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is the notebook of a 20-year-old called Ivan Okunev, who in 1938 was sent to the icy Kolyma peninsula for having an out-of-date passport.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