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'Harvest' of Soviet Terrorism Reaped by Historian Conquest

November 19, 1986|BEVIS HILLIER | Times Staff Writer

Robert Conquest is the sort of name a novelist might devise for a British secret service agent--a name considerably more devil-may-care than "James Bond."

Robert Conquest does not look like Sean Connery or Roger Moore. At 69 the British writer looks like a genial and well-fed Oxford don. His speech is fastidious, almost precious. He exudes the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie.

The nearest he has come to Bond-like derring-do since army service in World War II is a stint as British press attache in Sofia, Bulgaria, in the late 1940s.

But, like James Bond, Conquest often has the Russians in his sights. You can't write books with such titles as "Where Marx Went Wrong," "Kolyma: the Arctic Death Camps" and (with Jon Manchip White) "What to Do When the Russians Come" and expect to be feted with caviar parties in Moscow. Conquest has not visited Russia since 1937, when he was 20. He does not know whether he is persona grata with the Soviet authorities.

"It's difficult to say. They allow in people who are hostile to them, like Richard Pipes (the Sovietologist and author), for example; but I wrote a little book on Lenin, and that's blasphemy. It's the only book of mine that wasn't in the British Communist Party's book shop. I didn't sink to the lowest blasphemy of suggesting that Lenin had a love affair with Inessa Armand, that's the worst you can do--but I suggested he might have."

Conquest's latest book, "The Harvest of Sorrow," (Oxford University Press: $19.95), though it confirms his reputation as a meticulous scholar, is unlikely either to increase his notoriety vastly or to endear him any further to Soviet authorities. It is a study, grueling in its detail, of Stalin's deliberate deployment of famine in the early 1930s as an instrument of terror against the peasants, especially those of the Ukraine.

Conquest's first two books, both published in 1955, were a collection of his poems and a science-fiction novel, "A World of Difference." Conquest thinks that "a science-fiction attitude is a great help in understanding the Soviet Union. It isn't so much whether they're good or bad, exactly; they're not bad or good as we'd be bad or good. It's far better to look at them as Martians than as people like us. George Orwell said that it needs an effort of the imagination as well as of the intellect to understand the Soviet Union."

With Kingsley Amis, whom he met at a party before Amis won fame with "Lucky Jim" (1953), Conquest wrote a jeu d'esprit of a novel, "The Egyptologists" (1965), about an Egyptological society that is really a husbands' alibi organization. "It was great fun to write," Conquest said. "It's rather odd, collaborating. We talked about it, I did a sort of draft and Kingsley turned it into a novel." Conquest's fourth and present wife, Elizabeth, who took a doctorate in English studies at USC, knew of him solely as a poet and novelist and only found out just before their marriage in 1979 that he was best known as a historian and Kremlinologist.

Conquest's first best seller was "The Great Terror" (1968), an account of the Soviet mass purges of the 1930s. But he is still not, perhaps, a name to conjure with among the general public, British or American.

'Angry Young Man'

In England, Conquest's combativeness--so rampant in print, so well curbed in person--sometimes made headlines. With Kingsley Amis and playwright John Osborne, he was in the gang of firebrands who were called "the Angry Young Men" in the 1950s when few of them were young by today's standards and none was half so angry as he later became. (Conquest was amused to find himself listed as an 'Angry Young Man' in the 1956 Yearbook of the "Soviet Encyclopaedia.")

In 1956 Conquest edited a controversial poetry collection, "New Lines," which included poems by Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn and again Kingsley Amis as well as some of his own works. "There had been a lot of sub-Dylan Thomas poetry, full of noise and little meaning," Conquest said. " 'New Lines' was seen as a concerted reaction to it and drew a lot of attack." In the 1960s Conquest was a pro-American-nuclear-bases-in-Britain man, regarded as a damnable reactionary by members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In the 1970s he contributed to a so-called "Black Paper" on British education, lamenting how standards of learning were being eroded.

In his new book, as usual, Conquest writes with a passion that some of his critics have seen as undermining the objectivity proper to a historian: "Fifty years ago as I write these words, the Ukraine and the Ukrainian, Cossack and other areas to the east--a great stretch of territory with some 40 million inhabitants--was like one vast Belsen." He added: "In the actions here recorded about 20 human lives were lost for, not every word, but every letter, in the book." (It is a book of more than 400 pages.)

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