a great Marxist named Lenin
Who did two or three million men in.
—That’s a lot to have done in,
But where he did one in
That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.

No comments: