Eric Homberger in The Guardian:
Among the western historians of the Soviet Union, Robert Conquest, who has died aged 98, had a unique place. In 1989-90 his account of the terror of the 1930s was translated and published in a Soviet journal. At the same time, a half-dozen other Soviet journals were publishing translated material from Conquest’s other books. He was not the first to describe the extent and workings of the Stalin tyranny, but he did so in fine detail. He had become, for a broad Russian readership, the man who told the truth about the terror, and Stalin’s murderous tyranny.
The Great Terror (1968) undermined the “official” Soviet story of conspiracy and treason. Conquest placed the murder in 1934 of the Leningrad party boss, Sergei Kirov, as the key to the mechanism of terror. He returned to this in Stalin and the Kirov Murder (1989), though no smoking-gun evidence has yet been found to confirm Stalin’s role.
Conquest demonstrated that the show trials of old Bolsheviks were the product of faked evidence, torture, blackmail, threats and deceit. He explained in carefully documented detail the mechanism of the arrests, interrogations – the “conveyor” of continuous interrogation, denial of food and sleep, and extreme physical abuse – and the mechanics of the trials.
He was less persuasive explaining why the terror was created, falling back on Stalin’s motivation, his unquenched drive for absolute power. Critics have continued to challenge Conquest’s view, elaborated in Stalin: Breaker of Nations(1991), that in the last analysis the purge depended upon the personal and political drives of Stalin alone. The Great Terror, with revised editions in 1990 and 2007, remains Conquest’s major work, in measure endorsed by the flood of revelations that followed the opening of the Soviet archives in the 90s.
Further studies deepened his account of the terror. Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps (1978) and his history of the collectivisation of agriculture, The Harvest of Sorrow (1986), were forensically argued investigations of aspects of Soviet life that had been denied or ignored by myopic western commentators.