The death of Robert Conquest reminds us of the centrality of the term ‘totalitarianism’, probably the dominating characteristic of twentieth century history that he did more than any individual, with the possible exception of his friend George Orwell, to expose and make real, especially for those outside of the nations cursed with its inhumanity.
Conquest was a great admirer of what he perceived as Australia’s civic openness and sense of fun. I first met him over thirty years ago when I played host to him, at Melbourne’s Friday Club, for some years probably the closest thing to a traditional dinner club where friends from every walk of life would meet to discuss serious ideas in an atmosphere of unpretentious civility. It was a wonderful evening; he took naturally to the club’s informal give-and-take ambience; as I remember, it was unusually packed, with standing room in the back, at our regular venue, the cosy private upstairs dining room at the Imperial Hotel, opposite Victoria’s grand parliamentary building.
The audience was the Club’s usual mixed bag of heretical academics like Frank Knopfelmacher, journalists of a non-conformist temperament, notable lawyerly types, a couple of senior business types with minds open to the ‘larger picture’, a smattering of individuals with an Eastern European background (notably that night Ukrainians, Poles and Russians), the odd parliamentarian with intellectual curiosity (always a rarity), and of course the simply curious, people I’d met through my journalism over the years, probably about 70 in all. The only other close contenders for numbers were the evenings when Shiva Naipaul, Sir Keith Hancock, Paul Johnson, Bernard Levin and (Lord) Peter Bauer spoke to us.
It was a memorable evening in every sense, he laid out the distilled fruits of his life-long research and understanding of communism; he was, after all, born in the year when it all took off, 1917. His talk was spiced with poignant anecdotes, telling but little known details of Bolshevik viciousness and, a characteristic of his commentary, biting humour about the deniers or the larger tribe of fudgers of the global ‘holocaust’ unleased by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in the year of Conquest’s birth.
From that time onwards we kept in touch. When I lived in Manhattan in the early 1990s we met up and he reminded me of that night in Melbourne and how much he had enjoyed it. At that time, I had just launched a program through Freedom House to put on Russian television ‘the best of the West’ in documentary form, the most strategically realistic contribution I could think of to try, absurd as it might sound now, to ‘save Russia’ from itself. It was called the Free Society Project and I had been lucky enough to get some seed funding from the estimable Olin Foundation through James Pearson. Robert kindly agreed to be on my advisory board, as did my old friend Richard Pipes, as did Norman Stone (then at Oxford).
Those were exciting days when momentous changes were happening, all vividly captured on the nightly news. An empire that we had all reasonably assumed would last for many more decades was at that time collapsing in the most dramatic circumstances.
It was once put to me that those who hated communism, and the destruction of every human value it represented, should at least have some compassion for its victims, and if that meant anything it also meant that one should, assuming one had the opportunity, do something practical, something on the ground, to give the then emerging democratic spirit in Russia a chance to survive.
I realised the only practical medium to reach the wider population was through television, over 90 per cent of Russian homes had TV, not so much a measure of affluence as an indicator of how comprehensive was state control through propaganda. The Soviet Union at that time had some twelve time zones and the only station with the reach to cover most of them was Ostankino. It was obvious to me, having visited Moscow and then Leningrad (shortly to become St Petersburg) a few times in 1989 and 1990 on other business, that what was most needed was a program to influence and widen the worldview of most Russians; after all, seventy years of totalitarian brain-washing had affected not just the content of people’s minds but even the very cognitive receptivity to contrary ideas. The average Russian had no concept of world history outside of the narrow diet of the evil czars, the heroic Bolsheviks and the Great Patriotic War.
Through contacts with the Yelstin administration, Robert put me on to the legendary Dmitri Volkogonov, a strange mix of ex-Red Army general and professional historian, and as close to a genuine ‘dissident’ in the Soviet hierarchy as one could find, and, most conveniently for me, just appointed as defence advisor to Yelstin and head of the Soviet Archives. I had the Russian contacts, now I needed to find the films. I decided that I would concentrate on objective documentaries that told Russians some truths about their own history. But initially I opted for some plain truths about how a real economy can work and to do that I teamed up with Milton Friedman who was most happy for me to use his brilliant Free to Choose television series as the project opener. I even arranged for him to be projected into a Moscow auditorium for a live discussion program, including Yelstin’s key economy advisors, following the last Sunday night screening of Free to Choose.
My second choice was Robert’s own series, Red Empire, a gripping and frank chronicle of communism in Russia. After that, BBC Enterprises gave me limited broadcast rights to their premium series from the 1970s and 1980s, including Triumph of the West and Lord Clark’s Civilisation and much else. Overall, we estimated that more than a hundred million Russians watched at least some of these (100) films broadcast by the country’s major television network.
All this, described by Jeane Kirkpatrick, as ‘a unique Marshall Plan of Ideas’, was accomplished for less than $50,000 (I took no salary), compared to the billion dollars allotted by the US Congress to the ‘democratisation’ of Russia, for which precious little was achieved. It was a failed ‘window of opportunity’; a failure Robert Conquest did everything in his power to prevent. His was a unique voice at a unique moment in history.