Mikhail Shatrov: Playwright whose work asserted that Stalinism was a deviation from Leninism

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The Independent Online

Mikhail Shatrov was one of the Soviet Union's pre-eminent playwrights, producing a series of historical dramas that used archival sources to portray Stalinism as a deviation from Leninism. Nevertheless, even under Stalin's successors Khrushchev and Brezhnev, several of his plays were banned.

He was born Mikhail Marshak; his uncle was Alexei Rykov, who succeeded Lenin as Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars of the USSR and was one of the most prominent victims of Stalin's 1938 purges. Guilt by association meant that his father was one of around 30 other relatives who were also purged, and his mother was sent to a Gulag.

At school he edited a Komsomol newspaper, published stories and, from the early 1950s, had plays produced, but with his mother in prison he was forced to attend Moscow's Mining Institute, graduating in 1956. Beginning his literary career, he changed his name to avoid confusion with his cousin Samuil Marshak, a children's author. In 1957 he announced himself with In the Name of the Revolution.

In a series of assiduously researched historical plays, Shatrov shook up the anodyne and often mendacious genre of "Leniniana", which had sanctified the former leader. Drawing on archival sources and including the protagonists' actual words, Shatrov called them "dramas of fact".

Few moments in the formation of the Soviet state escaped his attention, even if they – or his treatment of them – were contentious. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1962) included portrayals of Trotsky, Bukharin and Zinoviev, but as they were still beyond the pale it was banned for 26 years. In 1989, with the support of Vanessa Redgrave, the Vakhtangov Theatre brought the production to the Lyric, Hammersmith.

The 6th of July, about Felix Dzerzhinsky, the notorious first chief of the Cheka, premiered in 1964, its huge popularity replicated four years later by the film version. In The Bolsheviks (1966), set on a single night in August 1918, the fatally wounded Lenin, though offstage, is a constant presence by way of a stream of telegrams.

Finland's declaration of independence following the Russian Revolution was covered in Trust, filmed in 1976. Slightly more fanciful is Tehran-43, a romance-thriller about a post-war investigation into a Nazi plot to assassinate the allied heads at the Tehran conference. The 1981 film, also known as Assassination Attempt, was a would-be prestigious co-production starring Alain Delon and Curt Jurgens, with Charles Aznavour on the soundtrack.

Shatrov was one of the many who supported dissident writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuri Daniel at their trial in 1966, but his own dissidence was more limited: he was a Party member and won a State Prize for his historical plays in 1983. Nevertheless, he had his problems: in 1982 This is How We'll Win was delayed, as it quoted Lenin's doubts about Stalin and, as Literaturnaya Gazeta noted, portrayed him as "suffering and unable to understand... a victim of tragedy."

But Lenin was always his hero. In The Dictatorship of Consciousness (1986) journalists question him but he is exonerated at the expense of Stalinist excess and Brezhnevian stagnation. Stalin was not, Shatrov insisted, Lenin's heir: "If he is a Communist, then I have to leave the Party immediately."

Onward, Onward, Onward! (1988) is Shatrov's most outspoken and formally adventurous play, alternating the events of 1917 with a future limbo in which Stalin is held to account for his crimes by some of his victims. Lenin angrily cuts short the argument that he was continuing his predecessor's treatment of ideological traitors. Turning to the audience Lenin urges them onward along a socialist path. The play ends with a prolonged silence and the direction: "We all long for Stalin to go. But he does not go." When the play was published in the literary magazine The Banner, there was a storm of both praise and denunciation.

Perestroika and glasnost boosted Shatrov's career and he was recognised as one of those who had pressed for political change. As travel became easier he visited both California's Hoover Institute and Britain's Public Records Office to research plays. He also taught at Harvard in 1992-93.

Although Shatrov's revelations were dynamite early in his career, his reverential view of Lenin was increasingly seen as problematic – but his role as an agent of change cannot be gainsaid.

Mikhail Filipovich Marshak (Shatrov), playwright and screenwriter: born Moscow 3 April 1932; died Moscow 23 May 2010.