In today's Wall Street Journal, Christopher Hitchen's tells of recently visiting Robert Conquest , whom he calls "the softest voice that ever brought down an ideological tyranny." Conquest , the British historian who is doyen of Stanford's Hoover Institution on War and Revolution , indeed did more to gently bring Soviet horrors into history's withering glare than any man save Solzhenitsyn.
Today , Conquest is finishing a new edition of The Great Terror , but in 1970 , I witnessed the improbable process of its overthrow at work in London, where the foundations of Communist legitimacy were slowly eroded , a week at a time, as Conquest , Kingsley Amis , Tibor Szamuely Robert Brain and sundry Tory mandarins assembled for long and often heroically alcoholic lunches at an Italian restaurant in the Portobello Road.
The Soviets scoffed at these seemingly impotent literary proceedings for a decade -did Literati who Lunch expect to laugh an empire to death ? Yet each week they wobbled forth to nap off the proceedings, and awoke to write , and publish , things newly learned from an unending stream of luncheon guests. By 1985, the title of one exile work much discussed at that table, Will the Soviet Union survive until 1984 ?' no longer seemed comic to the Kremlin. Four years later, the Berlin Wall fell.
Throughout this time Conquest was too busy hammering out books to allow him to relate the rest of his witness to what was indeed a cultural revolution. That's where Hitchens has very good news about software giving Conquest's verbal fisking of recieved history a new lease on life--
"Starting tomorrow, when I'm finished with doing 'The Great Terror.' I'm going to try dictating them into this new machine . . . Liddie, what's it called?"
Mrs. Conquest--a scholar of English who first told me that Henry James always dictated his novels--comes up with the name of the new voice-activated software. "It's called 'Dragons Naturally Speaking Nine.'" Golly. "Well, my handwriting's pretty bad and my typing is worse," says Mr. Conquest apologetically. That's true enough, as I know, but I can't help thinking that if "Dragons Naturally Speaking Nine" really works, and if it had been available in the 1960s, then the Soviet Union would probably have fallen several years before it actually did."