KGB files yield literary gems

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 September, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 September, 1997, 12:00am

In January 1988, the poet Vitaly Shentalinsky wrote an open letter to the newspaper of the Writers' Union, Moscow branch, asking for the opening of crucial files locked in the vaults of Lubyanka, the headquarters of the KGB.

Throughout the 1930s, some of the Soviet Union's brightest and best novelists, philosophers and poets had disappeared into the torture chambers of Lubyanka and from there to the execution yard or the dreaded concentration camps of Kolyma in Siberia. Their works were confiscated and relatives were sent terse one-line letters when they had allegedly died.

Shentalinsky knew that the truth about their fate lay in these KGB files and that maybe some of their works in progress had survived the secret police incinerators.

Not surprisingly, the Writers Union, being a puppet of the Communist Party, refused to publish his letter.

However, this was the era of perestroika, and Shentalinsky found an ally in Alexander Yakovlev, a member of Mikhail Gorbachev's inner cabinet, who got him admittance to Lubyanka.

Many of the names he found are new to me; some, such as Isaac Babel and Osep Mandelstam, already hold a place in the pantheon of Russian literary greats.

Shentalinsky is no historian, so his book lacks the thoroughness expected of most serious academic studies. Sometimes his writing is disjointed, as he switches from the past to the present, and he has a tendency towards hyperbole and melodrama when these true stories do not need dramatic embellishment.

His strength lies in his enthusiasm and his poetic insight, which enables him to comprehend his subjects' works and empathise with their plight.

If it had been Britain and not Russia suffering from such a dictatorship, we might have been discovering the fate of the young martyrs Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, George Orwell and W H Auden cut down in their prime, and reading, for the first time, their final works.

Shentalinsky discovered some gems, such as Mikhail Bulgakov's diary, Nikolay Klyuev's epic poem The Song of the Great Mother, and Andrey Platonov's vicious satire of Soviet society, Technical Novel.

The files also reveal, sometimes in harrowing detail, how these gifted men and women were broken down during gruelling interrogations, and where and when they met their deaths.

Sometimes there is a marked difference between the date and location given to loved ones at the time and the actual year and place of death.

For surviving relatives - and there are many - it may be a small consolation to know where to lay their wreaths and shed their tears.

Most of the writers were killed on Stalin's orders in the late 1930s. Most were dead by the time of the German invasion in 1941.

The propaganda campaign to bring all writers and artists under strict control and espouse the virtues of a proletarian culture began in 1932, with the adoption of Socialist Realism.

At first, this meant that authors such as Babel and Mandelstam, who refused to conform to this literary straitjacket, simply could not get published. Early arrests led to mild rebukes, then release.

But in the mid-1930s, the show trials began.

Each Lubyanka inmate was subjected to a mixture of physical and mental torture.

They were forced to incriminate friends and family and confess to the most outrageous and preposterous crimes. One prisoner, law professor P. Giludyanov, compared it to the 'trials by confession' of the early Middle Ages: 'The suspect, in the medieval trial by confession . . . was not considered innocent even when there was no evidence against him,' he said.

One of his tormentors, Yakov Agranov, described it thus: 'Our tactic for crushing the enemy was to confront all these scoundrels and set them against each other.' And crush them he did. The first prison picture of Mandelstam shows a man, as Shentalinsky puts it, gazing 'directly at the camera, and at us, without any fear in his eyes'.

By the time the NKVD (as the KGB was known then) had finished with him, he was psychotic and had tried to commit suicide.

Mandelstam had composed a poem about Stalin, but only told a few chosen friends. He had committed it to memory, and therefore felt safe. When his KGB interrogator recited it word for word, he knew his fate was sealed.

'Fat fingers as oily as maggots, Words sure as 40-pound weights, With his leather-clad gleaming calves, And his large laughing cockroach eyes.' Mandelstam was starved for long periods, and then given salty food but deprived of water. He was forced to listen while his wife cried in an adjoining cell.

The mental torture was often the worst. When the cleric and brilliant scientist Pavel Florensky, whom Shentalinsky calls a 'Russian Leonardo da Vinci', was told that his library had been confiscated, he said: 'A lifetime's work has perished . . . this is worse than death itself . . .'.

What comes through in all these stories, however, is the strength of the human spirit.

At the military tribunal in 1940 which sentenced him to death, Babel retracted his confession and proudly stated: 'I am totally innocent, I have not been a spy and I have never committed any acts against the Soviet Union.' One of the pictures in this book shows the smiling face of a lovely young woman, the ethnographer and poet Nina Hagen-Torn. She used her resilience and defiant spirit to outsmart her interrogators, and with her powerful imagination endured many years in the labour camps, surviving to tell the tale.

She wrote: 'Even in the deepest stone-walled box, you can teach yourself to hear the lapping water, see its silvery radiance, and cease to notice that you are locked in and that your body cannot reach air or sky.' Shentalinsky admits that he has only scratched the surface. There are some Communist Party and presidential archives still to be opened. They might give us a better idea of how many people Stalin killed during the purges. And there may be hidden in these dusty vaults masterpieces of literature and philosophy waiting to be found and marvelled at.

Given the communist nature of both the Soviet Union and China, it seems likely that similar files must also exist in closed archives in China.

Perhaps, eventually, these dusty shelves will give up equally fascinating stories.

The KGB's Literary Archives by Vitaly Shentalinsky Harvill, $130