I Told You So, You Fucking Fools

Jack Hanson on the legacy of Robert Conquest (1917-2015)

        Picture by Rob C. Croes. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

        Picture by Rob C. Croes. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

VICTOR SERGE'S NOVEL of Stalinist Russia may no longer command a terribly wide readership, but its title bears remembering. The terrors on either side of the Ural Mountains that led to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, plus the carnage which followed its dissolution, stand out in an extraordinarily dark 100-year period, and were justly called the “midnight of the century.” From Paris to Petersburg—excuse me, Leningrad—people suffered under the burden of two enormous totalitarianisms. The camps which carried out the systematic murder of nearly 12 million in Europe, including 6 million Jews, were not yet operational, but farther east there were already chains of similar sites up and running, working to death thousands of those unlucky enough to commit a crime or, more often, simply be accused of one, in Soviet Russia. I’ve never felt comfortable playing a numbers game when the figures correspond to human lives viciously stamped out, but it’s nevertheless odd that whereas Hitler is so rightly cited as an embodiment of pure evil, Stalin’s kill-count, which by some estimates quadrupled the Fuhrer’s, is often a secondary consideration. 

One wonders whether our own situation is much different, and, even more gloomily, whether there will be anyone to say, as Conquest did not but might as well have, “I told you so, you fucking fools.

If this has become less the case as the years go on, it’s due in large part to the extraordinary scholarship and moral integrity of Robert Conquest (pictured above), who died on Monday at the age of 98. Eminently educated and a veteran of war-time British Intelligence, Conquest’s masterpiece is 1968’s The Great Terror, which for the first time detailed the crimes of the Soviet era, from the 1917 Revolution up through the Great Purge, during which Stalin’s kill quotas, show trials, and generally murderous repression kept all of Russia in a stranglehold (that is, until its people were fed to the human meat-grinder of the Great Patriotic War). Perhaps more importantly, however, was Conquest’s rejection of the claims of Khrushchev and many Western intellectuals that while Stalin had driven the USSR off the rails, Lenin had been a reasonably sound conductor. To the contrary, Conquest argued: it was Lenin himself, whatever his late-in-life misgivings, who laid the foundation for a psychopathic regime like Stalin’s. Conquest excoriated writers like Sartre, Dreiser, and others as lackeys and apologists for perhaps the most despicable government known to man. It’s hard to imagine now, twenty-four years after the fall of the Soviet Union, just how important it was to make this point, and also how daring, given the generally anti-West stance taken by many intellectuals in those days. 

One wonders whether our own situation is much different, and, even more gloomily, whether there will be anyone to say, as Conquest did not but might as well have, “I told you so, you fucking fools.” 

While his fame came from this signal contribution, Conquest’s character was equally remarkable, having been documented in the memoirs not only of his good friend Kingsley Amis, but also those of Amis fils and Christopher Hitchens, to name only a few of many. Chief among the habits which make this foursome seem like the best drinking companions who ever lived are the recreations of famous verse into doggerel, the older men being the masters. I am particularly fond of Kingsley Amis’ reworking of “Ye Wearie Wayfarer,” a short bit of Victorian sentimentalism (the original of which, incidentally, was cited as a favorite by that well-known litterateur, Princess Diana): 

Life is mainly grief and labour, 
Two things get you through. 
Chortling when it hits your neighbor, 
Whingeing when it's you.

Conquest, like Amis, was a serious if minor English poet, and in his works can be found genuinely moving and profound poems. But until that day when restful contemplation allows us to set aside The Great Terror and look for those poems, it might be his rendition of “The Seven Ages of Man” from As You Like It, that will be most frequently and fondly read:

Seven Ages: first puking and mewling
Then very pissed-off with your schooling
Then fucks, and then fights
Next judging chaps' rights
Then sitting in slippers: then drooling.


JACK HANSON is a contributing editor for Partisan.