Stanford historian Robert Conquest, expert on Soviet Union, dies at 98

A Renaissance-style thinker, Robert Conquest was a prolific Soviet historian who became the conscience of an era in the war of ideas between communism and Western democracy. As a poet, his work was considered among the most influential in British literary circles.

Robert Conquest

Stanford historian Robert Conquest, who died Monday at 98, was a poet and novelist as well as a celebrated expert on the Soviet Union. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

A preeminent Cold War scholar who chronicled the abuses of the Soviet regime, Robert Conquest passed away at 98 on Monday at Stanford.

Conquest was a Hoover Institution senior research fellow emeritus at Stanford University. Pneumonia was the cause of his death, according to his wife, Elizabeth Neece Conquest. Plans for a memorial service have not yet been announced.

A dual British and American citizen by birth, he was born on July 15, 1917, in England. Conquest studied at Winchester College, the University of Grenoble and Magdalen College, Oxford, and took his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy, politics and economics, and his doctorate in Soviet history. While at Oxford he became a member of the Communist Party; a few years later, he left the party.

Conquest served through World War II in the British infantry and afterward in the British diplomatic service. In the immediate postwar period, he saw the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, an experience that left him decidedly anti-communist. Conquest joined the Foreign Office’s Information Research Department, a unit created to counter Soviet propaganda in the West.

In 1981, Conquest moved to California to become a senior research fellow and scholar-curator of the Russian and Commonwealth of Independent States Collection at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He retired in 2007.

John Raisian, the director of the Hoover Institution, said in a news release, “It is with profound sadness that we reflect upon his life and intellectual contributions, which have left a lasting impression around the world.”

George P. Shultz, a Hoover Institution distinguished fellow and former U.S. secretary of state, said, “Robert Conquest set the gold standard for careful research, total integrity and clarity of expression about the real Soviet Union. He taught us all and he will live on in that spirit.”

History and poetry

The author of 21 books on Soviet history, politics and international affairs, Conquest wrote the classic The Great Terror (1968), the first comprehensive research of the Stalinist-era purges that took place in the Soviet Union between 1934 and 1939. The book remains one of the most influential studies of Soviet history and has been translated into more than 20 languages.

During an era when Western intellectuals were conspicuously uncritical of the Stalinist regime, Conquest led the way in shedding light on life behind the Iron Curtain. His characterization of Soviet policy in the 1930s proved accurate.

He also penned The Harvest of Sorrow (1986), which dealt with the collectivization of agriculture in Ukraine and elsewhere in the USSR and the subsequent famine.

Conquest was also a poet and novelist; he authored seven volumes of poetry and one of literary criticism, a science fiction novel and another novel authored jointly with Kingsley Amis. In 1945, he was awarded the PEN Brazil Prize for his war poem, For the Death of a Poet, and six years later he received a Festival of Britain verse prize.

Medal of Freedom

In 2005, Conquest received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civil award given by the U.S. president “to any person who has made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, or world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

His other awards and honors include the Jefferson Lectureship, the highest honor bestowed by the federal government for achievement in the humanities (1993), the Dan David Prize (2012), Poland’s Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit (2009), Estonia’s Cross of Terra Mariana (2008) and the Ukrainian Order of Yaroslav Mudryi (2005).

Conquest was a fellow of Columbia University’s Russian Institute and of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; a distinguished visiting scholar at the Heritage Foundation; and a research associate of Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute. He was also a fellow of the British Academy, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society of Literature and the British Interplanetary Society and a member of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.

In addition to his wife, Conquest is survived by sons from his first marriage, John and Richard; a stepdaughter, Helen Beasley; and five grandchildren.