George Will on Robert Conquest (RIP), in How Robert Conquest’ History Book Made History.
History books can be historic events, making history by ending important arguments. They can make it impossible for any intellectually honest person to assert certain propositions that once enjoyed considerable currency among people purporting to care about evidence.
The author of one such book, Robert Conquest, an Englishman who spent many years at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, has died at 98, having outlived the Soviet Union that he helped to kill with information. Historian, poet, journalist, and indefatigable controversialist, Conquest was born when Soviet Russia was, in 1917, and in early adulthood he was a Communist. Then, combining a convert’s zeal and a scholar’s meticulousness, he demolished the doctrine that the Soviet regime was a recognizable variant of the European experience and destined to “convergence” toward Western norms.
Hiss still has a ragtag remnant of defenders, historical illiterates who are disproportionately academics. They often are the last to learn things because they have gone to earth in the groves of academe in order to live in an alternative reality.
Conquest lived to see a current U.S. presidential candidate, a senator, who had chosen, surely as an ideological gesture, to spend his honeymoon in the Soviet Union in 1988. Gulags still functioned, probably including some of the “cold Auschwitzes” in Siberia, described in Conquest’s “Kolyma.” The honeymooner did not mind that in 1988 political prisoners were — as may still be the case — being tortured in psychiatric “hospitals.” Thanks to the unblinking honesty of people like Conquest, the Soviet Union now is such a receding memory that Bernie Sanders’ moral obtuseness — the obverse of Conquest’s character — is considered an amusing eccentricity.