The Memoirs of Lev Razgon
Harrowing, inspiring and unforgettable, True Stories stands out among the literature of the Gulag both for its literary quality and for its informed insights from a long life spent among both pro- and anti-Soviet figures.
Lev Razgon is the last man alive to have attended and survived the Communist Party Congress of 1934. When the Stalinist terror began in 1937 he was living among the Party elite, a journalist whose family had a long history of falling foul of the authorities. He brilliantly evokes the everyday atmosphere of a Soviet world of privilege soon to be destroyed in a cataclysm in which his own life was to be torn apart.
Arrested in 1938, Razgon spent the next eighteen years in labour camps or in exile in various provincial towns. His portraits of those who shared this inhumane life are telling and unusual in that the jailers and executioners feature as prominently as the victims. This, he explains, should not surprise us, for there were innumerable victims, and ‘to shoot a million people requires a great many executioners’. Prisoners and jailers lived side by side for years on end and all, to Razgon, were human beings.
Written with a novelist’s skill and with a sophisticated understanding of his country and his century, True Stories caused a sensation when it first appeared in Russia in 1988. It has now been translated into all the major European languages and has been the subject of a Russian TV documentary.
Razgon’s reason for writing this memorable book is quite simple: ‘When I first got out of the camps I was utterly happy for a few years… but there was always the terrible sense that I had survived when so many others had died… Ultimately I knew I had just one obligation – the obligation of the living to the dead.’
Lev Razgon was born in Gorki in 1908, the son of a factory worker. He studied history at Moscow University and on graduating joined the Communist Party and began his career as a journalist and writer of books for young adults. His marriage into one of the leading families of the new Soviet elite brought him into the higher echelons of the Party, but his wife’s family was among those targeted following the attempt to oust Stalin. His wife died in a transit prison on the way to a northern camp and the years that followed were gruelling, with conditions deteriorating after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. While in the camps Razgon met and married his second wife, the daughter of a leading opponent of the Bolshevik regime who had been imprisoned in the 1920s. In 1956 the Razgons were at last released and permitted to return to Moscow where Razgon took up his former career as a writer.
“Survive the Gulag for 17 years, and became one of its great chroniclers… Razgon described, in a remarkably restrained style, and with rare compassion and understanding, the extraordinary variety of the people he had met in the camps, their strange fates and terrible sufferings.”
“Unforgettable testimony to the reality of Communism in the Soviet Union.”
‘Times Literary Supplement’
“Few memoirs by younger witnesses can compete for vividness, narrative energy or descriptive power… An astonishing book.”