The Man Who Was Right

Robert Conquest
Robert Conquest; drawing by David Levine

One of the few unalloyed pleasures of old age is living long enough to see yourself vindicated. Robert Conquest is currently enjoying this pleasure. He is eighty-two years old, a British historian, poet, and political writer, and longtime research fellow at Stanford. His best-known works—Kolyma (1978), The Harvest of Sorrow (1986), The Great Terror (1990)—laid bare the system of terror and extermination at the heart of the Communist state. He wrote them at a time when détente with the Soviet Union was the fashion, when even conservative opinion no longer believed that the Soviet sys-tem was propelled by murderous and expansionist energies. Soviet communism, Conquest argued, must either live by expansion or die of its contradictions. It remained inherently Leninist in its hostility toward bourgeois liberal democracies, and as such could not be treated as a normal state within the international system.

This was not a popular view when these books were published in the 1970s and 1980s. Liberal opinion—including, truth be told, that of this reviewer—assumed that the Soviet regime was an uncompromising defender of its interests rather than an expansionist menace. Liberals also assumed that Stalin’s campaigns of murder and repression were excesses that the system had left behind. Conquest disagreed. He stubbornly documented the Communist holocaust of the 1930s and argued that extermination had never been a lurid excess of the system, but was the true expression of its nature. Exterminatory policies flowed ineluctably from Leninist doctrine: from its definition of politics as war against the class enemy, its idolization of power as the dictatorship of the proletariat, and its scorn for moral scruple as bourgeois hypocrisy.

Even when, in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Soviet system appeared becalmed or stagnant, Conquest argued that it continued to be a clear and present danger. Conquest insisted that even détente’s major achievement—the Helsinki Final Act of 1975—would not tame an expansionist system. Quiet diplomacy on human rights, he also insisted, was no substitute for public expressions of outrage on behalf of people persecuted and exiled. Kosygin and Brezhnev, he reminded Western readers, were ruthless survivors of the “political slaughter pens” of the 1930s. These apparently somnolent survivors went on to crush the Prague Spring, deploy SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe, and embark on brutal expansionist adventures in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Many liberals were surprised but Conquest was not.

In 1979, he warned that the West and the Soviet Union were on a collision course, like two liners in a “fog of ignorance…fallacy [and] factiousness.” The factions responsible for Western fog, of course, were the Euro-communists and the fellow travelers in the socialist and social democratic parties who preferred rhetorical denunciations of Western, i.e., American, imperialism to a truthful recognition of the tyrannical realities to the East. Influenced by these voices, European leaders of détente were in danger of colluding with tyranny and presiding over the slow Finlandization of the continent.…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.