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Robert Conquest

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Robert Conquest

Robert Conquest
Conquest in 1987
Born George Robert Acworth Conquest
(1917-07-15)15 July 1917
Great Malvern, Worcestershire, England
Died 3 August 2015(2015-08-03) (aged 98)
Stanford, California, United States
Occupation Historian, poet
Notable awards See below
Spouse Joan Watkins (m. 1942; div. 1948)
Tatiana Mihailova (m. 1948; div. 1962)
Caroleen MacFarlane (m. 1964; div. 1978)
Elizabeth Wingate (m. 1979; his death 2015)
Children 3

George Robert Acworth Conquest, CMG, OBE, FBA, FAAAS, FRSL, FBIS (15 July 1917 – 3 August 2015) was a British-American historian and poet, notable for his influential works on Soviet history including The Great Terror: Stalin's Purges of the 1930s (1968). He was a longtime research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He wrote more than a dozen books on the Soviet Union and he was a traditional conservative.[1]


  • Early career 1
    • The College years 1.1
    • The War years 1.2
    • The IRD years 1.3
    • First years as an historian 1.4
  • The Great Terror 2
  • Later historical works 3
    • The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror-Famine (1986) 3.1
    • Stalin and the Kirov Murder (1989) 3.2
  • Poetry and Literature 4
    • Science Fiction Novels 4.1
  • Political works 5
    • What to Do When the Russians Come: a Survivor's Handbook (1984) 5.1
    • Reflections on a Ravaged Century (1999) 5.2
  • Later life 6
  • Awards and honours 7
  • Works 8
    • Historical and political 8.1
    • Poetry 8.2
    • Novels 8.3
    • Criticism 8.4
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11

Early career

Conquest was born on 15 July 1917 in Great Malvern, Worcestershire,[2] to an American father (Robert Folger Wescott Conquest) and an English mother (Rosamund Alys Acworth Conquest).[3][4] His father served in an American Ambulance Service unit with the French Army in World War I, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre, with Silver Star in 1916.[5]

The College years

Conquest was educated at Winchester College, the University of Grenoble, and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was an exhibitioner in modern history and took his bachelor's and master's degrees in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and his doctorate in Soviet history. In 1937, after studying at the University of Grenoble, Conquest went up to Oxford, joining both the Carlton Club and, as an "open" member, the Communist Party of Great Britain. Fellow members included Denis Healey and Philip Toynbee. When World War II broke out, Conquest joined the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. In 1942, he married Joan Watkins, with whom he had two sons. In 1943, he was posted to the School of Slavonic and East European Studies.[6]

The War years

In Lisbon on an American passport at the outbreak of the Second World War, he returned to England.[7] As the Communist party in Britain denounced the Second World War in 1939 as imperialist and capitalist, Conquest broke with it and enlisted in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry,[8] serving with the regiment from 1939 to 1946. In 1942, he married Joan Watkins, with whom he had two sons. In 1943, he was posted to the School of Slavonic and East European Studies to study Bulgarian, which is today part of University College London.[6] In 1944, Conquest was posted to Bulgaria as a liaison officer to the Bulgarian forces fighting under Soviet command, attached to the Third Ukrainian Front, and then to the Allied Control Commission. There, he met Tatiana Mihailova, who later became his second wife. At the end of the war, he joined the Foreign Office, returning to the British Legation in Sofia where he remained as the press officer.[9] In 1948 he was recalled to London under a minor diplomatic cloud, after helping to smuggle two Bulgarians and left Bulgaria with Tatiana. Back in London, he divorced his first wife and married Tatiana. But in 1951, Tatiana Conquest was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and in 1962 the couple divorced.[6]

The IRD years

In 1948 Conquest joined the Foreign Office's Information Research Department (IRD), a "propaganda counter-offensive" unit created by the Labour Attlee government[10] in order to "collect and summarize reliable information about Soviet and communist misdoings, to disseminate it to friendly journalists, politicians, and trade unionists, and to support, financially and otherwise, anticommunist publications."[11] The IRD was also engaged in manipulating public opinion.[12]

Conquest at the IRD was remembered as a "brilliant, arrogant" figure who had 10 people reporting to him.[13] He continued to work at the Foreign Office until 1956, becoming increasingly involved in the intellectual counter-offensive against communism.[6]

In 1949 Conquest’s assistant, Celia Kirwan (later Celia Goodman), approached Orwell's list, discovered after her death in 2002, included Guardian and Observer journalists, as well as E. H. Carr and Charlie Chaplin.[8] Conquest, like Orwell, fell for the beautiful Celia Kirwan, who inspired him to write several poems.[6] One of his foreign office colleagues was Alan Maclean, brother of Donald Maclean, one of the Philby spy ring, who fled to Russia with Guy Burgess in 1951. When his brother defected, Alan resigned, and went to Macmillan and published a book of Conquest's poems.[13] At the IRD Conquest wrote various papers which sowed the seeds for his later work. One, on Soviet means of obtaining confessions, was to be elaborated in The Great Terror. Other papers were “Peaceful Co-existence in Soviet Propaganda and Theory”, and on “United Fronts – a Communist Tactic”.[6] Much of IRD works was later published in the Soviet Studies Series.[6]

In 1950 he served briefly as First Secretary in the British Delegation to the United Nations.

First years as an historian

In 1956, Conquest left the IRD, later becoming a freelance writer and historian.[6] After he left, he says, IRD suggested to him that he could combine some of the data he had gathered from Soviet publications into a book.[14] During the 1960s, Conquest edited eight volumes of work produced by the IRD, published in London by the Bodley Head as the Soviet Studies Series; and in the United States republished as The Contemporary Soviet Union Series by Frederick Praeger, who had published previously a number of books on communism at the request of the CIA,[14] in addition to works by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Milovan Đilas, Howard Fast, and Charles Patrick Fitzgerald.[15]

In 1962–63, Conquest was literary editor of The Spectator, but resigned when he found the job interfered with his historical writing. His first books on the Soviet Union were Common Sense About Russia (1960), The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities (1960) and Power and Policy in the USSR (1961). His other early works on the Soviet Union included Courage of Genius: The Pasternak Affair (1961) and Russia After Khrushchev (1965).[6]

The Great Terror

In 1968, Conquest published what became his best-known work, The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties, the first comprehensive research of the Great Purge, which took place in the Soviet Union between 1934 and 1939. Many reviewers at the time were not impressed by his way of writing about the Great Terror, which was in the tradition of “great men who make history”.[12] The book was based mainly on information which had been made public, either officially or by individuals, during the so-called "Khrushchev Thaw" in the period 1956–64. It also drew on accounts by Russian and Ukrainian émigrés and exiles dating back to the 1930s, and on an analysis of official Soviet documents such as the Soviet census.[16]

The most important aspect of the book was that it widened the understanding of the purges beyond the previous narrow focus on the "Nineteen Eighty-Four and Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon.[17]

Conquest argued that the trials and executions of these former Communist leaders were a minor detail of the purges. By his estimates, Stalinist purges had led to the deaths of some 20 million people. He later stated that the total number of deaths could "hardly be lower than some thirteen to fifteen million."[18]

Conquest sharply criticized Western intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Walter Duranty, Sir Bernard Pares, Harold Laski, D. N. Pritt, Theodore Dreiser, Bertold Brecht, Owen Lattimore, Romain Rolland, and even American ambassador Joseph Davies, accusing them of being dupes of Stalin and apologists of his regime. Conquest cites various comments of them where, he argues, they were denying, excusing, or justifying various aspects of the purges.[19]

After the opening up of the Soviet archives in 1991, detailed information was released that Conquest argued supported his conclusions. When Conquest's publisher asked him to expand and revise The Great Terror, Conquest is famously said to have suggested the new version of the book be titled I Told You So, You Fucking Fools. In fact, the mock title was jokingly proposed by Conquest's old friend, Sir Kingsley Amis. The new version was published in 1990 as The Great Terror: A Reassessment; ISBN 0-19-507132-8.[20] The American historian J. Arch Getty disagreed, writing in 1994 that the archives did not support Conquest's casualty figures.[21] In 1995, investigative journalist Paul Lashmar suggested that the reputation of prominent academics such as Robert Conquest was built upon work derived from material provided by the IRD.[22] According to Denis Healey The Great Terror was an important influence, "but one which confirmed people in their views rather than converted them".[13]

Although many aspects of his book continue to be disputed by sovietologist historians and researchers on Russian and Soviet history, according to anti-communist poet Czesław Miłosz Conquest has been vindicated by history.[23] In 2000, Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff, whose family emigrated from Russia as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution, wrote "One of the few unalloyed pleasures of old age is living long enough to see yourself vindicated. Robert Conquest is currently enjoying this pleasure."[24] While the anti-communist conservative popular historian Paul Johnson, one of Thatcher's closest advisers, described Conquest as "our greatest living historian". And, in the phrase of Timothy Garton Ash, he was Solzhenytsin before Solzhenytsin.[13]

In 1996, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who have been previously attacked by Conquest for his book Age of Extremes,[25] while praising Conquest's The Great Terror "as a remarkable pioneer effort to assess the Stalin Terror", expressed the opinion that this work and others were now to be considered obsolete "simply because the archival sources are now available", thus there was not need any more for "using fragmentary sources" and "guesswork" as "when better or more complete data are available, they must take the place of poor and incomplete ones".[26]

In 2002, Conquest replied vehemently to his critics:

“They’re still talking absolute balls. In the academy, there remains a feeling of, ‘Don’t let’s be too rude to Stalin. He was a bad guy, yes, but the Americans were bad guys too, and so was the British Empire.’”[27]

Furthermore, he openly declared himself to have been a Cold Warrior, a title which he rather relished:[28]

“They say [disapprovingly] that we were Cold Warriors. Yes, and a bloody good show, too. A lot of people weren’t Cold Warriors — and so much the worse for them.”[27]

Later historical works

The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror-Famine (1986)

In 1986, Conquest published The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror-Famine, dealing with the collectivization of agriculture in Ukraine and elsewhere in the USSR, under Stalin's direction in 1929–31, and the resulting famine, in which millions of peasants died due to starvation, deportation to labor camps, and execution. In this book, Conquest supported the view that the famine was a planned act of genocide.[6]

Stalin and the Kirov Murder (1989)

For the Trotskyists, Kirov’s murder was the Stalinist equivalent of the Reichstag fire, deliberately started by the Nazis to justify the arrest of German Communists. The Trotskyist-Menshevik view became the dominant one among western historians, popularised in Robert Conquest’s influential books.[29]

In The Great Terror, Conquest already undermined the official Soviet story of conspiracy and treason. Conquest placed the murder in 1934 of the Leningrad party boss, Sergei Kirov, one of Stalin’s inner circle, as the key to the mechanism of terror.

He returned to this in Stalin and the Kirov Murder (1989), where he firmly affirmed that Stalin not only sanctioned Kirov's assassination, but used it as a justification for the terror that culminated in 1937 and '38, though no smoking-gun evidence has yet been found to confirm Stalin’s role in the murder.[8][30][31]

Poetry and Literature

In addition to his scholarly work, Conquest was a well-regarded poet[32] whose poems have been published in various periodicals from 1937. In 1945 he was awarded the PEN Brazil Prize for his war poem "For the Death of a Poet" – about an army friend, the poet Drummond Allison, killed in Italy – and, in 1951, he received a Festival of Britain verse prize.[33] During his lifetime, he had seven volumes of poetry[34] and one of literary criticism[35] published.

Conquest was a major figure in a prominent British literary circle known as "The Movement" which also included Philip Larkin and Sir Kingsley Amis. Movement poets, many of whom bristled at being so labeled, rejected the experiments of earlier practitioners such as Ezra Pound.[17]

He edited, in 1956 and 1962, the influential New Lines anthologies, introducing works by them, as well as Thom Gunn, Dennis Enright, and others, to a wider public.[36] He spent 1959–60 as visiting poet at the University of Buffalo. Several of his poems were published in The New Oxford Book of Light Verse (1978; compiled by Amis), under the pseudonyms "Stuart Howard-Jones", "Victor Gray" and "Ted Pauker".[37]

It emerged from the pages of poet Philip Larkin’s published letters that Conquest and Larkin shared an enthusiasm for pornography in the '50s.[6] When Larkin was in Hull, Conquest sent him judicious selections of the latest pornography, and, when he came down to London, Conquest took him on shopping trips to the Soho porn shops.[8] On one occasion Conquest, in 1957, wrote a letter to Larkin purporting to come from the Vice Squad which had found the poet’s name on a pornographic publisher’s list. Larkin panicked and went to see his solicitor, convinced that he was going to lose his job as librarian at Hull University, before Conquest owned up.[6] The true story of the joke became in 2008, Mr Larkin's Awkward Day, a comedy radio play by Chris Harrald.[38]

Soon after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn met with Conquest, asking him to translate a ‘little’ poem of his into English verse. This was "Prussian Nights" – nearly two thousand lines in ballad metre – published in 1977.[39]

Science Fiction Novels

Conquest had been a member of the

  • Robert Conquest at the Internet Movie Database
  • Scourge and Poet, a profile of Robert Conquest
  • New York Review of Booksarticles by and about Robert Conquest at the
  • "Stanford legend Robert Conquest: new books at 93 for the historian and poet," by Cynthia Haven, Stanford Report, August 16, 2010
  • Where Ignorance Isn't Bliss, article by Robert Conquest at National Review Online
  • His biography at the Hoover Institution
  • Great Terror at 40
  • Elizabeth Farnsworth talks with historian Robert Conquest about his new book Reflections on a Ravaged Century at PBS
  • Robert Conquest profile at Spartacus site
  • Robert Conquest's profile at Stanford University, Ukrainian Studies Department webpage
  • Appearances on C-SPAN
    • Reflections on a Ravaged Century interview with Conquest on Booknotes, 19 December 1999

External links

  1. ^
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j
  3. ^ Encyclopedia of British Writers, 19th and 20th Centuries by Christine L. Krueger page 87
  4. ^ Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, Volume 2 By R. Reginald, Douglas Menville, Mary A. Burgess
  5. ^ Supplement to the Alumni Register (October 1920), "Pennsylvania; A Record of the University's Men in the Great War", University of Pennsylvania General Alumni Society, 1920, page 40.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b c d e f g
  9. ^
  10. ^ Death of the department that never was from The Guardian, 27 January 1978
  11. ^ Timothy Garton Ash. "Orwell's List" (review), New York Review of Books, 23 September 2003.
  12. ^ a b
  13. ^ a b c d e
  14. ^ a b
  15. ^ Richard D. Lyons. "Frederick A. Praeger Dies at 78; Published Books on Communism", The New York Times, 5 June 1994.
  16. ^
  17. ^ a b c d
  18. ^ Robert Conquest, Preface, The Great Terror: A Reassessment: 40th Anniversary Edition, Oxford University Press, USA, 2007. p. xviii
  19. ^ Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment, Oxford University Press (1990) ISBN 0-19-507132-8, pp. 466–75.
  20. ^ Conquest, Robert. "Letter to the Editors", The New York Review of Books, 12 April 2007.
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^ "Czeslaw Milosz: 'The Poet Who Was Right'", National Review, 17 August 1992.
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ a b
  28. ^ a b c d
  29. ^
  30. ^ The Whisperers, Orlando Figes, Allen Lane 2007, p. 236n
  31. ^ Getty, J. Arch, Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-38, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 207.
  32. ^ David Yezzi, Yale Review, Volume 98, Issue 2 (April 2010), p. 183 ff.
  33. ^ Note on Robert Conquest .
  34. ^
  35. ^
  36. ^ Zachary Leader, ed., The Movement Reconsidered, Oxford University Press, 2009.
  37. ^ John Whitworth. "The Extraordinary Robert Conquest", Quadrant, October 2009, pp. 121–23.
  38. ^
  39. ^ Robert Conquest, 'Solzhenitsyn, A Genius with a Blindspot', Sunday Times, 10 August 2008; p. A15
  40. ^ a b
  41. ^
  42. ^
  43. ^
  44. ^
  45. ^
  46. ^
  47. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af
  48. ^
  49. ^
  50. ^
  51. ^ National Advisory Council. Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Archived from the original on 20 May 2011. Retrieved 20 May 2011.


See also

  • The Abomination of Moab (1979)[2]


  • A World of Difference (1955)[2]
  • The Egyptologists (with Kingsley Amis, 1965)[2]


  • Poems (1956)[47]
  • Between Mars and Venus (1962)[47]
  • Arias from a Love Opera, and Other Poems (1969)[47]
  • Forays (1979)[47]
  • New and Collected Poems (1988)[47]
  • Demons Don't (1999)[47]
  • Penultimata (2009)[47]
  • A Garden of Erses [limericks, as Jeff Chaucer] (2010)[47]
  • Blokelore and Blokesongs (2012)[47]


  • Common Sense About Russia (1960)
  • Power and Policy in the USSR (1961)[47]
  • The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities (1960)[47]
  • Courage of Genius: The Pasternak Affair (1961)[47]
  • Russia After Khruschev (1965)[47]
  • The Politics of Ideas in the U.S.S.R. (1967)
  • Industrial Workers in the U.S.S.R. (1967)
  • Religion in the U.S.S.R. (1968)
  • The Soviet political system (1968)
  • Justice and the legal system in the U.S.S.R. (1968)
  • The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties (1968)
    • The Great Terror: A Reassessment (1990)[47]
    • The Great Terror: 40th Anniversary Edition (2008)[47]
  • Where Marx Went Wrong (1970)[47]
  • The Nation Killers (1970)
  • The Human Cost of Soviet Communism (Prepared for the Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws, of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, 1970)
  • Lenin (1972)[47]
  • The Russian tradition (with Tibor Szamuely, 1974)
  • Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps (1978)[47]
  • Present Danger: Towards a Foreign Policy (1979)[47]
  • We and They: Civic and Despotic Cultures (1980)[47]
  • The Man-made Famine in Ukraine (with James Mace, Michael Novak and Dana Dalrymple, 1984)
  • What to Do When the Russians Come: A Survivor's Guide (with Jon Manchip White, 1984)[47]
  • Inside Stalin's Secret Police: NKVD Politics, 1936–1939 (1985)[47]
  • The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986)[47]
  • The Last empire: nationality and the Soviet future (1986)
  • Tyrants and Typewriters: Communiques in the Struggle for Truth (1989)[47]
  • Stalin and the Kirov Murder (1989)[47]
  • Stalin: Breaker of Nations (1991)[47]
  • History, Humanity, and Truth (1993)[47]
  • Reflections on a Ravaged Century (1999)[47]
  • The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History, W. W. Norton & Company (2004), ISBN 0-393-05933-2

Historical and political


His awards include:

His honours include

Conquest was a dual national (British and American) by birth.[2] He was a Fellow of the British Academy, of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of the Royal Society of Literature, and of the British Interplanetary Society, and a Member of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.[6]

Conquest (left) receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Aretha Franklin (middle) and Alan Greenspan (right) at the White House, 2005

Awards and honours

Conquest died of pneumonia in Stanford, California, on 3 August 2015 at the age of 98.[2][17] He had numerous grandchildren from his sons and stepdaughter.[2]

Conquest was a fellow of the Columbia University's Russian Institute, and of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; a distinguished visiting scholar at the Heritage Foundation; a research associate of Harvard University's Ukrainian Research Institute.[2] In 1990, Conquest was the presenter of Red Empire, a seven-part mini-series documentary on the Soviet Union produced by Yorkshire Television.[45]

Conquest at his home, 2010

In 1981, Conquest moved to California to take up a post as Senior Research Fellow and Scholar-Curator of the Russian and Commonwealth of Independent States Collection at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where he remained a Fellow.[6]

In 1964, he married Caroleen MacFarlane, but the marriage failed. In 1978, Conquest then began dating Elizabeth Neece Wingate, a lecturer in English and the daughter of a United States Air Force colonel. He and Wingate married the next year.[13]

Later life

However, there is much more in this book about Communism than Nazism, partly because of Conquest’s greater expertise about the first, and partly because comparatively few Western intellectuals became Nazi.[28] Conquest mainly focuses on attacks on intellectuals in the West who became Communists because they felt or believed that this was “anti-fascism” or “anti-Nazism”.[28]

Reflections on a Ravaged Century is a book devoted to the psychological roots of fanaticism, in which Conquest argues that Communism and Nazism were equal and more twins than opposites.[28]

Reflections on a Ravaged Century (1999)

In 1986, Conquest affirmed that "a science-fiction attitude is a great help in understanding the Soviet Union. It isn't so much whether they're good or bad, exactly; they're not bad or good as we'd be bad or good. It's far better to look at them as Martians than as people like us."[40]

"We live in dangerous times. Such miscalculations are very possible. But they are not inevitable. The American people and their representatives have it in their power to prevent their country from undergoing the ordeal we have described. A democratic government, with all its distractions and disadvantages, [...] It is not infallible, it is slow to learn, and it is willing to grasp at comfortable illusions; but it may yet act decisively"[43] "But why should we fear that such an ordeal may face us? The economic potential of the West in gross national product is far greater than that of the Soviet Union.[...]In fact, the Soviet Union is economically far behind the United States. American technology is always a generation ahead of theirs. They have to turn to the United States for wheat. The Soviet economy is at a dead end. The Communist system has failed to win support in any of the countries of Eastern Europe. The Soviet idea has no attractions. On any calculation—of economic power or social advance or intellectual progress there could be no question of the Russians imposing their will. But in terms of actual military power, the West’s advantage does not seem to have been made use of. It is at least matched, and many would say overmatched, in the nuclear field; the Western forces in Europe have less than half the striking power of their opponents. It is no good our being more advanced than they are if this is not translated into power—both military power and political willpower."[44]

Conquest supported the Reagan defense buildup and asked for an increase of expenses on US defense budget, claiming that in the nuclear field NATO was only possibly matching USSR military power:

"It is widely accepted that the United States now faces a real possibility of succumbing to the power of an alien regime unless the right policies are pursued. [This book's aim] is, first, to show the American citizen clearly and factually what the results of this possible Soviet domination could be and how it would affect him or her personally; and second, to give some serious advice on how to survive."[42]

In 1984, Robert Conquest wrote, with Jon Manchip White, the fictional book What to Do When the Russians Come: a Survivor's Handbook which, however, was intended to be a real survival manual in case of Soviet invasion. This book, as many other works of the mid-80s in different media, like Sir John Hackett's "The Third World War", the movie "Red Dawn", and the Milton Bradley game "Fortress America", starts from the premise that a Soviet ground-invasion of USA could be imminent and Soviet Union was about to engulf the world.

What to Do When the Russians Come: a Survivor's Handbook (1984)

Political works

Conquest published two works of fiction, the one co-authored with Amis, The Egyptologists (1965), and the science fiction novel, A World of Difference (1955).[2]

[41].Hollywood, was called away to Peter Sellers Later, a film version of the novel was canceled when its star, [8] felt that their “elaborate little jokes leave an unpleasant taste”.New York Times A reviewer in the [40][17]

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