Robert Conquest
Robert Conquest
Reflections on a Ravaged Century
ISBN: 0393048187
Reflections on a Ravaged Century
Mr. Conquest talked about his book, Reflections on a Ravaged Century, published by W.W. Norton and Company. He examined the role of ideology in shaping the history of the twentieth century, including communism, Marxism and fascism.
Search Audible
Reflections on a Ravaged Century
Program Air Date: December 19, 1999

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Robert Conquest, why did you call your book "Reflections on a Ravaged Century"?
ROBERT CONQUEST, AUTHOR, "REFLECTIONS ON A RAVAGED CENTURY": Well, the `reflections' bit is to show that I wasn't trying to cover everything, just the things I happened to be thinking about. And ravaged century--well, it's been a ravaged century.
LAMB: Give us some examples of why.
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, how many centuries have seen wars and massacres in which 20 million people get killed in peacetime in one country, 50 million in another, 20 million or 30 million are killed in wars? I think it's been very much the most ravaged century, if you want to put it that way, of any for a very long time anyway.
LAMB: Well, then as we approach the change to the year 2000, what do you think about the human being?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, I think we've won through--to some extent we have got rid of the real driven ideologies, the horrors of Naziism and communism--well, we haven't quite got rid of them, but at least they've lost their allure, they've lost any attraction they used to have, except here and there in a few backward countries and campuses, you know, that sort of thing.
LAMB: Why?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, first of all, their system didn't work in the countries they tried it out on. There used to be a joke in Russia, the Soviet Russia: `Is our system--was it invented by scientists?' And the answer was, `No. If scientists had invented it, they'd have tried it out first on hamsters.' And that's a very true point, because it did ruin the country economically, ecologically, demo--demographically; they lost millions of people. And it also stupefied and stultified everybody. They couldn't be--they weren't allowed to think. The ones who rose to power were people who'd been--forced their way up by hypocrisy and stu--and by stupidity. It became a rule--a rule, almost, and--and they--they drove the country into the ground.
LAMB: How many years have you lived in this country?
Mr. CONQUEST: Since 1980--1981.
LAMB: What citizenship do you hold?
Mr. CONQUEST: I've--I'm a dual national, by birth, American and British, the United Kingdom.
LAMB: And for how many years have you been writing?
Mr. CONQUEST: I found a short essay I wrote at the age of eight and a short poem I wrote at the age of eight in an album the other day. I don't know if you count that as writing. Publishing since--my first two books were 1955. One was a science fiction novel and the other was a book of poems. I mean, published by a proper publisher.
LAMB: When you originally started all this, what was the impetus?
Mr. CONQUEST: On--on the historical side--well, I think two things. On the--I'd--I'd been in the war in the Balkans from 1944, in Bulgaria, and then later in the British mission there, political. So I was there four years nearly. And I saw what happened when the Communist regime took over, the terror and--and the suppression of thought and ruin of the country. So when I got back, I got interested in communism in general, and in Russia I found nobody was working on a lot of material that existed and I f--my first book--the other answer is inquisitiveness. My first book was just about the struggle for power, the factions and the Kremlin. And thi--this is very little known. You could only guess by various hints they dropped, various appointments, you know. So this wasn't a terrifically anti-Communist book. It was a--a--an inquiry to satisfy my own inquisitiveness.

I--I mean, people seem to forget that people--some people really want to find things out. I mean, I've got a piece coming out in next year's Journal of the Society of the Promotion of Roman Studies in England about the Roman Place Names of Scotland. Now that's not due to any anti-communism or pro anything. It's due to--I was--I was--I got inquisitive about it, and I think that's the best drive for a historian. That applied to all the books afterwards.
LAMB: You--throughout your--this book, you often refer to the--the Idea or an Idea, the--with a capital I.
Mr. CONQUEST: Yeah. Yeah.
LAMB: What is that?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, I--I say Idea with a capital I, I mean one that doesn't--isn't just a thought that you--you or I might have, but a big Idea, with not only a capital I, but sometimes capitals throughout and exclamation marks and lights saying `Here we have something which is--we know more about the future, about the world, about humanity than anybody else does. Come our way and sacrifice anything for following us.' And these are the--the Ideas like fascism and communism.
LAMB: That's what I was going to ask you. What are the--would have been the important ideas of the 20th century?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, the--the most important of these driving ideas were communism and fascism and National Socialism, but, of course, communism lasted longer and had more of an attraction for people outside the country concerned. If you're not a German, you're not going to be a very good National Soc--German National Socialist. But if you--you can be a Communist anywhere. I mean, one Co--National Socialists and fascists identified with the nation, the people. You lost your individuality and identified with the nation. The Communists, you identified with the masses. You lost your individuality just the same. You identified--but it was a different concept, though they overlapped a bit, of course, by quite a lot.
LAMB: Where did communism start?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, the original thought was, of course, Karl Marx, but it goes back beyond that, I think: the French Revolution. At that time you get the idea of a terrorist state which can enforce the perfect society, and then Marx--Karl Marx said he discovered the science of society, how to predict the future, how we--`Everything will evolve if you do it my way.' Well, if it's the only way, the scientific way, and you reject it, you're acting against reason, you're acting against knowledge. You have to be suppressed, and then, of course, we got it--communism.

These ideas appealed to--first to a section of the Russian intelligentsia, the Russian semi-educated class, because they had no notion of real politics, so they had the idea without any experience. A--and this sect took over this backward country in 1917, and from then on you had a large country run by utopian idea m--people, who had nothing in their minds except the idea, and dictated how biology should run, how history should be and also spread the influence with money and other methods throughout the world.
LAMB: Where did Lenin come from?
Mr. CONQUEST: He came--he came from near Kazan, he--f--almost on the--the border of Russian and Turkic, another territory in Russia.
LAMB: To get your reaction on this, did he just one day pick up the Communist Manifesto, read it and say, `That's my--that's the way we ought to go'?
Mr. CONQUEST: No, it's the other way around. He became a revolutionary before he became a Marxist. He--he read a book said to be the worst novel ever written by Cher--Cherne--Chernyshevsky, which prescribed how the state could be taken over by well-meaning intellectuals and turned into a perfect state, but--but that didn't have any Marxism in it. So he started off as a revolutionary. Then Marxism looked even more attractive because it looked modern. It wasn't just somebody saying `We can have a perfect society,' saying, `and the good German doctor has proved it.' And then the Marxism goes from there. Mind, we narrowed Marxism a bit. There were elements in Marxism that weren't as narrow as his.

But he--he--what he had was a hell of a willpower, as Stalin and Hitler did, of course. It's one of the things we neglect if we study history in courses. There are all sorts of theories of history, but very seldom they mention that one man with a hell of a willpower and drive and ability, in some respects, can produce this thrust.
LAMB: Well, g--go back to your own life. You say you started writing when you were eight.
Mr. CONQUEST: Well...
LAMB: Where did you live before 1980?
Mr. CONQUEST: I've lived in America, but--but not until I was well over 30 I didn't come to America. My father was American, my mother was English. And he was brought up--he was a Virginian, and his mother was from the North and she moved to San Remo in Italy and he was brought up in his young years, 10 years, speaking Italian and French and--and then came back to Amer--to America. Then came--just before the First War broke out, they were in Switzerland, came to England for the first time, met my mother.

Then he joined the French army, the American Ambulance, got the Croix de Guerre at Verdun--the great battle of Verdun was the super battle of the war--and then remained very American, but se--settled in England and France. We lived--we always thought of ourselves as Americans, but where--when we were in France, of course, E--English and American boys associated together in what you might call--not gang in fights wi--with the locals, and the--our cry was `Waterloo!' Their cry against both English and Americans was `English pig!'
LAMB: Where were you born?
Mr. CONQUEST: In England.
LAMB: And how often--how long did you live in France?
Mr. CONQUEST: Three or four years. I went to university there later.
LAMB: And how much education do you have?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, the usual amount of school and university.
LAMB: Where'd you go to university?
Mr. CONQUEST: Oxford. And...
LAMB: Studied what?
Mr. CONQUEST: I studied philosophy, politics and economics.
LAMB: I read in your book that you spent a lot of time advising Margaret Thatcher.
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, I--I saw quite a lot of her from about--from several years before she became prime minister, yes.
LAMB: What'd you tell her?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, I briefed her on what I thought the Soviets were up to. She was very willing to learn. She wasn't the first politician I'd sp--the first politician I spoke to was the American Senator Scoop Jackson.
LAMB: What year did you do that?
Mr. CONQUEST: That must have been '69-ish, because he--I suddenly got a call from the American Embassy saying `Can you come to a small party? There's a senator would like to meet you.' So he had a--he'd just read one of my books, and he used to have me up giving evidence at his committee at the Senate a lot. And those hard Democrats were the first people I knew in American politics, him and Pat Moynihan. So--but this was all accidental. People--I didn't go pushing myself on these...
LAMB: So when you'd sit down with them, what--what was the first thing they'd want to know?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, they wanted--I think--depending on--they weren't know-alls, if you know what I mean. They want--just wanted more information, more perspective on what was going on in Russia, on what the then very secret sort of--secretive itinerant sort of leadership in Russia, what the--what on earth they were doing, what the prospects were because, remember, a lot of nonsense was talked at that time.

The--I was talking to a man who served in the State Department at that time a couple of days ago. He said they had great difficulty in persuading the CIA that their figures were wrong, bu--and that's the CIA. I'm not talking about left-wing intellectuals. It was--one of the aims of the Soviet government was to baffle the West. After all, they were taking on--they were much weaker economically, had much less going for them. They were taking on the very rich countries of the West. How could they g--do it? By undermining their morale in some way, by diverting the West from knowing what's going on, by pretending they wanted peace. So seeing through that was--was very important, and of course it worked in the long run. But once or twice there were shaky bits in the West.
LAMB: How much time have you spent in Russia?
Mr. CONQUEST: I didn't go to--I went to Russia once as a student on a--on a--you know, a fortnight tour, and then I didn't go till--I was asked this--in '89--in 1989. I got--they asked me to--to sit in on their leading literary journal--`When did you last come to Ru--to this country?' I said, `Oh, 43 years ago?' But then we were there quite often from '89 on, because that was when they started printing my books there on a large scale. They--they'd just printed my book about the superterror in Russia in a million copies, so I was--I was being feted everywhere.
LAMB: They've just done it now, or they did it in '89?
Mr. CONQUEST: '89--'89, '90.
LAMB: I've got a copy here, a hard-backed copy, of "The Great Terror." I haven't looked at it. I mean, I--I've got--actually, my own copy is a paperback. When did you first write this?
Mr. CONQUEST: It was first published in 1968. I wrote it over the years before that.
LAMB: How many copies has it sold?
Mr. CONQUEST: I have no idea, but it's--it's come out in--I think it's 17 or 18 languages, including Russian, of course.
LAMB: So you're talking about a couple million copies, at least.
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, the Russians d--do a million. I--I suppose a million or so somewhere else perhaps. I don't know.
LAMB: And what's in it?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, it's an account of the Stalin period in Russia, when Stalin succeeded Lenin and fo--finally had enough power to force through the Communist program, the abolition of private property and the land. The--the peasants were put under control in these collective farms. And then there was the great famine due to that, which at least seven million people died. And--and then--then they had the--the great terror itself was concentrated in the years 1937 to '38 when he shot--it's difficult to say precisely now, but the lowest figure now given by people who slightly defend him is around 700,000. So--that's the shot. That's not the ones dying in camps and so on or committing suicide.

But imagine in America, that's the equivalent of half a million people here, three-quarters of the Congress, most of the military leadership, practically all the writers, the factory managers, one or--all but two or three. You can imagine that--the effect of that on a country. And we talk about a terror in a small Central American country; there was 10,000 killed. The--the--this isn't the same sort of thing. This is a mass terror on the scale of--similar to the Nazis. They're differently conceived; it was directed against the whole population.
LAMB: Where did you get your information that made your book so popular in 1968?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, there was enough information around if it was properly put together, and you had to prove it and--You know what I mean? When you're proving something, you don't want to hammer 50 cases, but you want to do at least those six or seven accounts which show the--the--that this is--represents--and find out other things which--say this is representative. Nobody had done that. There were a number of books by people who'd suffered in the camps, but i--it was just enough then to put it all together, and it had to be put together in a--in a way that could be read, of course.
LAMB: Did you have more information than the CIA had?
Mr. CONQUEST: Good question. I wouldn't have thought so, but I--I rather doubt if they had information in that sense. I--i--it was all scattered. It was in odd books and odd pamphlets and odd speeches here and there. Th--they would have--in a sense, they'd have it in their libraries--or most of it--but they--but they didn't have it to hand in that s--in that way, I don't think.
LAMB: Y--you go back to Scoop Jackson, the senator from the state of Washington, a Democrat...
Mr. CONQUEST: Yeah, yeah.
LAMB: ...Pat Moynihan, a Democrat from New York.
Mr. CONQUEST: Yeah, yeah.
LAMB: Were only the Democrats interested in your--in your being--your advice?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, I--I wasn't going around offering advice. They--Scoop Jackson came to me. I'm--no, it--it wasn't only that the--the--they happened to be the people I knew, and the people I knew in New York were the Social Democrats and--and people like that: Midge Decter and there's--is Carl Gershman. They--and so it was largely internationalists, rather liberal Democrats--hard liberal, if you like, Democrats.

But I also got--later I was asked to--in London, af--after Reagan had just lost the nomination to Ford in that election, and a friend of mine asked me to talk to him for--I went and talked to him for a couple of hours, two or three hours. And I--I got the same impression from him I'd got from Alec Douglas-Home, who was prime minister of England at one point; that he had a perfectly clear general idea and--of what was going on, but didn't think he knew everything. It--it--it's rare in politicians. They often think they know everything, eve--they've got the--as well as having a general idea. They wanted to--to--to be pointed in various dir--to ask questions and `What should I look at?' and, `What should I--how should I take it? This way?' So I got--that was my connection with Republican politics.
LAMB: Did you--did they read your books?
Mr. CONQUEST: I didn't a--well, Scoop Jackson had read it. That's why he asked to see me. but I...
LAMB: How about President Reagan? Did he ever...
Mr. CONQUEST: I ne--I have no idea.
LAMB: On the cover of this book, you have a--there's a quote. I--I assume you've seen this: `Robert Conquest is our greatest living modern historian.' Paul Johnson. What's that--that--what's that feel like when somebody says that?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, that's very nice. I--I'm not sure that it's--he--he's investigated every historian--living historian, but it--it's very nice of him, of course.
LAMB: Paul Johnson is known as a conservative, I guess.
Mr. CONQUEST: Yes. Yes, he is.
LAMB: On the back, Christopher Hitchens says, `I have acquired more from overhearing Robert Conquest than from teaching or attending entire courses.'
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, he--he's very left, as you know.
LAMB: Yeah, does he--does he--have you talked with him?
Mr. CONQUEST: Yes, I know--know Hitch, and I know Paul. But I don't know if they kn--know each other or would get on if they did. But I've never had that trouble about left and right.
LAMB: Well, when you sit down, wh--where do you hang your hat now? Where do you live?
Mr. CONQUEST: Politically?
LAMB: No. Well, you--I'll...
Mr. CONQUEST: Around--around...
LAMB: ...ask you that, too, but where do you live physically? Where...
Mr. CONQUEST: Stanford, California.
LAMB: What do you do there?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, I write books and articles and reviews and read.
LAMB: And how long have you done that?
Mr. CONQUEST: I've been there now for 18 years, I guess.
LAMB: And when you sit down and write your books, who--who do you think about--who are you writing it for?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, I think one doesn't want to write a book for a specialist audience, but one wants to write a book that is all right for the specialist. The specialist reader can understand it and accept it, but it's written for the ordinary educated public, who--who--th--this has gone out a bit these days. This used to be very common in the--100 years ago, 150 years ago. Gibbon wrote "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," not for a few professors, but for everybo--everybody in--in the country who had books, more or less. S--so I assume that the--that they want to be able to read it in tolerable presentation.

But I--I once got a letter from a student at the University of Indiana--no, I think it was--but who said, `Our history professors are divided. Some of them think that th--they should write comprehensively, and others say they shouldn't. Which do you think?'
LAMB: So--so what do you think of academia in this country?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, there are many areas in which I think it's at fault, partly the--there's a tendency to get a certain sectarianism, I think, in academia, a political sectarianism. The--I--I've--I--I think it's probably odder and--say when you find in English departments, for example--a--a philosopher wrote the other day that only in the English departments you get bad philosophy. The philosophy departments don't touch the stuff. You get this deconstructionism and so on.

But al--also--and--and they--they form groups--I--I'm speaking only of some areas and some departments and--but they--they take over. If they have 25 percent, they more or less run the department because they recruit the same people. And there's what--this is m--in my view exactly what academia shouldn't do. They should always recruit a wide range.
LAMB: If someone today--and from what you know of the universities--goes to university or college and studies history, do they get a balanced view?
Mr. CONQUEST: I think that very much depends where. I--I think the history departments are, let's say, better than the English departments, but there are--there are--certainly are too many theoretical historians. The--there's--one of the objections to Marx was he had a theory of history. The great philosopher Bertrand Russell remarked s--bou--about Hegel, Marx's predecessor, that Hegel's theory of history, like all theories of history, requires a certain amount of distortion and considerable ignorance.

I mean, again, they're doing, in a minor way, the same thing one objects to. They're going for theories without having the knowledge.
LAMB: We're talking about books here. Would you say that the--if you follow it through, the Communist Manifesto, as a book, how--how much influence did it have on the world, the book itself?
Mr. CONQUEST: It's very hard to say, isn't it? It's a tiny--it's a--hardly a book at all. It's very thin.
LAMB: What? Like 32 pages.
LAMB: What's it in? What's it say?
Mr. CONQUEST: It--it--it has a prescription that the--the Communists are going to overthrow capitalism; that capitalism alienates everybody; that they're going to have solutions like, in the future, people won't specialize. You can be a farmer in the afternoon and a printer in the morning--a lo--lot of s--s--foolish utopian stuff, although the program, which--the immediate program was just an ordinary free elections and things--ordinary elections, though I don't think it made--it was an effective pamphlet, but I don't think it had that enormous effect, which was, funnily enough, Marx's great work, "Das Kapital."

Nobody read it, but it had great effect because there was this huge volume proving what this wonderful chap has pr--has shown is--is going to happen. This is a scientific tome. I mean--and we--we--anybody--we don't--we--I've never read all of Darwin, have you? I mean, you either acce--no--or any other theorist. But we--you know, there--there's a great--there's some sci--great scientist has shown, and they transferred this sort of thing to society and to the human--humanity, and it--this is all nonsense.
LAMB: How long did Marx live?
Mr. CONQUEST: He--how old was he when he died? He--he was only in his 50s. I don't have--I--I could work it out for you...
LAMB: So it would have been in the early--early 1900s.
Mr. CONQUEST: No, he--he--he died in--in '80--'82, I think it was.
LAMB: '82. Lenin was in--the Bolshevik res--revolution was in 1917. How long did--how long was Lenin in charge?
Mr. CONQUEST: Oh, from 1917 until--till 1923, roughly, because--or '22--because he had a stroke and died in early '24, but he was pretty well out of action in '23.
LAMB: Then who took over?
Mr. CONQUEST: Then they had a struggle, of course, and eventually Stalin won the struggle, and by '29 he was in--well in charge.
LAMB: What was motivating him?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, it's difficult to think of anything nice to say about him, and he--he--he clearly wanted power, power, power and--but he also wanted to inflict the Communist program on--on the--to get control, is what--one thing was to--I--I've said to get rid of the independent farmer, but for two reasons. One, the--Marxism said the farmer is not going to be in favor of Communism. That's true enough. The other was just to get him under state control. You get rid of him as a class enemy, but also you enslave him and make him a serf of the state. Then you're in control of the economy. And they really--they really did get rid of capitalism, anything resembling capitalism. The state did control the economy.
LAMB: When he killed those how many millions, how did he do it?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, they were tortured, the ones who--and then they were shot, the ones who were shot. They--they were always--it--it was absolutely routine to be charged with some--the same crime very often. A lot of people were charged with being Japanese and English and Polish and German spies and saboteurs and of attempting to blow up bridges, but--ordinary, quiet professors. But they'd confess after--if you had been beaten up for a week or two, you confess. Then there were--then they had secret trials and were shot.

Then they had the public trials. These were the great events of this great terror period, three public trials.
LAMB: This was '37-'38.
LAMB: Moscow trials.
Mr. CONQUEST: Yes, '36-'38. They--and these were old Communists who confessed to having plotted with the Germans and so on and the great set piece is, and they--they publicly confessed, and they were, of course, shot. And this--these trials were believed in the West by some people, by quite a lot of people, and they were obvious and total fakes. A child could see that. Edmund Wilson was in Russia at the time of the first one, saw at once it can't be true.
LAMB: Who, in your opinion, and--and the people you've read and talk about, and you talk about some in your book, ha--were--were--I don't know, you can use the word, any word you wanted--duped or misled all through those years as to thinking the Soviet way was the right way?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, you've got people who had just read the theory and then they thought it was being put into practice. And in one sense, it was. It--it was capitalism, which they'd hated, was being destroyed. But you--what you got was--in England, for example, the deans of Western social science, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, these are the most famous names in the world, of--they founded the London School of Economics. They--they've written the Labor government. They came to Russia and they did a huge documentation book called "Soviet Communism: A New Civilization Query." And they removed the `query' in 1937, at the worst moment.

They were--what happened was they believed the documents. They--they were brought up to believe Western documents, so they thought all documents were all right. And there were others who--who were just taken in by the bizazz, but you get the impression that some of the people who went there had something built into their optic nerves. I remember Malcolm Muggeridge describing Quakers applauding tank parades, feminists ecstatic at the sight of women bowed down under a hundred weight of coal. You know, architects looking up in awe at crackling--at crackling buildings about to fall down. And they--they seemed to have hypnotized themselves with the idea out there there's something wonderful, because it's not us. This hasn't got the corruption and awfulness of capitalism. It's the wave of the future.

And that went on--it--it was suspended for a bit. When--when Stalin made his pact with Nazi Germany, that didn't look so good. But it came up again when the Germans attacked Russia. And the--after the war you've got it. In fact, you still get it, to some extent. I'm--I've read certainly--a n--a prominent English professor--perhaps that's an unfair thing to say, but he--who said Stalin did his duty to history. Well, I mean, it depends on--and why is he entitled to tell--speak in the name of history? So--he actually ruined the country.

Then after the war there was a--a--a second purge, not quite the level of numbers killed as in that book, but terrific anti-Semitic purge. And at the same time, so--so--take an example: They--in 1952, they tried 14 of the leading Jews in--in Russia secretly. They'd been--one of them's a doctor, of course, Emalovitch, who'd been--who'd been tortured 80 times, he says, but all in secret. At the same time, the--Stalin was saying there's anti-Semitism in the West. And he was telling everybody that the Jews all--or his entourage were all guilty.

And the--no--now we'll come to the worst thing. They then arrested a lot of Jewish doctors--Jewish and other doctors and said they were guilty of attempting to kill the leadership of Russia. And the French Communist doctors issued a statement condemning the Russian doctors on--just on the word--telegram from Moscow. And they just sunk into serfdom towards the idea of what was going on in Russia. It's an astonishing feat, it was. You have to admire this--as a con man, you've got to admire Stalin.
LAMB: There are a lot of names that pop up in this book several times and I'm just going to throw them out to you and get you to give us a brief sketch of who--what--who you think they were. George Orwell.
Mr. CONQUEST: Great man.
LAMB: Why?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, he--what they say in--a leading Russian commentator last year, I think, said he is the--he understood better than anybody the soul, or rather the soullessness of our regime. He--he saw it without having ever been there. He saw through other people's eyes.
LAMB: Where'd he live?
Mr. CONQUEST: In England, but he'd been in the Spanish War with what was a semi-Tratskian militia. And he'd seen the purge that took place in the Spanish Civil War in Catalonia. And on Stalin's orders, they got rid of the extreme left--non-Communist left--and he saw a lot of that purge. And he went back and wrote a book about Catalonia. Then he got interested in the whole Communist business. And his--"1984" is a--a caricature, if you like, but a strong, well-based caricature of Stalinism. And everybody understood that.
LAMB: H.G. Wells?
Mr. CONQUEST: Wells was taken in by Stalin as well. He was a--a liberal, mod--moderate socialist. And he had a meeting with Stalin and wrote afterwards, `I've never met a man who is so decent and reliable as Stalin. And--and he--he's not a dictator.' It's be--it's because the people follow him everywhere. It's just--just ov--over--Stalin was very good at being--making a good impression. Even some of his own colleagues who later got shot were taken in by him.
LAMB: Arthur Koestler.
Mr. CONQUEST: Koestler was, in a way, like Orwell. He--he wrote the great "Darkness of Noon," the great novel about the faked trials. He started off differently. He started off as a Communist and lived in Russia for a time and got thoroughly disillusioned by it. A very remarkable man. The British Communist Party had a special meeting in the '40s on how to combat Orwell and Koestler. And they couldn't. These two imaginative novelists were able to throw a clearer picture of what was going on than a very large number of serious students.
LAMB: Hitler?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, he--he--he came from a slightly different background. He didn't come from the intelligentsia, ordinarily speaking, though I think he'd have said he did. He--he was interested in architecture and painting. He--he--there are some paintings of Hitler's, like there's some poems of Stalin's. I always thought it'd make a good book, poems by Mao, Stalin, Ho Chi Minh and Castro. They all wrote poetry. Illustrations by Hitler.

But--but--but he was--he--he thought of himself as a Socialist. The--the--national Socialism was not a mere right-wing cover-up or nationalist cover-up. And--and he--he preferred the Communists to the Social Democrats. He said that he didn't--the only thing he had against Communists was some of them were Jews. He had this national--this facist--or this nationalist Socialist idea.

But--but he--he was, again, a m--a man--you wouldn't think this very ordinary type of man in--you know, would be able to develop a--a party in 10 years and then would get to power and then hold the power. But there are these--I don't know if you'd call them freaks, but these people with this extraordinary ability to maneuver and destroy who've come up in this century, I think partly because we--what we--they didn't have in the last century--they didn't have the technology of power that we now have. The--the state became much more powerful in our days than it had been before.

Wh--when Lenin seized the Kr--excuse me, the Winter Palace in 1917, the seat of the government, the only thing he seized was the telephone exchange because the telephone and the telegram ma--made it possible. Even in those days, it was enough technology that you didn't have 100 years ago because the great Russian writer Hudson said that what he feared was Genghis Khan with the telegraph and he got him.
LAMB: Mao.
Mr. CONQUEST: Mao. I--it was--what--I didn't know much about Mao unti--except that he was, obviously, a ruthless dictator until his doctor's memoirs came out, which you've perhaps seen, where he--he's revealed, again, as an extraordinary operator, a--a--a total--well, control freak is one of these words one hears, but--but it's--it's--thinking it straight through, that describes him with capital letters, like the control freak. And--and he--he actually did more damage physically even than the Soviets did.

And there we--if you like, there's a--an--an academic point there, the great leading academic of communism, the--E.H. Carl, the British--leading British expert on Russia. He said just after the great famine in China, `You know, at least the Chinese do better than the Indians do.' Only they--they may have a dictatorship and the Indians may have a slightly liberal regime, but still, they're--they're feeding better. It was after the worst famine in history, because Mao was able to--even more than Stalin, to stop the facts getting out. Stalin was--some extent--Europe loomed a bit, I think. But Mao--Mao was really incredibly one of the most destructive dictators. How--how one reads his personality. It was very odd. It seems rather coarse, vulgar, low personality, as indeed, to some extent, Stalin was.
LAMB: Shakespeare.
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, I say one is always asked--I was asked about--I was at a reception in London, `What's the book of the millennium?' And I can't put down Shakespeare because he had too many of them. That--that Shakespeare is, I suppose, an illustration that human individuality is unpredictable and is capable of all sorts of--range of all sorts of possible creativities and destructiveness, even while he's on our side, as against ….And--and I--I--I--if you want to compare his poems with those of Mao and Ho Chi Minh, then go ahead.
Mr. CONQUEST: A--a--an interesting--in many--many ways, of course, a great man. But he was another of the people who was, to some extent, taken in by Stalin. He thought he was getting on with Stalin and he even said that he thought Stalin was--was--if he promised St--Stalin something, Stalin would give him something in exchange, which is totally contrary to Stalin's views. He was coming round before he died, Roosevelt was. But he did refuse advice from people who knew more about--from Bullett, for example, who'd been an ambassador in--American ambassador in Moscow, who told him, `Stalin--if you want something from Stalin, may--put some pressure on him.' That was a short period, but it was--and it--it lasted a year or so into the war. Stalin was mishandled.
LAMB: Did you meet any of these people, by the way? Did you ever meet Stalin?
LAMB: Churchill?
Mr. CONQUEST: Never met him.
LAMB: What did you think of him?
Mr. CONQUEST: He was a remarkable man. He was, to some extent, little extent, taken in by Stalin, but not--not much and not for long. He--he's a very curious--Orwell, who, of course, opposed him politically because--he was--Churchill was a conservative and Orwell was a--very much a--a reformist Labour. He said, `There's something generous about Churchill in that the English people may reject him politically, but they still like him.' That's an odd--odd point about a politician, isn't it? He had the sort of generosity and--and certain clarity of mind. There was a remark in a--a book by--a new book by Francois Fourier, which is just out here, where he says, `It's interesting that--that after the war, af--after World War II, the resistance to communism was led by Europe's two leading anti-facists, de Gaulle and Churchill.' It was a nice thought.
LAMB: I take it from reading your book that you're against the uniting of Europe.
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, I'm against the--the sort of Europe that they're having now. The--the--some form of light trade and other unification, of course, is possible, but, yes, I'm--I think that the Europe with a capital E--well, it's always with a capital E, but with a slightly more capitalized E, the idea of Europe, it--it--it seems to me to have a number of disadvantages. One is it divides the West. It's divisive and it--it--and that it's conscious on the part of some of them. So I think we'll have a new power equal to America, and--well, this isn't a good idea. America is the--the main central power of th--of the West. And it'd be good for the other countries to be with and around and related to it, but not competing with it, first.

Secondly, well, it--if you want the idea of a European culture, it isn't confined to the little continent of Europe. It's the Europes overseas, as we used to say. But more important, Europe is--is not a nation. The--the--it doesn't have similar traditions. These multinational organizations like Yugoslavia form--they don't stick together. They--it's impossible to form a nation, form a real nationality like they're trying to do.

And la--last, it's--there's no surprise everywhere, it's--there's a monstrous bureaucracy they've built up in Brussels. And what is more, they're inflicting on--on England, for example, rules created by …bureaucrats without responsibility in--which in some cases, Britain has less power than the American states have already. I think this bur--bureaucratic corporatist tendency done partly in secret--I mean, if you compare it with the American un--unification af--after the Revolution of the Constitution, you--you can--you read Madison and people, you can understand what they're saying. It's perfectly clear. The arguments are clear. They're at a high level in Europe, it's not being done that way. The treaties are incomprehensible. The foreign office even issued the wrong edition of the treaty. They--they got the Mastrich Treaty wrong. They didn't know which it was.
LAMB: In--in the front of your book, you list all the--only the books you've written. And the--the poetry and verse translation, fiction and criticism and then a lot of non-fiction. Where did you write most of these books?
Mr. CONQUEST: Where?
LAMB: Physically, where did you write most of them?
Mr. CONQUEST: That's a good question. Wherever I happened to be, I suppose. Sometimes bits on airplanes, even. There are less than I thought. My last--well, my last book of poems is out a couple of months ago in London called "Demons Don't." But, mind you, some of these books are collections of essays.
LAMB: Now is--is--are they listed here at the top, "Power and Policy in the USSR"--is that one of the earlier books you have?
Mr. CONQUEST: Yes. That's on the way do--that's in--mm-hmm.
LAMB: But where do you--when you write, how do you write? Do you do it longhand, do you type it on a typewriter?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, I used to--I used to dictate and then put--put together. I've been writing in longhand lately. I write very badly in longhand, but I have a secretary who can read it.
LAMB: Are you a fast writer?
Mr. CONQUEST: No, not really. I have a fair--I don't like writing, like most--most writers don't like writing. I don't mind poetry, because at least it's short. But I find writing v--annoying and tedious. My typing's bad, too. So--so is my handwriting. It's just--I can't read my handwriting.
LAMB: You cannot read your handwriting?
Mr. CONQUEST: My secretary can, but--but she's--she's a ….and she has better English than--than any English or American secretary I've ever come across.
LAMB: Well, you know, you quote an awful lot of people.
Mr. CONQUEST: I read a lot.
LAMB: How do you keep track of the quotes?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, I don't read probably as much as I ought to. I--I think partly that's luck. You know, you pick up a book and you suddenly hit the right bit or you hear from somebody that somebody's written a--rumors get round that there's a very good book on--on so-and-so. I don't think one can keep up with everything. And I don't think there's any formal way of setting a program of reading. I--I think it's partly luck.
LAMB: How many hours a day do you read?
Mr. CONQUEST: That's a good question. I suppose three or four, perhaps two or three.
LAMB: And when you would write, how many hours a day would you write?
Mr. CONQUEST: I--I don't think we're--my theory is that you can't really write more than three hours a day, seriously. I mean, you can retype or something. But--but--but then that's a theory. People say you can only do three hours work a day anyway. That's the minimum in every--every--every institution. The actual amount of work done is about three hours, which I don't know if it's true. I think it applies. But you--you know, you think, `Does that count as working?' You remember Thurber was once--Was it?--who--his wife used to come up to him and said, `Stop working,' at cocktail parties. He was looking away in the distance, planning something. That ought to count as work, too.
LAMB: Let me ask you about a--a more modern issue here. I--on page 237, you say, `Not only the natural-enough misunderstanding of historical happenings, but the falsification of recent events in a more or less conscious propaganda direction is also common.' And then you go on to talk about Oliver Stone. Why did you mention him and his film on JFK?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, it just happened to come in. I was, in passing, making the point that--that these--I think it was perhaps a particularly shameless one, was it, do you think, I mean, he--he--he put the story and was told by everybody it wasn't true and went on with it. It seemed to be a--a--a particularly--I mean, of plenty of similar ones, it seems to be particularly shameless for some reason.
LAMB: The next page you say, `Even worse, of course, is the recent Ted Turner series on the Cold War. Much of it is ludicrously tilted against the West.'
LAMB: `And now seeking acceptance as a teaching tool in the American educational system.'
Mr. CONQUEST: Yes. So I gather. Well, I--I think its p--sections on Russia once weren't bad. I mean, the--like--there--there are things I take differently, but the bit on the West was ghastly. And they were putting the West as a parallel in the Cold War, as you say. You know, Joe McCarthy was as bad as Joe Stalin. Well, Joe McCarthy may have been somewhere in his heart as bad as Joe Stalin, but as--as--as--in effect, it wasn't quite the same thing, denouncing--I mean, he told a pack of lies about innocent people and some of them lost their jobs and so on, but it's not quite the same as killing six million people and planning a war against the rest of Europe. I mean, the balance is ridiculous.
LAMB: Earlier, you're talking about the arts. You say, `It is a common delusion of the generally educated that politicians they approve of are more cultured or more concerned with culture than their alternatives.' Explain more of that.
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, I--I think people like to assume that their leaders have all the virtues--I mean, the leaders they like have all the virtues. And I think there was a bit of that in the Kennedy regime. I mean, I don't hold it against him. There's no reason why he shouldn't Camelot around a bit. Well, at least he had Robert Frost to--to talk and so on. There were--there were some genuine--but I think people like to imagine that culture and good politics go together. And I--I say that--I point out that somebody like Lincoln was far better educated politically with the idea of the law than any of the people who--who worry about culture. And--but--but hi--his--he--he wasn't a great--from that narrow definition of culture, we're talking about with the arts--that--that he was not as cultured as some very nasty people on the continent.
LAMB: Earlier, you write, `Harry Hopkins,' to take one example, `seems just to have accepted an absurdly fallacious stereotype of Soviet motivation without making any attempt whatever to think or to study the readily available evidence or to seek the judgment of the knowledgeable.'
Mr. CONQUEST: Yeah. I think that's true.
LAMB: Now he worked for FDR as his top assistant?
Mr. CONQUEST: Yes. He went to--went to Russia representing the American government.
LAMB: What impact do you think it had on World War II?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, it--it's hard to say it had much impact on the war, as it--as such, but it--it--it--it led to misunderstanding of Stalin's motives of--of the after war more than the--the war itself. I--I think in the war--I mean, Averell Harriman was in Moscow and was much better and had--had--had a fairly good understanding of Russia in those days. But the--the--but, you know, still, you--in fact, you get this in films. You--you--the--they still say that Western aid wasn't the important thing--that Russia could have won the war against Hitler without it. Well, we have--we've now got the Secret Police bugging of the leading Soviet general, Marshall Zukov, later. And he's--he's saying, `They're trying to stop us saying that we could have--we couldn't have done without Western aid.' He said, `We got 16,000 wonderful vehicles. We got all the steel that we make our tanks out of. Of course, we couldn't have done without Western aid.' That's the Secret Police report bugging his flat. He couldn't say it in public. And people in the West went on saying it.
LAMB: What do you think of today's foreign policy structure in the country?
Mr. CONQUEST: The structure? Or...
LAMB: Or--take the word structure out. What do you think of our foreign policy?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, I think it's--everywhere in the West, it's in a sort of shaky condition. But partly, of course, with Russia having gone--well, I'll have to correct that as we go on, of course. Part of it that the Soviet Union having gone, there's--there's a certain, `What shall we do now?' about it. But I think there's a mix-up between the humanitarian notion of, `We must get involved to save the Kosovars,' which is, if you--if you like, is a sound point. But you can't do it everywhere. You can't get involved to save the Chechnyans and apparently not the Rwandans. But the--the--the--the balance of practicality and, if you like, humanity is not an easy one. It's very difficult to--t--to--not--not to think that there's a good deal too much--let's say in the case of Yugoslavia, one of the leading military writers, John Keegan, said that he thought the Kosovo campaign reeked of the seminar--that there was too much--the expert--it was done by expert experts. I mean, I--I'm not actually quite clear in my own mind what should have been done. But it was handled by experts who didn't get it right. If, after all--if NATO can defeat Serbia, surely one ought--one ought to take that for granted--the sound--for--you've got--got this huge alliance defeating Serbia is not--is not itself a great feat.
LAMB: Have any of the current presidential candidates asked your advice?
Mr. CONQUEST: None, no.
LAMB: If they did and they said, `Come give us a briefing on world affairs and what we ought to be worried about,' where would you start?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, the--my immediate one would be what was going to happen in--in Russia now with--what would--the--the military now in a very ambitious moods. And there's--on the borders to the south, there are states which are frightened of a resurgent Russia. That--that's one of the things. I d--I don't know that that would be the critical point. Probably the critical point is the handling of China on which I can't pretend to be an expert. But still, I--I think the--the general point I'd make would be that foreign policy must be based on ha--having your point of view and your interests and making it clear that the--this is what you feel and that you're not going to give in to anybody unless they do something for you.

I remember talking to a group of senators and congressmen at a c--conference once and another writer on Russia said, `Oh, you mustn't put pressure on the Russians.' And I said, `But putting pressure just means saying, "If you want us to do something you want, you've got to do something we want."'…. at once, politics, simple politics. And that, I think, is sometimes forgotten. And the same in the United Nations, where you--you want to make yourself clear and not give in on everything. Pat Moynihan, when he was in the United Nations, did very well. Everybody said he was going to put everybody off and annoy the other--not a bit. They went along fine.
LAMB: Besides your own books, are there books written today that you've read recently that you would advise anybody that's involved in politics today to read to give them a base?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, I was reading the book which I--just before, almost, I published this book because I'd only come--barely come across it by Robert Putnam called "Making Democracy Work." This is about provinces of Italy and how different the attitudes of the people of Calabria and the people of--of Tuscany are to the state, to the orders of the state and--and to private associations, the traditions. And these are--this is part of the same country, talking the same language.
LAMB: But north and south.
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, north and south. And--and--but--but--the--th--this was--this goes back centuries but back to the--and that's--that, I think, is a thing that--that--quick evolution is--I mean, one hopes--keeps hoping that Russia will do much better, for example. But one mustn't expect enormously quick evolutions. I hope for the best. I had a Russian--said to me, `Well, we've had nine years of comparative freedom. It's not as good as 1,000, but it's better than nothing.'
LAMB: And we're about out of time. Did you write the first "Iron Lady" speech for Margaret Thatcher?
Mr. CONQUEST: (Nods yes)
LAMB: What year?
Mr. CONQUEST: That must have been '74 or '5. I don't remember offhand.
LAMB: What was the impact of it?
Mr. CONQUEST: Well, it was--it'd been done pretty well. It--it annoyed her shadow foreign secretary very much, she says in--in her book, Reggie Mawdling. She should have consulted him.
LAMB: Another book for you next?
Mr. CONQUEST: The next book?
LAMB: Yeah.
Mr. CONQUEST: I think it might be a sort--a sort of memoirs.
LAMB: What year will we get it?
Mr. CONQUEST: I'll probably do it in bits.
LAMB: Here's the book we're talking about. Robert Conquest is the author and it's "Reflections on a Ravaged Century." Thank you very much.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1999. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.