As a Button to a Coat

John Lloyd

  • Bitter Waters: Life and Work in Stalin’s Russia by Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov, translated by Ann Healy
    Westview, 195 pp, US $30.00, September 1997, ISBN 0 8133 2390 8

Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov spent eight years, from the late Twenties to the mid-Thirties, on the Solovetsky Islands: part of the time in a monastery fortress where, as we now know, the punishment included lashing prisoners to trees in summer to be eaten to death by mosquitoes, or tying them spreadeagled on heavy logs and letting them be crushed to death as the logs were rolled downhill. Like many survivors of the gulag, he leaves this unrecorded. The Alexander Solzhenitsyns and Primo Levis, who gave their post-camp lives to bearing witness, are the exceptions and, it could be said, paid heavily for that. Instead Andreev-Khomiakov talks about fate: ‘fate was written on the faces of innocent people dying in the camps by the hundreds, marked for sacrifice’; ‘I constantly defied fate, walking the tightrope between life and death’; ‘in 1935, fate suddenly summoned me to the office that issued release papers.’

On his train journey away from the camp he is surprised by the world’s insouciance: ‘in the stations, people were coming and going. I looked at them as though they were wax figures in a museum. Were they really – actual people? There along the sundrenched platform ran two young girls in light dresses, merrily laughing about something ... did they really know nothing, not sense the barbed wire and the man with the rifle at their backs?’ The book which follows is in part an answer to that question: it shows people who did not know, or chose not to find out, what was happening above and about them, but adapted to it as they could, turned away from the malign fates which struck others if they could, tried to keep themselves out of harm by indifference, distance, ingratiation.

The year of his release, 1935, was also the year when the Constitution was promulgated which guaranteed Soviet citizens a panoply of civil rights superior to those in any other civilisation. The next year the Great Purge began, when Communists and officials and officers from every level were sent into the meat-grinders to join the kulaks, the nationalists, the counter-revolutionaries and the reactionaries whom they had sent before them. The prisoner thus emerges into a world of maturing Communism, with a façade of constitutional rights and a totalitarian reality. To us it is a world deprived of detail, however familiar its outline. There are few memoirs of the period written at the base. What survives are victims’ testaments, writers’ samizdats, the autobiographies of senior functionaries. Andreev-Khomiakov was a rarity: a skilled and sensitive writer, condemned by his sentence for ‘counter-revolutionary activities’ (which he does not explain) to being shunned and marginalised, even after release, for the rest of his Soviet life. He does not visit the depths holding his nose or reminding the reader that this is not where he belongs. He has survived, and is grateful enough for survival and relative peace; he works, and is interested in the work, tedious as it is; he takes pleasure in companionship, and has some luck in it; he is limited in who he meets, but within these limits he takes and gives pleasure in observation and delineation of character.

Like every Russian until now, he had to accept un-freedom and the arbitrariness of power. We know this: but what does it mean, in practice; how is submission manifest? Andreev-Khomiakov shows us in little scenes, elegantly and sparely described. For example, on his release, he reports to the NKVD officer in the provincial town in which he decides to settle – it’s worth bearing in mind that the encounter takes place during Beria’s reign of terror.

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