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'ANTI-SOVIETCHIK No. 1' HAS HIS DAY, ROBERT CONQUEST
  

By Cathryn Donohoe
The Washington Times, Washington, D.C.
Section: E, LIFE, Edition: 2, Page: E1
May 5, 1993

 

Friends of Robert Conquest - the British-American historian chosen by the National Endowment for the Humanities to deliver its prestigious Jefferson Lecture tonight - see the event as one more public vindication of sorts for the lifelong critic of Stalinism.

"It's nice, after being abused all these years, that he's getting the recognition he deserves," says Charles H. Fairbanks Jr., a professor of international relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies here.

The Jefferson lectureship, created in 1972 to honor the intellectual and civic virtues that Thomas Jefferson exemplified, is the government's highest honor for distinguished achievement in the humanities. That makes the award, and its $10,000 honorarium, all the sweeter.

There was a time, you see, when Mr. Conquest's name provoked snickers and sneers from the politically fashionable.

Mr. Conquest, 75, born in England of an American father and an English mother, is an anti-Soviet intellectual. He is one who, from the early 1960s on, kept writing blunt words on Stalin and Soviet secret police machinations and collectivization and political murder and engineered famine and other such stuff of which evil empires are made, even as the academic trendsetters insisted that the Soviet Union was an essentially benign mirror image of America.

The titles alone of his 12 books on the communist experiment tell the story of a man seriously out of step with group think. They include "The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties," "The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine," "Stalin: Breaker of Nations" (his latest, published in 1991) and the defiantly unchic "Where Marx Went Wrong."

Soviet officials, when they still had jobs, called the scholar, who flirted with the Communist Party while an undergraduate at Oxford, "anti-Sovietchik No. 1." To some orthodox American Sovietologists, he was known as a "professional anti-communist" and, even worse, a "political journalist." Perhaps it's no wonder.

"Even seven or eight years ago, to say something anti-Soviet was regarded as an affront to liberal decency," Mr. Conquest, in his best British accent, says by phone from Stanford, Calif., where he lives with his fourth wife, the former Elizabeth Neece, a Texan who is 24 years his junior. He is a senior research fellow at the decidedly conservative Hoover Institution.

Then, along about 1989, a good two years before Boris Yeltsin stood on the tanks in Red Square to face down plotters of the hard-line coup against then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, something strange happened: The Soviets themselves began to say Mr. Conquest was right.

"I always knew people were reading `The Great Terror.' I kept meeting hard-liners who'd say, `I read your book secretly under the pillow,' " Mr. Conquest says.

"But that didn't vindicate me publicly. I guess the public vindication came when they started referring to it in the press, about 1989," he says.

That year he was interviewed by Moscow News. The newspaper called "The Great Terror," first published in 1968, "one of the most significant of foreign researches into Soviet history."

That year, the book was published in installments by the respected Soviet literary-political periodical Neva - because, Mr. Conquest says its editors told him, "We want a legal, democratic state."

That year, he says, he was all over the Soviet Union - talking to the Union of Writers, appearing on television, giving interviews to Izvestia, getting "nice descriptions" in Pravda.

Even the doggedly Marxist among America's Sovietologists have found it hard to quarrel with that.

"I knew I'd got it right," Mr. Conquest says of the studies he felt himself compelled to begin when, as a British army officer in the Balkans during and immediately after World War II, he watched the communization of Bulgaria.

"But it's always great to be vindicated on the scale they have [done]," he says. "And I'm glad I lived to see it."

So the lecture tonight at 8 (in the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium at 13th Street and Constitution Avenue NW), on Mr. Conquest's chosen topic of "History, Humanity and Truth," is bound to deal not just with the untruths that for a time held the Soviet Union together, but with - as Mr. Conquest puts it - "the errors of Western academe and what went wrong with its mechanical certainties about Soviet history."

In speaking on this theme, he steps again into a debate now coming to a boil among scholars of post-Soviet affairs, one that asks why American Sovietology failed to anticipate communism's spectacular collapse. Ultimately, Mr. Fairbanks says, the question goes beyond Soviet studies to "wider assumptions of contemporary American culture."

Intellectual melees on subjects such as this come naturally to Mr. Conquest, who followed his army stint with 10 years in the British Foreign Service. Yet if Mr. Conquest were simply a specialist in Russian studies, chances are he would not be speaking tonight: The Jefferson lectureship is meant for broader concerns.

And along with his 12 books on the Soviet system, Mr. Conquest has produced six volumes of poetry, two novels (one with British critic Kingsley Amis), several works of science fiction, a volume of literary criticism and - to the delight of friends - innumerable bits of scatological light verse.

Those are the lines that, Mr. Fairbanks says, show "his taste for the irreverent, the anarchic, his ease with the low side of life and his love of saying what things really are."

Perhaps so. Yet this most prolific of writers says he would rather do something else.

"I don't actually like writing. It's a frightful chore," he says. "Think of what being a painter would be like - you could play around with brushes."

That might very well be next.


Illustration: Photos (A, color), A) Anti-Soviet historian Robert Conquest gets recognition.; B) Robert Conquest, A) By Ruth Fremson/The Washington Times; B) NO CREDIT, The Washington Times
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