Robert Conquest: Garland for a Propagandist

The Commissar of Bray: Robert Conquest satirises Communist hackery

Poetry Text
Portrait of Robert Conquest (image courtesy of Elizabeth Conquest)

Robert Conquest was a regular contributor to Standpointuntil his death in August 2015—and indeed afterwards. We featured some of his hitherto unknown wartime poems in November 2018, with a commentary by his wife and editor Elizabeth. That essay now forms the introduction to her edition of his Collected Poems, newly published by Waywiser Press.

When the evil empire collapsed, Conquest’s exposure of the crimes of communism in his books was vindicated. He also skewered totalitarianism in his verse, epitomised by what the American poet David Yezzi called “perhaps the most brilliant limerick of the twentieth century”.

There was a great Marxist called Lenin,
Who did two or three million men in;
That’s a lot to have done in
But where he did one in
That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.

In similar vein, but less well-known, is “Garland for a Propagandist” (1967), on the lines of the Vicar of Bray.

In good old Stalin’s early days
   When terror little harm meant
A zealous commissar I was
   And so I got preferment
I grabbed each peasant and I said
   “Can there be something you lack?”
And if he dared to answer “bread”
   I shot him for a kulak.

For on this rule I will insist
Because I have the knack, Sir:
Whichever way its line may twist
I’ll be a Party hack, Sir!

Then Stalin took the Secret Police
   And gave it to Yagoda.
Many a Party pulse might cease
   But I stayed in good odour.
At all the cases that he brought
   I welcomed each confession.
And when he too turned up in court
   I attended every session.

When Yezhov took the vacant place
   And blood poured out in gallons
Thousands fell in dark disgrace
   But still I kept my balance
I studied, as the Chekist pounced,
   The best way to survival
And almost every day denounced
   A colleague or a rival

When Yezhov got it in the neck
   (In highly literal fashion)
Beria came at Stalin’s beck
   To lay a lesser lash on;
I swore our labour camps were few,
   And places folk grew fat in;
I guessed that Trotsky died of flu
   And colic raged at Katyn.

And when things once again grew hot
   From Western war-psychosis
I damned the “cosmopolitan” lot
   Because of their hook noses.
The Doctors should be shot, I cursed
   As filthy spy recruiters.
But Stalin chanced to kick off first
   —So I cursed their persecutors

Malenkov, now our Party’s head.
   Tried out a tack quite new, Sir,
Saying what had never been said
   —And so I said it too, Sir:
I boldly cried that clobber and scoff
   Should go to the consumer.
—But his overthrow soon tipped me off
   This was a Right-wing bloomer.

When Khrushchev next came boldly on
   Denouncing Stalin’s terror,
I saw that what we’d so far done
   Had mostly been in error.
My rivals all lay false framed
   Under the Russian humus
And their innocence I now proclaimed
   —Because it was posthumous.

But Khrushchev guessed his chances wrong
   And the present lot took over.
And I saw that though we’d suffered long
   At last we were in clover,
Now Stalin’s name I freely blessed
   A bonny, bonny fighter—
And I told the intellectual West
   When it’s right to jug a writer.

Now the Collective Leadership
   Of Brezhnev and Kosygin
I’ll back until some rivals slip
   By intricate intrigue in;
And, if the worst comes to the worst
   And they’re scragged in the Lubyanka,
I’ll see they get as foully cursed
   As any Wall Street banker

And on this rule I will insist
Because I have the knack, Sir:
Whichever way its line may twist
 I’ll be a Party hack, Sir!


Poems © the Estate of Robert Conquest, 2019, and excerpted from “Robert Conquest: Collected Poems” edited by Elizabeth Conquest, published by The Waywiser Press, £24.99