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'Harvest' of Soviet Terrorism Reaped by Historian Conquest

November 19, 1986|BEVIS HILLIER | Times Staff Writer

"Stalin regarded the peasants as little capitalists," Conquest said. "How I see him basically is not as some modern sociological act but as laying waste a country as Genghis Khan would. A country that you have conquered and that is giving trouble, you lay it waste, you send Mongol horsemen through with sword and fire; well, Stalin instead sent people through in this more cold-blooded way, taking all their food."

In defiance of contemporary academic orthodoxy, Conquest believes the historian has a duty, not just to record, but to judge. He quotes with approval Friedrich Schiller's dictum " Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht "--world history is the world's court of judgment.

Too Uncritical?

Already some reviews have suggested that Conquest has accepted too uncritically documents that support his case against Stalin. Conquest parries the criticism coolly:

"There's a tendency to reject firsthand evidence; which is legitimate enough, providing you realize that all evidence is suspect in history. Laymen often think history has facts that are easily established because of a document or something. This isn't the case. You have to judge firsthand evidence by whether it fits in with lots of other firsthand evidence which arrives from different directions. With regard to what happened in the Ukrainian villages, I must have read getting on for 1,000 firsthand sources. And they hang together. To argue against them you would have to invoke a seamless conspiracy of hundreds of people, both Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian."

Then there is the allegation that Conquest, who accepted sponsorship from the Harvard University Ukrainian Research Institute and the Ukrainian National Assn., is somehow in the pocket of the Ukrainians. Again, a polite but stonewall disclaimer: "I did not do the book specifically on the Ukraine. About half the book is on the non-Ukrainian side, the rest of the Soviet peasantry--there is a whole chapter on the Kazakhs, for example. The sponsors made no attempt whatever to suggest what I should write. In fact I'm in trouble with some of them for refusing to drop the 'the' from 'the Ukraine.' "

Many of Conquest's books could be regarded as implacably anti-Soviet; but he rejects the idea that he is engaged in an anti-Soviet crusade. "If you're a physician who knows about drugs and you write a book about drugs as rather bad, it's different from being an anti-drug crusader in the sense of somebody who . . . knows nothing about the subject. I'm a historian, and at least part of it is that I like finding out facts that are hard to find out. I'm writing now about Roman place-names in Scotland. I'm just inquisitive."

Conquest points out that his last book on the Soviet Union was "Inside Stalin's Secret Police: NKVD Politics 1936-1939," about the internal struggle between various levels of secret police. "One knows they're not good guys, I'm not arguing about that at all; the book was written for perhaps 100 people throughout the world who would be interested. The subject simply hadn't been covered and I found myself more and more wondering what happened next."

A Clear Moral

"The Harvest of Sorrow" has a clear moral: that if the older Soviet leaders today were direct accomplices in the artificially contrived famine of the 1930s, and the younger leaders still justify the procedure, then it follows that they might be willing to kill tens of millions of foreigners or suffer a loss of millions of their own subjects in a war. Conquest said: "I don't think they'd in principle mind killing a lot of people--they have done it off and on for 70 years--if they were certain that the result would be that they'd have only a relatively small loss and everybody else would be blown to pieces; but I don't see that as their rational design. I don't think they want to blow Western populations to pieces. But if they came to America and imposed the collective farm system, then they might well organize a famine."

Conquest is not very hopeful about summit meetings. "It really depends," he said, "on both sides, perhaps particularly us, getting clear in our minds what exactly we want. And I don't think that's very easy because various constituencies are putting in various demands which don't necessarily conflict but which make a curious melange." He does not think the Soviet Union will be prepared to give up much in the way of arms to get an agreement. "I would take issue with the idea that less military expenditure in the Soviet Union is going to save the Soviet economy. How do you do it? When you think of it, it's going to take 10 years before it can have any effect. You can't beat rockets into plowshares very easily."

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