By Vikas Datta (09:58)
Some of the most memorable, enduring literature has been inspired by history’s bloodiest eras – the French Revolution, trench warfare in World War I, the Spanish Civil War, the Nazi killings, the partition of India and its dangerous dislocations, the Cambodian and the Rwandan genocides and so on. But these are not only intended as harrowing records of those turbulent times but a warning against their recurrence. So is it about the Stalin era with its pervasive paranoia and fear, violent purges, mass repression, ‘justice’ dealt on torture-achieved confessions and denunciations, historical manipulation – and an over-arching personality cult.
Stalin succeeded Lenin in 1924 but it was only a decade later the terror began. The Great Purge, targeting all institutions and supplanting any rival, would continue till 1940, when perforce halted by World War II, resume afterwards – though in smaller scale – and end only with his death in 1953. Though it was first officially acknowledged in Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, some authors had brought some aspects to public attention much earlier.
There are some indications in Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” but the first published record is Hungarian-born British writer Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon” (1940), the account of an old Bolshevik’s arrest for “treason”, torture for “confession” and eventual execution. Though the character is called Rubashov, he may well be named Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev or any other of Lenin’s old associates eliminated in the purges.
George Orwell’s allegorical novella “Animal Farm” (1945) is a sharp attack on Stalin’s rise and reign, while the more terrifying, dystopian “1984” (1949) has, as the state’s figurehead, the dark-eyed, heavy moustachioed “Big Brother” (an unmistakable description).
Then there is Ilya Ehrenburg’s “The Thaw” (1954) – the first Russian work to allude to Stalinist terror, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (1962) influencing other books on gulag existence.
Even well into the new century and far from Russia, the period still attracts authors and has led to some engrossing works which recapture the tense, perilous atmosphere. The pride of place must go to Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s “Sashenka” (2008) and “One Night in Winter” (2013), both loosely linked with some common characters, both real and fictional.
“Sashenka” begins in Tsarist St Petersburg in 1916 when the eponymous heroine – a willful teenager – spurns her privileged background to join the Bolsheviks and ends up as a secretary to Lenin. In 1939, she is long married to a leading figure of the regime, who survived the purge and is so trusted that one night Stalin and his entourage drop in for dinner.
But one moment of indiscretion is all needed to unravel her and her family’s life. In the third part set in the 1990s, some dedicated researchers, funded by an Russian oligarch, uncover her shocking fate and that of her two children.
“One Night in Winter”, set in World War II’s aftermath, is no less stomach-wrenching as the escapades of a bunch of a privileged teenagers go tragically wrong and enmesh their parents – all members of the ruling elite – in a relentless witch-hunt, powered by a power struggle between rival intelligence chiefs – Beria and Abakumov. The teenagers have to inform on each other and their parents while their siblings as young as six and ten years are also picked up and threatened. Meanwhile, the parents have to go on as nothing has happened.
Another view of the claustrophobic times and the innumerable pitfalls – especially for a honest man – is offered in William Ryan’s series about a mid-1930s Moscow police captain, probing a range of criminal cases – all with sinister political ramifications and perils galore for the investigator.
Debuting in “The Holy Thief” (2010) where a murder case grows complicated once it is found the woman victim is American, Captain Alexei Dimitrevich Korolev is next sent to a film location in Ukraine (“The Bloody Meadow”, 2011) to probe the “suicide” of a woman – reportedly in a relationship with then NKVD chief Yezhov. Then he has to investigate a killing of scientists right in view of the Kremlin in “The Twelfth Department” (2012), while trying to ensure the safety of his family from the state.
Stalin prominently features in the Inspector Pekkala series by American author Paul Watkins (pen name Sam Eastland) but these deserve separate treatment for a most innovative treatment of the era and his depiction – ranging from almost reasonable to painfully paranoid and untrustworthy.
On the other hand, readers interested in historical treatment could pick up Sebag-Montefiore’s “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” (2005) and Orlando Figes’ “The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia” (2007).
(11.01.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)