Few people – perhaps only Friedrich von Schiller and Alexander Pushkin – have achieved, like Robert Conquest, distinction as both historians and poets. Conquest’s reputation as a poet was highest in the mid-1940s and 1950s, when his name was spoken in conjunction with Philip Larkin’s and T S Eliot’s and he was hailed as Thomas Hardy’s heir. He achieved fame early in his career by winning a prize for the best long poem about the Second World War, ‘For the Death of a Poet’ (the poet was Drummond Allison, killed in Italy in December 1943). There is little mourning in the poem, but magnificent scene-setting, stoical reflection and virtuoso rhythmic and metrical skills. Had the poem been written in the context of the First World War, it would be classed alongside Wilfred Owen’s work and anthologised.
One event in particular inspired both the poet and the historian in Conquest: the 1944 Stalinist takeover in Bulgaria, which resulted in the murder not just of non-communists but also of the home-grown communist resistance. The triumph of Stalin and the complicity in it of the Western allies overshadowed the