Obituary: Lev Razgon

Harry Shukman
Tuesday 21 September 1999 23:02

THE EVER-WIDENING gates of glasnost in the late 1980s released a stream of Soviet writers, journalists, intellectuals and academics whose itineraries in the West inevitably followed a path around the Russian departments of British universities. Among those whose memory can still evoke the excitement of those days was Lev Razgon, who visited St Antony's College, Oxford, in 1990.

At the age of 82, with a shock of thick white hair, piercing dark eyes and an impish smile, he exuded energy and youthful enthusiasm, belying the 17 years he had spent in Soviet labour camps. He recounted his life as a political prisoner without rancour. With no less amazement than his audience, he marvelled at the changes that were taking place in the Soviet Union and that had been inconceivable only a year or so earlier.

Born in 1908 in Gorki in the province of Mogilev into the family of a Jewish skilled factory worker, Lev Emmanuilovich Razgon graduated from the history faculty of the Mogilev State Teachers Training Institute in 1932, having already become known as a critic of children's and young people's literature. A Party member from the late 1920s, his career as a writer had begun promisingly with successful children's stories, when in 1938 he was arrested "for counter-revolutionary agitation" and flung into the Soviet gulag system. Unlike many inmates of military age, he was not sent to the front during the war, but sat it out until 1955, when Khrushchev amnestied vast numbers of the camp population.

Within a few years of his release and his return to Moscow, Razgon resumed writing, beginning in 1961 with a children's book, and continuing to publish every few years in the same vein, as well as stories based on the lives of famous scientists. It was not, however, until 1988 that he gained widespread acclaim as a writer, when excerpts from his memoirs, Nepridumannoe ("Not Made-up"), began appearing in Soviet journals. (They were translated into English by John Crowfoot as True Stories, 1996.)

He had been writing them for 20 years, with little hope, he confessed, that they would ever see the light of day. In the course of his time in the camps, he had encountered a wide range of individuals from all walks of life and all classes of both the old and the new society. They had told him their extraordinary life stories and he transformed them into the vivid narratives of his memoirs. Among these was a top party official, a Tsarist officer, an actor, and most amazingly the wife of Mikhail Kalinin, the titular Head of the Soviet State who remained untouched throughout his wife's ordeal, and after whom indeed the city of Kaliningrad had been and still is named.

Although Razgon was manifestly of a dissident frame of mind, his name was not associated with the dissident movement of the 1960s, nor with the campaign for Jewish emigration in the 1970s and 1980s. But in 1988 he became a member of the board of Memorial, an organisation set up to commemorate the victims of Stalinism and to secure their complete rehabilitation.

Harry Shukman

Lev Emmanuilovich Razgon, writer: born Gorki, Belarussia 1 April 1908; married 1933 Oksana Boky (died 1937; one daughter), 1943 Rika Berg (died 1991); died Moscow 8 September 1999.

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