People and Martians

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties by Robert Conquest
    Bodley Head, 576 pp, £20.00, November 2018, ISBN 978 1 84792 568 8
  • The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror-Famine by Robert Conquest
    Bodley Head, 412 pp, £20.00, November 2018, ISBN 978 1 84792 567 1

They say [disapprovingly] that we were Cold Warriors. Yes, and a bloody good show, too. A lot of people weren’t Cold Warriors – and so much the worse for them.

Robert Conquest, quoted by Jay Nordlinger in National Review, 9 December 2002

There are rules for writing about the enemy in wartime. You must never forget that your side and his are at war, and that your side is right and his is wrong. Your writing must not give aid or comfort to the enemy. It should never humanise the other side but rather emphasise its essential, evil otherness. Overt partisanship is not just allowed in time of war but required. Even-handedness, if you choose to write about the enemy, would amount to treason.

Whether the same rules applied to writing about the Soviet Union during the Cold War (which after all was a war of words even if guns weren’t involved) became a big issue in Sovietology in the 1970s. There were young people like me who had recently come into the academic field and thought they should be able to write about the Soviet Union the way they wrote about everything else – that is, as objectively as they could. And there were people like Robert Conquest, a quarter-century older, formed in different intellectual and political circumstances, who thought the opposite.

Sovietology emerged as an academic profession, US-centred, in the 1950s, when generous Cold War funding vastly increased the size of the field while at the same time institutionalising the ‘know your enemy’ approach. But before it became an academic profession, it was a practice developed by Western – i.e. British and American – intelligence agencies. The Soviet Union, with frontiers firmly closed since the early 1930s, was cut off from the rest of the world to an extent that is now hard to imagine. To find out about its politics, or any other aspect of it, you had to acquire proficiency in close reading of Pravda and a few other key texts, supplemented by defectors’ accounts, intelligence reports and diplomatic gossip. These techniques, developed in intelligence agencies, made their way into the new academic field of Soviet studies under the name of Kremlinology.

Khrushchev’s Thaw brought a partial opening of the Soviet Union to the West, in the form mainly of cultural exchanges that took the younger generation of scholars from the US and the UK (including me) on year-long visits. The informal view of these exchanges in the West was that we sent them our bona fide young historians and literary scholars to research their Harvard and Oxford PhDs, while they sent us spies in the guise of scientists. From the Soviet standpoint, both sides sent their spies, since those Western PhD students, however academically legitimate, were bound to be trying to ferret out Soviet secrets. This assumption on the part of the Soviets was a disadvantage for us exchangees, but not a crippling one. We had a good time ferreting out the secrets relevant to our PhDs, learning by the seat of our pants how Soviet society worked, and making friends (despite official discouragement from both sides) with a few Russians.

For most of the older generation of Sovietologists, however, spending extended time in the Soviet Union was not an option. In the 1950s, some who later became academics had served in the British and US embassies in Moscow, but the Soviets had kicked a number of the most inquisitive out of the country as spies. In the 1960s and 1970s, when alumni of the exchanges were starting to make an impact on the field, Western Sovietologists of the older generation didn’t for the most part even apply for Soviet visas, knowing that the Russians would suspect them of intelligence connections, whether or not they had them.

Whether Soviet studies were to be seen in the 1970s as a ‘normal’ academic field or a branch of the Cold War was in dispute. Another quarrel, largely brought about by the exchanges, involved a difference of opinion between younger scholars who had recently been to Russia and older scholars who hadn’t. The former felt they had a first-hand understanding of Soviet society that the older generation lacked as well as having had much broader access to primary data and sources than was possible in the West, while the latter suspected the younger generation of, at best, tailoring academic projects to make them acceptable to the Soviets, and hence steered clear of touchy topics like the Great Purges, and, at worst, were brainwashed by their Soviet hosts. ‘The Russians are people’ was a working assumption among young Western ‘revisionist’ scholars as well as a slogan popular with supporters of political détente. The reason this apparent truism seemed important was that many of their seniors in Sovietology appeared not to believe it.

Born in 1917 to an American father and English mother, public-school and Oxford-educated, Robert Conquest made his first substantial contacts with the Soviet Union through his work in British intelligence during and after the Second World War. His first-hand sustained observation of communism in action took place in postwar Bulgaria (though some sources say he briefly visited the Soviet Union in 1937, during a short phase of Oxford student communism). From 1948 to 1956 he served in the Foreign Office’s secret Information Research Department, whose purpose was both to gather information about the Soviet Union (especially its misdeeds), and to disseminate it – in other words, to conduct counter-propaganda in a Cold War context. Conquest’s style of work and presentation was clearly formed by his IRD experience; and, as the quotation at the top of this review indicates, that was something for which he saw no need to apologise.

His initial specialty, which he defended vigorously throughout his life, was Kremlinology: the study of personal alignments – i.e. the pecking order – at the top of Soviet politics, deduced from a close reading of Pravda as well as non-public sources. In Conquest’s view, this was a necessary discipline in ‘areas where the information is not adequate and a great effort has to be made to force the deductions from recalcitrant material’. Academic political scientists tended to look down on it, however, as failing to offer a conceptual model or systems analysis (for Conquest irrelevant when dealing with one-man rule). In the US, where attachment to models was stronger than it was in the more pragmatic UK, Conquest’s first book, Power and Policy in the USSR (1961), ran into some criticism on these grounds. Thereafter, a tinge of mutual scepticism and condescension informed his relationship with academia, despite the coincidence of Cold War views between Conquest and most academic Sovietologists.

The Soviet Union was not Conquest’s only persistent interest. From student days, he was deeply involved in poetry, both as a writer of it and a polemicist on behalf of the Movement, a trend that favoured everyday life without ‘poetic’ dressing-up. His friends and collaborators in this endeavour were Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, and the three of them shared both a cheeky undergraduate misogyny, manifest in Conquest and Amis’s spoof, The Egyptologists, and a liking for pornography memorably documented in Andrew Motion’s 1994 biography of Larkin. Satire and light verse were among Conquest’s strengths as a poet. He also wrote science fiction, co-operating with Amis on five anthologies of new sci-fi writing in the 1960s as well as publishing his own sci-fi novel, A World of Difference (1955), and was a lifelong member of the British Interplanetary Society.

It’s a useful context for understanding Conquest the Sovietologist. Anti-communist he certainly was, but never of the earnest or anguished variety. While he deplored the Soviet regime and wanted all its dirty secrets exposed, his approach had none of the self-involvement of (say) Alain Besançon, the humourless righteousness of Richard Pipes or Leonard Schapiro’s cold disdain. There was a jokey, blokey aspect to Conquest, a whiff of the Oxford debating society and student satirical review, that made him an anomalous figure in international Sovietology, which – apart from Abe Brumberg’s Yiddish-joke inflected, USIA-sponsored journal Problems of Communism in the US – tended towards the deadly serious. For Conquest, the Soviet Union was no doubt an evil place, but above all it was a bizarre one, a society whose baroque self-inventions and elaborate mendacity made it an apt subject of black comedy.

The Great Terror, first published in 1968, was an expansion of Conquest’s range from pure Kremlinology to a historical study of what are usually known as ‘the Great Purges’ of the late 1930s; and it brought his first big international success. While contemporary reviewers saw the book as placing the comparatively familiar Moscow Trials of 1936-38 in a broader context, those trials are still its dramatic centrepiece. Conquest’s basic sources are newspapers, defectors’ accounts, and some Soviet fictional and memoir treatments from the time of the Thaw. The prose is workmanlike (probably similar, like his sources, to that of his earlier IRD reports), but enlivened by occasional throwaway witticisms. The Moscow show trials, with their high camp drama, unexpected confessions from former political leaders, and Stalin the magician pulling the strings from behind the scenes, provided the perfect subject for him.

For Conquest, the Soviet Union’s otherness was absolute, and the Great Purges best seen through a prism of science fiction. Stalin as purger-in-chief did not have the ring of ‘a modern man, a terrestrial man, an earth man’, Conquest once said: ‘He sounds like a monster from some strange planet. I’ve written a science fiction novel amongst my various writings … and I think Stalin would fit in very well as a nonhuman.’ This worked not just for Stalin but for the Soviet Union in general, Conquest argued: ‘A science-fiction attitude is a great help in understanding the Soviet Union. It isn’t so much whether they’re good or bad, exactly; they’re not bad or good as we’d be bad or good. It’s far better to look at them as Martians than as people like us.’

Conquest’s other major monograph, The Harvest of Sorrow, subtitled ‘Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror-Famine’ and published in 1986, was explicitly a work in the IRD tradition of counter-propaganda, as Conquest acknowledged in the introduction: ‘The purpose of this book is … to register in the public consciousness of the West a knowledge of and feeling for major events, involving millions of people and millions of deaths, which took place within living memory.’

It was a topic that played less to Conquest’s strengths than The Great Terror, since his lively appreciation of the bizarre and ridiculous in Soviet high-political behaviour was muted in the context of death on an even greater scale than the 1937 purges: peasants, dying quietly and anonymously, did not provide the same drama as oppositionist intellectuals publicly confessing to heinous crimes. In a preface to the 2002 edition, Conquest concluded that ‘The Harvest of Sorrow was the first full and thorough treatment of these terrible events, and remains a solid contribution to our knowledge and understanding.’ This sounds a bit odd, as if Conquest were writing a blurb for someone else’s book, but it is substantively on target. I would sign off on it.

At the same time, the counter-propaganda component of The Harvest of Sorrow shouldn’t be ignored. Written under the auspices of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and the Ukrainian National Association, it tells a story of Soviet famine that is specifically focused on famine in the Ukraine (not the only way of telling that story, though readers of Conquest and Anne Applebaum could be forgiven for not knowing this) and the suffering of the Ukrainian people that resulted. Famine in southern Russia and Kazakhstan is not ignored – Central Asia gets its own short chapter, though only ten pages out of more than three hundred – but the focus throughout is on the Ukraine and, appropriately in terms of his sponsorship, Conquest writes from a distinctly Ukrainian perspective. Ukrainian political history has its own chapter in the scene-setting first part, and Conquest gives an unreconstructedly primordial picture of Ukrainian nationality (‘Historically the Ukrainians are an ancient nation which has persisted and survived through terrible calamities’). There is some emotive rhetoric to gladden Ukrainian nationalist hearts. ‘The crushing of Ukrainian nationhood’ was not a purely local matter: ‘Ukrainian liberty is, or should be, a key moral and political issue for the world as a whole.’

Yet on the key issue for Ukrainian nationalists – Stalin’s alleged intention to kill Ukrainian peasants, because they were Ukrainian, by means of famine – Conquest seems to waffle. The Ukrainian famine, known as Holodomor, has been officially identified by the post-Soviet Ukrainian government as a genocide, and sensitivities on this issue were already high when Conquest was writing. In Harvest itself, Conquest identifies an intention on the part of the Stalinist leadership to ‘crush’ Ukraine – its Church and intelligentsia as well as its peasants – in order to eliminate the possibility of future nationalist deviation on the part of the second-largest Soviet republic, but seems undecided on the question of whether to call it genocide. ‘It certainly appears that a charge of genocide lies against the Soviet Union for its actions in the Ukraine,’ he wrote. ‘Such, at least, was the view of Rafael Lemkin who drafted the [1948 UN Genocide] Convention. But whether these events are to be formally defined as genocide is scarcely the point. It would hardly be denied that a crime has been committed against the Ukrainian nation.’

Later, as the charge of genocide became ever more firmly embedded as the cornerstone of contemporary Ukraine’s national identity, Conquest seemed to back off. ‘I don’t think the word “genocide” as such is a very useful one,’ he said to Radio Free Europe’s Ukrainian correspondent in 2006. ‘What I say is if you want to use it you can, but it was invented for rather different purposes.’ Later in the same interview he noted that ‘Andrei Sakharov said that Stalin was anti-Ukrainian, and other people have said the same. But he was anti-Ukrainian because they gave him trouble. He was also anti a lot of other people.’ Three years earlier, Conquest had told the demographic historian Stephen Wheatcroft – co-author with Robert Davies of Years of Hunger, a study of Soviet agriculture in the famine era – that it was not his opinion that ‘Stalin purposely inflicted the 1933 famine. No. What I argue is that with resulting famine imminent, he could have prevented it, but put “Soviet interest” other than feeding the starving first – thus consciously abetting it.’

The Wheatcroft exchange is interesting not only substantively but because the British-born, Australia-based Wheatcroft was one of the Sovietological ‘revisionists’ whom Conquest generally viewed with great disfavour. Wheatcroft had been a tireless polemicist throughout the 1990s and 2000s on the quantification of the purges of the 1930s, proposing numbers that were lower than generally cited in the field (including by Conquest, admittedly not a quantitative expert). On top of that, along with his co-author, Davies, his old professor at the University of Birmingham, Wheatcroft was part of the team that produced the multi-volume A History of Soviet Russia begun by E.H. Carr (a prime target for Cold Warriors), a project which Davies had joined in Carr’s last years and continued, with younger collaborators, after Carr’s death.

Conquest was a vigorous polemicist himself, but on the other side from Wheatcroft. He often attacked left-leaning academics and ‘fellow-travellers’ of the 1930s like Sidney and Beatrice Webb or the American journalist Walter Duranty, ‘who for one reason or another wished to deceive or be deceived’ about the Soviet Union and thus abetted Soviet misinformation. He saw the 1970s ‘revisionists’ in Sovietology as direct descendants of the fellow-travellers – that is, motivated by a desire to show the Soviet Union in the best possible light. Four chapters in his essay collection Tyrants and Typewriters: Communiqués in the Struggle for Truth are devoted to ‘pseudo-history’ as represented by Isaac Deutscher, G.D.H. Cole, D.F. Fleming (on the origins of the Cold War), and the American historian of the Soviet Union, Arch Getty. He polemicised against me too, as a Sovietological ‘revisionist’, though for some reason rather mildly, charging me only with neglecting terror, the key issue of the 1930s, in my writings on social history and thus being ‘indirectly responsible’ for the errors of those who wanted to deny the existence of terror altogether.

Conquest’s polemical stance in Sovietology was of a piece with his activity in the 1970s as a foreign policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Senator Henry Jackson in the United States on the ‘present danger’ of Soviet communism. Testifying before the US Congress, he stressed the peculiar (‘non-human’, in the terminology of his earlier sci-fi discussion) nature of Soviet political behaviour that made attempts at comparison with the West futile.


Bruising though his polemics could be, they were evidently all part of the job from Conquest’s point of view; unlike many Sovietologists who engaged in them during the Cold War, he seemed not to feel personal malice against his targets. Eight years after The Harvest of Sorrow, I published a book on collectivisation (Stalin’s Peasants, 1994) that included a treatment of the famine that was non-intentionalist and not specifically focused on Ukraine. Conquest wrote a favourable review of it – and, when the review was turned down by the commissioning weekly, presumably because they wanted and had expected a hatchet job, sent the review to me, without comment, through a third party. Perhaps if my publisher had thought to ask him, he would have written a blurb for it, as he did later for Wheatcroft and Davies’s book (‘a truly remarkable contribution to research into this important field’), subject only to the condition that in their text, which had substantive disagreements with him, they clarify his stance on intentionality in the terms quoted above. When he ran into Wheatcroft some years later at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, he invited him home for dinner.

I never met Conquest, who died in 2015, and in the years of Cold War hostilities I had no particular wish to meet him. But as I worked on this piece, I came rather to regret it. There was a lot to admire in Conquest’s work, as well as a lot to disagree with. We were on opposite sides of the fence in the Cold War arguments of the 1970s and 1980s, and would still have been on different sides if the arguments had been configured in a more interesting way: for example, for or against ‘othering’ one’s subject (I am not a science-fiction devotee, and don’t believe Stalin and the Soviet Union are best understood by thinking of them as Martians). But black comedy is a genre of mine, too, where the Soviet Union is concerned.

With regard to the lasting value of Conquest’s work, Eric Hobsbawm wrote in 1996 that, while The Great Terror was a ‘remarkable pioneer effort’, it had been made obsolete by the opening of the archives. With all respect, I don’t think that is how it has turned out. To be sure, we know a lot more about different aspects of the Great Purges – Stalin’s stage-managing of the show trials, for example; the vast scale of the scenario-writing that went on routinely behind the scenes not just in the Lubyanka but out in the provinces; popular denunciations and their role in toppling Soviet bosses; ‘nationality’ purges; NKVD perpetrators and their later fates, and so on – but Conquest’s treatment of the topic, which to a large degree defined what the topic was, is not so easily replaced, and nobody has made the attempt. Since its publication, there has been only one book of comparable scope and ambition on the Great Purges, Karl Schlögel’s Moscow 1937 (published in 2008 in German as Terror und Traum, and in 2012 in English), which has a different purpose – that of recreating the experience of a particular moment in space and time – and brings a totally different sensibility to the task.

The case of The Harvest of Sorrow is a little different. ‘Terror-famine’ was never as striking an imaginative conceptualisation as Conquest achieved in The Great Terror, and perhaps that put it in greater danger of being reworked by another hand in the light of new archival findings. There were such findings, plus a large volume of first-rate scholarship on the topic by academic historians such as Lynne Viola, Davies and Wheatcroft, but this time, in contrast to the situation with The Great Terror, someone came along who wanted to rework the book in the light of the new findings and recent scholarship. This was Anne Applebaum, who in Red Famine (2017) tells the same story again, but with better data. Admittedly, Applebaum has a slightly greater bias towards the ‘Ukrainian’ Holodomor argument than Conquest, but Conquest also centred his book on the Ukrainian case and made an argument that was easily, though perhaps not correctly, read in crude ‘intentionalist’ terms. In her own book as well as her foreword to his reissue, Applebaum praises Conquest’s achievement, but essentially if not intentionally she comes to bury him. If Schlögel’s Moscow 1937 has now joined The Great Terror on Soviet history reading lists, Applebaum’s Red Famine is likely to have replaced The Harvest of Sorrow. It’s unfair, because Conquest did the imaginative work and established the framework, but that’s life.

Tyrants and Typewriters, the collection of Conquest’s occasional writings, was published in 1989. How long ago that seems, the year of communism’s remarkable collapse in Eastern Europe, though it was two years before the Soviet Union imploded and destroyed Sovietology in the process; and how archaic the title. Typewriters now come into the category of quaint artefacts of the mid-20th century, like pressure cookers and auto-trays, fit only to be preserved in museums of 20th-century life like Berlin’s museum of the GDR. One might say the same of Sovietology, if there were a museum for displaying outmoded intellectual practices. Still, some things don’t change. Conquest believed that engaged, politically partisan scholarship was the way to go to arrive at ‘truth’. Others (I am one) thought that political partisanship interfered with that same quest. It’s a fundamental difference of approach which, unlike typewriters and Sovietology, will always be with us.