15 July 1917 – 3 August 2015
A poet and science-fiction buff, Robert Conquest turned to the study of the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s out of dissatisfaction with the quality of analysis he saw at the British Foreign Office. He worked there after the Second World War in the Information Research Department, a semi-secret office responsible for combating Soviet propaganda.
“The ambassadors varied between people who were interested in politics and people who were interested in music,” he said in 2003. “I wanted to study the evolutions at the top in Soviet Russia.”
Conquest was known as a poet before he began writing history. With Kingsley Amis, whom he met in 1952 when Amis was writing Lucky Jim, he edited volumes of the poetry anthology New Lines, which showcased work by Movement poets of the 1950s.
However, his landmark studies of the Stalinist purges and the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s documented the horrors perpetrated by the Soviet régime against its own citizens. As one of the Movement poets (a group that included Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin and Thorn Gunn), Conquest embarked on a research fellowship at the London School of Economics and produced Power and Politics in the USSR (1960), a book that established him as a leading Kremlinologist.
Eight years later, during the Prague Spring, he published The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties, a chronicle of Stalin’s merciless campaign against political opponents, intellectuals, military officers — anyone who could be branded an “enemy of the people”.
For the first time, facts and incidents scattered in myriad sources were gathered in a gripping narrative. Its effect would not be matched until the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in 1973.
The scope of Stalin’s purges was laid out: 7 million people arrested in the peak years, 1937 and 1938; 1 million executed; 2 million dead in the concentration camps. Conquest estimated the death toll for the entire Stalin era at no fewer than 20 million.
“His historical intuition was astonishing,” said Norman Naimark, a professor of Eastern European history at Stanford University. “He saw things clearly without having access to archives or internal information from the Soviet government. We had a whole industry of Soviet historians who were exposed to a lot of the same material but did not come up with the same conclusions. This was groundbreaking, pioneering work.”
George Robert Acworth Conquest, who has died of pneumonia aged 98, was born in Worcestershire, England. His father lived on a small independent income, and throughout Conquest’s childhood the family shifted from one boarding-house to another and spent long periods in France: in Brittany and Provence. He attended Winchester College in England and, after studying for a year at the University of Grenoble in France and travelling through Bulgaria, enrolled at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied politics, economics and philosophy and joined the Communist Party.
Leaving Oxford without a degree, he joined the Oxford[shire] and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry when World War II began in 1939. After studying Bulgarian, he served as an intelligence officer in Bulgaria, where he remained after the war as the press officer at the British Embassy in Sofia.
In 1942 he married Joan Watkins, the first of his four wives. In Bulgaria he began a relationship with Tatiana Mihailova, whom he helped escape to Britain after the Soviet takeover of Bulgaria and married. She was later found to have schizophrenia, and they divorced.
In addition to his fourth wife, he is survived by sons from his first marriage, John and Richard; a stepdaughter, Helen Beasley; and five grandchildren.
New York Times