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Voices From The Russian Abyss

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Vitaly Shentalinskys The KGBs Literary Archive (Harvill paperback, special Indian price 7.50) describes how the Soviet system cracked down on its creative writers and artists in the 30s and 40s to establish the Soviet empire based on fear and terror. Shentalinsky, a minor writer of stories and poems in the Brezhnev period and now President of a commission to enquire into writer-victims of the repression had had access to the KGB archives, which forms the basis of the book.

The KGBs initial reluctance was understandable, because their files contained the entire history of oppression of 20th century Soviet literature. Over 1,500 writers had been killed; thousands more had been imprisoned and their writings impounded or destroyed. As Anna Akhmatova commented during the first thaw under Krushchev in the late 50s: The prisoners are returning and two Russias are looking at one another in the eye: those who sent people to the camps and those who were imprisoned there. She added, I would like to name them all by name/ But the list has been confiscated and is nowhere to be found.

Shentalinsky has resurrected the missing list and described what happened to a range of striking literary figures such as Isaac Babel, Boris Pilnyak, Pavel Florensky, Osip Mandelstam and others from the highest ranks of culture and literature. The great theatre director, Vsevolod Meyerhold, had been arrested in 1939. Nothing further was known of him until his file was opened in 1991. It is in this file that Shentalinsky found Meyerholds letter from prison to Molotov, the head of the Soviet government. Its a chillingly detailed account of how truthful confessions were obtained:

The investigators began to use force on me, a sick, 65-year-old man. I was made to lie face down and then beaten on the soles of my feet from above. For the next few days, they again beat the red, blue and yellow bruises with the strap and the pain was so intense that it felt as if boiling water was being poured into these sensitive areas. I howled and wept from the pain. When they added the psychological attack, the physical and mental pain aroused such an appalling terror in me that I was left quite naked and defenceless. Lying on the floor, I discovered that I could wriggle, twist and squeal like a dog when its master whips it. My body was shaking so uncontrollably that the guard escorting me back asked: Have you got malaria? Fright arouses terror and terror forces us to find some means of self-defence.

Shortly after sending this letter, Meyerhold was executed and his cremated remains thrown into an unmarked grave.

What kind of beasts carried out these interrogations? In the case of Isaac Babel, an indication of the interrogators abilities is provided by their level of education. Lev Schwartmann left school at the age of 14, while Boris Rodos only stayed at school until he was 11. In 1956 when Schwartmann and Rodos themselves came up for trial, the judges asked the latter what a certain Babel, whom he had investigated, did for a living: I was told he was a writer. The judge asked, Have you read a single of his stories? What for?

You could read the detailed interrogation procedures, case by case, where the person under investigation was asked to prove his own guilt and why he had been arrested... one of the inventions of Soviet jurisprudence. But Shentalinskys account makes two points clear: first the extent to which the victims confessions were extorted under pressure, and second, the extent to which almost every step had been recorded in the files because Stalin had insisted that everything had to be set down in writing.

The modus operandi makes nonsense of what many communists and fellow-travellers claimed were the virtues of Soviet justice. Shentalinsky quotes a conversation between Meyerhold and Yagoda, then the secret police chief (he was himself executed later). When the director asked him what a person should do if he found himself in the hands of the KGB, he replied, Deny everything. No matter what accusations we might make, keep saying no to everything. Deny everything and then we are powerless... But the KGB was a very persuasive organisation, and invariably the victims succumbed, especially when the family was threatened. It happened to all the writers and artists mentioned here, and it happened to a great many heroes of the Soviet Union later.

Why did the interrogators put everything down on paper? Is it just because the Kremlin crag-dweller (Mandelstams description of Stalin) insisted on it? To an extent, this could be true, but much more importantwas the firm belief that the communist state was there to stay for all time to come. Like God, the communist state believed that History was on its side.

Mandelstam had once said that poetry was nowhere valued so highly as in Russia: there people were shot for it. When he knew that his fate was sealed and the interrogator asked him to read out some poems that might have been the reason for his arrest, he read two poems, one after the other:

But the walls are accursedly thin, Theres no place more I can run, And, like a fool, I must sit And play on a comb for someone.

The second was an acknowledgment that his days were numbered:

We live without sensing the country beneath us,

At ten paces, our speech has no sound

And when theres the will to half-open our mouths

The Kremlin crag-dweller bars the way.

First Published: Sat, April 12 1997. 00:00 IST