“Writers have always occupied a special position in Russia,” writes Vitaly Shentalinsky at the opening of this book.
“For lack of democratic institutions, the Russian writer has never been just an artist, but a spokesman for the truth and a public conscience as well.
“Alexander Herzen called Russian literature the ‘second government,’ the true authority in society. This book is an authentic and documented account of what happened to writers and their works in the Soviet period.”
What happened was, of course, terrible.
It began with Lenin, of whom Shentalinsky says “for Lenin people were no more than raw material with which to feed the bonfires of world revolution.”
In 1921 the poet Alexander Blok was “dangerously ill,” Shentalinsky writes. The writer Maxim Gorky begged Lenin and Anatoly Lunarcharsky, the People’s Commissar for Enlightenment, to let Blok go to Finland for treatment. While they considered this request, Blok died. A few days later another poet, Nikolay Gumilyov, was shot as a member of an anti-Bolshevik conspiracy, although there “was no evidence of his involvement,” Shentalinsky says.
From this point on, to a crescendo under Stalin, writers showing any spark of opposition to the increasingly totalitarian state were imprisoned or sent to internal exile; many were tortured and executed and their works were suppressed and destroyed. In an introduction to this book, the historian Robert Conquest says that “some 1,500 writers perished.”
Shentalinsky is chairman of Russia’s commission on the fate of the writers of the Soviet era and their works. Working laboriously from 1988 to the present with a resistant but finally cooperative KGB, he retrieved and pored over mound upon mound of secret police files to bring to light the fates of writers and their works.
It is remarkable what excellent records modern totalitarian states maintain. Their own documents helped mightily to convict the Germans at Nuremberg. The Lenin and Stalin files are still closed. The now-opened secret police files incriminate the Soviet state.
Shentalinsky tells the stories of just a handful of writers who were destroyed--some were murdered, some were driven to suicide, some exiled to camps and the works of all of them were suppressed. Some of the victims were well-known in the West: Isaac Babel, Osip Mandelstam, Pavel Florensky, Boris Pilnyak. Marina Tsvetaeva was driven to suicide; Anna Ahkmatova’s complete works could only be published in Russia in the late 1980s.
Those who were not destroyed were corrupted. The Writers Union headquarters became a den of opportunists, toadies and just plain frightened people.
Shentalinsky’s book is a melancholy account of the gross abuses humans with power can deliberately inflict on their fellows, and a tale of the helplessness of most people.
The poets Mandelstam and Nicolay Klyuev, he writes, “alone remained firm and uncompromising.”
More typical is Babel. Famous for his work of the civil war, “Red Cavalry,” he had been sympathetic to the revolution but became increasingly horrified by it and in the 1930s had stopped publishing.
In 1939 Stalin’s police chief, Lavrenty Beria, ordered him arrested. Over the next few months he was questioned at a torture center. The interrogators wanted him to admit he was an accomplice of the exiled Leon Trotsky and had been a spy. He denied, admitted, incriminated friends, then denied some more until his statements became a hopeless tangle of truths, evasions and statements both self-incriminating and self-exculpating.
He was shot Jan. 27, 1940.
An interesting chapter of the book is devoted to Gorky, for years Stalin’s favorite writer. As Lenin saw people as fodder, Shentalinsky writes, for Gorky “the individual had intrinsic value.”
But in the service of the revolution, Gorky bartered such principles for a comfortable life.
Shentalinsky’s book and his work with the commission are moral acts of human affirmation. “Arrested Voices” is a powerful way of saying “Never again!”