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Famed historian Robert Conquest has died. The best story about him is fake.

Robert Conquest receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2005.
Robert Conquest receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2005.
(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

The celebrated British historian Robert Conquest died on Tuesday at the age of 98. He was best known for his work on Stalinism, particularly Stalin's crimes against his own citizens. It's a wonderfully ironic twist, then, that the best story about Conquest is made up.

Conquest's 1968 book, The Great Terror, was the first to clearly and comprehensively document Stalin's mass, intentional murder of Soviet citizens during the purges of the late 1930s. "Conquest described how one day in 1937 Stalin and Molotov personally approved 3,167 death sentences, and then went to watch a film," the Telegraph recounts in its obituary.

We now accept Stalin's slaughter as obvious fact, but at the time the full scale of the horror wasn't widely known. Conquest was a pioneering figure, then, in documenting the reality of Soviet rule. That is the source of the apocryphal story about him.

Here's a common version of the story as recounted by the Guardian:

When his history of Stalin's purges, The Great Terror, was republished after the fall of communism, his American publisher asked him to suggest a new title. He came up with "I told you so, you fucking fools".

Sadly, though, it never happened. According to Conquest himself, his friend Kingsley Amis (the famous British writer) made it up.

But it's an appropriate story nonetheless. Conquest's signal contribution was showing, as clearly as possible, the Soviet Union's true face — at a time when the system's monstrousness wasn't nearly as obvious to everyone as it is today. If any one historian deserved to take a victory lap when the Berlin Wall fell, it was Robert Conquest.

Understanding is critical

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