A forest of lies behind a pin-up's murder

Comrade Pavlik
June 9, 2006

For the Soviet Union, 1932 was a pivotal year. With typical triumphalism, Stalin proclaimed the completion of the first Five-Year Plan 12 months ahead of schedule; the Union of Writers was established to lead the way in marshalling the arts; and a blind, paralysed Civil War veteran overcame adversity to publish How the Steel Was Tempered , a novel that became the blueprint for hundreds of socialist-realist novels. By the onset of winter that year, meanwhile, a million peasants had starved to death; Shostakovich had completed the last act of his uproarious opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in the tragic vein, depicting convicts trudging along the road to Siberia; and roughly in the same neck of the woods a teenage boy and his younger brother had been stabbed to death while out picking berries.

The teenager was Pavel Morozov, who, legend has it, in the name of the Father (Stalin) denounced his real father as an enemy of the people for resisting collectivisation. He was murdered by vengeful relatives who did not share his devotion to the revolutionary cause. Thereafter, with the help of Pioneer Pravda , the newspaper published by the Soviet children's organisation, "Pavlik" Morozov, as he affectionately came to be known - he was too young to be addressed as "comrade" - was fashioned into an early Communist martyr and pin-up boy, with his icon regularly placed next to that of Lenin. That statues of Pavlik Morozov were still being put up in places as far-flung as Sri Lanka in the 1970s serves to demonstrate the extent of the extraordinary cult of personality that formed around his image.

As with all the other Soviet saints, the process of toppling Pavlik Morozov from his perch began with the onset of glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s. Catriona Kelly may not be the first person to strip the "Soviet boy hero" down to size, but her deconstruction of the myth is the most objective and thorough. The significance of the story she tells, moreover, since "Pavel's biography was brought to embody both the present horror and the future promise of the Russian village", goes far beyond elucidating what happened.

The Pavlik Morozov case can be viewed almost as a metaphor for the entire history of the Soviet Union - a magnificent Potemkin village that was all façade. If Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is a murder mystery about the search for a motive, this is a murder mystery in search of any hard facts at all, as nearly every detail crumples to dust when exposed to the harsh light of scholarly scrutiny. Kelly's unexpected coup was access to the archives of the former KGB, but she also collected valuable material by travelling to the remote village in the Urals to see the scene of the crime herself and to interview survivors. Although the wealth of detail may overwhelm non-specialists, her research is accompanied by excellent illustrations and is set in an impressively wide frame of reference. Making a comparison with the elephant-in-the-living-room nature of the Irish question, for example, she defines Stalinist culture as a "living room where everyone knows that the tea cosy in the corner conceals a severed head, rather than a silver teapot, but no one alludes to this distasteful fact, while talking constantly and obsessively about the beauty of the tea cosy". The author faces this unsavoury subject with an admirably unflinching gaze.

Rosamund Bartlett is reader in Russian, Durham University.

Comrade Pavlik: The Rise and Fall of a Soviet Boy Hero

Author - Catriona Kelly
Publisher - Granta
Pages - 352
Price - £17.99 and £9.99
ISBN - 1 86207 747 9 and 845 9

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