February 3, 2008
Inhuman power of the lie: “The Great Terror” at 40: a review of The Great Terror: A Reassessment (Michael Weiss, February 2008, New Criterion)
I met Robert Conquest two summers ago in Palo Alto, which he has made his home, as a fellow of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, for the past two decades. Christopher Hitchens had sent Conquest, the primus inter pares of Sovietology, a review I had written of a recent Stalin biography that evidently impressed him, and a lunch was arranged at the Hitchens’s household. For a few hours I got to chat with the premier truth-teller of the most sustained totalitarianism of the twentieth century.Posted by Orrin Judd at February 3, 2008 5:41 AM
As it happened, Conquest had just completed another series of light verse—“bawdy,” as he prefers to call it—at which I was fortunate enough to get an advance peek. Those familiar with the full oeuvre of this extra- ordinary man, responsible for Margaret Thatcher’s “Iron Lady” speech and dubbed, at the last plenum of the Central Committee, “anti-Sovietchik number one,” will know that he is also an accomplished poet, novelist, and literary critic, whose limericks have long furnished the sunnier side of Cold War tabletalk on both sides of the Atlantic. Most of these are bawdy all right, and the best trade in liturgical or ethnic humor. It would be amusing and rewarding to see the captive minds of political correctness implode should they discover such dirty rhymes in print today; the closest they’ll come to a Conquest anthology is a generous helping in The New Oxford Book of Light Verse, edited by his boon companion Kingsley Amis. (The curious should check under the pseudonyms Ted Paulsen, Victor Gray, and Stuart Howard-Jones.) Among my own favorites, collected instead in Amis’s Memoirs, is this technically expert animadversion on the embarrassing Observer critic Philip Toynbee:
You cannot, when dealing with Toynbee,
Just pay him back in his own coin be-
Cause talking such piss
Would come rather amiss:
So how would a kick in the groin be?
At ninety years of age, Conquest can still tell you what it was like to fire a rifle in the Spanish Civil War. He’d been “bumming around” Malaga as a student in 1936 when he befriended a few genial but scruffy anarcho-syndicalists whose Ford 10 he was good enough to get started. They invited him to “put down some señoritos” said to be holding out along the coast and, as a not-bad marksman at Winchester, he agreed. After cleaning the sorry-looking Mauser he’d been handed and getting exactly one warning shot off above the Fascist hideout (vacant, as it turned out), he boarded a boat and returned to England, his companions having declared the end to all major hostilities.
This anecdote yields quite a lot, I think, about more than Conquest’s winning personality (Kingsley Amis to Philip Larkin: “Bob just goes on as if nothing has happened”). It also speaks ably of what has made him, apart from his groundbreaking research, such a powerful historian: irony and a wry sense of humor have offset some of the most tragic passages committed to print in the last hundred years. (“The sequence Lenin-Stalin-Khrushchev-Brezhnev was like a chart illustrating the evolution of the hominids, read backward.”) As Amis plausibly, but inventively, tells it, when the publisher of The Great Terror asked Conquest what he’d like to re-title the book in its second edition, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and new archival material from Moscow vindicated almost all of its key judgments: “Well, perhaps, I Told You So, You F---ing Fools. How’s that?”