Hugo Dewar 1966

The Katyń Massacre

Source: Problems of Communism, Volume 15, no 3, May-June 1966. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Review: Thaddeus Wittlin, Time Stopped at 6:30 (The Bobbs Merrill Company, New York, 1965).

* * *

Mr Wittlin’s book deals with the 1940 Katyń forest massacre of Polish officers who had been taken prisoner by Red Army forces after the Soviet attack on Poland in September 1939.

The statement in the publisher’s blurb that the book ‘proves beyond all doubt the Russians were responsible’ for this appalling atrocity (4253 bodies were taken from the mass graves) is unnecessary, since convincing proof to this effect was put forward back in 1952 by a Select Committee of the US House of Representatives. The Committee concluded specifically that ‘the Soviet NKVD was responsible’ (Interim Report, 2 July 1952, US House of Representatives, no 2430, p.37), thereby upholding the findings of a Nazi investigation that had been conducted through the International Red Cross in 1943. The nine volumes of evidence gathered by the committee attests to the thoroughness and completeness of the probe conducted by US authorities. An attempt to refute this mass of evidence was made by the Soviet authorities, who inspired yet another inquiry in Poland in 1952 (see Zbiór Dokumentów, no 5 (Warsaw, 1952, Polish and French text), the result of which, of course, was a foregone conclusion.

Particularly impressive was the manner and content of the evidence given before the US Select Committee by an American infantry officer named Van Vliet, quoted extensively by Mr Wittlin (pp.288-304). Lt Col Van Vliet, a prisoner of war in German hands, had been taken to Katyń during the 1943 investigation. He stated that at that time he had very much wanted to believe the massacre was ‘entirely German propaganda and a German plot’ (Final Report, Union Cal 792, Report no 2505, p.5, US Government Printing Office, 22 December 1952). However, the evidence of his own eyes had been too strong for him, although he refused to commit himself while still in Nazi hands. Only after his release as a prisoner of war did he make a report to the War Department stating the conclusion to which, with the utmost reluctance, he had come.

On the basis of the committee hearings and also of information given to him by surviving prisoners of war, Mr Wittlin gives a semi-documentary, semi-fictional account of life in the Ostashkov, Kozelsk, and Starobelsk camps, where the doomed officers were imprisoned. In this section of the book a great number of Polish officers and intellectuals are introduced. The story of what happened to these men, and of the subsequent investigation into their deaths, is then told – sometimes in the form of an imaginative reconstruction of the scene, sometimes by direct quotation of the evidence presented at the Select Committee hearings. All those introduced to us in the camps make their final appearance as corpses disinterred from the mass graves of Katyń forest.

Mr Wittlin has painstakingly sifted the vast amount of evidence amassed and has made use of what is essential to his purpose with considerable ingenuity. His purpose, quite evidently, and laudably, has been to give his subject appeal for the widest possible audience. He has tried to do this by placing emphasis on the fictional ‘wrapping’, by constantly shifting the scenes, and by introducing extensive ‘colour’ material – his own personal experience, for example – which has little or no direct bearing on the main theme. The documentary aspect consequently suffers, and the book as a whole lacks the logical structure that the subject demands. Despite these shortcomings, Time Stopped at 6:30 is a highly readable account of one of the most inhuman chapters of the Stalin era.

Tamara Deutscher 1972

Solzhenitsyn: An Appraisal

Source: Ramparts, May 1972. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

One of the characters in Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward exclaims in a voice muffled by fear:

These literary tragedies are just laughable compared with the ones we live through... Children write essays in school about the unhappy, tragic, doomed... life of Anna Karenina. But was Anna really unhappy? ... She was a free, proud human being... So why should I read Anna Karenina again? Maybe it’s enough what I have experienced. Where can people read about us – us? Only in a hundred years’ time?

Solzhenitsyn’s three major works (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward and The First Circle) deal precisely with the true, the real tragedies of contemporary Russia.

* * *

Born in 1918, Alexander Solzhenitsyn belongs to the generation which grew up and came to young manhood in the darkest years of the Stalinist era. He was only 15 or 16 when Kirov’s assassination became the pretext for wholesale deportations, murders and purges. He now tells us that unlike the great majority of his contemporaries, he reacted sharply against the deafening vociferations of Stalinist propagandists and against the multitudes who joined them in cursing the myriads of ‘Kirov’s assassins’ on their way to the sub-Polar regions or Siberian wastes. Very early on he began to doubt the wisdom, the justice and the omniscience of the Father of the Peoples.

Like his counterpart in The First Circle, Gleb Nerzhin (in Russian the name is suggestive of nezhnyi – gentle, tender), he graduated from the university just before the German attack on Russia, in June 1941, and in the first months of the war, because of ill-health, served in the uninspiring role of a ‘driver of horse-drawn vehicles’. Later on, as a mathematician, he was transferred to an artillery school, went through a short course, and in November 1942 was already put in command of a battery with which he stayed in the front line without a break until the beginning of 1945. He was twice decorated for bravery.

In January or February 1945 Captain Solzhenitsyn was suddenly arrested, stripped of his rank, and a few months later sentenced to eight years of imprisonment in corrective labour camps. After serving his sentence, he was sent into exile ‘in perpetuity’ which, mercifully, ended in 1956. The basis of his arrest? ‘Disrespectful remarks’ about Stalin in letters to an old school-friend, and some ‘stories and reflections’ found subsequently in his bag.

Years of various camps, prisons and exile provided Solzhenitsyn with the warp of his three major novels. He first ‘burst’ upon the Soviet Union with his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, published in the literary magazine Novyi Mir in 1962. The publication was ‘officially authorised’ by no less a person than Khrushchev, not because of his love of literature, but because the novel was of use as a political weapon in his battle with the old Stalinist bureaucrats, by that time beginning to lift their heads again after their temporary defeat at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956.

Solzhenitsyn handles his raw material with the utmost delicacy. His novel (or memoir) is highly realistic, yet there are no scenes of cruelty, no atrocities. The greyness, the monotony of that one day are even relieved by some fleeting good-humoured jokes, by some pleasurable moments like opening a parcel from home, or savouring a bite of sausage. The impact of the story is all the greater, because there are no horrors against which the reader unconsciously mobilises his inner defences; there is instead the ‘terrifyingly... unchanging routine year after year...’. In another of his books Solzhenitsyn says: ‘The horror is in forgetting that your life – the only life you have – is destroyed.’ Ivan Denisovich ends his day, ‘A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day.’, and goes to sleep ‘fully content’, without apparently giving a thought to the fact that in his stretch ‘there were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that’.

In the narrative of Ivan Denisovich’s day Solzhenitsyn gives proof of his great power of observation: of his fellow prisoners, of their guards, and, last but not least, of the nature which surrounds them. He holds up a mirror to reality, yet he knows how to handle that mirror so that it moves unerringly from detail to detail, never staying a moment too long in one place or at the same angle. He also possesses the gift extremely rare in the apprentice to literature; the art to sketch a portrait by means of a very few light strokes so that not only the outward appearance but a full personality emerges.

The story of Ivan Denisovich, of the camp, and of its inmates bears the imprint of an authenticity which needs no literary effects to transmit the author’s ‘feel of prison [that] only comes from having been inside for long, long years on end...’, that unmistakeably:

He was there.
He himself with his human air.

The two volumes of Cancer Ward and The First Circle do not possess the same degree of directness.

When still in camp, Solzhenitsyn developed cancer of the stomach. After an operation, which did not improve his condition, he was on the brink of death until he was sent to a Tashkent cancer hospital, where he recovered completely. In 1967 the Soviet Establishment gave proof of boundless stupidity when it prevented the publication of Cancer Ward already set up in print for Novyi Mir.

It has been alleged that in Cancer Ward there is ‘not a single word of warmth’, that it is ‘gloomy’, that ‘everyone [in it] is a former prisoner...’, that it is ‘anti-humanitarian’ (whatever that may mean), that it is ‘downright nauseating’, and, of course, that Solzhenitsyn is ‘slandering the Soviet Union’. Needless to say, none of these reproaches contains even the slightest grain of truth. The subject may be ‘gloomy’, but the strength of the book lies precisely in Solzhenitsyn’s transmutation of his material. He refrains from stunning us by a display of festering sores; he is much more concerned with the patients’ state of mind and qualities of heart than with the state of their bodies. In the one hospital ward he assembles a whole gallery of people, young and old, of various ethnic groups, from different walks of life, different social backgrounds and education, of different occupations, preoccupations and ambitions. What binds them together is illness, suffering and fear of death. One may see in this cancer ward a microcosm of Soviet life. Or, one may be tempted – as some critics were – to see it as a symbol of a whole society ravaged by a malignant tumour.

Solzhenitsyn himself stresses in the novel that in the conflict of good and evil, of life and death, it is life that ultimately triumphs: his main character, Kostoglotov, is cured and goes out of the murky hospital into the bright and dazzling sunshine of Tashkent. True, he does not yet return to full freedom, but he returns to life, savouring his own vitality as he delights in the ice-cream bought from a stall, or in the kvass or in the smoky shashlik, and in all the odours and colours of the southern city.

But even in the ward now left behind, not all was gloom and darkness. In it was a microcosm of the Soviet world not only of former prisoners – though they formed a fair proportion of the inmates – of wretched muzhiks, cynical black-marketeers or petty Stalinist bureaucrats, but also of devoted nurses who could not be bribed, of heroic doctors whose lives in their entirety were dedicated to science, and who gave their patients much more than their professional skill, and much more than ‘a single word of warmth’ – they all were, after all, the product of a society so deeply eaten into by Stalinist poison and which yet preserved some healthy body cells.

If Cancer Ward may be viewed as the microcosm of ‘free’ Soviet society, with The First Circle we return to a world enclosed by high prison walls. Mavrino is an exceptional labour camp where the highest intellectual élite of the Soviet prison population is engaged in secret scientific work. To any man transferred there from the sub-Polar regions, Mavrino seems a real heaven, but ‘all the same, it is hell, just as before, but it is hell’s best and highest circle’ to which Dante consigned the sages of antiquity.

At Mavrino physicists, mathematicians, radio and telephone engineers, chemists, technicians and philologists are all engaged in the urgent task of ‘scrambling’ the human voice in order to construct a device which, like fingerprints, would help in identifying anyone speaking on the telephone. The search for this is an obsession of Stalin himself, of whom Solzhenitsyn gives a highly suggestive though somewhat demonological picture. The action of the novel is compressed into three days at the end of 1949, but within that short span of time the reader is introduced to over 70 dramatis personae: Lev Rubin, the philologist, who remains a faithful Stalinist; Adamson, one of the giants of the 1920s who ‘wanted the revolution to remain pure’; Sologdin, forever scaling the Olympian heights of unblemished moral perfection; Doronin, the Hochstapler, trickster, the artful dodger, the over-clever informer who finally slips up badly; Spiridonov who had ‘ploughed the land and forged the steel’ and therefore possesses ‘the wisdom of those who work with their hands’ and who is, in some ways, modelled on Tolstoy’s Karatayev. We also have administrators and supervisors – jailers of the camp to whom a bureaucratic career was more congenial than a scientific one. Outside the great wall, in nearby Moscow, life goes on ‘as usual’. Although we see not a single worker, we meet the long-suffering and despairing wives of the prisoners, the big party and state security bosses, and the lesser Stalinist informers and careerists; there is also the opulent, demoralised, thoughtless family of the State Prosecutor, his wife and his children, whose fate becomes curiously entwined with Mavrino prisoners.

One of the characters in The First Circle derides the inveterate Russian fashion ‘to write like Tolstoy’, and yet The First Circle itself, Solzhenitsyn’s most ambitious work, is truly Tolstoyan in scope, though it lacks the leisureliness and the epic quality of Tolstoyan writing. Solzhenitsyn’s master is Tolstoy, not only in the literary form, but also in a deeper philosophical sense: Nerzhin paraphrases Tolstoy when he says: ‘I draw my conclusions not from the philosophers I have read, but from stories you hear about people in prisons.’ Or when he brushes aside ‘intellectual interests’ because: ‘There’s a lot of cleverness in the world, but not enough goodness.’ He rejects, of course, the ‘Communist’ Rubin and involves him in a debate with Sologdin, in which the brilliant philologist is driven into casuistry, gets entangled in the most contradictory and illogical arguments and ends by pushing the whole principle of dialectics into an impasse of absurdity. Nor has Solzhenitsyn much feeling for Adamson, the member of the old Bolshevik guard, imprisoned in the first phase of Stalin’s fight against the opposition. True, now and again, Solzhenitsyn brings to the forefront a representative of the old generation and makes him reiterate his ‘faith in socialism’ or utter some edifying but long-forgotten Leninist principle. Perhaps with an excess of Christian forgiveness, he places on the same level the time-servers who applauded Stalin’s purges with those who either faced the firing squad or lingered to death in hard labour camps. To Kostoglotov, who most often speaks with Solzhenitsyn’s voice, it was all a matter of ‘the number you happen to draw. If the position had been reversed, it would have been just the opposite: you’d have been the martyrs, we’d have been the time-servers.’ Shulubin, one of those who had applauded, even in a bout of remorse, still absolves himself: it was not he, ‘a small man’, but others who had not acted resolutely enough. Why didn’t Lenin’s widow raise her voice against Stalin? Or Ordzonikidze, ‘a real eagle of a man’?

At this point for all his professed devotion to truth Solzhenitsyn falters. In the whole body of his work there is not a single mention of Trotsky, Stalin’s most powerful protagonist. He cannot plead ignorance. Like his chief character in The First Circle, Nerzhin, all through his youth he ‘vowed that he would get at the truth’ of the Great Purges. And he did, though in tragic circumstances. In prison he met a few survivors of the holocaust, the only ones who could enlighten him: ‘They were not surprised at how much he had pieced together, but were able to add a hundred times more.’ And so he learned about the deportees of 1929 on the Yenisei river and about the heroic strike at the Vorkuta camp. He must have learned also that the strike was led by the most active, most recalcitrant and most numerous of the Vorkuta inmates – the Trotskyists and their sympathisers. (Trotsky’s elder son perished at Vorkuta.) [1] Yet for Solzhenitsyn, Stalin’s anathema on Trotsky still seems to remain in force. (For understandable reasons he might have omitted Trotsky’s name from Cancer Ward as the book was scheduled for publication; but The First Circle does not mention Trotsky either, though it had no chance to appear in Russia. Stalin’s musings on his victory over ‘those loud-mouthed quibblers with their little pointed beards’ who were all ‘shot, ground into the soil of Siberia...’ may be construed as an oblique and ambiguous reference to Trotsky.)

Solzhenitsyn’s philosophy is certainly not that of a revolutionary fighter. His is Tolstoyan ‘non-resistance to evil’. It is meek submission to God that he preaches. When the young Dyoma, whose leg is eaten up by cancer, asks, ‘Why is it that there’s such rank injustice in fortune itself?’, the saintly Aunt Styofa answers: ‘It depends on God... God sees everything. You should submit to him.’ Alyosha, the Baptist, guileless and unable to fend for himself, whose bunk adjoins that of Ivan Denisovich, is paying the highest price for his faith – he is slowly dying from exhaustion. Yet he is ever ready to help others and is the one on whom everybody else can count. His beautiful and sweet face, his ‘eyes glowing like two candles’, leave no doubt that he was speaking the truth: he was happy in prison. Note that the first meaningful scene in The First Circle is the one in which the Jew Rubin joins five Germans, former officers, at an improvised Christmas meal and stands up with bowed head as one of them recites a prayer.

Although Tolstoy, with his own personal vision of Christianity and his rejection of philosophers’ wisdom, is clearly Solzhenitsyn’s master, there are Dostoyevskian strands too in his writing. There is, first of all, the intense Slavophile patriotism. It is not the recent past, not the Soviet victory over the Nazis, not even the saga of 1812, but a more remote ideal of the twelfth century, or of the fourteenth-century battle of Kulikovo in which the Russians heroically repulsed the Tartar hordes that quickens Solzhenitsyn’s imagination. He exhorts his countrymen to guard this precious ‘glorious heritage’ and devotes a short story to Zakhar, the hot-tempered muzhik who with humble piety and boundless dedication watches over the historic ground as a kind of ‘guardian angel’.

In another story Solzhenitsyn exposes the silly hooliganism of youngsters who try to disrupt an Easter religious procession. We come across a curious patch of Dostoyevskism here: ‘Among the believers I catch a glimpse of one or two Jewish faces. Perhaps they are converts, or perhaps they are just onlookers... We all curse the Jews, they are a permanent nuisance...’ From the Jewish faces Solzhenitsyn turns his glance to the shrieking boys and girls whom he calls ‘the builders of the new society’ and notices that they are tall: ‘... at least our race gets no shorter’, he remarks with satisfaction (my italics). Is it pedantic to recall in this context that while Nerzhin refuses to join the cryptographic unit knowing only too well that he will be hurled into the real hell of the ordinary camp, Rubin cooperates with his jailers, and, at their behest, finally identifies the voice of Innokenty Volodin, delivering him into the clutches of the Security Police; that the Jew Roitman, Major of the KGB, spent the war years far from the front devising first systems for ‘scrambling’ telephone conversations; that among other informers – Russian and Latvian – there is also Isaac Kagan who had the trust and confidence of other inmates?

Solzhenitsyn’s roots as a writer reach deep down to the rich traditions of the nineteenth-century Russian literature. Like his predecessors, he is a profoundly committed author, and considers himself as such. In this he is even more explicit than Belinsky whose maxim was: ‘Art without ideas [philosophical and socio-political] is like a man without a soul; it is a corpse.’ ‘Literature’, says Solzhenitsyn, ‘that is not the breath of contemporary society, that dares not transmit the pains and fears of that society, that does not warn... against threatening moral and social dangers... does not deserve the name of literature; it is only a façade.’ Talent imposes certain duties, he adds, and above all the duty to watch over the health of society.

Is Soviet society really one huge and doomed Cancer Ward or has it enough vitality and strength to get rid of the Stalinist tumours? In spite of the cruel persecution of a galaxy of writers, in spite of the crass stupidity and brutality of the rulers, Soviet society still seems to possess a great deal of regenerative power. Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Writers’ Union, but not without a bitter struggle in which some of his colleagues showed tremendous courage. They proclaimed the end of the old ‘reptile-like crawling literature’ (Kaverin); they told other members, nine-tenths of you will be forgotten, while Solzhenitsyn’s name will long be remembered. ‘You have spoken out against freedom of the press, against creative freedom, and have thereby gone over to the camp of obscurantism...’, wrote the old Bolshevik convict Kosterin to the celebrated Stalinist writer (and Nobel Prize winner) Sholokhov.

The old quacks like Brezhnev, or Kosygin, or Sholokhov, or Fedin will never cure Russia, but only those who pass from hand to hand, from reader to reader, typed copies of forbidden books read in thousands and thousands of copies: ‘Organise mass raids, seize all the tapes, all the copies, arrest their authors and those responsible for their circulation – even so, at least one copy will escape... and will be duplicated in ever greater quantities’, wrote G Vladim to the Presidium of the Writers’ Congress.

The young Vladimir Bukovsky, sentenced recently to 12 years of prison and exile, defiantly and prophetically proclaimed: ‘The process of spiritual enlightenment of [Soviet] society has already begun and it cannot be stopped.’

Here perhaps lies hope.


1. Deutscher is mistaken here; she may mean Trotsky’s younger son Sergei, who died in captivity in the Soviet Union – MIA.