Alec Ash, FiveBooks: You were born in the year of the Russian Revolution, and joined the Communist Party seventy-three years ago. What does communism mean to you personally?
Robert Conquest: Well, when I joined the Communist Party, we didn’t know the first thing about it, strictly speaking. I called myself communist when I was seventeen. I stood as Communist candidate in my college debating society. But we were mostly contrarians, or it was a general lefty feeling.
Ash: Let’s move on to your first book, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
Conquest: Yes, let’s do that, as I’ve quite a lot to say about old Solzh. It was a critical book—an entirely objective account of a victim in a labor camp. Just one day in an ordinary labor camp. Not exaggerated, not even a particularly nasty day. The most extraordinary part is how it got printed. It ran contrary to everyone in the Communist Party in Russia, but the Novy Mir editor Aleksandr Tvardovsky snuck a copy in to Khrushchev and said, “This is awfully good, you ought to publish it.” And he did. It was an extraordinary stroke of luck. And once it was printed, as Galina put it, “The Soviet government had let the genie out of the bottle, and however hard they tried later, they couldn’t put it back in.”
Ash: How would you define that genie?
Conquest: The curious position is that we can handle the terror, but the worst thing isn’t the terror, it’s not the torture or the killing of millions, as Stalin did; in a way it’s simply the intrinsic nastiness of the regime that is still not quite understood (a real key is the film The Lives of Others). After One Day in the Life, Solzhenitsyn didn’t publish anything for a long time, but meanwhile he was hoarding the real killer book: The Gulag Archipelago. When he published that, he was arrested and sent to the West in handcuffs. That’s where I met him, in Zurich in 1976.
Ash: What was he like?
Conquest: Solzhenitsyn was great fun—none of that haggard and fanatical effect you get in the photographs, but an easy, warm atmosphere. I was relieved to find him a great Conquest fan, with tales of how he and Sakharov read The Great Terror together. We ended up after four hours with bearlike hugs, kisses on the cheeks, raspy beard and all.
As I was leaving, he asked if I would translate “a little poem” of his. I said yes, and it turned out to be 2,000 words long, about his experiences in East Prussia during the war (later published in both languages as “Prussian Nights”). I am still asked by his widow, Natalia, to come to Moscow events celebrating him.
Ash: What did Solzhenitsyn make of Russia in the ’90s and after?
Conquest: It’s difficult to say. He certainly wasn’t a liberal; he was more on the patriotic right. What he would say is, “Russia has to get rid of that awful past,” which doesn’t go down well with run-of-the-mill superpatriots. But now that position is erratically supported by the official regime, which is a big change.
Ash: Your next book is Galina: A Russian Story, the memoirs of the opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya. I’ve just been listening to her songs—they’re beautiful.
Conquest: She was extraordinarily pretty, also, as well as a wonderful singer. And another reason for reading her book is that the photographs are particularly good. She and her husband put up Solzhenitsyn when he was writing The Gulag Archipelago, so they’re all connected.
Ash: What can we learn about communism from her memoirs?
Conquest: The first thing is that it gives the feeling of Russian sanity about what the truth was. She had a lot of nasty experiences with the party apparatchik literary and opera machinery. They gave her a lot of trouble. But her personality was such that she could answer them back, and did. Sometimes she got away with it, and eventually she left the Soviet Union in 1974. Russia has been through a lot of people who were silenced, but there were some people who managed not to be. It really is a very Russian story; it has a lot of Russia in it.
Ash: Your next book, The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System, by Milovan Djilas, is a move sideways to Yugoslavia. Djilas was part of Tito’s regime before he began to advocate democracy and was purged. What is his thesis?
Conquest: Djilas observed that instead of getting rid of a ruling class, as was supposed to happen, party members became the ruling class themselves. But it’s not a class analysis in the sense that we generally mean. In Russia you could be a peasant or a worker. You couldn’t be an intellectual because it didn’t count as a class. But if it didn’t count as a class, then why were hundreds of thousands of them persecuted? So it’s rather curious from a Marxist point of view. Marx would almost certainly have disapproved—but then, he disapproved of almost anybody.
Ash: Is Djilas’s new class theory still relevant, when talking about China and so on?
Conquest: Of course it is. And China is still relevant when talking about Yugoslavia. Obviously there is a connection between, say, Pyongyang and Marxism, and with the Cambodian terror and so on. You can’t say those regimes can be justified by Marxism, but somehow the connection is there—or at least the regimes thought so, even if it isn’t a rational connection.
Ash: So is it helpful or misleading to think of communism in terms of Marxism?
Conquest: It’s hard to say. Of course, this list should really include the works of Marx. But The Communist Manifesto doesn’t have much to do with what I thought Marx was, or what anyone else thought Marx was afterwards. It’s just a piece of old-fashioned politics. And Das Kapital is one of those books that people claim to have read, but no one has really read it to the end. Still, it accumulated into a creed.
Ash: Let’s talk about Anne Applebaum’s book Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe.
Conquest: In this book, Anne Applebaum goes into the area between the old Russian empire, Germany, and the old Turkish empire, and sees how it has developed. In 1800, there wasn’t what I would call a Ukrainian—or still less a Belarusian—nation. They become nations when their educated classes came together and formed a nationality, more or less late in the nineteenth century. I’ve got a railway map in my home of Europe in the 1840s. You can see all the countries, but similarly for the Balkans and Turkey, it just says “various nomadic tribes.”
Ash: I love Applebaum’s description of the man who was born in Poland, was raised in the USSR, and is now living in Belarus, but he never left his home village.
Conquest: That happened to a lot of people. At some points people didn’t know who they were, or where they really came from. At those times, would you have known that Belarus would become an independent country? I’ll bet you didn’t.
Ash: You’d be right.
Conquest: The borders all changed. And that is a cultural point which is quite extraordinary. If you went from West to East Germany, after the Wall had fallen, in ten miles you were into a completely different country. The same with Finland and Vyborg. Anne Applebaum captures the feeling of regression under the Soviets so well.
Ash: Finally, Ronald Hingley, The Russian Mind. What can we learn from this book?
Conquest: Hingley looks at the whole context of Russia—history, literature, what society is like. He knows Russia very well, but he does this as an Englishman knowing Russia very well, and is good at observing how different Russians are. Russia has these curious incongruities—from extreme dullness to hyperactivity. Hingley relishes the bizarre—in life and literature—and gives us stories from the literature. One of Gogol’s begins with a civil servant looking in his mirror one morning to find his nose has disappeared. Just talking about it is tempting me to pick the whole thing up and read it again.
Ash: Me, too! One last question: all of your books have been about the Soviet bloc, but what is different about communism in North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, and so on?
Conquest: It’s a good question. In a sense they are curious in that they went on with communism after the Russians had given it up—so it was local, in that it wasn’t imposed by Russia. But there is something in common among all communist countries. I remember when I was in Bulgaria during the takeover, and one of President Kolarov’s entourage asked, “Could you get me Orwell’s book?” That meant his first book, Animal Farm. When I gave it to this party veteran and he read it, he said Orwell must have come from a communist country. But of course, Orwell didn’t. So it was possible to understand communism without having been there.