The Daily Telegraph reports that Robert Conquest has died at age 98. He was one of the great historians of our time and we all owe him much, for he was a key person in explaining what Soviet communism really was. On the Hoover Institution’s website you can read Conquest’s biography, with all his many achievements. The Telegraph amusingly also informs us that “Conquest was a lifelong member, later fellow, of the British Interplanetary Society, to which he was recruited by a young civil servant called Arthur C Clarke”.

His most important book is possibly The Harvest of Sorrow. Here he deals with the way in which the Bolsheviks tried to “solve” the “peasant question”, which culminated in the Ukrainian terror-famine. In short, they “solved” the problem by murdering millions of people.

His most famous book is The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties. Assessing the impact of that work 40 years after its publication, and thinking of his critics, Conquest commented:

Mass terror means terrorizing the whole population, and must be accompanied by the most complete public exposure of the worst enemies of the people, of the party line, and so of the truth. We know the results. One of the strangest notions put forward about Stalinism is that in the interests of “objectivity” we must be–wait for it–“nonjudgmental.” But to ignore, or downplay, the realities of Soviet history is itself a judgment, and a very misleading one.

There may be much to say about the “judgments” of those who claim they are never “judgmental”! Conquest certainly did not join the club. He wrote with precision but vigorously too.

Conquest’s last book, Reflections on a Ravaged Century, focuses on the common ideological roots of national-socialism and communism. I read it a few years ago. I remember it as a compelling criticism of the ideologies of political centralization – and a plea for pluralism and decentralization as the only ecosystem that allows for human liberty.

The world loses a truly great scholar. “If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward.”