RFE/RL Ukrainian Service correspondent Irena Chalupa interviewed British historian Robert Conquest in December 2006. They talked about the "question of genocide," famine denial in the USSR, and who was worse: Stalin or Lenin? (Conquest died on August 3, 2015.)
RFE/RL: [In November 2006], after much debate, the Ukrainian parliament passed a bill recognizing the 1932-33 famine as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people. Those legislators who argued against the bill -- the Communists and the Party of Regions -- argued that labeling the famine "genocide" would fuel anti-Russian sentiment. What do you think of the way Ukraine has handled this part of its history?
Robert Conquest: I don't know much about the internal politics and what caused people to vote one way or the other and things like that. But in my book on the famine, "The Harvest of Sorrow," I go into the question of genocide and note that by the definition of genocide at the time it was put to the United Nations, it covered a much broader field than the Jewish one.
It included partial attempts on nationality. I don't think the word genocide as such is a very useful one. When I say if you want to use it you can, but it was invented for rather different purposes. I can see that the trouble is it implies that somebody, some other nation, or a large part of it were doing it, that the Nazis are more or less implicated, they are Germans. But I don't think this is true -- it wasn't a Russian exercise, the attack on the Ukrainian people. But it was a definite attack on them as they were discriminated against as far as death went. But it didn't mean if you were a Russian you were doing very well in Stalin's time either.
But I think it's a good thing that the famine should be recognized. It's an odd thing but I was asked by the Holocaust Foundation -- they asked me to speak on the famine, on the Ukrainian famine some years ago and it's still on the record. They asked the Armenians to do the same. At that time the Ukrainian ambassador in Washington came to the Holocaust Museum. So the Jews were not forcing it as the same thing at all. That's the other danger. Once you start using these terms, you have to be not only just as bad, but just the same as the Jewish genocide. And it's not the same. As long as that's recognized. And I think there are guilty people, but they aren't the Russian nation or anybody else. They're a particular group of particularly horrible people.
RFE/RL: When your book, "The Harvest of Sorrow," was published in 1987, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service translated sections of it into Ukrainian and broadcast it to Ukraine as a multipart series. I suspect that many Ukrainians first learned about the famine from these broadcasts based on your book. Famine denial continues on some level today. Why do you think this is so?
Conquest: I think there are people everywhere who are committed to think things which aren't true. This doesn't only apply to this -- it applies to dozens of things. There are Stalin deniers in general. There are, of course, Holocaust deniers, about the Jewish Holocaust. There are people who'd like to forget, or else to think, "At least I wasn't guilty, and if I wasn't guilty, somebody else was." To ask why people take peculiar political or other views is a long story which I've gone into in other books.
RFE/RL: What kind of scholarship do you think we still need to do on this particular period in history? Can the full story of the Ukrainian famine ever be told?
Conquest: I think the famine now is pretty fully established. Nobody will deny it anymore. I mean, only a very few people would deny it. There is a tendency not to know some of the actual orders given from above, from Moscow, to blockade Ukraine, to keep the famine in the Ukraine and in the Kuban. There were other areas -- there's Kazakhstan, of course, up on the Volga. There were other similar acts used again other areas.
But the fact that Ukraine and the Kuban were blocked off, and quite clearly that was partly due to make sure that the death roll was localized, not the nationality, exactly, but to the inhabitants -- and, in practice, meaning the nationality too. But Stalin would not call himself [anti-Ukrainian]. Andrei Sakharov said that Stalin was anti-Ukrainian, and other people have said the same. But he was anti-Ukrainian because they gave him trouble. But he was also anti a lot of other people. Because even when he was anti-Jewish in his great purges in 1953, he said: "No, I'm not being anti Semitic. We're killing only 10 Jews and four or five non-Jews in the doctor's plot. So I'm not anti-Semitic."
RFE/RL: You probably know Stalin better than most. Is it difficult studying someone like him in such great detail?
Conquest: A friend of mine has just done a huge book called ["Young Stalin,"] up to 1917, a huge book -- Simon Sebag-Montefiore, a British writer -- and he's found new stuff. There's a whole chapter on Stalin in London. He was in London for a few weeks in 1908 but he's found all sorts of odd reports and it's a whole chapter. So one can learn more and more and more about him, go into him.
In Russia they're now publishing books where the Politburo starts examining the basis of Stalin in Gorbachev's time, and they're arguing -- why did he kill everybody? They say, what, because he was frightened of losing power? They have these arguments, but they can't quite make out because it's irrational, and it's irrational in a very peculiar way. He's definitely not a normal, straightforward human being. I don't want to use psychological language -- it's too easy. But he's a monster, more than anything else. After all, he wasn't only killing peasants. He was killing his closest supporters. And in a very nasty way, after torture and so on. He doesn't sound like a modern man, a terrestrial man, an Earth man. He sounds like a monster from some strange planet. I've written a science fiction novel amongst my various writings and also some of my poems are science fiction and I think Stalin would fit in very well as a nonhuman. Part human, perhaps, it was a curious mixture of a monster and a human being on some very strange planet.
RFE/RL: Do you find that these tyrants -- Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot -- have a bit of a banality to their being?
Conquest: Oh yes, you're absolutely right. There's something very third-rate and unnatural, but not stupid exactly, about them.
Conquest: Mediocre, yes. Stalin, of course, massacred his intelligentsia and, of course, the Ukrainian intelligentsia. They're not only Ukrainian -- they're intelligentsia, that's the other point. I remember looking at "The Harvest of Sorrow" -- all the pages about the purges of academe in all the portions of Ukrainian studies and every other sort of studies. I found that half the professors had been shot.
RFE/RL: The crimes of communism are certainly very vast. Ukraine, like every republic in the former Soviet Union, has many scars. Ukraine was maimed by communism as a culture, as an economy, as a nation. How do you get healthy again after something like that? How do you recover?
Conquest: Well, obviously, it takes more time than people thought. Now we've got Cambodia and North Korea, which, if anything, were worse than Stalin They were stupider than Stalin, I think. There's China, who knows what China's like. Once you fall for a system like that, you suddenly find yourself empowered to kill a lot of people for no reason at all. I mean in Cambodia they were just killing people for killing's sake: "Time to kill a few more people".
And look at North Korea. I met a Soviet diplomat who'd been in North Korea, and he said that they've done more fakery than was possible in Moscow. More falsification. There's a big shop on the main street in Pyongyang, and he went into it -- lots of people buying lots of things, wonderful salesmanship. But he suddenly realized nobody was actually getting anything. Extraordinary.
There's another thing that's common to all Stalinists. These are rich countries mostly, but even poor countries in Africa can build good hotels; the tsars built good hotels. But the hotels in the Soviet Union were awful! Why? They could afford to build hotels to impress foreigners, but somehow they couldn't work it. So they relied on finding very stupid foreigners, which they found.
When we talk about getting over Stalinism it's not only in the former Soviet Union, Ukraine, and Russia. It's in the West as well. After all, in Ukraine and Russia people were not allowed to tell the truth. Full stop. In the West, they were allowed to and they got themselves fooled, believed nonsense. They are more to blame than those inside Stalinism in some ways.
RFE/RL: What do you think stopped people from excelling under communism? Is it the mediocrity of its leaders that you mentioned? After all, they certainly had some degree of knowledge, some degree of talent, and certainly they had money. And yet they produced shoddy goods, their economies were second- or third-rate, nothing worked.
Conquest: Well, it was an impossible system both economically and ecologically, of course. When you, for example, see your seas drying up, you must know something has gone wrong. They did finally after 20 or 30 years that something's wrong. What? Perhaps our system's wrong. They did start thinking that in 1985, 1990, that sort of time. They knew something was wrong, and they had to get rid of the old regime. Of course, they still had more to do than that.
RFE/RL: I read a piece by Andrew Brown in "The Guardian" about you a few years ago.
Conquest: He made quite a lot of mistakes.
RFE/RL: Did he? Well, he writes that when your book "The Great Terror" came out, everyone could agree that Stalin was wicked and evil -- but Lenin, he had to have been good. Brown says that you claimed they were both cut from the same cloth. Do you think that 40 years later that sentiment still exists, that Stalin perverted Lenin's ideology and he is ultimately a better man than Stalin was?
Conquest: Was Stalin worse than Lenin? Well, it's not very difficult to be better than Stalin. So if Lenin was a bit better than Stalin, perhaps he was a bit. But it doesn't make much difference. I still think Lenin is over-praised, if not over-praised, then given a bit of leeway here and there which he didn't deserve. I think Stalin could be put down as killing more people, if that's your criterion. And Stalin certainly produced a system under which duller and duller and stupider and stupider people came to the top. But that isn't based on Lenin's system. I mean, Lenin died when he was quite young. Had he lived to the age of Stalin or Mao.... [Soviet politician Vyacheslav] Molotov always said, if anything, Lenin would have been even tougher than Stalin. Molotov said that in his conversations with [Felix] Chuev, a famous collection. In fact, he rebukes Stalin for being too soft occasionally.
RFE/RL: Why do you think communism, despite the fact that it has been totally discredited, still remains attractive?
Conquest: Well, let's start with Marxism. It's one of those beliefs you get into and it's hard to get out. It's hard to define. I do find when they get rid of Marxism or anything like pro-communism, they say to themselves: "Well, what do we do now? What are we thinking? We can't think like the bourgeoisie; we can't think like the foreigners. We've got to think like... who?"