Almost exactly 80 years ago, on 3 November 1937, the NKVD executed the renowned Ukrainian theatre director Les Kurbas. Kurbas was not alone that day – a large group of Ukrainian writers and intellectuals were executed alongside him. The loss of so many of Ukraine’s cultural community resonated deeply with their compatriots, and those who had been executed became known in Ukraine as the ‘garrotted renaissance’.
This execution was a tiny part of one of the most significant moments in Soviet history, a chain of events often referred to as the Great Terror. As the Terror swept through Soviet society hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens were arrested and executed, from
the political elite down to the most humble worker.
It was not uncommon for writers and thinkers to be executed or imprisoned during this period, although it was unheard of for so many to be executed together. To grasp why this was so, we need to understand a little more about the complex and varied reasons why writers were arrested or imprisoned.
For some Russian writers, it really was the words that flowed from their pen that were their undoing. Perhaps most famously Osip Mandelstam’s poem – characterising Stalin as ‘the Kremlin crag-dweller’ and comparing his eyes to cockroaches – led to his arrest and sentence to the Gulag. Mandelstam died en route to his destination.
In the case of the ‘garrotted renaissance’ it was not what they wrote so much as their Ukrainian nationality that was the key to their fate. This is confirmed when we examine the interrogation files of the writers in question. Within the pages of Mandelstam’s interrogation file, the focus was very much on the content of the writing, and possible interpretations. During his interrogation, Mandelstam’s interrogator, N.K. Shivarov, actually asked him to compare different drafts of his poem about Stalin and comment upon them.
Even in the interrogation file of Isaac Babel, who was accused of conspiring with Trotskyists, there is much discussion of the former’s writing, and of the effect that his regular meetings with anti-Bolshevik editors and writers had on his work. Babel was executed in January 1940.
In the interrogation files of Ukrainian writers, the focus on the actual creative output of the writers is almost entirely absent. Instead, these interrogations are largely focused on the possibility of the Ukrainians being members of anti-Soviet nationalist groups. The opening statement written by Kurbas in his interrogation file begins: ‘ I hereby… admit that I belonged to the counter-revolutionary terrorist organisation the UVO.’ His
statement goes on to detail how his work at the Berezil theatre in Kyiv led him to join the UVO (in Ukrainian, the Ukrayins’ka Viys’kova Orhanizatsiya or Ukrainian Military Organisation).
Why this change of emphasis? What was so different about the Ukrainian intelligentsia? Were they really all members of underground nationalist organisations, writing poems and plays by day, and plotting to murder Stalin by night? The answer lies in the broader context of the 1930s. As the decade opened, Ukraine had become a problem for the Soviet leadership.
During the 1920s, Ukrainian language and culture had been recognised and positively encouraged by the Soviet leadership, as part of the policy of ‘Ukrainisation’, a pragmatic attempt to win over the peoples of the former Russian empire to the Bolshevik cause. However, by the early 1930s the policy was reversed, amid rising fears of anti-Soviet forces working within the Soviet Union. Bordering Poland, Ukraine was considered both a conduit and breeding ground for spies, and as such allowing Ukrainian language and culture to thrive was seen as too great a risk.
Those who had held prominent roles in the creation of a confident, articulate Ukrainian culture – many of them writers, critics, and university professors – were now identified as enemies. Their crimes were not rooted in their writing as such, but in their supposed nationalist aims. And on that day in November, this supposed threat was extinguished with one brutal blow – not just as a punishment, but as a warning to any other Soviet citizen who might be quietly nurturing nationalist hopes.
Does the nature of the execution matter? Is it even possible for us to compare the manner of one execution to another? Hardly. However, these subtle differences do shed a little light on the dynamics of the Terror: reminding us that it was not just one homogenous act of state violence but a complicated process, with small but important variances.
Polly Corrigan is a PhD candidate in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London, where she is currently writing her thesis on the Soviet political police and their relationship with writers. She studied history at the University of Liverpool, and then completed an MA at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, UCL. You can find her on Twitter at @pollycorrigan
 Lavrinenko, Y, Rozstriliane Vidrodzhennia: Antolohiia, 1917-1933. Paris, 1959.
 For a useful discussion of the term ‘Great Terror’ see Ryan, J, The Sacralization of Violence: Bolsheviks Justifications for Violence and Terror during the Civil War, Slavic Review 74, no. 4 (Winter 2015), pp. 808-809.
 See Conquest, R. The Great Terror, London, 1968; Getty, JA, Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938, Cambridge, 1985; Getty, JA & Naumov OV, The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939, London, 1999.
 Shentalinsky, V, The KGB’s Literary Archive, London, 1995, pp. 172-173.
Almost from the moment they seized control in November 1917, the Bolsheviks nationalized the publishing industry and tightly controlled the press. Soviet authorities were never ashamed of their monopoly on media and culture, viewing them as weapons of class struggle. After all, media had been used by the bourgeoisie for their own exploitative purposes, they argued. Allowing freedom of the press to their enemies would have seemed ‘criminally stupid.’
Nor was there any reason to curtail propaganda. Trotsky, in Literature and Revolution (1924), defined propaganda not as a nefarious trick, the way we might view it today, but as a form of education to bring political consciousness to the workers. Thus, the Bolsheviks made it their aim not only to seize power in the tangible sense, but to seize meaning. The Revolution had created a void which required a new way of defining the past, present, and future. To establish their legitimacy, the Bolsheviks needed to control public discourse and transform popular attitudes and beliefs through new symbols, rituals, stories, and imagery.
Literature and mass culture served as the primary means toward that end. A Pravda critic wrote in 1924, ‘We can and should regard literature as a weapon, and an altogether powerful weapon to affect the reader’s consciousness and will.’ At the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, Maxim Gorky famously stated that books were ‘the most important and most powerful weapons in socialist culture.’ Mass media and culture would wind through numerous permutations in the following decades, but government control and censorship remained a constant. The weaponization of media and culture would hold sway from the Great October Socialist Revolution right through the Cold War until the glasnost era and collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Persecution of dissenters ratcheted up during mass arrests of the late 1920s, and through the Great Terror and purge of the Communist Party from 1936 to 1938. Labels like class enemy, petty bourgeois, Trotskyite, or cosmopolitan were levied against millions who were arbitrarily sentenced to prisons, penal colonies, or summary execution. Artists were particularly vulnerable to branding as a formalist or subjective idealist. Frequently the charges were announced in the press along with forced confessions and signatures of those pressured to denounce the ‘traitors’—often their own family, friends, or colleagues.
By the mid-forties, on the eve of the intensification of cultural repression known as the
Zhdanov Doctrine (zhdanovshchina), Boris Pasternak, who had already faced years of criticism as a poet allegedly out of step with the times (despite enormous popularity at home and abroad) felt compelled to make a stand: ‘I need to do something dear to me and my very own, riskier than usual . . . I need to break through to the public.’
This he did in his first full-length novel, Doctor Zhivago. A conspicuously apolitical work, it would earn him censure and endless invectives in the Party press. The author had anticipated that sort of fallout. Far from a blunder of novice or naïveté, Pasternak had come to see it as his mission to publish the book, at whatever peril it brought to himself or his family—some of whom were not in support of his decision. Indeed, his confidante and lover Olga Ivinskaya, whom the author acknowledged as an inspiration for his heroine Lara Antipova, would spend years in the Soviet GULAG because of her association with the author.
Yet upon finishing the novel in late 1955, he was evidently satisfied with what he had accomplished: ‘You cannot imagine what I have achieved! I have found and given names to all this sorcery that has been the cause of suffering, bafflement, amazement, and dispute for several decades. Everything is named in simple, transparent, and sad words. I also once again renewed and redefined the dearest and most important things: land and sky, great passion, creative spirit, life and death.’
However, the novel was unpublishable in the Soviet Union. The editorial board of Novy mir hand-delivered a rejection letter to Pasternak in September 1956: ‘The thing that has disturbed us about your novel is something that neither the editors nor the author can change by cuts or alterations. . . . The spirit of your novel is one of non-acceptance of the socialist revolution. The general tenor of your novel is that the October Revolution, the Civil War and the social transformation involved did not give the people anything but suffering, and destroyed the Russian intelligentsia, either physically or morally.’
To bring his work to the light, Pasternak was forced to smuggle it out of the Soviet Union, eventually securing a contract with Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Pasternak
expressed his willingness to accept the consequences of such a risky endeavor. He wrote to Feltrinelli that he was willing to face ‘any kind of trouble’ as long as the novel was published, declaring, ‘Ideas are not born to be hidden or smothered at birth, but to be communicated to others.’
His intuition proved correct, and he would be harassed by the Soviet authorities for the remainder of his days, until his death in 1960. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, Pasternak was forced to decline the award, as it was interpreted by authorities as a political provocation from the West.
The novel’s great offense was its apoliticism. Contradicting the ideological program of Socialist Realism sanctioned at the 1934 Congress and subsequently imposed on all Soviet art and artists, it failed to glorify the Revolution and the New Soviet Man in a monochrome paean to Soviet power.
The hero Yuri Zhivago’s philosophy of life and art evolves. At first he welcomes the Revolution like the breath of a purifying storm, a spontaneous tide without cause or reason, for ‘What is truly great is without beginning, like the universe’ (182). He paints it in quasi-religious terms: ‘An extraordinary sight! Mother Russia is on the move, she can’t stand still, she’s restless and she can’t find rest, she’s talking and she can’t stop. And it isn’t as if only people were talking. Stars and trees meet and converse, flowers talk philosophy at night, stone houses hold meetings. It makes you think of the Gospel, doesn’t it?’ (146).
He has a fervent desire to live honestly, productively, ‘to be a part of all this awakening.’ (147). But soon the Civil War devolves into violence and mayhem. Yuri witnesses it first hand when he is captured by partisans and forced to join the fight. Red and White atrocities rival each other. Proclamations of the regional Soviet threaten, ‘Anyone found hoarding food will be shot on the spot’ (377), and promise, ‘Only mass searches . . . only terror applied in all its harshness, down to the shooting of speculators on the spot, can deliver us from famine’ (381). The decrees make him feel ill: ‘What kind of people are they, to go on raving with this never-cooling, feverish ardor, year in, year out, on nonexistent, long-vanished subjects, and to know nothing, to see nothing around them?’ (381-82).
One of those people is his nemesis, Strelnikov (Pasha Antipov), ‘the famous non-Party military expert who was the pride and terror of the region’ (245). Lara’s husband and Yuri’s rival for her love, Antipov had been transformed by the Civil War into the cold mask of a revolutionary zealot. In search of purity forged by the Revolution, he winds up shelling villages from an armored train.
Lara herself gives some of the novel’s most impassioned pleas for humanity: ‘The whole human way of life has been destroyed and ruined. All that’s left is the naked human soul stripped to the last shred.’ This resulted when ‘. . . untruth came down on our land of Russia. The main misfortune, the root of all the evil to come, was thelossof confidence in the value of one’s own opinion. People imagined that it was out of date to follow their own moral sense, that they must all sing in chorus, and live by other people’s notions.’
Although Pasternak himself, and the hero and heroine of DoctorZhivago were enthralled by the tidal events and sea change wrought by the Revolution, the essence of the novel boils down to the right of a human being to stand alone, free of the rhetoric and the enforced, militant enthusiasm for the new social regimen. As a study in the perseverance of character in a time of political and social upheaval, there is perhaps no better.
Ironically, Pasternak’s novel would prove to be a powerful weapon of non-alignment with Party dogma. In Victor Erlich’s summation: ‘When culture is treated as a weapon and literature as a source of moral edification, poetic detachment smacks of sabotage. . . . When dry-as-dust abstractions of an official ideology are increasingly used to displace reality and explain it away, even such politically innocuous qualities as delight in the sensory texture of things are likely to appear as escapism.’
In a fascinating twist, the book marched straight to the frontlines of Cold War cultural warfare: the CIA printed a Russian language edition and smuggled it into the Soviet Union in hopes that Soviet citizens would read it and turn against their own government.
The head of the CIA’s International Organizations Division wrote that exposure to Western ideas ‘could incrementally over time improve the chances for gradual change toward more open societies.’
That said, Doctor Zhivago is hardly a political novel in any respect. It merely reclaims the personal; it vindicates the rights of an individual to live freely, outside of ideological dogma and conformism. In fact, Pasternak was distressed by the reduction of his novel to something akin to a political pamphlet indicting his home country. ‘I deplore the fuss now being made about my book,’ he said in late 1957. ‘Everybody’s writing about it but who in fact has read it? What do they quote from it? Always the same passages—three pages, perhaps, out of a book of 700 pages.’
Pasternak’s point was not to write subversive literature. He merely defended the artist’s right to express his art freely while reclaiming the right of the individual to choose self-determination and perennial truth. Biographer Christopher Barnes records, ‘Shortly before the end, Pasternak talked of his life as spent in a duel between the forces of vulgarity and the free play of human talent.’
Pasternak’s own immense talent made him one of the greatest of chroniclers of the Russian Revolution. As the poet Marina Tsvetaeva described her friend Boris, ‘He walked alongside the Revolution and listened to it raptly.’
Dr. Lonny Harrison is Associate Professor of Russian at the University of Texas at Arlington. His research interests include 19th-century Russian literature and philosophy, and 20th-century Russian literature, media, and mass culture. He is the author of Archetypes from Underground: Notes on the Dostoevskian Self, as well as numerous articles on the life and works of Fyodor Dostoevsky. He is currently researching Russian responses to authoritarianism in the 20th century. Find him on Twitter at @lonnyharrison.
 James von Geldern and Richard Stites, eds., Mass Culture in Soviet Russia: Tales, Poems, Songs, Movies, Plays, and Folklore, 1917-1953 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), p. xi.
 Victoria E. Bonnell, Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Posters under Lenin and Stalin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p. 1.
 Jeffrey Brooks, Thank you Comrade Stalin! Soviet Public Culture from Revolution to Cold War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 23.
 Garrand, John, and Carol Garrand, Inside the Soviet Writers’ Union (New York: The Free Press, 1990), p. 42.
 Letter to S.N. Durylin, June 1945. Quoted in ed. Edith W. Clowes, Doctor Zhivago: A Critical Companion (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1995), p. 6.
 Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book (London: Harvill Secker, 2014), pp. 83-84.
 The letter was published in Literaturnaya Gazeta (Literary Gazette), October 25, 1958. It is reproduced in full in Robert Conquest, Courage of Genius: The Pasternak Affair (Collins and Harvill Press, 1961), Appendix II, pp. 136-63.