The Conquering Hero

Sunday, April 1, 2007
this is an image
this is an image

Those who were born in Year One of the Russian Revolution are now entering their tenth decade. Of the intellectual class that got its vintage laid down in 1917, a class that includes Eric Hobsbawm, Conor Cruise O’Brien, and precious few others, the pre-eminent Anglo-American veteran must be Robert Conquest. He must also be the one who takes the greatest satisfaction in having outlived the Soviet “experiment.”

Over the years, I have often knocked respectfully at the door of his modest apartment (“book-lined” would be the other standard word for it) on the outskirts of Stanford University, where he is a longstanding ornament of the Hoover Institution. Evenings at his table, marvelously arranged in concert with his wife Elizabeth (“Liddie”), have become a part of the conversational legend of visitors from several continents.

I thought I would just check and see how he was doing as 2007 dawned. When I called, he was dividing his time between an exercise bicycle and the latest revision of his classic book The Great Terror: the volume that tore the mask away from Stalinism before most people had even heard of Solzhenitsyn. Its 40th anniversary falls next year, and the publishers need the third edition in a hurry. Had it needed much of an update? “Well, it’s been a bit of a slog. I had to read about 30 or 40 books in Russian and other languages, and about 400 articles in journals and things like that. But even so I found I didn’t have to change it all that much.”

One of his lifelong friends, the novelist Anthony Powell, once wrote that all English classes employ the discourse of irony and understatement. This would itself be an understatement of Conquest’s devastatingly dry and lethal manner, expressed in the softest voice that ever brought down an ideological tyranny. His diffidence made me inquire what else might be keeping him busy. “My publisher wants me to do a book called How Not to Write History, and I thought, yes. Then I’m doing an essay on the importance of India, and something about the U.N. and internationalism.”

I know that he used to serve in the British delegation at the United Nations. But India? “My mother was born in Bombay, and I’ve always been impressed by how Indians have mastered English literature and culture.” What about the collection of limericks that he’s been promising for a while, in his capacity as the last remaining master of the form after the deaths of his friends Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin? “I’m getting round to that, but there’s first my latest collection of poems, which I’m calling Penultimata. Didn’t I mention it? Would you like a copy?” Yes, I would and—oh, what about the memoirs? “Starting tomorrow, when I’m finished with doing The Great Terror. I’m going to try dictating them into this new machine . . . Liddie, what’s it called?” Mrs. Conquest—a scholar of English who first told me that Henry James dictated his later novels—comes up with the name of the new voice-activated software. “It’s called Dragon NaturallySpeaking Nine.” Golly. “Well, my handwriting’s pretty bad and my typing is worse,” says Mr. Conquest apologetically. That’s true enough, as I know, but I can’t help thinking that if Dragon NaturallySpeaking Nine really works, and if it had been available in the 1960s, then the Soviet Union would probably have fallen several years before it actually did.

Robert Conquest has a devastatingly dry and lethal manner, expressed in the softest voice that ever brought down an ideological tyranny.

A history here, an anthology of poems there, an assortment of limericks, a memoir, a lineup of contributions to learned journals and—I forgot to mention—a Festschrift of essays in his honor to be edited by the Hungarian-born scholar Paul Hollander. This seems enough to be going on with. Meanwhile, his other great work on the Ukrainian terror-famine of the 1930s, The Harvest of Sorrow, is being produced and distributed, with no profit to the author, by a Ukrainian charity associated with President Viktor Yushchenko. Is it sweet to be so vindicated? As always, I have to crane slightly to hear the whispery answer. “There was a magazine in Russia called Neva, which found its circulation went up from 100,000 to a million when it serialized The Great Terror. And I later found that at the very last plenum of the Soviet Communist Party, just before the USSR dissolved, a Stalinist hack called Alexander Chakovsky had described me as ‘anti-Sovietchik No. 1.’ 
I must say I was rather proud of that.”

Somewhere in the apartment is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to Mr. Conquest in 2005 at a ceremony that also featured Aretha Franklin and Muhammad Ali. I have a picture of him sitting next to the Queen of Soul, smiling demurely, having paid his own way to come to Washington.

And it comes back to me that he rang me up on the day of President Bush’s first inaugural. “Did you see that line in the speech about the angel that rides the storm? Any idea where it’s from? I’m sure I know it.” I wasn’t able to help, but I knew I would get a later call, which I duly did, identifying the line as coming from John Dryden. All part of the Conquest service.

“I later found that at the very last plenum of the Soviet Communist Party, just before the USSR dissolved, a Stalinist hack called Alexander Chakovsky had described me as ‘anti-Sovietchik No. 1.’ I must say I was rather proud of that.”

Like the limericks, some of which cannot be reproduced in a family-oriented publication but many of which are literary and intellectual mnemonic masterpieces. An instance? His deft compression of the entirety of Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” speech:

First you get puking and mewling
Then very p——ed off with your schooling
Then f——s and then fights
Then judging chaps’ rights
Then sitting in slippers—then drooling.

Just as one can never imagine Mr. Conquest raising his voice or losing his temper, so one can never picture him using an obscenity for its own sake. A few years ago he said to me that the old distinctions between left and right had become irrelevant to him, adding very mildly that fools and knaves of all kinds needed to be opposed and that what was really needed was “a United Front against bulls—t.”

For all that, his life has been lived among the ideological storms of the twentieth century, of which he retains an acute and unique memory. He was himself a Communist for a couple of years in the late 1930s, having been radicalized while studying in France and observing events in Spain. “I was even a left deviationist—my best friend was a Trotskyist and when King George VI was crowned we decorated the college at Oxford with eight chamberpots painted in red, white, and blue.” He left the party after asking what the line would be if Chamberlain ever declared war on Hitler, and receiving the reply, “Comrade, it is impossible that the bourgeois Chamberlain would ever declare war on Hitler.” This he found “oafish.” “I didn’t like the word ‘impossible.

Wartime service in Bulgaria, which made him an eyewitness to Stalin’s takeover of the country at the end, was proof positive. From then on, working as a researcher and later as a diplomat for the British Foreign Office, he strove to propose a social-democratic resistance to communism. “I’d always been a Labour man and somewhat on the left until the 1970s, when I met Margaret Thatcher and she asked my advice.” That advice—which translated into the now-famous “Iron Lady” speech—was to regard the Soviet system as something condemned by history and doomed to fail. If that sounds easy now, it wasn’t then (though Mr. Conquest insists that it was George Orwell who first saw it coming).

A few years ago, Mr. Conquest said to me that the old distinctions between left and right had become irrelevant to him, adding very mildly that fools and knaves of all kinds needed to be opposed.

Like many people with a natural gift for politics, Mr. Conquest finds that he distrusts those who can talk of nothing else. His affiliations are undogmatic and unfanatical (he preferred Tony Blair over Margaret Thatcher’s successor, John Major) and he does not bother to turn out at election times. “I’m a dual national who’s a citizen of the U.S. and the U.K., so that voting in either place seems rather overdoing it.” On the events of today he is always very judicious and reserved. “I have my own opinions about Iraq, but I haven’t said a great deal about the subject because I don’t know all that much about it.”

How often do you hear anyone talking like that? If he had done nothing political, he would still have had a life, and be remembered as the senior
figure of that stellar collection of poets and writers—John Wain, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis—who became known in the Britain of the 1950s as “the Movement.” Liddie Conquest happens to have written rather authoritatively about this group, though that’s not how they met. “I was teaching at the University of Texas in El Paso and he came to give a poetry reading. But it wasn’t until I met him later in California that something ‘clicked,’ as people like to say.”

Mrs. Conquest might be described as a force of nature, and also as the wielder of a Texas skillet that yields brisket of a rare and strange tenderness. Anthony Powell in his Journals was again committed to understatement when he wrote of her engagement to “Bob” that “she is charming, and he a lucky man.”

In his most recent books, he explores “the Anglosphere,” that historic arc of law, tradition, and individual liberty that extends from Scotland to Australia and takes in the United States and India as well.

“I know you meet different lefties from the ones I know,” he says, referring obliquely to some recent tussles between your humble servant and the Michael Moore faction. “But I’ve always been friends with what I call ‘the good Left.” In the days of the old Soviet Union, he kept up a solid friendship with the radical Russian scholar Steve Cohen, author of a study of Nikolai Bukharin and husband of Nation magazine editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, and admired his objectivity. “I helped out Scoop Jackson against Kissinger on the Soviet Jewish question. Pat Moynihan helped me get a job at the Wilson Center in Washington in the 1970s.”

I remind him that I once introduced him to another great denizen of the Bay Area, Jessica “Decca” Mitford, and that in the course of a tremendous evening she was enchanted to find that this dreaded friend of Mrs. Thatcher was the only other person she’d ever met who knew all the words to the old Red songbooks, including the highly demanding ditty “The Cloakmakers’ Union Is a No-Good Union,” anthem of the old communist garment district. At the close of that dinner I challenged him to write her a limerick on the spot, and he gallantly and spontaneously produced the following:

They don’t find they’re having to check a
Movement of homage to Decca.
It’s no longer fair
To say Oakland’s “not there”
She’s made it a regular Mecca.

The old girl was quite blown away by this tribute, and kept the inscribed napkin as a souvenir.

An agnostic in religion (“Did you know that Milton Friedman was an agnostic, too?”), Mr. Conquest is likewise suspicious of anything too zealous or systematic in human affairs. He is also refreshingly empirical in his judgments. Asked why he, the great anatomizer and accuser of Stalinism, still regards Nazism as morally worse than the Gulag, he replies mildly but somehow irrefutably, “I simply feel it to be so.” In his most recent books, Reflections on a Ravaged Century and The Dragons of Expectation, he goes beyond the usual admonitions against Jacobinism and more recent totalitarian utopias to argue for “the Anglosphere,” that historic arc of law, tradition, and individual liberty that extends from Scotland to Australia and takes in the two largest multicultural democracies on the planet—the United States and India.

There was a time when this might have seemed quixotic or even nostalgic (at least to me), but when one surveys the wreckage of other concepts, and the increasing difficulties of the only rival “model” in the form of the European Union (of which he was an early skeptic), the notion seems to have a future as well as a past. One very much feels, as one also very much hopes, that the same can be said of the Grand Old Man of Stanford.