Robert Conquest. Photo by Ninian Reid (Creative Commons license).

Okategoriserade In Memoriam Robert Conquest

Robert Conquest died on Monday 3 August in Stanford, California. He was 98. Lennart Samuelson here writes on a historian who in his fundamental book of 1969 more than any other coined the term ‘the Great Terror’ for Stalin’s purges and show trials in the 1930s. Baltic Worlds also here highlight Samuelson’s previously published review on the Festschrift Political Violence: Belief, Behavior, and Legitimation, presented to Robert Conquest on his 90th birthday.

Published on on August 21, 2015

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Robert Conquest – the historian who in his fundamental book of 1969 more than any other coined the term ‘the Great Terror’ for Stalin’s purges and show trials in the 1930s – died on Monday 3 August in Stanford, California. He was 98.

To his 90th birthday, the Festschrift Political Violence: Belief, Behavior, and Legitimation was presented to him, with contributions from many of his colleagues; I had the opportunity to review it for Baltic Worlds. To honor his memory, the journal’s editor and I decided to highlight this review, which you find here: In my review essay, I made a dispassionate attempt to set Conquest’s scholarly itinerary and his many historical works in a broad perspective, to assess them from the point of time when they were written and not to delve into passed disputes. It may sound paradoxical to hear how often his research on the Ukrainian 1932-33 famine, the 1934 Kirov murder, Stalin’s 1937-38 terror, or the Gulag camp system, caused polemics, often much sharper than ordinary academic debates.

Robert Conquest, by his pertinent commentaries and sharp rejoinders to critics, spurred many scholars to sharpen their own analyses when not in agreement with him. Thanks to such debates in Soviet Studies, American Historical Review and other periodicals, the Soviet specialist community successively arrived at a better, common understanding of the Kremlin’s intricacies. As the former Soviet archives started to become accessible by the early 1990s, Conquest was among the first to emphasize their significance – particularly in comparison with the source-bases that his contemporaries had been limited to :  using during the Cold War.

Robert Conquest was invited as key-note speaker to the workshop on Communist regimes, organized by the Swedish Research Council in Sigtuna, Sweden, in June 2000. His broad survey of research topics on Soviet history, Stalin’s terror and the crimes of communism in particular, initiated a fruitful discussion among the Swedish historians, several of whom were thereafter involved in the Research Council’s program on Communist regimes.The Sigtuna 2000 workshop was the first occasion I met Conquest. I told him that I read The Great Terror in the early 1970s, but as merely a Ph.D. student at Stockholm University, I was puzzled by his use of literary sources, such as memoirs by defectors and ex-Communists. “Alas!” Conquest exclaimed, “such were my preconditions, even after the ‘Thaw’ and Khrushchev’s light de-Stalinization in the 1960s. I now regret”, he continued, “that my updated 1990 version with the subtitle A Reassessment was actually published several years too early.” Given the avalanche of archival documents made available throughout the nineties, Conquest lamented that at his age, he would not have the opportunity to finalize the book as the new source basis might allow. To the subsequent – 40th anniversary edition – he included an introduction that showed his keen awareness of how the research frontiers had moved along.

It was natural, a sign of our times, that in 2004 the fundamental work on the Stalinist camp system, made possible by a broad international cooperation between Russian and Western archivists and historians, was published in seven volumes of archival documents. The two illuminating forewords were written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Robert Conquest. Stockholm 210815

NOTE: Also read the review of Lennart Samuelson here: A PATHBREAKER. ROBERT CONQUEST AND SOVIET STUDIES DURING THE COLD WAR + Paul Hollander (ed.) Political Violence: Belief, Behavior, and Legitimation. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave MacMillan 2008. 272 pages.