Rosa Mora
Sunday 08 January 1995 00:02

"UNIQUE in the history of mankind": according to Vitali Chentalinski, a 55-year-old Russian poet, the dossiers kept by the KGB have one horrifying distinction: they are unrivalled in the degree of detail they record about every aspect of the live s of their subjects. "Even the Inquisition," he comments in a recent interview, "was not as omnipresent in people's daily existence, nor penetrated their consciousness and controlled them as thoroughly." Chentalinski is at the head of a committee dedicat ed to opening the KGB files on Soviet writers, and to making public the hell they suffered - silenced, compromised and persecuted, many were tortured, forced to make bogus confessions and then executed or left to perish in prison camps. Some of the findi ngs have been published in Russia in the magazine Ogonyok: a book entitled From the Literary Archives of the KGB has appeared in Spain and France, although not yet in this country.

TWO THOUSAND writers, intellectuals and artists were imprisoned in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s; 1,500 died in prisons and concentration camps. The numbers are carefully recorded: the agents of the KGB worked in depth and annotated everything minutely, and many hundreds of files with two sorts of inscriptions - "To be preserved in perpetuity" and "Strictly confidential" - are stored in the Lubianka in Moscow.

Now, a few of these files have come to light, thanks to the efforts of a committee of writers headed by the poet Vitali Chentalinski. The evidence is shattering: Isaac Babel "confessing" that he became a spy under the orders of Andre Malraux, Boris Pilnyak's letter of repentance, documents from the surveillance of Maxim Gorky, poems, manuscripts, drafts - some kept as proof, others listed as having been destroyed. To date, there is no published evidence from the files of Alexander Solzhen-itsyn, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak and many others, but their names appear frequently in the records of the trials of other writers. For inst ance, the summing-up of Boris Pilnyak's case shows how closely Pasternak was followed by the Lubianka police. It was Stalin himself who settled Pasternak's case, with his famous remark: "Leave that celestial being in peace!"

In the face of such testimony - the depositions, transcripts of interrogations, proclamations of sentence - adjectives are unnecessary. If we want to reclaim the truth about the past - for, as Chentalinski says, without the past there is no future - we must allow the documents to speak for themselves. These are a few extracts from the newly opened files: ISAAC BABEL: `I beg you to listen to me'

Isaac Babel was arrested on 16 May 1939 at his dacha. Nine folders of manuscripts and letters were confiscated by the KGB; from his Moscow flat they also seized 15 folders of manuscripts, 18 notebooks and writing pads, 517 letters, postcards and telegrams, and 254 miscellaneous sheets of paper. A receipt clipped to the file shows that Babel was also deprived of his keys, his toothpaste, his shaving cream and even the "worn strap of one old sandal".

Babel was interrogated for three days and three nights (29, 30 and 31 May 1939) without a break. Part of the transcript runs as follows: Q: You have been detained for treasonable anti-Soviet activities. Do you acknowledge your guilt?

A: No, I am not guilty.

Q: But how can you reconcile this protestation of innocence with the fact of your arrest?

A: I consider that my detention is the result of a fatal set of coincidences and of my creative impotence, which has prevented me from publishing any significant work for the last few years. This, in the Soviet view, could be taken as deliberate sabotageand a refusal to write.

Q: Do you mean to say that you have been arrested for being a writer? Don't you think that explan-ation is disingenuous?

A: You're right, of course. Writers don't get arrested for inactivity.

Later, Babel declared: "Lengthy contact with Trotskyists has undoubtedly had a disastrous influence on my work. For many years, these links obscured from me the true face of the Soviet nation; they were the cause of the moral and literary crisis I have suffered for a long time."

He also denigrated his own work: "Red Cavalry was a pretext for displaying my dreadful state of mind, and had nothing to do with what was happening in the USSR."

The KGB agents continued to put pressure on him: Q: You have met a large number of foreigners, quite a few secret agents among them. Didn't any of them try to recruit you as a spy?

A: In 1933, during my second journey to Paris, I was recruited by the writer Andre Malraux to spy for France.

Babel added: "At one of our last meetings [Malraux] referred to the matter again, claiming that unity between people like us, who shared the same ideas and feelings, was important and useful for the cause of peace and culture.

Q: What did Malraux mean by "the cause of peace and culture"?

A: [...] He was referring to my espionage work on behalf of France.

Formal charges against Babel were prepared by 19 June 1939. He was accused of being "a member of a Trotskyist organisation, a spy and a terrorist, who was plotting against members of the Party and the Gov-ernment". He was subjected to a final interrogation, during which, to everyone's surprise, he reneged on some of his earlier statements.

Q: Defendant Babel, do you have anything to add to your statement?

A: I can't add anything to my statement [...] but I request that you take note of the fact that I have committed a serious offence.

Q: What offence?

A: I have slandered certain people and have made false declarations about some of my supposed terrorist activities. I lied out of cowardice.

Babel then sent three affadavits to the public prosecutor's office. "I declare," he stated in one of the documents , "that I have implicated innocent people in my confessions. I beg you to listen to me." They did not. The trial took place on 26 January. It was Babel's last chance. "I do not acknowledge my guilt. Everything I confessed during the investigation is untrue ... I was a friend of Malraux, but he did not recruit me to the secret service; we talked about literature ..."

Babel was found guilty. "The sentence was carried out on 27 January 1940," states the indictment. When Babel was rehabilitated in 1954, the fiscal authorities asked the KGB for the return of any confiscated manuscripts. "No manuscripts or notebooks were kept," was the reply.

MIKHAIL BULGAKOV: `All that is left is for me to kill myself'

Mikhail Bulgakov was never arrested, but he was interrogated at the Lubianka. On 7 May 1926, an agent of the security services confiscated his manuscripts, including a diary entitled "Beneath the Boot". Bulgakov requested the return of these manuscripts,without success. Three years passed, during which he lived in obscurity and poverty.

On 28 September he wrote to Gorky: "Why does the USSR hold on to a writer whose works it won't authorise? To condemn him to death? All my plays are banned, not a single line of mine is published, I have no work and I can't get a single kopeck from anyonefor my writing; no one will reply to my letters; in fact, everything I've written in ten years in the USSR is ruined. All that's left is for me to kill myself. I only ask that they make the humane decision to let me leave."

Bulgakov's folder carries the "strictly confidential" stamp. It includes a letter sent by the writer to the "Government of the USSR". A kind functionary has underlined the most controversial section: " My duty as a writer is to struggle against censorship, of whatever kind, at whatever cost, no matter by what power it is licensed, and in this way to appeal for freedom of expression... I ask the Soviet government to do with me whatever is considered appropriate, but that they do something definite, becausethere is now nothing before me but the prospect of poverty, eviction and death."

The file contains a note, signed with the initials G I, that reads: "He should be given permission to work wherever he likes."

And what happened? The letter to the government was easily enough to have him arrested and sent to the Lubianka, but, according to the testimony of an anonymous informer, Stalin himself intervened. The report tells of a telephone conversation between Stalin and Bulgakov: "Comrade Bulgakov?"


"Comrade Stalin will speak to you in a few moments."

Bulgakov was sure it was a joke, but nevertheless he did not hang up. After three or four minutes, he heard a voice in the receiver: "Forgive me for not replying to your letter sooner, Comrade Bulgakov, but I have been very busy. Your letter interested me very much. I would like to talk to you personally, but I don't know when that could be arranged. In any case, we shall try to do something for you."

The informer added that Bulgakov immediately put through another call to the Kremlin, to say that he had just been telephoned by someone who claimed to be Stalin. It was confirmed by the Kremlin that the caller had indeed been Stalin himself.

The next day, Bulgakov received an offer of work, and his manuscripts were returned to him. He burned his diary "Beneath the Boot", but the text was not lost, because the Lubianka clerks had copied it and it remains on deposit in Bulgakov's file.

BORIS PILNYAK: `I want to live, to work'

File number 14,488 records the last days of Boris Pilnyak, one of the most popular writers in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. He was arrested on 28 October 1937, accused of counter-revolutionary activities, spying and terrorism. His typewriter and the manuscript of his new novel were confiscated. One report describes his friendship with Pasternak: "In 1936, when Andre Gide was visiting the USSR, Pasternak and Pilnyak held secret meetings with Gide, and supplied him with information about the situation inthe USSR. There is no doubt that Gide used this information in his book attacking the USSR."

Pilnyak was tried on 21 April 1938. The proceedings lasted 15 minutes. He spoke these final words to the court: "I have so much work to do. A long period of seclusion has made me a different person; I now see the world through new eyes. I want to live, to work, to see in front of me paper on which to write a work that will be of use to the Soviet people."

He was condemned to death. A small yellow slip of paper attached to the file reads: "Sentence carried out". The confiscated manuscripts "were not preserved".

MEYERHOLD: `I incriminated myself'

Vsevielod Emilievich Meyerhold, the avant-garde theatre director, an enthusiastic supporter of the October Revolution, was detained in 1939. In his file was found a letter which he had written, in despair, to Molotov: "The officers used physical violence... I was knocked down, despite being a sick man of 65. They made me lie face down on the floor and beat me on the feet and over the shoulders with a rubber cosh ... I was screaming with pain ... and I incriminated myself in the hope that by telling them liesI could end the ordeal."

He was shot in February 1940.

MAXIM GORKY The pragmatist Maxim Gorky was never the victim of repression. He lived and died honoured and venerated by the Soviet regime; none the less, the Lubianka file that carries his name is enormous. His correspondence alone (all the letters he wrote, as well as those he received, were copied by agents and spies) occupies a thick volume.

At Lenin's insistence, Gorky left the Soviet Union in 1920, but he was still under total surveillance. The Soviet security forces spied constantly on him and all those around him. Vitali Chentalinski comments: "Reading the files, one could imagine that the Lubianka had set up a branch of the Institute for Gorky Studies: they analysed with great care everything the press had to say about him; they made typewritten copies of magazine articles and even translated texts from different languages."

In 1928 Gorky decided to return to the USSR. A huge welcome was planned; he received an avalanche of letters (the copies, of course, are to be found in the files); Stalin personally selected for him a mansion close to the Kremlin. Yet the surveillance continued. Information on Gorky also appears in other dossiers, especially those of Heinrich Iagoda and Leopold Auerbach, who were in close contact with the writer after his return to Moscow, and his secretary Piotr Kriuchkov. These three men, with many others, were accused in 1938 of Gorky's death in 1936.

There are no fewer than seven versions of Gorky's death, according to Chentalinski. The official Stalinist version claims it was a carefully organised murder with all the hallmarks of the global rightist-Trotskyite conspiracy: Bukharin, Rikov, Iagoda and, from a distance, Trotsky himself. But in the Lubianka are also to be found Gorky's medical records, which chart the daily progress of a fatal illness, and show that Gorky died from natural causes.

Chentalinski's committee has disclosed a wealth of other information on the sufferings of such writers as Pavel Florenski, Nikolai Kliuyev, Osip Mandelstam and many more. There are photographs to accompany the case histories, and evidence from people whocontacted the committee investigating the archives to relate their own experiences. It is the story of a nightmare that lasted too long.

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