Robert Conquest – who died last month at the age of 98 – was the best known British investigator in the post-war period of the true scale of the communist tyranny. During the 1960s he edited eight volumes of work including “Common Sense About Russia” (1960), “The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities” (1960) and “Power and Policy in the USSR” (1961). His other early works on the Soviet Union included “Courage of Genius: The Pasternak Affair” (1961) and “Russia After Khrushchev” (1965) published in the United States republished as The Contemporary Soviet Union Series by Frederick Praeger, whose U.S. company published, in addition to works by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Milovan Đilas and a number of books on communism.
Many of us saw him overly fixated on Soviet atrocities - but the opening of soviet records after 1990 proved him correct.
I learned several new things from the obituaries and tributes of recent weeks. First that he was a poet and close friend of Kingsley Amis – with a strong line in doggerel.
But the most important insight was that his revulsion against Soviet tyranny stemmed from his personally witnessing the Communist takeover of Bulgaria in 1944 – an event which I have written about here. In 1944, Conquest was posted to Bulgaria as a liaison officer to the Bulgarian forces fighting under Soviet command, attached to the Third Ukrainian Front, and then to the Allied Control Commission. There, he met Tatiana Mihailova, who later became his second wife. At the end of the war, he joined the Foreign Office, returning to the British Legation in Sofia. Witnessing first-hand the communist takeover in Bulgaria, he became completely disillusioned with communist ideas. He left Bulgaria in 1948, helping Tatiana escape the new regime. Back in London, he divorced his first wife and married Tatiana.
The third fascinating fact is that, on the war’s end, he actually joined the Labour Party’s International Bureau – working therefore with Dennis Healey (who sadly died about 10 days after I drafted this - at the ripe old age of 98). Conquest then joined the Foreign Office's Information Research Department (IRD), a unit created by the Labour government to "collect and summarize reliable information about Soviet and communist misdoings, to disseminate it to friendly journalists, politicians, and trade unionists, and to support, financially and otherwise, anticommunist publications."