Georgii Vladimov

Dissident author of 'Faithful Ruslan' and 'Three Minutes' Silence'
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Georgii Nikolaevich Volosevich (Georgii Vladimov), writer: born Kharkov, Soviet Union 19 February 1931; married Natalya Kuznetsova (died 1997); died 19 October 2003.

When in 1962 Alexander Solzhenitsyn's labour-camp novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich burst upon an unsuspecting world, breaking the taboo on the Gulag in Soviet publications, it unleashed a tide of prison novels and memoirs. Georgii Vladimov, then working at the Moscow literary journal Novy Mir ("New World"), which had published Solzhenitsyn, set to work himself.

By 1965 his story "Sobaki" ("The Dogs"), about how a May Day procession was broken up by a pack of former prison-camp guard dogs who mistook them for a column of prisoners, began to circulate in Moscow intellectual circles. Many believed the story was by Solzhenitsyn, regarding it as a more subtle and biting satire on Stalin's persecutions than Ivan Denisovich. But by the mid-1960s the slow thaw that began under Nikita Khrushchev had stopped and there was no hope it could be published.

Vladimov, however, a perfectionist whose writing took him much effort, kept reworking the story until, a decade later, it re-emerged, over his name, as Verny Ruslan, smuggled abroad and published by an émigré publishing house in West Germany in 1975. Four years later it appeared in an English translation by Michael Glenny as Faithful Ruslan: the story of a guard dog.

The novel is set in the winter of 1956. As Khrushchev was freeing millions of prisoners from the Gulag and closing down labour camps, a dog that has spent its working life guarding prisoners in Siberia is set loose to fend for itself. The bewildered dog finds an ex-prisoner and latches on to him, resuming his guardian role. His vigils at the railway station are eventually rewarded when a convoy of new arrivals pulls in - but, unknown to the dog, these are Komsomol volunteers there to build a plastics factory where the labour camp had been.

Vladimov was born in 1931 into a family of teachers, but his world fell apart during the Second World War. His father was captured by the Germans and became a prisoner of war, never to return. Georgii studied at the Suvorov academy in Leningrad and then in the law faculty of Leningrad State University. In 1952 his mother was arrested and, although freed and rehabilitated two years later, lived under the shadow ever after. Vladimov's visits to her in camp gave him material for his later work.

In 1954 he turned to literary criticism. Two years later he became editor of the prose department of Novy Mir, the magazine which first published his own literary work. Bolshaya Ruda (translated as Striking It Rich, 1963), about a miner killed after defying safety regulations, appeared in 1961. That same year he published a perceptive article on J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, a novel published 10 years earlier but inaccessible to most Soviet citizens.

Vladimov's growing involvement in the dissident movement made the Soviet literary authorities wary of him. In 1967 he backed Solzhenitsyn's campaign against censorship. In 1969 - seven years after it was completed - officials reluctantly allowed him to publish Tri Minuty Molcahniya (translated as Three Minutes' Silence, 1985), a story about a Soviet fishing trawler confronted by a rescue mission in the North Atlantic. Soviet critics laid into the work with a vengeance.

Eight years later, in October 1977, Vladimov resigned from the Writers' Union in protest over not being allowed to travel to the West to publicise Faithful Ruslan. In a stinging attack, he criticised the union's "dismal mediocrity", its censorship and its role as an instrument of repression. In doing so he deprived himself of the possibility of making a living as a writer. He then became chairman of the unofficial Moscow chapter of Amnesty International.

He eventually emigrated in 1983 to West Germany, settling in Niedernhausen near Frankfurt. There he became editor of the émigré Russian journal Grani. His last years, especially in the wake of his wife's death after what he insisted was a doctor's misdiagnosis, were rather lonely.

In belated recognition of his earlier work, Vladimov won the 1995 Russian Booker Prize for best novel of the year for his General i ego Armiia ("A General and His Army"), the first émigré writer to win it. His novel tells the story of Andrei Vlasov, a Russian general captured by the Nazis who led a force of Soviet PoWs that fought on the German side.

Despite a relatively small literary output, Vladimov produced a set of works that captured the mood of the times, but whose craft will ensure they survive.

Felix Corley

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