"Stalin's Meteorologist" by Olivier Rolin is the story of a simple scientist caught up in extraordinary circumstances whose life has been overshadowed by the mystery of his death.
Alexey Feodosievich Wangenheim was born in 1881 in the village of Krapivo in the Chernigov Province of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. His great misfortune was to serve as a meteorologist at a time when those who orchestrated the collectivist farming fiasco that resulted in the deaths of untold millions were looking for scapegoats. Who better than the man whose job it was to predict the weather?
On Jan. 8, 1934 , Wangenheim was supposed to meet his wife, Varvara, for a night at the opera in Moscow when he was whisked away by secret police to the Lubyanka, headquarters of the secret police, the GPU. After a ruthless interrogation, Wangenheim confessed to "a clandestine counterrevolutionary organization within the Hydrometeorological Department." He was promptly arrested and deported to the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea not far from the Arctic Circle. The ancient monastery there had been transformed into the first work rehabilitation center of the Main Directorate for Camps and Detention Facilities, a.k.a. the Gulag.
Wangenheim never saw his wife or young daughter, Eleonora, again.
Although he was charged for espionage and economic sabotage, Wangenheim didn't know why he had been arrested. He was never told what he was supposed to have done that led to his arrest. Believing it all to be a terrible mistake, he retracted his confession and embarked on a tireless letter-writing campaign to petition for his release.
We know this because of the letters he sent home to Varvara, which contained illustrations he made with colored pencils for his daughter. Wangenheim drew pictures of birds and foxes and even a reindeer. He illustrated the berries that grew in the spring. He drew different types of leaves to help Eleonora learn to count.
It is these illustrations that captivated Rolin when he saw them in a book produced by Wangenheim's daughter, who reproduced the letters as a testament to her love for a father who'd been taken from her when she was only 3 years old.
"I was moved by this long-distance conversation between a father and his very young daughter, whom he would never see again, his determination to play a part in her education despite being far away," Rolin writes. He became enchanted with the story of the artful meteorologist. What happened to him? What became of Varvara and Eleonora?
This is the first English translation of "Stalin's Meterologist," which was awarded the Prix du Style when it was published in France in 2014. Throughout, Rolin exhibits a light touch with many discursive asides to ensure the darkness of his story doesn't swallow up the reader. Establishing his subject's scientific credentials, he breaks free of the narrative to speed things along: "Let us move on quickly, we're not writing his CV."
By telling the story from the inside out, Rolin proves to be a comforting and companionable guide to a gruesome period of history. Although the past he takes us through is irredeemably bloodthirsty, he confidently leads us back to the present, a seeker of light in a world of uncompromising bleakness.
Wangenheim, Rolin assures us, adjusted to his new life at Solovetsky. After a period of working outdoors planting trees he was moved to the library, which had 30,000 volumes. Some dating back to when the ancient monastery was a place of worship and study, some obtained from prisoners who passed through the Gulag. In fact, many of Wangenheim's fellow prisoners were artists, intellectuals, clergymen and nobles, assembled "by the iron fist of the arbitrary ":
An erudite Catholic bishop rubs shoulders with a former head of the assault sections of the German Communist Party, an austere meteorologist crosses paths with a Romany kind. Extreme political violence has thrown them together here, on this island hemmed in by ice six months of the year, enveloped by the long night of winter draped in the aurora borealis.
Wangenheim does not come across as particularly heroic. He fervently clung to his belief in the party and was confident that the truth would come out and he would be sent home. "We wish he could be more articulate, more rebellious," Rolin observes, "but no, he continues to be a good Communist, a good Soviet crammed with ideology, his convictions seemingly unshaken by the fate that awaits him."
Wangenheim displayed this conviction by crafting mosaics of party leaders out of chipped stone. In his last letter home to Varvara and Eleonora, he included a mosaic of Stalin. Wangenheim's incarceration transpired during what Rolin refers to as the "ordinary terror" of life under Stalin during the run-up to the Great Terror of 1937-38 when things got decidedly worse for everyone.
In October 1937, Wangenheim was given two hours to pack his belongings and was shipped, along with 1,116 other prisoners, to the seaport of Kem. One prisoner died en route. Five others were sent elsewhere. The remaining 1,100 vanished, their fates unknown for 60 years.
It is a mystery that was only recently solved by the Memorial Service, an organization dedicated to uncovering the horrific crimes of the Great Terror. Through its efforts, it has discovered the heartbreaking facts of what happened to professor Wangenheim and his fellow deportees.
"The only slender satisfaction gained from studying these brutal times," Rolin concludes, "is to note that nearly all the killers ended up being shot. Not by popular, international or divine justice, shot not by the Justice, but by the tyranny they served to the point of ignominy."
While there are no happy endings in "Stalin's Meteorologist," it serves two functions: for readers to pay tribute to the victims by bearing witness to their oppressor's crimes, and to understand the measures dictators take to silence their enemies, even a devoted husband and father with his head in the clouds.
Ruland is the author of the novel "Forest of Fortune" and the host of the reading series Vermin on the Mount.
Olivier Rolin, translated by Ros Schwartz