BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Robert Conquest, why did you call your book "Reflections on a Ravaged
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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.
Mr. CONQUEST: Yeah.
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,
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.
Mr. CONQUEST: Yeah.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Mr. CONQUEST: No.
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
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.'
Mr. CONQUEST: Yeah.
LAMB: `And now seeking acceptance as a teaching tool in the American
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
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
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
Mr. CONQUEST: The structure? Or...
LAMB: Or--take the word structure out. What do you think of our
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
LAMB: Have any of the current presidential candidates asked your
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
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
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?
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
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