Stalin: the horror behind the image
Review by Corinna Lotz
Precious evidence of the resistance to Stalin’s terror and the horror of the purges is the focus of an exhibition in the British Library. During the years when it was almost impossible to get information in and out of the Soviet Union, the Library became a safe repository for evidence of the “blank spots” of Soviet life.
Displayed in two cases we get a glimpse of the personality cult engineered to cover up the monstrous reality of life. Disturbing objects include a Nazi propaganda map of the Soviet Union showing the location of Stalin’s gulags (camps) as well as a tiny smuggler’s edition of Solzhenitsyn’s book, The Gulag Archipelago. Astonishing flights of fantasy are revealed in the drawings of Boris Sveshnikov.
The work of the Memorial Society in collecting photographs and biographies of Stalin’s victims shows how material is still being brought together to this day. Admission to the exhibition (in the library foyer) is free and it is open seven days a week. The Library is on Euston Road between St Pancras and Euston stations. Open until 30th April.
Interview with curator Chris Thomas about how the items were collected
Voices from Stalin’s camps – British Library curator Chris Thomas tells some of the stories behind a group of documents currently on display.
Chris had the daunting task of choosing from a vast number of materials stored in the British Library to give an idea of what Stalin’s rule really meant. The horror of Stalinism comes through the painstakingly collected and preserved books in the Library’s grand entrance hall, compressed into just four glass cases.
We are also given glimpses of how people resisted and how the process of coming to terms with history is still going on to this day, albeit at a snail’s pace, compared to the halcyon years of glasnost during the late 1980s. Chris explains:
“Here at the library you can follow a particular book through its various incarnations, where somebody has been edited out and someone else was inserted. For example, the well-known Soviet biologist Zhores Medvedev wrote a marvellous book which was published there in samizdat and later reprinted in London called ‘How to censor a book’.
Medvedev had made a disrespectful remark about Lysenko, Stalin’s favourite geneticist, in a book about ageing in the 1960s.
“One particular page of this was condemned. All the copies were withdrawn from the railway stations just as they were being delivered. But then a friend of his went on a business trip to a provincial town and said: ‘I’ve just bought your book!’ They had replaced the page with something else. Through some friends Medvedev sent us both books - the original one and the cancelled one with the substituted pages. We did pride ourselves on this!”
From Lenin’s time onwards the Library was seen as somewhere that things were kept safely, forever, regardless of changes in Russia. Lenin and people who used the British Museum Reading Room in the 19th century were particularly good at this. Lenin, for example, sent pamphlets published in Geneva and Paris.
“We have lot of Trotsky material which was later withdrawn from Russian libraries or had things crossed out. Our collection is only a small sample of what is in Russia, but we have some things which didn’t survive there.”
Before the break-up of the Soviet Union there were no orthodox ways of getting books out. You couldn’t purchase them because the rouble was a non-convertible currency.
“We obtained many things by international exchange. We sent government publications and they supplied materials which they thought were suitable in return. So we got them virtually for nothing.”
This was how the Library acquired items like the album Construction of the USSR which came out each month in different languages. With large photographs and innovative design it was a glossy showcase of what was being achieved in the 1930s.
“They are terribly valuable now because they were designed by famous avantgarde artists like Rodchenko and El Lissitsky during the 1920s.”
A bizarre publication with photomontages showing prisoners working in the camps, under a huge clock, is the curator’s pride and joy.
“It projects the grotesque myth that all the prisoners were terribly merry. The magazine was produced by their cultural sections. It has poems to Stalin, little ditties and short stories written by the prisoners – edited by the KGB camp chief.”
The Library bought it, she explains,
“from an amazing Russian bookseller in Paris who spent his life collecting things which might otherwise disappear. His father had joined the White Army as a young man of 18, and finally ended up working in the Renault factory near Paris. He gave his son the task of keeping alive the torch of Russian culture. They collected ephemeral things belonging to the émigrés in Paris, some of which were the records of the Russian Taxi Drivers Association but also books made by the forced labourers, a relic of the first Five Year Plan, the Moscow-Volga canal book – produced with no expense spared!”
Some items, such as an edition of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's famous Gulag Archipelago , are selected from the Library’s big collection of Polish “samizdat” underground publications. They were acquired by an intrepid Polish curator working at the Library.
“Her family had been arrested and taken to Kazakhstan – she smuggled back things in her underwear and later got some really good collections from someone in Solidarnosc.”
There is an album of phantasmagorical drawings by Boris Sveshnikov, “a young lad who went out to buy a can of kerosene sometime in the 1940s and didn’t come home for 10 years”. Boris’ almost unreal story was that while studying art in Moscow, one of his fellow students had written a fantasy teenage diary where he claimed aristocratic origins to impress his girlfriend. As a result, Chris explains,
“a whole load of them were rounded up and accused of belonging to an anti-Soviet terrorist organisation and sentenced to eight years in a labour camp. After two years in a really hard labour camp, his family managed to exert influence through a geologist who was working near the camp and he got transferred, half-dead to another camp where he got to work as a night watchman.
“He managed to use materials from the cultural-educational section to draw at night. But the story of how the drawings got out is also extraordinary. A former prisoner who knew he would never get work again. He had stayed on in the camps and worked in the stores and was allowed to go in and out. He was the former Latvian Minister for Foreign Affairs and knew the Latvian Ambassador in London. He managed to smuggle out 20 of these drawings.”
Influenced by Goya, Sveshnikov’s pen and ink drawings are in an exquisite surreal spirit, close to writers like Bulgakov.
The last case has a copy of a samizdat-style broadsheet, called Svoboda – freedom. This was published by the Memorial Society which was formed during 1987-1988, the years of the very last prosecutions for “anti-Soviet activity”. Memorial’s aim was to record all those who died as a result of Stalinism. It has published a book of short biographies of people buried in a communal grave outside Moscow, including Rose Cohen, an English communist who died there. Probably about 5,000 copies of these may have been printed around the year 2000.
At that stage, Chris recalls,
“I heard of someone in Russia who was independently collecting such things. Those years, the late 1980s and early 1990s were so exciting, almost magical. Soviet scholars and librarians could visit here. I would meet people at Russell Square station when people would give me a whole bag of forbidden underground literature for a few dollars.”