Robert Conquest, an Anglo-American historian whose works on the terror and privation under Joseph Stalin made him the pre-eminent Western chronicler of the horrors of Soviet rule, died Monday in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 98 years old.
Mr. Conquest’s master work, “The Great Terror,” was the first detailed account of the Stalinist purges from 1937 to 1939. He estimated that under Stalin, 20 million people perished from famines, Soviet labor camps and executions—a toll that eclipsed that of the Holocaust. Writing at the height of the Cold War in 1968, when sources about the Soviet Union were scarce, Mr. Conquest was vilified by leftists who said he exaggerated the number of victims. When the Cold War ended and archives in Moscow were thrown open, his estimates proved high but more accurate than those of his critics.
Mr. Conquest also was a much-decorated writer of light verse and a figure in the “Movement” poetry of 1950s England. He continued to publish into his 90s, applying an unyielding zest to poetry and prose alike.
Born in Malvern, Worcestershire, to a British mother and an American father, he served in World War II and then in Britain’s diplomatic corps before a series of stints at think tanks and universities, largely in the U.S. In recent decades he was affiliated with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, moving to emeritus status in 2007.
While a spirited combatant in academic debate, Mr. Conquest wrote for a wider audience. “The Great Terror” reached millions of readers and won him a following among leaders including Ronald Reagan.Margaret Thatcher consulted Mr. Conquest on how to deal with the Soviet Union and her former advisers said she trusted him more than any other Soviet expert.
Throughout his career Mr. Conquest kept abreast of ivory-tower squabbles “but he eschewed what he saw as the arcane and parochial nature of some academic literature,” said Mark Kramer, a professor of Cold War history at Harvard.
Mr. Conquest gleefully attacked Western revisionist historians as dupes for Stalin. The 1937-1939 Stalinist show trials, in which Stalin’s political rivals all admitted to serious crimes and were shot, shocked many left-leaning intellectuals in the West. The lurid trials set off mass defections from Communist parties in Europe and the U.S. and helped inspire anti-Communist tracts such as George Orwell’s “1984” and Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon.”
But the wider slaughter of Soviet citizens had largely gone undocumented until Mr. Conquest’s narrative. Citing sources made public during the thaw under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev as well as émigré accounts, the Soviet census and snippets of information in the Soviet press, Mr. Conquest portrayed the trials as a mere sideshow to the systematic murder carried out by the Kremlin, which routinely ordered regional quotas for thousands of arbitrary arrests and shootings at burial pits and execution cellars. The latest data show that during a 16-month stretch in 1937 and 1938, more than 800,000 people were shot by the Soviet secret police.
These executions came on top of millions of earlier deaths amid the forced famines and collectivization of Soviet agriculture, which Mr. Conquest detailed in a later book, “The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine.” Mr. Conquest wrote that Stalin summarily executed millions of people by cutting off food to entire regions, particularly Ukraine.
While the opening of Soviet-era archives sparked some attacks on Mr. Conquest, his overall narrative of the purges was confirmed. “The Great Terror” was serialized in Russian newspapers and the revelation of mass graves, such as 20,000 in the Moscow suburb of Butovo, confirmed a wholesale execution system. Since then the debate among historians has been mostly settled over the immensity of the human toll exacted under Stalin’s rule.
Though Mr. Conquest’s body count was on the high end of estimates, he remained unwavering at the publication of “The Great Terror: A Reassessment,” a 1990 revision of his masterwork. When Mr. Conquest was asked for a new title for the updated book, his friend, the writer Kingsley Amis, proposed, “I Told You So, You F—ing Fools.”
The grisly fare of Mr. Conquest’s research was at odds with his puckish charm and wit. While a schoolboy at Winchester College in Hampshire and at Oxford, he was a desultory student but a fervent reader and writer of poetry. Along with Mr. Amis, he was something of a bon vivant, holding court at uproarious lunches and tumbling into romances that seemed inevitable given his surname. Mr. Conquest, who married four times, poured much of himself into his poetry, examining love, sex, wartime and loss in more than a half-dozen collections of poems.
“Pa treated everything he did as perfectly normal, nothing exceptional,” Mr. Conquest’s son, John, said. “It’s just what he did, whether writing poetry or books about Russia or books about a lot of other different things.”
A colorful private life didn’t distract Mr. Conquest from honing a spectrum of interests. He read French, German, Italian, Czech, Russian, Bulgarian, Greek and Latin. In addition to Sovietology, he became an expert on the twilight stage of the roughly 400-year period when Britain was part of the Roman Empire.
One of his father’s touchstones, John Conquest said, was “If you know enough about anything, someone will pay you to write about it.”
Mr. Conquest’s first two books, published in 1955, were a collection of poems and a science-fiction novel. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1986, he said that dabbling in science fiction was useful in getting the proper perspective on the Soviets. Western words like good and evil didn't capture their behavior, he said, because “they’re not bad or good as we’d be bad or good.”
“It’s far better to look at them as Martians than as people like us,” he said. “George Orwell said that it needs an effort of the imagination as well as of the intellect to understand the Soviet Union.”
In the 1960s, Messrs. Conquest and Amis edited a sci-fi anthology, “Spectrum,” and collaborated on a novel, “The Egyptologists,” about a secret London society that served as an alibi for philanderers.
Mr. Conquest was one of a handful of influential postwar English poets known collectively as The Movement. The unofficial group, which included Mr. Amis and Philip Larkin, favored a gritty and grounded approach that was seen by many as a reaction to modernism. Movement poets, many of whom bristled at being so labeled, rejected the experiments of earlier practitioners such asEzra Pound. Instead, they hewed to craftsmanship and discipline, whether in light verse or more serious works, favoring the real over the fanciful.
While the Movement’s ranks were fluid, Mr. Conquest had been considered the last surviving original member. He edited two anthologies of the group’s poems: “New Lines,” published in 1956 and “New Lines II,” published in 1963.
In the 1970s, when Mr. Amis was editing “The New Oxford Book of Light Verse,” he chose several of Mr. Conquest’s works for the volume.
“Penultimata,” a critically acclaimed collection of Mr. Conquest’s poetry, was published in mid-2009 by the Waywiser Press. He was also an enthusiastic crafter of limericks, a form in which his irreverence and flair for language flourished. One version of an often-quoted one reads:
There was a great Marxist named Lenin
Who did two or three million men in.
—That’s a lot to have done in,
But where he did one in
That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.