True Stories by Lev Razgon (translated by John Crowfoot)

(Souvenir Press, pounds 20)

"You know that's one of our traits as Russians," a character in True Stories declares: "we forget quickly". The journalist and writer Lev Razgon is a founding member of Memorial, the organisation that commemorates the victims crushed by the Soviet "steam-roller". He is not one of those to forget. Rehabilitated in 1956 after 18 years spent in prison camps and in exile, he has made it his mission to remember in a book that caused a sensation when it was first published in Russia in 1988.

The reader may be forgiven for letting out a weary sigh at the prospect of yet another harrowing account of life in the Gulag. But Razgon's memoirs are not a difficult read. True, there are numerous details of arrests, tortures and gratuitous brutalities. Such chilling descriptions, however, are countered by the level-headed tone of the narrator. The chatty fluency of Razgon's story refuses to break down even under the strain of devastating losses, such as his wife Oksana's death in a transit prison.

Razgon's resilience itself becomes unsettling. His unperturbed recording in the face of adversity is no doubt a strategy for survival; a way, too, of avoiding the excesses of a subjective account. The result, however, is a book which evokes the past in a disconcertingly controlled voice, even when he fulminates against the thousands of murderers who connived with Stalin and who are still at large.

In many respects True Stories harks back to late 19th-century rural fiction. At times it recalls Chekhov, and also Gorki, who gave his name to the city where Razgon was born in 1908. Yet what Razgon's narrative often lacks is Gorki's sensitivity to unusual details, and his earthy metaphors.

Razgon is aware of the contradictions that pervade his book. The title itself points to his own anxieties about writing a history that reads like a fiction. He is also aware of his own ties to the system he castigates. Razgon claims to be the last man to have attended and survived the 17th Communist Party Congress of 1934. He was a member of the party elite, and a relative of a Central Committee member, Ivan Moskvin. In his sketch of Moskvin, Razgon aims to resurrect his name for posterity, even while he acknowledges that it was men like him who put in place the very system which inflicted the suffering he records. Throughout, the reader is also made aware of a nostalgia for the camaraderie of the prison and exile, where Razgon met his second wife Rika Berg.

In his Epilogue, Razgon describes himself as a bystander witnessing the faithful paying respects to the dead. He longs to be able "to say and do those things that make life easier to bear for the believer", but he is unable to summon up such faith. This final scene exemplifies the hollowness at the heart of this book. The present has been emptied of its meaning and is nothing more than a hunting ground for the archivist to reconstruct the past.