Stanford legend Robert Conquest: new books at 93 for the historian and poet

Conquest is a man of contradictions: He has been called "a comic poet of genius" and "a love poet of considerable force" – but he made his mark as one of the first to expose the horrors of Stalinist communism.

L.A. Cicero Robert Conquest

Robert Conquest published his seventh collection of poems last year and a book of limericks this year, finished a 200-line poetic summa and is working on his memoirs.

Susan Sontag was a visiting star at Stanford in the 1990s. But when she was introduced to Robert Conquest, the constellations tilted for a moment.

"You're my hero!" she announced as she flung her arms around the elderly poet and acclaimed historian. It was a few years since she had called communism "fascism with a human face" – and Conquest, author of The Great Terror, a record of Stalin's purges in the 1930s, had apparently been part of her political earthquake.

Sitting in his Stanford campus home last week and chatting over a cup of tea, the 93-year-old insisted it's all true: "I promise. We had witnesses." His wife, Liddie, sitting nearby confirmed the account, laughing.

Conquest, a Hoover Institution senior research fellow emeritus, moves gingerly with a walker, and speaks so softly it can be hard to understand him. But his writing continues to find new directions: He published his seventh collection of poems last year and a book of limericks this year, finished a 200-line poetic summa and is working on his memoirs.

He's been a powerful inspiration for others besides Sontag. In his new memoir, Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens described Conquest, who came to Stanford in 1979, as a "great poet and even greater historian." The writer Paul Johnson goes further, calling Conquest "our greatest living historian."

Conquest is still, however, a man of contradictions. With The Great Terror, published in 1968, he became the conscience of an era, a historian denouncing Stalinism when communism was trendy with the left in the West. His new book collects scabrous and salacious limericks.

His advice to young poets is unconventional: "Write under a pseudonym, and pretend it's a translation from the Portuguese."

Not a serious poet? Think again. He's just completed a poem that may prove to be among his greatest. His 200-line reflection, forthcoming this fall in the British magazine Standpoint, opens:

Into one's ninetieth year.
Memory? Yes, but the sheer
Seethe as the half-woken brain's
Great gray search-engine gains
Traction on all one's dreamt, seen, felt read,
Loathed, loved …            
                        And on one's dead.
– Which makes one's World, one's Age, appear
Faint wrinkles on the biosphere
Itself the merest speck in some
Corner of the continuum.

The poem moves in scope from the caves of Lascaux to the minutest observations of the deteriorations of age, from "the skin-and-psyche blend" of sex and love to "dark matter."

"I don't think any poet has written as well about aging as he has," said R. S. Gwynn, Conquest's friend and fellow poet.

"As a poet Bob is funny, intensely lyrical and deeply reflective," Gwynn said. "Whenever I read him I think of how rarely we are allowed to see a mind at work, and what a mind it is."

The new unpublished poem would appear to be light-years from his polished little limericks with their exuberant, far-fetched (and not always successful) rhymes.

Yet Conquest takes his limericks seriously. As he writes in the introduction to his pseudonymous A Garden of Erses: Limericks by Jeff Chaucer: "While, under the protection of portentous apologetics, the meaningless, and the structureless can now pass for serious verse, the limerick remains a voice of talent and common sense, and it lends itself to (or rather demands) a specially skilled oral recital."

While Gwynn insisted the poems are certainly Conquest's, Conquest himself says they were mixed up with those by some friends, including Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. He's not even sure anymore which ones are his. At the very least, he is the editor and a significant, if not sole, contributor.

Given his more prominent role as a Stanford historian, some might consider him a "gentleman poet." Conquest cackles at the notion.

"Limericks are not very gentlemanly – or it's a special kind of gentleman."

Whatever the provenance of the limericks, this stanza from "This Be the Worse," a poem included in his collection Penultimata, published last year, is certainly his, and has the same esprit.

To each of those who've processed me
Into their scrap of fame or pelf:
You think in marks for decency
I'd lose to you? Don't kid yourself.

Angry old man? Not in the least. David Yezzi, writing in the Yale Review, said that although Conquest "has lodged his share of barbed lines and rhymes where they will be hard to get rid of," his recent poems remind us "with the immediacy of a dose of smelling salts, that he is not only a comic poet of genius but also a love poet of considerable force."

Hitchens, speaking of Conquest's "devastatingly dry and lethal manner," also wrote that his was "the softest voice that ever brought down an ideological tyranny." Naming Conquest among his handful of favorite poets, Hitchens called him not only "the king of the limerick" but also "the dragon slayer of the Stalinoid apologists."

It's hard to believe now that Stalin ever had any apologists at all, but that was not the case when Conquest wrote The Great Terror. Reading like a thriller, the book is a detailed log of Stalin's assassinations, arrests, tortures, frame-ups, forced confessions, show trials, executions and incarcerations that destroyed millions of lives. It was especially impressive because Conquest, who wrote the book as a freelancer, had to rely largely on what is called "unofficial material."

"Of course history isn't a science," he said. Balancing and assessing incomplete, partial and uneven information, he had to figure out what was omitted and focus on eyewitness accounts that contradicted "other things printed on beautiful paper."

The book instantly became a classic of modern history, and other titles followed, including The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986) and a 1977 translation of Solzhenitsyn's 1,400-line poem, Prussian Nights, undertaken at the author's request.

In the preface to the 40th anniversary edition of The Great Terror, Conquest wrote: "One of the strangest notions put forward about Stalinism is that, in the interests of 'objectivity' we must be – wait for it – 'non-judgmental.' But to ignore, or downplay, the realities of Soviet history is itself a judgment, and a very misleading one. Let me conclude with Patrick Henry saying in 1775, 'I know no way of judging of the future but by the past.'"

"His books made a huge impact on the debate about the Soviet Union, both in the West and in the East. In the West, people had always had access to the information about Communism but were not always ready to believe in it," said Radosław Sikorski, Poland's minister of foreign affairs, while awarding Conquest the country's Order of Merit last year. (Conquest received a U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.)

"We longed for confirmation that the West knew what was going on behind the Iron Curtain," Sikorski said. "Robert Conquest's books gave us such a confirmation. They also transmitted a message of solidarity with the oppressed and gave us hope that the truth would prevail."

He wasn't always a champion in this cause. The British-born Conquest was a member of the Communist Party while at Oxford between 1937 and 1938.

"He always tended to extremes," the British Labour politician Denis Healey told the Guardian in 2003.

Not anymore, according to Hitchens, writing in the Wall Street Journal: "A few years ago he said to me that the old distinctions between left and right had become irrelevant to him, adding very mildly that fools and knaves of all kinds needed to be opposed."

Poet and Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz, speaking in 1992, called Conquest "the poet who was right." Miłosz recalled a time when speaking the truth about communism meant being shunned in the West's intellectual community. Even Sontag took considerable heat for her reversal in the 1980s – which came a decade-and-a-half after Conquest's book.

Conquest retired at 90. That means "if I don't feel like it, I don't work," he said. But so far he seems to feel like it. He's working on memoirs and has "far more material than people can use," though he never kept any notes.

He still has a research assistant. And Liddie, his fourth wife, whom he married in 1979, is the point person for manuscripts, correspondence and interviews, and offers the occasional correction. When her husband leaves the room briefly, Liddie notes that his Bulgarian is splendid, and so is his French, contrary to his modest protestations.

A younger friend recently wrote Conquest a heartfelt letter that had a bit of a farewell flavor to the poet's ear, and Conquest was worried. Was his younger correspondent seriously ill?

Liddie had to suggest the idea that maybe the letter-writer, reasoning a nonagenarian might pass away at any moment, was concerned about him. Apparently, the thought hadn't occurred to Conquest. 

After all, he's just finished his 200-line poem. And now, he said, "I've got a lot of prose to catch up with."