BOOK REVIEW / Freeing the truth from a frozen grave

Robert Winder is moved by harrowing accounts of persecution and betrayal from the KGB files; The KGB's Literary Archive by Vitaly Shentalinsky trans by John Crowfoot, Harvill pounds 18

Nothing could be more inspired to subvert the idea that literature is merely a matter of pretty phrase-making than the written-in-blood work of the many writers persecuted by Stalin, and Vitaly Shentalinsky, in this historic labour of research, has rescued an amazing body of work from the grave. In the burst of fresh air provoked by perestroika, he scoured the KGB files on writers and found a treasure trove. Quite apart from their biographical importance (he is able to document many mysterious deaths), he found Bulgakov's diary, the suppressed text of Mandelstam's satire on Stalin, and a mass of memoirs by lesser known names. In Stalin's camps, he writes, "words often remained the only saving draught of liberty''.

He even organises the less skilful testimonies into a suggestive new category: illiterate literature. Here for instance is the notebook of a 20-year-old called Ivan Okunev, who in 1938 was sent to the icy Kolyma peninsula for having an out-of-date passport. One day Okunev and several others asked for sleeves (it was December) and were taken to a punishment cell and sprayed with a fire hose:

"They turned it on and pointed it at us. We ran from one corner to another but they kept it pointed at us... And that day it was minus 50 degrees and the chassis of an automobile cracked with the frost. They sprayed us for half an hour and then the water ran out. Four hours later Kuliev came and began to say that we should go back to the barrack but we had all frozen together and could not move. Then he called over the fireman who came with a small axe and began to cut us apart...Then they dragged me by my feet into the barrack and behind me rolled up the others. Tears lamentations the curses of the guards. In the morning the barrack orderly announced time to get up. I began to wake my wet accomplices but two were dead.''

It is hard to imagine anything more appropriate to the experience (even in translation) than this numb, frozen vocabulary and stricken grammar. It might be that this is simply what we expect from Soviet literature - real-life horror - but what makes it so telling is that it is just one out of hundreds of similar tales. Shentalinksy narrates the persecution of writers such as Isaac Babel, Nina Hagen-Torn Andrei Platonov, Osip Mandelstam, Pavel Florensky and Mikhail Bulgakov and they are all sad, sad stories, given extra piquancy by the flavourless tone of bureaucratic jargon in which their KGB case histories are cast.

While it is tempting to succumb to the myth of the writer as a kind of saintly truth teller in a barbarous world, Shentalinsky refuses to indulge this platitudinous view of literature. In perhaps his most telling chapter,"Informing as a literary genre'', he demonstrates that few writers were saints. Every writer unjustly incarcerated or shot was indicted by (who else?) another writer. In the race to inform on one another, speed was essential: a classic joke concerned the condemned man who rued his laziness after a chat with a fellow-writer: "I went to bed thinking, I'll inform on him tomorrow. Next morning they picked me up: he was quicker off the mark".

The files reveal that the KGB was intimately engaged with both little- known writers and the greatest names. Maxim Gorky, for instance, wrote enthusiastically about Stalin's purges in Pravda: "The enemy must be exterminated ruthlessly and without pity, paying no attention to the gasps and groans of the professional humanists" But this callous dogmatism availed him, as they say, nought. Shentalinsky finds in the KGB files evidence that Gorky's son was murdered by doctors who turned a dose of flu into a fatal illness by getting him drunk and leaving him out in the snow.

Shentalinsky makes a strong case for the heroic status of literature. But he does not want us to fall into the trap of believing that literature enjoys, as it were, the last word. His book is not a true chronicle of these dire years. It is just an account of bad deeds and bad people, aware always that the moving memoirs of the few articulate victims can only hint at the irretrievable agonies of the millions from whom we hear nothing.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits