Assessing Robert Conquest

Historian Robert Conquest was a fierce critic of Stalinist brutality, but Cold War anticommunism hampered his scholarship.

Robert Conquest died one year ago today. An Oxford-trained historian who worked for the British Information Research Department producing anti-Soviet material and later as one of Margaret Thatcher’s advisers, Conquest is best known for authoring more than a dozen books on Stalin’s Russia.

His books share many features with Cold War accounts of the Soviet Union. Conquest joined other anticommunists in claiming that Stalin’s murderous reign descended directly from Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin’s politics and thought. But when the historian could set aside his deep bias, he offered important insights into the history of forced collectivization and the rise of Stalinism.

The Young Red

Even among close friends like Kingsley Amis — who wrote that Conquest was always “implacably anti-Soviet” — few were aware that the historian had been a member of the Young Communist League at Oxford or that he had traveled to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1937 at the height of Stalin’s bloody purges.

Curiously, given his later trajectory, Conquest returned from his trip still loyal to the Communist cause. It wasn’t until the last years of World War II that he was “cured,” as one pundit put it, of his youthful ideas.

Conquest didn’t write about his own personal transformation, but his early training as a Communist gave him a distinct advantage over other historians. Unlike many academic experts who have never bothered to read, much less understand Bolshevik discussions, he had an almost unparalleled ability to scrutinize and summarize Communist Party debates, particularly around issues of industrialization and collectivization.

Unfortunately, Conquest’s conversion to anticommunism would often blind him. In the perennial battle over whether Lenin planted the seeds that bloomed into Stalinism, Conquest answered emphatically in the affirmative.

Conquest’s work focused on the peak of Stalinism in the 1930s. But his biographies of Lenin and Stalin show that his real mission was to recast the Soviet Union’s history by bringing its alleged totalitarian core to light, demonstrating the supposed continuities between Lenin’s earliest writings and the brutal policies later pursued under Stalin.

According to Conquest, Lenin’s 1921 ban on factions “finally” eliminated opposition, a desire that — in Conquest’s rendering — had been “implicit in all his writings since the beginning of the century.” Lenin had already manipulated intra-party politics prior to the revolution, Conquest contends, and he then applied these same devious methods in “the factories and regiments in Petrograd.”

The historian even repeated the crackpot accusations about the “German gold” that supposedly financed the revolution and argued, untenably, that the Red Terror was worse than the mass White Terror.

Yet some of Conquest’s work fell well outside the typical “Lenin created Stalin” trajectory, showing that he at least could not stomach the most flagrant Cold War falsifications.

Working-Class Bolshevism

Conquest’s summary of the 1917 election results in his Lenin (1972) concluded — as anyone who has closely examined the results must — that the Bolsheviks won “the bulk of the working classes in the cities.” Predating the now standard liberal judgment on the Russian Revolution and looking for hypothetical alternatives to the Bolshevik regime, Conquest makes the startling proposition that “a government of all the socialist parties” might have led to “stability, unity and peace.”

For those quick to label Conquest another anticommunist hack, it is worth considering how markedly his solution diverges from the findings of his fellow Cold Warriors like Richard Pipes, an admirer of potential Russian dictator Lavr Kornilov.

Pipes writes favorably about Kornilov, who was sympathetic to the anti-Semitic Black Hundreds, told associates that he wanted to hang the Duma’s entire progressive bloc, and, during the April 1917 crisis, ordered artillery bombardments of demonstrations. He claims that “Russia yearned for strong authority” and fretted that “the socialists were insensitive to this mood.”

By August 1917, Kornilov told other military leaders that it was “time to hang the German agents” and disperse the soviets in such a way that they would “never meet again.” Pipes blames Kerensky for his “refusal to take resolute measures against the Bolsheviks,” but in reality this slaughterhouse solution to the Russian Revolution was bound to fail. Most workers refused to disarm, and the ruling classes simply did not have enough thugs on the ground to make their dictatorial aspirations a reality.

At least Conquest recognized that a popular radicalization swept across Russia in 1917 — for Kornilov and Pipes, it was as if the revolution never really happened at all. But like many modern liberal historians of the Russian Revolution, Conquest declined to explain how this imagined socialist coalition would have actually worked.

In fact, Pipes’s proposed solution of mass repression better reflects actual developments and underpinned Allied policy for years. The British supplied armored cars for Kornilov’s dictatorial bid, and by December 1917 US president Woodrow Wilson started sending millions of dollars to various strongmen in an attempt to install a “military dictatorship” — as Secretary of State Robert Lansing put it — amenable to American needs.

After Kornilov’s failed August 1917 coup d’état against Kerensky’s provisional government, Lenin did in fact propose a socialist coalition that would peacefully transfer power to the soviets if the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR) would decisively break with the liberal Kadets who had supported Kornilov. Yet only the Left SRs would support Soviet rule, for a brief period Conquest actually got his wish.

But his retrospective call for a broader alliance ignores the political totality of 1917. In the wake of the October Revolution, right-wing SR members and Mensheviks joined an entirely different type of coalition, the Committee to Save the Fatherland, which mounted a failed military coup.

At perhaps the most important moment of the revolution, the Mensheviks and right SRs chose to ally themselves not with fellow socialists, but with many extreme right anti-socialists, including the notorious Vladimir Purishkevich, who had organized anti-Semitic pogroms and helped found the far-right Union of Russian People.

Stalin’s Famine

Conquest’s most controversial studies — Harvest of Sorrow and The Great Terror — focused on Stalin’s forced collectivization campaign and the purges. He defended both books in a rambunctious exchange with revisionist historian Arch Getty in the late 1980s.

Thanks to the opening of the former Soviet Union’s archives, the claims of the Stalin apologists have been refuted. Stalin really was a vicious dictator, and happy worker bees buzzing around Soviet factories have yet to be found.

Certainly no historian today would suggest that Stalin’s forced collectivization targeted “kulaks” (supposedly rich peasants), as Getty claimed thirty years ago. Rather, the dictator waged a state-led assault on the entire peasantry, using class-war terminology as propaganda.

Conquest cited leftist historians of the Soviet Union, such as E.H. Carr and Moshe Lewin, on the absurdity of the regime’s rural “class” analysis — there was little economic differentiation among the Soviet peasantry.

Lynne Viola, a former revisionist, has since shown that many anti-collectivist rebels came from the middle or lower peasant classes, and the resistance often involved entire villages. In 1930 alone, there were some 13,754 revolts involving 2.5 million peasants, including 176 mass insurrections — some of which even managed to briefly seize power at the district level.

But Getty did get one thing right: Conquest’s contention that Stalin intentionally organized the 1932–33 famine as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people doesn’t hold water.

Rural historians of the Soviet Union now agree that the famine, which claimed some six million lives, was no natural disaster but a direct consequence of Stalin’s brutal collectivization.

Conquest himself accurately described the flawed policy. With more than twelve million new workers entering the factories, the regime doubled tax requisitions under the false assumption that collectivized yields would increase. But they decreased instead, producing food shortages throughout much of Ukraine, Caucasus, Kazakhstan, and western Siberia.

As future Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev later acknowledged, collective farmers turned over “literally everything” with “no compensation.” Peasants lost interest or fled the collective farms, exacerbating the crisis.

Meanwhile, Stalin continued to export Ukrainian grain to Europe. State agents arrested emaciated peasants who hid paltry handfuls of grain. They were often shot under Stalin’s draconian 1932 theft law.

In all of his books, Conquest indulged in cheap shots at Lenin and Trotsky, but his charge that Trotsky ignored the Ukrainian famine is partially true. The September 1932 Bulletin of the Opposition included an eyewitness account of the famine, yet the very next month — more than two and a half years after the “dekulakization” campaign was initiated — Trotsky wrote that Stalin should restrict “the exploiting tendencies of the kulak.” Only in 1939 did Trotsky acknowledge Stalinism’s particularly “murderous sweep” in Ukraine.

Conquest did concede that Lenin’s writings on collectivization emphasized persuasion rather than coercion, going against the grain of his larger argument that tied Lenin inexorably to Stalin.

But he then invoked fellow anticommunist Adam Ulam, who asserted that Lenin would have collectivized agriculture even earlier than Stalin. And in Reflections on a Ravaged Century, Conquest added another expert witness to condemn Lenin for his hypothetical support of forced collectivization — Stalin’s protégé Vyacheslav Molotov.

Mass Murder

Despite its shortcomings, Conquest’s macabre narrative of the purges in The Great Terror is more useful than revisionist accounts, which sometimes even frame the mass murders as a movement “from below” in which Stalin was only tangentially involved.

We now know that Stalin ordered local arrest quotas of thousands, giving credence to much of Conquest’s account. The leader depended on loyalists — such as Khrushchev in Moscow and Andrei Zhdanov in Leningrad — to carry out his orders, and assigned hardened lieutenants like Lazar Kaganovich to bludgeon less trusted regions. It took Kaganovich’s infamous “black tornado” just three days to wipe out the “right-Trotskyite” leadership in the city of Ivanovo.

The widening rounds of arrests focused on party leaders, military officers, perceived nationalists, religious believers, foreign nationals, peasants, and workers — including a thousand in a single factory.

Conquest debunks the argument that the purges were designed to break connections to 1917’s revolutionary heritage. By 1934, oppositionists were long gone. But the purging of purgers meant that less than 2 percent of Stalinist loyalists returned to the 1939 party congress. Rank-and-file members’ denunciations of party leaders may have settled personal scores, but the scale of repression also necessitated “confessions” — coerced through beatings, torture, and by lowering the death penalty to the age of twelve to pressure parents into denouncing coworkers, neighbors, and friends.

The Great Terror was hailed in 1969 as a major contribution to the Western understanding of the Soviet Union, and few scholars challenged Conquest’s failure to adequately explain the purges. After a few obligatory references to the Red Terror of 1918, Conquest attributes the purges to the ahistorical evils of Communist ideology and then fast-forwards to 1934.

According to Conquest, the trigger event for them was Stalin’s supposed 1934 murder of Sergey Kirov, the popular Leningrad party boss. Despite the fact that his evidence is entirely circumstantial, he argued that Stalin’s complicity was “almost undeniable.”

In contrast to the conspiracy theory at the center of The Great Terror, Conquest’s earlier Harvest of Sorrow correctly situated the beginning of political Stalinism in 1928, with the hysterical scapegoating of innocent engineers in the Shakhty show trial and the Ural Siberian grain confiscations.

It’s a shame that Conquest’s anticommunism often led him away from such careful history and toward simple explanations that sometimes overstate the supposedly pervasive impact of “totalitarianism.”

For example, he argues that the 1937–38 mass executions — which claimed the lives of seven hundred thousand prisoners — wound down because the terror had already “habituated” Soviets to silence and obedience — “to fear and submission,” as he puts it — so that widespread terror was “no longer necessary.”

Yet mountains of secret police reports and letters to party leaders refute the myth that a “totalitarian” Stalinism had totally conquered Soviet society. Marxist historian Vadim Rogovin found complaints that “in our country there is hardly a single home which does not have someone in prison … the entire country is against the Soviet regime.”

More likely Stalin ratcheted down the firing squads because of the purges’ failure, rather than their success. His famous dictum — to “catch up” with the West or face annihilation — surely motivated his regime’s long-term barbarity. Yet preemptive executions of potential opponents could not solve the structural chaos of rapid and forced industrialization. Ultimately, killing competent engineers, party loyalists, and military leaders was not just ineffectual but counterproductive for Stalin’s most pressing concern — the impending confrontation with Nazi Germany.

Whatever his shortcomings as a historian, on the anniversary of his death, the works of the best-known and most prolific historian of the Stalinist system is worth revisiting. Today, with more than half of Americans under thirty having a favorable view of socialism, questions about the fate of the world’s first socialist experiment need to be addressed.

Conquest offers occasionally important insights, but these are bundled into an anticommunist framework that obscures the dynamics that generated and sustained Stalinism.

To understand that system, we must first acknowledge the break between the 1917 revolution and the later counterrevolution, as well as the one between Lenin and Stalin, something both mainstream and revisionist historians are loath to do.