Robert Conquest and Freedom in Romania

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Since the August 3 passing of Robert Conquest, the famed scholar of Stalin’s crimes, testimony has emerged that he played a critical role in the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Communist regime in Romania.

Vladimir Tismaneanu, the Romanian historian who in the 1990s put Communism on trial and found the ideology guilty of genocide, writes that Conquest’s findings on Stalinism were broadcast into the country on Radio Free Europe, “during the unforgettable broadcasts by democratic intellectuals Monica Lovinescu and Virgil Ierunca.”

Tismaneanu says that Conquest’s writings themselves were able to secretly penetrate the Iron Cutain:

For the denizens of what used to be the Soviet Bloc, Robert Conquest’s name is truly legendary. I remember my own first experience with Conquest’s masterpiece The Great Terror.  It was in Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania, in the mid 1970s, when I got it from a famous dissident’s wife as a personal gift. He had decided to remain in France and urged his wife to offer his books to a few friends and acquaintances. I was lucky to be counted among them. I read it in a few days (and nights). …

It was, however, an extraordinary, utterly disturbing, and unforgettable moment to read that encyclopedia of communist destructiveness that Conquest managed to compose in spite of Soviet archives being inaccessible, witnesses hard to interview, and all the other obstacles created by the re-Stalinization of the Soviet Union after Khrushchev’s fall in 1964. It was a genuine historical monument, superbly documented, an example of the best scholarship inspired by genuine empathy for the victims. Brought up in a family of former Spanish Civil War veterans who had spent the war years in the USSR, I thought I knew a lot about the magnitude of Stalin’s reign of terror. I was wrong: Conquest’s book made me understand the intrinsic criminality of the regime, its irresistible nihilistic logic, the diabolical drive to continuously homogenize society and eliminate whatever smacked of otherness, all the “objective” and “subjective” “enemies of the people.”

Robert Conquest’s experience with the underground press in the Eastern Bloc was to be put to good use on other occasions. General Ion Mihai Pacepa, who had been chief of intelligence to Ceausescu until his defection to the United States, tells me:

I worked with Robert in the 1980s — he helped me to publish Red Horizons in a superb British edition, and as illegal samizdat books in Hungary and Romania. Great friendship.

Red Horizons: The True Story of Nicolae & Elena Ceausescu’s Crimes, Lifestyle and Corruption, Gen. Pacepa’s exposé, was also broadcast into Romania by Radio Free Europe, contributing to the outbreak of the Romanian Revolution that brought down the dictator. At Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu’s trial, the accusations were taken word-for-word from the book. He was found guilty and executed.

More than any other factor, it was the power of truth that triumphed over tyranny in Romania. That is just one part of the tremendous legacy of Robert Conquest.