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is the notebook of a 20-year-old called Ivan Okunev, who in 1938 was sent to the icy Kolyma peninsula for having an out-of-date passport.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

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk