Soviet writers: artists, public conscience

July 07, 1996|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Special to the Sun

"Arrested Voices: Resurrecting the Disappeared Writers of the Soviet Regime," by Vitaly Shentalinsky, The Free Press. 309 pages. $25.

Writers were so feared by the Soviet Union that Stalin killed 1,500 of them in his purges. As Mr. Shentalinsky points out in his literary history of those dark days, the Russian writer always had to be more than an artist. In a nation without democratic traditions, writers served as the public conscience - and were persecuted by czar and communist alike.

At the end of 1987, Soviet citizens were confronting their past rewriting their history as Mikhail Gorbachev's "glasnost" permitted a truthful examination for the first time. Mr. Shentalinsky began his own crusade, to restore what the KGB had stolen from so many writers. He wanted to give them their voices back by ferreting out the lost manuscripts seized by the secret police. He wanted to look at the files of their interrogations, imprisonments and deaths, and tell the world what happened to them.

Winning access to KGB records, he read endless pages of arrest, betrayal and imprisonment, where torture exacted confessions. He found Isaac Babel, a highly regarded short story writer from Odessa, shot Jan. 27, 1940. He read the unforgettable poems of Osip Mandelstam, who died in the gulag 1938.

He read about Pavel Florensky, a brilliant scientist and theologian who contributed to a renaissance in religious thinking before the Revolution. He was shot in the gulag in December 1937, at Solovki Island.

He found files, too, on those who were tolerated and eve adored by the regime. They had to be watched, and controlled.

This is a valuable work, though one destined to be little read. Most Westerners will find it tedious, filled with names they've never heard. Most Russians don't have time for it. They're too busy trying to find a way to make money and stay alive.

But it is through works like this that Russians are confronting and expiating, their guilt. Unlike Eastern Europeans, Russians have not been eager to uncover informants or assign blame for the past. Mr. Shentalinsky reminds us why: Nearly everyone was to blame, from those who were silent, to investigators who fabricated evidence to opportunists content to accuse a more successful colleague.

"The Communist ideology was not something external, and imposed by force, but lodged itself deep in our minds and thoughts," he writes. "The Soviet way of life came to seem natural to us and indestructible. ... The main battlefield lay within, in the conscience and understanding of each individual."

His book will prick those consciences, forcing the kind of understanding of the past that Russians desperately need if they are to survive the future. And he reminds us of something else: If this was the kind of country willing to kill because of a poem, it had the kind of people who were willing to die for a poem.

Kathy Lally, a Sun reporter, was the newspaper's Moscow correspondent from June 1991 to July 1995.

Pub date: 7/07/96

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