Robert Conquest, Stalinism, and the Soviet Muslims
by Stephen Schwartz
Conquest was a genuine citizen of the world and the outstanding chronicler of the crimes of Stalinist Russia. He is probably best known for his path-breaking 1968 volume, The Great Terror: Stalin's Purges of the 1930s, on the massacres that ravaged the Russian political, intellectual, and military leadership. The study was a revelation to numerous leftists, as it detailed in unchallengeable facts the campaign by Stalin to destroy the leaders of the Russian army - when Russia faced, in Nazi Germany, the most dangerous enemy in the history of the nation.
In addition, the book showed how Stalin and a cohort of mediocre accomplices had driven people of talent, in the arts and literature as well as in journalistic and political life, into prison or slave labor, and to execution. Stalin would turn on some of his own coconspirators in mass murder. Conquest was among the first to argue that the victims of the purges counted in the millions, rather than even the thousands. In that sense he brought back to the life of memory, at least, many who had been forgotten.
For Conquest, such a mission had a spiritual quality. He had been an enthusiastic young Stalinist in the late 1930s, like many other bright intellectuals in Britain, and may have found it necessary to relieve himself of guilt over that attachment by fully disclosing its evil. A visit to Moscow in 1937 - during "the terrible years" in the phrase of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, when the purges were at their wildest extreme - may have begun a change in him.
By the 1960s, Stalinism had disappeared, supposedly, from Russian life. Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev, his servitor and eventual successor, denounced Stalin in a "secret speech" to the world Communist leadership in 1956, and ordered the "rehabilitation" of many of the murdered - somewhat late for those who had been killed or died of prison and concentration camp privations while still young. But there was hope among Soviet, East European, and Western Communists that the Moscow regime would reform, or, at least, normalize. Conquest's argument that Stalin's purges had annihilated so many people, and on false grounds, was difficult to accept. The cold war was continuing and Russian propaganda portrayed Communism as committed to peace, while the West was supposedly dedicated to war-mongering and lies. The truth uncovered by Robert Conquest was therefore dismissed by numerous leftists.
Conquest continued producing unanswerable essays undermining the credulousness of those who believed in the good faith of the Russian Communists. Some were of lesser impact. In 1986, however, he published The Harvest of Sorrow, the first objective account by a Western observer of Stalin's deliberate mass starvation of kulaks, or small peasants, especially in Ukraine. The assault on Ukraine occurred in 1930-33, and Conquest estimated that it resulted in five million dead by famine in Ukraine and another million slain by hunger in the Northern Caucasus.
The publication of these statistics had, in a way, a greater impact on Western opinion than of those involving the purge victims. Khrushchev's "secret speech" had forced most of the Communists in the world - apart from hard-core Stalinists in the Chinese and other Asian Communist parties - to accept the truth about Stalinism, even if few of them did anything to help get rid of it. But the Ukrainian famine had always been denied as a fabrication created by Russia's Western enemies, and for Conquest to insist on its veracity was, to Soviet and foreign anti-Ukrainian polemicists, appalling.
Among his many other works, however, some stand out for their exposure of another fateful chapter in the chronicle of Stalinist injustices: the mass deportations during World War II of Caucasian Muslims. Conquest first discussed these crimes in a 1960 study, The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities. He dealt with them authoritatively in his 1970 book The Nation-Killers, taking them up once more in his Stalin: Breaker of Nations, which came out in 1991.
Conquest had estimated in The Harvest of Sorrow that a million Muslim Kazakhs had died of malnutrition or fled to Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang) in the so-called "dekulakization" of the early '30s. And he noted that in 1941 Stalin dispossessed the Christian or nonreligious Russian Germans, most of whose ancestors had been encouraged to emigrate there by empress Catherine in the 18th century, and sent more than half a million of them to Kazakhstan and Siberia. Even as the Kazakh Muslims had suffered from Stalin's repression, they saw their "socialist republic" transformed into a dumping ground for nationalities whose loyalty Stalin doubted.
As Conquest wrote, in 1943 and 1944, in Crimea and the Caucasus, the Crimean Tatars, the Chechens and their cultural near-neighbors the Ingush, the Karachay, the Balkars, and the Meskhetian Turks, were rounded up and sent to Kazakhstan. In addition to these nationalities, all of them Muslim, the Kalmyks, who are Lamaist Buddhists of Mongol origin living north of the Caucasus, were removed to Central Asia and Siberia. The total of the deported was about 1.5 million.
Stalin's pretext for this genocidal atrocity was that the German armies had advanced into Crimea and the Caucasus, and that the Soviet Muslims, especially, were disaffected to the pointing of assisting them. In reality, the Germans had only accomplished sporadic attacks in the Caucasus, and recruited few local people to support them. In Crimea, German occupation took place from 1942 to 1944. But hundreds of thousands of Muslims, including Chechens, were then serving loyally in the Russian armies.
In the ranks of all these communities, as Conquest demonstrated, random collaboration with the Germans resulted in total Stalinist reprisal on the presumption of collective guilt. As many as half of the Crimean Tatars died of starvation; 40 percent of Chechens perished in their forced transport.
Stalin's incentive was mainly one of simple hatred. In his 1956 "secret speech," Khrushchev said that Stalin would have expelled all the Ukrainians from their native territory, but "there were too many of them and there was no place to which to deport them." That year, the citizenship rights of the Chechens, Ingush, Karachay, Balkars, and Kalmyks were restored and they were permitted to return to their traditional lands. Restitution of collective identity for the Crimean Tatars, Meskhetians, and Volga Germans was delayed until the end of Communism in the early 1990s.
Muslims held in the Russian "prison house of nations" have much to mourn in the death of Robert Conquest. Without him, the destinies of these communities under Stalinism might have been hidden from the non-Muslim world. It has been said, and with justice, that Robert Conquest had the pleasure of seeing his work vindicated after he had been rejected and vilified. But this recitation of the horrors he carefully recorded has disturbing echoes. Russian ruler Vladimir Putin pursues a new campaign against Ukraine; Crimea has been annexed by Moscow and the Crimean Tatars are victims of manipulation and repression; since the end of Communism, the Chechens, Ingush, and other Caucasian Muslims have been slaughtered, divided, and corrupted by the Russians, while they are subverted by radical Wahhabi Islamist terrorism. Nothing but the vocabulary has changed. Another Robert Conquest will be needed, sooner or later, to account for the new chapter in Russian imperialism.