«Atrocious acts of repression and persecution directed against millions of people who were punished without having committed a crime have now turned into crimes left unpunished, i.e. crime without punishment. We have still not managed to overcome the illness of amnesia, this chronic disease of society – an exhaustion of consciousness and the sleep of reason which gives birth to monsters. The past slips like a lizard from the past into the present. Given this situation, we could turn into second-graders in the school of history. If this would happen, the crimes would most certainly repeat themselves.” (Vitaly Shentalinsky)
In 1988, Vitaly Shentalinsky was the initiator of the “Committee for the Artistic Heritage of Persecuted Writers in Russia”. In 1989 he began his work in the archives of the KGB on Lubianka Square in Moscow. This work gave rise not only to the books “Slaves of Freedom”, “Socrates Denounced” and “Crime without Punishment”, but also to the uncovering of previously unknown works of Russian writers which had disappeared in the archives of the KGB. Several years later, the archives were closed to all but the relatives of the persecuted. In many cases, these relatives are unknown or have passed away. In this manner, Shentalinsky became a person in possession of unique information.
An excerpt from an interview with the “New York Times”:
“In the years of Soviet rule more than three thousand writers were subject to persecution, perished in prisons and camps. They were not only Russians. The losses were global; almost all Armenian writers, the entire intelligentsia of the small Mari people, all Udmurtian, Altaian Bashkirian and Komi writers.”
The central chapter of the book is called “Nights of Execution”. Its topic is the year of damnation, 1937, in literature. In this very year, the 100th anniversary of Pushkin’s death was celebrated with incredible pomp; at the same time there was a mass extermination of writers in the Lubianka. Among them were also peasant and proletarian writers. The investigators were instructed to “hit the suspect in the face during the first interrogation”. One of them wrote: “In the course of one evening we processed about 500 people and condemned several of them to death each minute.” They shot the victims during the night, drowning their own fear with vodka, and then tossed the corpses into a huge ditch in the Donskoi monastery. “The names of writers were transformed in to the numbers on executioners’ lists. We are doing the opposite: transforming numbers back into names.
My heroes were murdered in the night. And the darkness of those nights has still not dissipated. This is not only because the witnesses have passed away, not only because the details can no longer be reconstructed or because the documents have been destroyed or falsified, but also because there has to this day been no juridical treatment of the matter, not a single trial of the murderers, from Stalin to the honored executioner Blokhin, from the ones who ordered the murders to the killers themselves.”
Shentalinsky’s book has rightly been called a “Russian Nürnberg trial”. Vitaly Shentalinsky managed to find manuscripts which were considered to be forever lost even by the writers’ biographers. He liberated “arrested words”. For example, Anna Akhmatova, who detested Stalin, wrote an ode of praise to him on December 21, 1949 and published it in the legendary “Ogonyok” magazine. It was an act of despair, an attempt to save her son Lev Gumilev, who had been sent to a labor camp, from the fate of his father, who was shot for “anti-Soviet activity”. In the archive, he also found a copy of the diary of Mikhail Bulgakov which was confiscated in a search of his home in 1926. As soon as Bulgakov got the diary back he burned it, but the secret police NKVD had made a copy. This was a confirmation of Bulgakov’s own statement that manuscripts do not burn. This time it was the Lubianka itself which played the role of the devil which returned the burned text. “Andrej Platonov’s unknown ‘Technical Novel’ was also found, as well as drafts of Gorki’s letters to Lenin which were apparently stolen from Gorki’s apartment. The main proletarian writer of the USSR wrote: ‘It would be better to starve to death than to allow the things that they are doing to me.’”
Unbelievable things were found – a previously unknown letter of Lev Tolstoi to a teacher named Pochuyev with an original signature of Tolstoi. The texts of the interrogations, including those of Mandelstam who did not allow the words of his poems to be twisted into political messages, also survived in the archive. Mandelstam wrote down his subversive poem „We live without feeling the country beneath us“ during one of the interrogations.
Dozens of volumes of such interrogation documents (sometimes splattered with blood), which could have emerged in the same room or the one next door, were also studied. The most torturous of all are the denunciations of other writers. One learns from the story about Akhmatova that the „commissar of museums“ Nikolai Punin was responsible for the death of her husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilev. She later married him and spent 15 years of her life with him without knowing the role of his denunciation in the arrest of Gumilev. In the end, Punin himself was send to a Soviet concentration camp.
“The Arrested Word” will be a compilation from Shentalinsky’s books “Slaves of Freedom”, “Socrates Denounced”, and “Crime without Punishment” (which also may be published separately). Among the heroes of this book are well known names such as those of Nikolai Gumilev, Maxim Gorki, Anna Akhmatova, Mikhail Bulgakov, Osip Mandelstam, Issak Babel, Marina Zvetayeva, and Andrej Platonov.