Robert Conquest, Historian Who Documented Soviet Horrors, Dies at 98
His wife, the former Elizabeth Neece, said the cause was pneumonia.
Mr. Conquest, a poet and science-fiction buff, turned to the study of the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s out of dissatisfaction with the quality of analysis he saw at the British Foreign Office, where he worked after World War II in the Information Research Department, a semi-secret office responsible for combating Soviet propaganda.
“The ambassadors varied between people who were interested in politics and people who were interested in music,” he told The Guardian in 2003. “I wanted to study the evolutions at the top in Soviet Russia.”
As one of the Movement poets of the 1950s, a group that included Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin and Thom Gunn, Mr. Conquest embarked on a research fellowship at the London School of Economics and produced “Power and Politics in the USSR” (1960), a book that established him as a leading Kremlinologist.
Eight years later, during the Prague Spring, he published “The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties,” a chronicle of Stalin’s merciless campaign against political opponents, intellectuals, military officers — anyone who could be branded an “enemy of the people.”
For the first time, facts and incidents scattered in myriad sources were gathered in a gripping narrative. Its impact would not be matched until the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago” in 1973.
The scope of Stalin’s purges was laid out: seven million people arrested in the peak years, 1937 and 1938; one million executed; two million dead in the concentration camps. Mr. Conquest estimated the death toll for the Stalin era at no less than 20 million.
“His historical intuition was astonishing,” said Norman M. Naimark, a professor of Eastern European history at Stanford University. “He saw things clearly without having access to archives or internal information from the Soviet government. We had a whole industry of Soviet historians who were exposed to a lot of the same material but did not come up with the same conclusions. This was groundbreaking, pioneering work.”
Reaction to the book split along ideological lines, with leftist historians objecting to Mr. Conquest’s thesis that Stalin’s regime was a natural evolution of Leninism rather than an aberration.
Mr. Conquest summed up his attitude in a short poem:
There was a great Marxist called 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.
“The Great Terror: A Reassessment” included new information made available after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was less a reassessment, however, than a triumphant vindication of the original edition, since newly released material from the Soviet archives supported Mr. Conquest’s findings at every turn.
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“In the circumstances, Mr. Conquest is merely left to dot the i’s,” the historian Norman Davies wrote in The New York Times Book Review. In a moment of gleeful malice, Mr. Conquest told friends that his suggested title for the new edition was “I Told You So, You Fools” (with a vulgar adjective inserted between the last two words).
Russian editors in the post-Soviet era, savoring a newfound freedom, published excerpts from “The Great Terror” and other Conquest works. “This is by far the most serious work on the period of our history between 1934 and 1939,” wrote Boris Nikolsky, editor of the Russian journal Neva.
Mr. Conquest returned to the subject of the 1930s in 1986 with his study “The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine,” covering Stalin’s campaign to bring Ukraine to heel and pay for industrial development by expropriating grain from peasant farmers. Millions perished in the ensuing state-organized famine and wave of mass arrests. In his preface, Mr. Conquest noted that “in the actions here recorded about 20 human lives were lost, not for every word, but for every letter, in this book.”
Together, “The Great Terror” and “The Harvest of Sorrow” offered the definitive account of the crimes of the Stalin era.
George Robert Acworth Conquest was born on July 15, 1917, in Great Malvern, Worcestershire, England. His father lived on a trust-fund income, and throughout Mr. Conquest’s childhood the family shifted from one home to another and spent long periods in France, in Brittany and Provence.
He attended Winchester College in England and, after studying for a year at the University of Grenoble in France and traveling through Bulgaria, enrolled at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied politics, economics and philosophy and joined the Communist Party.
When World War II began in 1939, he joined the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. After studying Bulgarian, he served as an intelligence officer in Bulgaria, where he remained after the war as the press officer at the British Embassy in Sofia.
In 1942 he married Joan Watkins, the first of his four wives. In Bulgaria he began a relationship with Tatiana Mihailova, whom he helped escape to Britain after the Soviet takeover of Bulgaria and married. She was later found to have schizophrenia, and they eventually divorced. In addition to his fourth wife, he is survived by sons from his first marriage, John and Richard; a stepdaughter, Helen Beasley; and five grandchildren.
Mr. Conquest was known as a poet before he began writing history. With Kingsley Amis, whom he met in 1952 when Mr. Amis was writing “Lucky Jim,” he edited volumes of the poetry anthology “New Lines,” which showcased work by Movement poets.
Their style — spare, vernacular, direct — broke with the florid romanticism and mysticism of Dylan Thomas. Mr. Conquest formed a fast bond with Mr. Amis after reciting “Mexican Pete,” a sequel to the bawdy song “The Ballad of Eskimo Nell” that he wrote with John Blakeway.
Mr. Conquest’s poetry collections include “Between Mars and Venus” (1962) and “Arias From a Love Opera” (1969).
Mr. Conquest and Mr. Amis shared a love of science fiction that they indulged by editing “Spectrum,” a series of five anthologies that presented quality science-fiction stories from the 1940s and ’50s. Mr. Conquest tried his hand at the genre in “A World of Difference” (1955), set in far-off 2010, and collaborated with Mr. Amis on the comic novel “The Egyptologists” (1965).
Mr. Conquest published many books on the Soviet system and politics. They included “Russia After Khrushchev” (1965); “Industrial Workers in the USSR” (1967); “The Nation Killers: The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities” (1970), which was revised and reissued as “Stalin: Breaker of Nations” (1991); and “Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps” (1978). In 1977 he became a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He lived in Stanford.
Over time, he emerged as a forceful polemicist on Cold War politics and the ideological struggle between East and West, taking an uncompromisingly anti-Soviet line and attacking the utopian political theories embodied in what he called “ideomaniac” states. Many of his essays were collected in “Reflections on a Ravaged Century” (1999) and “The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History” (2005).
“I think that sometimes people say the democrats are shortsighted and muddle-headed,” Mr. Conquest once told NPR. “But I think you want to be a bit shortsighted. It’s better than having a long sight into a nonexistent future.”
Correction: August 10, 2015
An earlier version of this obituary referred incorrectly to Mr. Conquest’s tenure at Magdalen College, Oxford. He graduated; it was not the case that he left Oxford “without a degree.”