“Anton was one of a handful of Soviets who were able and brave enough and resourceful enough to break the silence about the real history of the Soviet Union, which was completely falsified under Stalin,” said Cohen, a professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University. “He told the truth as he knew it, the uncensored truth of the Stalin era.”
Anton Vladimirovich Antonov-Ovseyenko led a life that might be said to mirror the fate of his country.
He was born in Moscow on Feb. 23, 1920, just after the Russian revolution, into a prominent Bolshevik family. His father, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, was a military commander who in 1917 led the revolutionary assault on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg and, together with Leon Trotsky, helped create the Red Army.
A founding member of the Soviet state, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko later served as adviser and arms supplier to the anti-fascists during the Spanish Civil War.
In the 1930s, the Antonov-Ovseyenko family fell victim to Stalin’s purge of the Soviet Communist Party and in particular to his persecution of “Old Bolsheviks” — who might challenge his claim to power — and their relatives.
Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko was 16 when his mother committed suicide in prison and 18 when his father was executed.
In 1940, when he was 20 years old, Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko was himself arrested after he refused to denounce his father as an “enemy of the people.” He spent most of the subsequent 13 years imprisoned in Soviet jails and concentration camps, including Butyrka, one of the most notorious Moscow prisons, and Vorkuta, a mining camp above the Arctic Circle, where he suffered from illnesses caused by malnutrition.
In a 2011 interview with the Public Radio International program “The World,” Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko said criminal gangs were common in the gulag, but they treated him better than other prisoners because of his ability to recite stories and poems.
“And I was expected to do this after a while,” he said. “So I always enjoyed this special status. But of course thieves are thieves. They can still steal from you even if they like your stories.”
After Stalin’s death in 1953, Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko was released. He sought obscurity and settled in what was then the Soviet republic of Georgia. But despite poor vision — his eyes were ruined in the labor camps, and he needed special assistance to read and write — he began to chronicle the fate of his father’s generation, and of his own.
Thanks to family and friends who had old Communist Party connections, he eventually gained access to documents and records that were not at that time available to historians, let alone to the general public.