Harvill Secker, £12.99, 306pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Engineers of the Soul, By Frank Westerman, trans. Sam Garrett

Socialist Realism, the approach prescribed for writers and artists in Stalin's Soviet Union, has long been described, usually with a sneer, as neither "socialist" nor "realist". Western critics then pass on to what they judge to be "real" art – the work of internal dissenters, published in samizdat or smuggled abroad (Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Sinyavsky), or of Russian writers from the post-1917 emigration (Bunin). In his acknowledgements, Frank Westerman, the Dutch writer and journalist, makes the point. "In Western reference works," he complains, "the only literature of lasting value from the USSR is that which was clandestine, banned, confiscated, hand-copied, smuggled to the West or never published at all."

In Engineers of the Soul, Westerman sets out not exactly to correct this common judgement, rather to look at how the many writers who tried to meet the shifting requirements of Socialist Realism worked. He takes their output on its merits - some of which, he argues, are, despite everything, artistic. This is no apologia, however. It is a personal quest that doubles as an idiosyncratic history of writers wrestling with official demands that shift mysteriously and without warning.

The uniting theme is Westerman's chequered attempt to follow in the footsteps of Konstantin Paustovsky to Kara Bogaz, to the east of the Caspian Sea (the title of Paustovsky's "narrative" published in 1932). But there is another theme, less obvious yet equally telling: the striving of Soviet writers to identify and occupy the contracting space between their artistic inclinations and the diktats from on high.

Time and again, Westerman returns to this. Did Paustovsky "have qualms to overcome before bending his talents to the service of the dictatorship of the Soviet proletariat? Or had he sincerely come to believe in the prospect of a better future?" Kara Bogaz he calls "a tour de force of adaptability".

Three other elements make this a unique, and in many ways a uniquely felicitous, work. The first is Westerman's sometimes elliptical, sometimes epigrammatic, style. There is a particular quality to his observation, spare and authoritative. He writes as an outsider who does not pretend to know the inner workings of other people's minds.

The second is the timing. By chance or design, Westerman benefits from a double layer of hindsight. He is writing – it is tempting to say "composing" - this book not just half a century after Stalin's death, but more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet edifice. In his travels to epic sites of the Soviet industrial experiment – the Belamor canal in Russia's far north and the salt works of Turkmenistan – he sees and hears of multiple legacies, most malign. These are lands subject to all the vagaries of Stalinisation, de-Stalinised, then de-Sovietised; they are now languishing, in desultory search of a future.

The third is Westerman's own background as an engineering graduate who specialised in irrigation. It is not necessary to know how or why an aspiring hydrologist mutated into a newspaper correspondent and author to appreciate that his training gives him an unusually qualified take on the great transformative projects dreamt up by Stalin and his ministers to force the Soviet Union into the modern age. He has a good idea of what is feasible or not; he understands, as most of the ill-fated participants in those projects did not, the chasm that lay between ideal and reality.

This is a book that grows on you. It becomes absorbing, but ellipsis can be taken too far. The early chapters assume an acquaintance with Soviet writing; and I was not always convinced by the translation.

In sum, though, Westerman completes a portrait at once engaging and devastating. As such, it comes closer than any conventional literary history to defining the elusive Socialist Realism. His laconic treatment of Maxim Gorky's death sums it up. The powers-that-be have produced special issues of Pravda, to save this literary patriarch the agony of reading about his own decline. He dies with the latest copy in his hand: "a lie packaged as the truth."

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