True tales from the black Lubyanka

The KGB's Literary Archive
March 29, 1996

As the Soviet Union approached its demise, no less dramatic than the political changes that caught our attention was the flood of new and often breathtaking information, secrets of a murky and horrific past, the laying bare of Soviet history. Prompted by Vitaly Shentalinsky, poet, Arctic geologist and walking encyclopedia of Soviet literary history, the Writers' Union formed a Commission for the Literary Legacy of Writer-Victims of the Repression, and established a surprisingly productive working relationship with the KGB, especially one Colonel Krayushkin. The doors to the archives creaked ajar and the flagship magazine of glasnost, Ogonek, began to publish extracts of Shentalinsky's findings. These, with the editor's illuminating commentaries, are published here in full.

Stalin, ruling increasingly through his security organs, sought out real and potential enemies, decimating the Communist Party, the industrial administration and the military top brass. More and more fantastic plots were invented to justify their "legitimate" liquidation. From sources first in semi-fictional form, Anatoly Rybakov's novel Children of the Arbat, and then documentation by Dmitri Volkogonov in his biography of Stalin, the Soviet public learnt how Stalin's henchmen prepared the "unmasking" of all these enemies of the people. Shentalinsky has now produced the documents which show how poets and writers - none of them able to plot anything more sinister than a play or a novel - were handled inside the Lubyanka, as the "organs" worked to create yet another vast conspiracy against the regime.

Stalin may have been planning a major show trial of Russia's best writers as foreign spies and saboteurs. Perhaps the war intervened, perhaps he sensed the ridicule such an absurd plan would arouse in the outside world. Only access to Stalin's own archives might hold the key. In any event, no show trial of writers was staged. Such trials as took place were the summary hearings that kept the dossiers tidy, put a final stamp of "legality" on the proceedings, and established the true date of death. (Public trials of writers did not take place until the mid-1960s and the burgeoning dissident movement under Brezhnev.) Fifteen hundred writers of the Russian Federation perished, leaving their literary archives and their forced testimony in the hands of the police, who duly catalogued and boxed them. Shentalinsky has made a judicious selection, guided partly by his own choice, partly by the material gathered during his sojourn in the vaults of the Lubyanka as an intrepid and audacious researcher. His subjects include writers Isaac Babel, Mikhail Bulgakov, Boris Pilnyak and Maxim Gorky, scientist-theologian Pavel Florensky and poet Osip Mandelstam.

Writers were well qualified to assist in their own incrimination. The NKVD (the secret police during the purges) would "encourage" the accused to write down the explanation of their own arrest, and to take as much time as they needed to produce evidence of their own guilt. Like the others, Babel corrected and edited numerous drafts of his depositions, as he sought in vain to incriminate himself sufficiently to earn his tormentors' pardon. He presented himself as an influential Trotskyist and a spy for France and Austria who had been egged on by Ilya Ehrenberg to supply information to the French writer Andre Malraux.

Babel scripted the plot with characteristic flair. The film director Eisenstein, the Yiddish actor Mikhoels, the writer Olesha, were all "unmasked" as anti-Soviet intriguers. Most astonishingly, NKVD head Yezhov's wife, Babel's former mistress, figures as a link in the great conspiracy, of which Yezhov, now being interrogated in the Lubyanka as a master spy and Trotskyist saboteur, was a prime mover. When Babel tried to recant, his appeals were ignored and he was shot the night after his one-hour "trial" in January 1940, nearly a year after his arrest.

Bulgakov, although he was never imprisoned, was interrogated at length in the late 1920s. He would not accept the new code of political correctness. He agreed that he was an anti-Soviet writer and urged the authorities either to deport him or let him make a living. He was briefly permitted to work in the theatre, but until his death in 1940 he lived in fear of arrest, his writing was banned and he was deprived of the right to work.

The same technique of conspiracy building was applied to thousands of priests. Among them was Father Pavel Florensky, engineer, physicist, geologist, aesthetician, philosopher and theologian. Florensky was spared until 1929. Then, after years of prison, interrogation and internal exile, he ended his days in the Arctic island camp of Solovki, where he was put to work in the laboratory of an iodine factory. His conversations were used against other intellectuals, and in December 1937 he was shot, having denied all his previous testimony.

As Shentalinsky points out, inside the labyrinth of mirrors it is often difficult to know whether a revealed connection was volunteered or extracted by force. The whole system was so thoroughly permeated with mendacity, generated by torturer and victim alike, that the hardest facts that may remain are the dates of executions.

John Crowfoot's concise summary of Soviet literary history usefully complements the author's insider expertise, while his collection of potted biographies of a long list of Soviet writers provides a handy guide. Shentalinsky has already assembled his second volume of documents from the KGB archives, and it is eagerly awaited, both for its content and for the author's account of the differences, if any, between working in the Lubyanka of a free Russia and his experience under the old regime.

Harold Shukman is lecturer in modern Russian history, University of Oxford.

The KGB's Literary Archive

Author - Vitaly Shentalinsky
ISBN - 1 86046 072 0
Publisher - Harvill
Price - £18.00
Pages - 322
Translator - John Crowfoot

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