I have not glossed over Alexey Feodosievich’s faults, when I was aware of them. I have not sought to turn him into an exemplary hero. He was neither a scientific genius nor a great poet, he was in many ways an ordinary man, but he was innocent.
In 2012, French author Olivier Rolin discovered the drawings of a former Gulag prisoner. The more he learned about the drawings, the artist’s daughter, to whom they were sent, and the life and story of the artist himself, the more Rolin was drawn in. He hilariously admits that Russia is “unlikeable” and not known for its charm in his part of the world (Western Europe), and he has a strong dislike for the country’s politics and its dark history.
Yet he’s captivated nonetheless, leading him to fall in love with the lush scenery he describes and with the story of an ordinary man, caught up at the height of his scientific career in the fevered paranoia of Communism.
This is a story that didn’t deserve to become buried in history.
It is that incredulous curiosity that spurred me to go and see what it was like there, in 1986, when the barriers were beginning to come down…The Russian space is inevitably political: history constantly intersects and interweaves with geography. Nothing illustrates this interweaving more than the multiple meanings of the name ‘Siberia,’ at the same time geographical – that continent of plains, hills and marshes where iris bloom, crossed by the Trans-Siberian – and historical, evoking deportation, slavery, camps, suffering…
Aside from such descriptions of his motivation for research and writing, how he discovered the topic, and some historical background for context, Rolin isn’t a character in this story. He supplies great perspectives on Russian history and identity, and he neatly links the importance of the Russian Revolution with the French Revolution in terms of national identity and world impact. Otherwise, the focus is on Alexey Wangenheim, beautifully telling and interpreting his story and experiences.
I’d like to think that watching the clouds rolling above the infinite plain sparked off Alexey Feodosievich’s curiosity about meteors. Painters and writers have depicted this Russian or Ukrainian rural landscape countless times. A dizzying profundity of space, a vastness where everything seems immobile, a silence broken only by the cries of birds – quails, cuckoos, hoopoes, crows. Wheat or barley fields, expanses of blue grass dotted with yellow wormwood flowers, bounded by a rutted path. Birch and slender poplar groves, the golden domes of a church gleam in the distance, the roofs of a village, the occasional thin glint of a river…
Rolin is a beautiful writer, even in translation. Here, a passage describing Moscow’s Lubyanka prison, which if you’ve ever seen in person, could not be a better, more powerfully evocative description:
You cannot gaze without emotion, without that sense of awe inspired by places of horror, at the Lubyanka’s imposing grey and ochre facade with its bands of rose-colored cornices, dominating the square of its namesake, on exiting the Metro station of the same name…Because if there is a place that symbolizes the mass murder of the ideal, the gruesome substitution of terror for enthusiasm, of police officers for comrades, it is the Lubyanka.
Alexei was charged with “organizing and leading counterrevolutionary sabotage work in the USSR’s Hydro-meteorological Department, including knowingly fabricating false weather forecasts with the aim of damaging socialist agriculture, and the disruption or destruction of the weather station network, especially the stations designed to prevent droughts; on top of these accusations they added, for good measure, collecting secret data for espionage purposes.”
How do you even begin to fight against a system alleging that?
Eventually, he was coerced into signing a lengthy confession of his guilt on those charges and is exiled to the notorious Solovki prison camp in Siberia, one that was often used as a model of the system successfully at work.
The camp is not all violence. Or rather, it is in itself pure violence, but within it are spaces, moments, where an educational utopia survives…in the midst of the most extreme brutality, primarily one that arbitrarily robs thousands of innocents of freedom, brief interstices subsist where the mind can take refuge, like clearings in a dark forest: the library, where Wangenheim will work, is one such place, as are the theatre and the lectures. That is what makes the Solovki camp unique, which also explains why the Soviet propaganda of the 1920s held it up as a shining example.
He writes to his wife: “What right do they have to inflict this suffering on an honest servant of the state? I’ve been here for a year, these past twelve months are a year out of my life. Reading the journals, I come across references to the continuation of my work…time will pass and all that filled my work life will be forgotten.”
Rolin includes the raw excerpts from Alexey’s letters as they were written, in all their hope and emotion and longing, and follows up with his clarifications of events, circumstances, and the correspondence between Alexey and his family. It’s an excellent, informative interpretation and a good blend between historical documents and researched commentary.
There’s also correspondence to his daughter, accompanied by Alexey’s gorgeous, delicately rendered nature artwork, teaching her about botany and the natural world. It’s both touching and tragic, knowing his fate.
Weather as omen appears throughout writings from the period. After the departure of a convoy from Solovki, transferring convicts including Alexey to the mainland camp of Kem, a prisoner he knew writes of “an extraordinary aurora borealis” that appeared, purple dancing arcs instead of the usual green curtains. “Several people interpreted it as a disturbing omen,” Alexey’s colleague wrote, and indeed, that convoy was never seen again.
Rolin comments that Alexey retained his unshakeable belief in Communism, Stalin, and the Party probably up until his last days, if not moments. That’s mind-boggling to me, in our modern age of (thankfully) dissent and protest. There’s still so much to learn about this era, which, despite its place in contemporary history, remains very much a mystery in many ways. Personal insights such as those here help shed some needed light.
Powerfully moving, first time in English translation of the 2014 Prix du Style award-winner of a meteorologist exiled to Siberia under Stalin and eventually killed for trumped-up charges against the regime – including his beautifully collected and assembled writings and drawings sent to his family during his exile. My rating: 4/5
One Man’s Untold Story of Love, Life, and Death
by Olivier Rolin
translated from French by Ros Schwartz
published December 12, 2017 by Counterpoint
Originally published in 2014 in French
I received an advance copy from the publisher for unbiased review.