Robert Conquest: Profiled by Hitchens

Historians in the News

Those who were born in Year One of the Russian Revolution are now entering their 10th decade. Of the intellectual class that got its vintage laid down in 1917, a class which 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 very 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 social and 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 classes of Englishmen employ the discourse of irony and understatement. This would itself be an understatement of Mr. 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 About 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 U.N. 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 other 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 always dictated his novels--comes up with the name of the new voice-activated software. "It's called 'Dragons Naturally Speaking 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 "Dragons Naturally Speaking 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.....
Read entire article at Christopher Hitchens in the WSJ

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