It is easy now to forget just how terrifying the Cold War seemed. Across the Western world, many doubted Communism could be defeated without unleashing nuclear Armageddon.What is more, many Western intellectuals — from Marxists such as Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm and his friend Ralph Miliband (father of Ed and David, a political theorist at the London School of Economics, a devout follower of Marx and an unswerving believer in revolutionary socialism) to woolly, well-meaning Lefties in universities across the country — were quick to defend the regime whenever it was criticised.Lenin and Stalin, these ‘useful idiots’ claimed, had been much misunderstood.It was Conquest, more than any other writer of his generation, who did most to expose this deceitful drivel.At a time when intellectual fashion was on the Left, he had the guts to lay out, in devastating detail, the truth about the blood-soaked Soviet experiment....
It was Conquest’s close attention to detail that made his expose of Communism so devastating. The Great Terror was based on hundreds of accounts by Soviet dissidents and work camp inmates. He showed that life under Stalin’s regime had been even worse than outsiders suspected....
Even today, The Great Terror is a chilling read and an unforgettable record of the bloody consequences of ideological utopianism. It is hard to read about the starving children in Ukraine or about the ordinary men and women frozen and tortured in the Siberian camps without a shudder of horror.
Vladimir Tismaneanu posts his tribute at frontpagemag:
Robert Conquest (1917-2015) was a great intellectual, historian, and moral conscience. For the denizens of what used to be the Soviet Bloc, Robert Conquest’s name is truly legendary. I remember my own first experience with Conquest’s masterpiece The Great Terror....Political Violence is much more than the traditional anthology of solemn, frequently hackneyed paeans to a great scholar. It is in fact an excellent collection of penetrating studies on the very concepts that did underlie Conquest’s lifelong endeavor: the centrality of violence in the Marxist revolutionary eschatology; the links between utopia, violence, ideology, and terror; the limits and relevance of comparisons between the Nazi and the Soviet totalitarian experiments. As Conquest put it himself in a seminal essay on history as a battleground:
“The huge catastrophes of our era have been inflicted by human beings driven by certain thoughts. And so history’s essential questions must be: How do we account for what has been called the ‘ideological frenzy’ of the twentieth century? How did these mental aberrations gain a purchase? What was the sort and condition of people affected? Who were the Typhoid Marys who spread the infection?” (Reflections on a Ravaged Century , New York: Norton, 2000, p. 3)...From Lenin to Mao and Guevara, the apostles of utopian collectivism were possessed by revolutionary hubris. Leszek Kolakowski is therefore right: communist nihilism is related to Dostoyevski’s demons’ contempt for individual rights and their reckless exaltation of the cathartic virtues of violence. In his writings on the ravaged 20th century, Conquest highlighted precisely this enduring attraction of rebellious intellectuals to a closed universe of empirically non-demonstrable yet compellingly contagious certainties. Let me say that at a time when many were ready to close their eyes and endorse, implicitly or explicitly, the self-serving Leninist narratives about the ultimate goal somehow justifying the appalling methods used to attain it (the proverbial need to break eggs in order to make the revolutionary omelet), Robert Conquest defended the honor of Sovietology. For him, there was no doubt that millions, not only “hundred of thousands” perished in the vortex of the terrorist universe. He never doubted the uniqueness of the Holocaust as the ultimate horror of a horrific age, but insisted on the monstrously murderous features of Bolshevism in its various incarnations.
For Conquest, evil is not a category scholars should avoid if they wish to fathom the age of ideologically-generated cataclysms. May he rest in peace, he deserves all our gratitude and admiration.
There are some other tributes here and here. I remember reading several works of Mr. Conquest. They made quite an impression. It is amazing how many intellectuals wanted to be deceived. Some still can't come to terms with the reality of the matter, but what do you expect.
There is also a post which includes a video from a dinner in honor of Mr. Conquest from 1992.
Czeslaw Milosz (introduced ~18:00, speaks ~21:00-32:00) status, group think and self-deception
Aaron Wildavsky (~32:00-50:00) importance of telling truth, our greatest possession - liberty
John O'Sullivan (~50:00-1:02)
John O'Sullivan (~50:00-1:02)
Yelena Bonner (~1:02-1:20)
Robert Conquest (~1:22-1:46) struggle against oppression and lies, bad ideas: scientism, all is struggle, new human beings; education on these matters - overcoming impatience and laziness
Of particular interest are the remarks of Milosz, Wildavsky and Conquest.