- - Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Reading book reviews of profound volumes from years past helps expose us to important ideas that may no longer be in the daily news. And reading obituaries of important lives gives us inspiration—to be like them, or to run from their example.

The latest issue of The Weekly Standard contains an excellent obituary of historian Robert Conquest, who helped bring to light the murderous atrocities of Joseph Stalin and Soviet Communism. 

Joseph Bottum wrote that Conquest was “the most morally significant historian of the second half of the twentieth century,” and explained what made him unique in his field.

What made Robert Conquest different, however, was that, unlike so many of his clever contemporaries, he could bring himself to cry murder while studying something like the day in 1937 when Stalin and Molotov signed 3,167 death sentences and then went to watch a movie. Conquest had, in the structure of his mind, a moral seriousness that compelled his move from a youthful and unthinking communism to a mature understanding, in his 1986 book The Harvest of Sorrow, of what Stalin’s industrialization-induced famine did in Ukraine in the 1930s: “About 20 human lives were lost,” he wrote in his preface, “not for every word, but for every letter, in this book.”

Living now more than 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, we can forget how much Conquest and The Great Terror mattered in the years after its publication in 1968. Conquest’s historical documentation was as meticulous as the thin sources of the time allowed, and his historical intuition about what those sources meant was matchless. He saw that the Soviet system had murdered millions, and unlike so many of his time he refused to blink or turn away. 

It is worth noting that there are many “-isms” in today’s world that seem just as inevitable in their advance as Soviet Communism did in its day.

Like Conquest, may each of us desire to be “morally significant” in our own chosen field of work and in the time and season God has placed us.


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