Engineers of the Soul: In the Footsteps of Stalin's Writers by Frank Westerman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Westerman is a journalist and an accomplished traveller, with something of a preference for what strikes me at least as unlikely places; a biblical mountain (Ararat,) Srebrenica, or here, the traces, physical and cultural, of the blessedly dead Soviet empire. The author walks into things, often as not; to see for himself, to confirm or refute his researches, in search of not just history but experience and even mystery. It is a very clever, post-modern strategy, particularly when addressing anything as unwieldy and plain weird as Stalin's "Soviet Realism." What better way to see the rewards of popular success -- and the mutability of all things -- than to go where a hugely popular writer of the era may or may not, as it turns out, have ever been, despite describing the place in his most popular work. What better way to describe anew the consequences of dissent at this late date than to see the ditch into which so much time, talent and hope was left to rot.
It's a very clever strategy, keeping the reader grounded in the trip; even as Westerman, rather gleefully, details the surviving physical ruins of the Stalin era -- including a handful of actual survivors; academics, grounds-keepers, old believers -- he is simultaneously reviewing the extraordinary course of the highest days and lowest lows of Stalin's writers. No story here ends well. From the great Gorky to the last hack, it seems rather obvious as Westerman's book goes on, there have been few more successful co-options of writers and art than this, and little enough likely to last hereafter.
It's a fascinating story, told here with infectious curiosity, even a certain elan, but without mockery or disdain for life and writing in a very different place. Neither an apologist nor vicious, Westerman has a nimble gift for negotiating dead ends.
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