Robert Conquest is the sort of name a novelist might devise for a British secret service agent--a name considerably more devil-may-care than "James Bond."
Robert Conquest does not look like Sean Connery or Roger Moore. At 69 the British writer looks like a genial and well-fed Oxford don. His speech is fastidious, almost precious. He exudes the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie.
The nearest he has come to Bond-like derring-do since army service in World War II is a stint as British press attache in Sofia, Bulgaria, in the late 1940s.
But, like James Bond, Conquest often has the Russians in his sights. You can't write books with such titles as "Where Marx Went Wrong," "Kolyma: the Arctic Death Camps" and (with Jon Manchip White) "What to Do When the Russians Come" and expect to be feted with caviar parties in Moscow. Conquest has not visited Russia since 1937, when he was 20. He does not know whether he is persona grata with the Soviet authorities.
"It's difficult to say. They allow in people who are hostile to them, like Richard Pipes (the Sovietologist and author), for example; but I wrote a little book on Lenin, and that's blasphemy. It's the only book of mine that wasn't in the British Communist Party's book shop. I didn't sink to the lowest blasphemy of suggesting that Lenin had a love affair with Inessa Armand, that's the worst you can do--but I suggested he might have."
Conquest's latest book, "The Harvest of Sorrow," (Oxford University Press: $19.95), though it confirms his reputation as a meticulous scholar, is unlikely either to increase his notoriety vastly or to endear him any further to Soviet authorities. It is a study, grueling in its detail, of Stalin's deliberate deployment of famine in the early 1930s as an instrument of terror against the peasants, especially those of the Ukraine.
Conquest's first two books, both published in 1955, were a collection of his poems and a science-fiction novel, "A World of Difference." Conquest thinks that "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. George Orwell said that it needs an effort of the imagination as well as of the intellect to understand the Soviet Union."
With Kingsley Amis, whom he met at a party before Amis won fame with "Lucky Jim" (1953), Conquest wrote a jeu d'esprit of a novel, "The Egyptologists" (1965), about an Egyptological society that is really a husbands' alibi organization. "It was great fun to write," Conquest said. "It's rather odd, collaborating. We talked about it, I did a sort of draft and Kingsley turned it into a novel." Conquest's fourth and present wife, Elizabeth, who took a doctorate in English studies at USC, knew of him solely as a poet and novelist and only found out just before their marriage in 1979 that he was best known as a historian and Kremlinologist.
Conquest's first best seller was "The Great Terror" (1968), an account of the Soviet mass purges of the 1930s. But he is still not, perhaps, a name to conjure with among the general public, British or American.
'Angry Young Man'
In England, Conquest's combativeness--so rampant in print, so well curbed in person--sometimes made headlines. With Kingsley Amis and playwright John Osborne, he was in the gang of firebrands who were called "the Angry Young Men" in the 1950s when few of them were young by today's standards and none was half so angry as he later became. (Conquest was amused to find himself listed as an 'Angry Young Man' in the 1956 Yearbook of the "Soviet Encyclopaedia.")
In 1956 Conquest edited a controversial poetry collection, "New Lines," which included poems by Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn and again Kingsley Amis as well as some of his own works. "There had been a lot of sub-Dylan Thomas poetry, full of noise and little meaning," Conquest said. " 'New Lines' was seen as a concerted reaction to it and drew a lot of attack." In the 1960s Conquest was a pro-American-nuclear-bases-in-Britain man, regarded as a damnable reactionary by members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In the 1970s he contributed to a so-called "Black Paper" on British education, lamenting how standards of learning were being eroded.
In his new book, as usual, Conquest writes with a passion that some of his critics have seen as undermining the objectivity proper to a historian: "Fifty years ago as I write these words, the Ukraine and the Ukrainian, Cossack and other areas to the east--a great stretch of territory with some 40 million inhabitants--was like one vast Belsen." He added: "In the actions here recorded about 20 human lives were lost for, not every word, but every letter, in the book." (It is a book of more than 400 pages.)
"Stalin regarded the peasants as little capitalists," Conquest said. "How I see him basically is not as some modern sociological act but as laying waste a country as Genghis Khan would. A country that you have conquered and that is giving trouble, you lay it waste, you send Mongol horsemen through with sword and fire; well, Stalin instead sent people through in this more cold-blooded way, taking all their food."
In defiance of contemporary academic orthodoxy, Conquest believes the historian has a duty, not just to record, but to judge. He quotes with approval Friedrich Schiller's dictum " Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht "--world history is the world's court of judgment.
Already some reviews have suggested that Conquest has accepted too uncritically documents that support his case against Stalin. Conquest parries the criticism coolly:
"There's a tendency to reject firsthand evidence; which is legitimate enough, providing you realize that all evidence is suspect in history. Laymen often think history has facts that are easily established because of a document or something. This isn't the case. You have to judge firsthand evidence by whether it fits in with lots of other firsthand evidence which arrives from different directions. With regard to what happened in the Ukrainian villages, I must have read getting on for 1,000 firsthand sources. And they hang together. To argue against them you would have to invoke a seamless conspiracy of hundreds of people, both Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian."
Then there is the allegation that Conquest, who accepted sponsorship from the Harvard University Ukrainian Research Institute and the Ukrainian National Assn., is somehow in the pocket of the Ukrainians. Again, a polite but stonewall disclaimer: "I did not do the book specifically on the Ukraine. About half the book is on the non-Ukrainian side, the rest of the Soviet peasantry--there is a whole chapter on the Kazakhs, for example. The sponsors made no attempt whatever to suggest what I should write. In fact I'm in trouble with some of them for refusing to drop the 'the' from 'the Ukraine.' "
Many of Conquest's books could be regarded as implacably anti-Soviet; but he rejects the idea that he is engaged in an anti-Soviet crusade. "If you're a physician who knows about drugs and you write a book about drugs as rather bad, it's different from being an anti-drug crusader in the sense of somebody who . . . knows nothing about the subject. I'm a historian, and at least part of it is that I like finding out facts that are hard to find out. I'm writing now about Roman place-names in Scotland. I'm just inquisitive."
Conquest points out that his last book on the Soviet Union was "Inside Stalin's Secret Police: NKVD Politics 1936-1939," about the internal struggle between various levels of secret police. "One knows they're not good guys, I'm not arguing about that at all; the book was written for perhaps 100 people throughout the world who would be interested. The subject simply hadn't been covered and I found myself more and more wondering what happened next."
A Clear Moral
"The Harvest of Sorrow" has a clear moral: that if the older Soviet leaders today were direct accomplices in the artificially contrived famine of the 1930s, and the younger leaders still justify the procedure, then it follows that they might be willing to kill tens of millions of foreigners or suffer a loss of millions of their own subjects in a war. Conquest said: "I don't think they'd in principle mind killing a lot of people--they have done it off and on for 70 years--if they were certain that the result would be that they'd have only a relatively small loss and everybody else would be blown to pieces; but I don't see that as their rational design. I don't think they want to blow Western populations to pieces. But if they came to America and imposed the collective farm system, then they might well organize a famine."
Conquest is not very hopeful about summit meetings. "It really depends," he said, "on both sides, perhaps particularly us, getting clear in our minds what exactly we want. And I don't think that's very easy because various constituencies are putting in various demands which don't necessarily conflict but which make a curious melange." He does not think the Soviet Union will be prepared to give up much in the way of arms to get an agreement. "I would take issue with the idea that less military expenditure in the Soviet Union is going to save the Soviet economy. How do you do it? When you think of it, it's going to take 10 years before it can have any effect. You can't beat rockets into plowshares very easily."
He has mixed feelings about Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. "I think he's an improvement on, say, (Leonid) Brezhnev in the sense that pullulating corruption doesn't actually reach into the top levels any more, as it did with Brezhnev. But on the other hand I'm not sure that corruption is always the worst thing in the world. When it comes to outlook, I think that Brezhnev had a certain amount of politics: he had the notion that not sheer administrative orders were going to produce results; that some sort of political maneuvering and wheeler-dealing were necessary. Gorbachev strikes me as more the (Yuri) Andropov type--the sort of tunnel-vision, give-orders-and-it-will-be-done type. I mean, it's not much good telling the Soviet worker 'Work harder and drink less'--this is not exactly a sophisticated approach."
Conquest is reluctant to make predictions as to whether repression in Russia will ever come to an end, and if so, how. "If you have a one-party system, which is self- replicating, it's rather as if you had a machine which dipped a net into the population and brought up people of the same political psychology and then trained them and pushed them through the machine. How you change that, is one problem. Even (Nikita) Khrushchev had pre-revolutionary experience, he wasn't simply ectoplasm of the apparatus. And the whole system depends for justification on ideology--it's not a question of whether you believe it, it's a password, a necessity, you can't do without a justification. So once you start abandoning the system . . . I mean, how do you reform agriculture? I'd make that an important test. Private farming is the only thing that can reform agriculture. They're talking of having certain improvements for groups working on the collective farms, but not for people ."
Conquest thinks the Soviet system is more likely to run gradually downhill than to end in a great crisis. "But I may be wrong about that. Some people whom I respect say that the economic problem is going to be a very tough one within a few years; and there are people who talk in terms of paramilitary coups, God knows what. I don't think there will be a coup by the army--a few generals and colonels seize the Kremlin, sort of thing. I wouldn't foresee that for a moment; but if you look at Communist history from 1953, there have been a series of surprises--the Sino-Soviet split, the Hungarian revolution, Solidarity--it's incredible! And though I rather go with the gradualist theory, this may be something out of a conservatism of mine; other theories are possible."