Obituary: Lev Kopelev

While the latter years of the Soviet regime saw countless cases of former hardline Communists who reconstructed themselves as would-be former liberals, if not outright dissidents, Lev Kopelev belonged to the group whose dissident credentials could never be in doubt.

Born in Kiev in 1912, he was a fanatical Communist in his youth and an ardent participant in the collectivisation campaign of the late 1920s and early 1930s, when thousands of young Bolshevik activists roamed the villages to persuade, cajole and, if all else failed, with military force terrorise the peasants into pooling their resources in collective farms.

He graduated from the Moscow Foreign Languages Institute as a specialist in German and during the Second World War served as a propaganda officer among German prisoners. Like many other intellectuals who erroneously believed that the end of the war signalled a relaxation of the regime's mind control, he uttered critical remarks about the barbarism of the Red Army in occupied Germany, and was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in the camps. In a KGB camp-within-a-camp reserved for scientists - a sharashka - he met another future pillar of the Soviet dissident movement, Alexander Solzhenitsyn; later he served as the model for the character of Rubin in Solzhenitsyn's 1969 novel The First Circle.

Kopelev was released in 1956 and as a labour of love took on the task of getting Solzhenitsyn's work published. In 1962 he showed the manuscript of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to Alexander Tvardovsky, editor- in-chief of the magazine Novy Mir and harbinger of change in cultural, if not general, policy during the 1960s. It was at this time that Khrushchev was feeling the pressure mounting from the reactionary Stalinist elements in the leadership and One Day served the purpose of reinforcing the policy of de-Stalinisation that he had launched in his famous "secret speech" of February 1956. If anything, its publication probably had the opposite effect: while in the West this event was interpreted as a sign of liberalisation, inside the Soviet Union it only added to the already long list of "errors" that would be used against Khrushchev when he was ousted in October 1964 and the Brezhnev era of retrenchment was ushered in.

Kopelev, with his patriarchal white beard and rabbinical appearance, seems not to have taken an active interest in the movement for Jewish emigration which would snowball after 1970, but in 1965 he signed a protest against the arrest and trial of the samizdat writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, and was thereafter a prominent activist in the human rights movement, associated with such luminaries as Andrei Sakharov, Pavel Litvinov, Alexander Ginzburg and General Peter Grigorenko, as well as Solzhenitsyn himself.

Expelled from the Party in 1968 for an article, published in the West, (belatedly) warning of a resurgence of Stalinism, and for letters in support of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, Kopelev began publishing articles and books, again in the West, on the horrors of collectivisation and the Gulag. In particular, his work on the camps, To Be Preserved Forever ("Vechno khranit", the stamp on every political prisoner's dossier), aroused considerable interest when it was published in the West in 1976. In 1977 he was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers, which meant he could no longer publish inside the Soviet Union, and was thus also cut off from all legal means of employment and sources of income.

In November 1980 he and his wife, Raisa Orlova, a literary critic, were permitted to leave the Soviet Union, ostensibly so that he could continue scientific research in West Germany but, since they were both stripped of their Soviet citizenship in 1981, they had effectively been deported from their native land.

Lev Zinovievich Kopelev, writer: born Kiev 1912; married Raisa Orlova (died 1989); died Cologne 18 June 1997.

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