In Memoriam: Robert A. Conquest (1917–2015)



One of the great ironies of modern history is that the person most responsible for bringing to light the magnitude of Stalin’s terror is a man whose last name is synonymous with occupation and subjugation: Robert Conquest. In word and in deed, the world-renowned historian, who passed away on August 3 at the age of 98, was, of course, nothing like the monster he wrote about in books such as Stalin: Breaker of Nations, Stalin and the Kirov Murder, Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps, Harvest of Sorrows: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine, and The Great Terror: A Reassessment.

Independent Institute looks at Robert Conquest (who also served as a founding member of the Board of Advisors of our quarterly, The Independent Review) with reverence and gratitude. In 1992, we hosted a national dinner in his honor, featuring presentations by Preston Martin, Czeslaw Milosz, Aaron Wildavsky, John O’Sullivan, Elena Bonner, Harry Wu, and the honoree himself (video, audio, transcript). Conquest also penned a brilliant op-ed for the occasion, “Learning to Unlearn the Leninist Mindset”—still instructive a quarter century after the fall of the evil empire. In 2000, he published Reflections on a Ravaged Century, and he graced us once again, by speaking at our Oakland headquarters, at an event titled “Freedom, Terror, and Falsehoods: Lessons from the Twentieth Century” (video, audio, transcript).

For too long, the Western intelligentsia ignored Robert Conquest (although he had legions of fans behind the Iron Curtain, where his works circulated clandestinely). Happily, several obituaries and remembrances will help preserve his legacy. (For a sampling, see the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, George Will, National Review, John O’Sullivan, The Economist, the Daily Beast, and the BBC magazine.) For readers of The Beacon, however, I thought it most fitting to close not from a eulogy, but from Conquest’s op-ed referenced above:

It has been wisely said that the two great causes of human troubles are impatience and laziness. Intellectually, these are precisely the phenomena that produce such destructive fantasies. Ideological quick fixes for all intellectual and social problems are sought, rather than an understanding of their real complexities. The Soviet Union was a proving ground for such approaches. We in the West still have much to learn, and to unlearn, from the events in the former communist countries.

[This post is adapted from the August 18, 2015, issue of The Lighthouse. To subscribe to this weekly email newsletter and other bulletins from Independent Institute, enter your email address here.]

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