Michael Scammell is the author of biographies of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Arthur Koestler, and has translated many books from Russian. He is now working on a memoir. (April 2016)

A Different ‘Darkness at Noon’

Arthur Koestler, circa 1950
Last July a German doctoral student named Matthias Weßel made a remarkable discovery: a copy of the German manuscript of Arthur Koestler’s masterpiece. The implications are considerable, for Darkness at Noon is that rare specimen, a book known to the world only in translation.

The Bad Boy of Russian Poetry

Vladimir Mayakovsky with Scotty, a dog bought by Lili Brik in England, at the Briks’ dacha in Pushkino, summer 1924
When Vladimir Mayakovsky committed suicide on April 14, 1930, the news sent shock waves through the Soviet Union. Ilya Ehrenburg, who knew of Mayakovsky’s notorious gambling habit, thought he might have been playing Russian roulette with his beloved Mauser pistol and lost his bet. But Mayakovsky’s suicide note, written two …

The CIA’s ‘Zhivago’

Boris Pasternak and Olga Ivinskaya at his dacha in Peredelkino, late 1950s
Two new books describe in great detail the way the CIA successfully covered its tracks and the mechanisms it used to get a Russian-language edition of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago published in Europe.

The Russian Nobility Under the Red Terror

Count Pavel Sheremetev in his family’s room in Naprudny Tower at the Novodevichy ­Monastery, Moscow, where they were sent to live after being expelled from their apartment outside Moscow in 1929. Surrounding him are the remains of the family archive and library, including a photograph of his late mother.
When I was studying Russian at a British army language school in the 1950s, most of my teachers were Russian émigrés who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution. To a provincial like me they seemed a strange and exotic bunch. One bohemian used to walk around in a billowing duffel coat …

Love Against All Odds

Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanova, 1936
The principal institution in Russia for investigating Gulag history and insisting on the nation’s responsibility for its past continues to be the excellent Memorial society, which despite harassment and hostility from the Putin government steadfastly pursues its work of collecting historical evidence and making it available to the public. Among …

The Master Returns—or Does He?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his wife Natalya during a luncheon given in his honor by the AFL-CIO, New York City, July 1975
In 1967, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn sent a letter to his former labor camp comrade Lev Kopelev about the autobiographical hero of his novel The First Circle. Gleb Nerzhin, he wrote, was meant to be “an excellent man with ideal convictions [who] needs no practical criteria of good and evil, since he …

Circles of Hell

A depiction by the artist Igor Obrosov of ‘interrogations’ in Stalinist prisons, based on the memories of his brother; from Stephen Cohen’s The Victims Return
What benighted bureaucrat, I wonder, sitting up all night in Moscow’s OGPU1 headquarters, came up (around 1930) with the innocuous name Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps to describe his new department? And what harried official arranged the first letters of the Russian words Glavnoye upravleniye ispravitel’no-trydovykh lagerei to …

Writers in a Cage

Boris Pasternak at the Baltic Sea, 1910; portrait by his father, Leonid Pasternak
The rise and triumph of the Soviet dissident movement in the second half of the twentieth century surely ranks as one of the finest episodes in Russian cultural history. Its significance lies not just in its civic achievements as a hugely effective political opposition, but also in a body of …

The Mystery of Willi Münzenberg

The cold war ended in 1991, but a continuing flow of books on the subject testifies to our deep fascination with it, and to the contested meaning of its legacy. This is particularly true of its ideological component, the “cultural cold war,” for as David Caute has noted, the “mortal …

The Solzhenitsyn Archipelago

In June 1978, some twenty-two thousand people sat or stood in the rain at Harvard’s commencement ceremonies to listen to a keynote speaker denounce them as lacking in courage, morally adrift, and self-deluded. The speaker, whose identity had been kept secret until just two days beforehand, was the celebrated Russian …

Loyal Toward Reality

In the introduction to an anthology of Polish poetry that he published some thirty years ago, Czeslaw Milosz remarked that “a historical steamroller” had passed several times through his luckless country, yet Polish poets had frequently benefited from their trials, and had emerged “perhaps more energetic” than their Western colleagues …

Just Like Old Times

In April 1982 I wrote in these pages about the case of the Russian literary critic, Konstantin Azadovsky, who was framed by the KGB on charges of drug possession [“The Azadovsky Case,” NYR, April 15, 1982, p. 35]. Some marijuana was planted in his study and then supposedly “found” by …

Four Poems by Edvard Kocbek

Note: Of the following poems by Kocbek, the first reflects his experiences as a Partisan leader. The second and third reflect his disillusionment with communism. The fourth poem could be read as an account of the entire Slovene nation today as it fights for its independence.—MS HANDS I have lived …

Slovenia and Its Poet

Who are the upstart Slovenes who took all Europe by surprise when they declared their independence last June and set off the train of unpredictable events still unfolding in Yugoslavia? How dared they question the geopolitical arrangements made on their behalf after World War II, let alone the 1918 treaties …

The New Yugoslavia

The recent elections in Slovenia and Croatia demonstrated that, at least in the north of Yugoslavia, Tito’s system of government has become obsolete. In both places (as I reported in the June 28 issue) the newly elected leaders called for a pluralist political system, a market economy, and a greater …

Yugoslavia: the Awakening

The meeting in the Culture House next to the neo-Baroque church on the hill in Slovenska Bistrica, a picturesque small market town in Slovenian Styria, bore all the marks of novelty and improvisation that I had come to expect from Yugoslavia’s first multiparty election campaign since 1946. Although the hall …

Chameleon

What are we to make of Ilya Ehrenburg, the great survivor among Soviet writers? The list of his friends and contemporaries who were sent to Stalin’s labor camps, took their own lives, or died in lonely exile reads like a Who’s Who of twentieth-century Russian letters: Mayakovsky, Esenin, Pilnyak, Zamyatin, …

The Azadovsky Case

In a recent letter to The New York Review [October 8, 1981] Joseph Brodsky wrote eloquently and sardonically of the case of Konstantin Azadovsky—a brilliant scholar of comparative literature in the Soviet Union—who early in 1981 was sentenced to two years of hard labor in Siberia. Brodsky wrote of the …