Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, historian and survivor of Stalin’s gulag, dies at 93

Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, a Soviet historian and dissident who survived the gulag under Stalin and in later decades brought new attention to the scope of the regime’s barbarism, died July 9 in Moscow. He was 93.

The cause was a stroke, said Russian scholar Stephen F. Cohen, who played a crucial role in the English-language publication in 1981 of Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko’s best-known work, “The Time of Stalin: Portrait of a Tyranny.”

“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.


Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko died July 9 in Moscow. He was 93. (Courtesy State Museum of the History of the Gulag )

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.

His father’s status as an “Old Bolshevik” gave him access to people and witnesses who would not have trusted others. Among other things, he had access to material produced by Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, who conducted a secret inquiry into Stalin’s life and reign in 1954.

Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko’s first book, published under a pseudonym during the short-lived political “thaw” after Stalin’s death, was a sympathetic biography of his father. But his best-remembered work, “The Time of Stalin,” written in the 1960s and ’70s, was never officially published in the Soviet Union.

Instead, it was smuggled out of Moscow by Cohen, whose biography of Nikolai Bukharin, a founding father of the Soviet state, won him trust among an inner circle of anti-Stalin, post-gulag intellectuals that included Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko.

In an interview, Cohen recalled first meeting him: “He was like something out of Dostoyevsky — half-blind, wiry, lean and embattled. He challenged me to chin-ups equal to my age. I did 1, and he did 82.”

Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko’s book about Stalin first appeared in Russian in 1980 and then in English. Writing in the New York Times, journalist Harrison E. Salisbury called it “an extraordinary endeavor” and “a milestone toward the understanding of three-quarters of a century of Russian trauma.”

“The Time of Stalin” is best described as a biography of Stalin combined with an extended polemic against Stalinism, a political system Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko defined as “an entire historical epoch during which the vilest and bloodiest kind of evildoing flourished upon this earth. It was gangsterism enthroned.”

The book was one of the first to number the victims of Stalin in the millions, rather than the hundreds or thousands, and it contained many insiders’ stories of life inside Stalin’s Kremlin.

Not every detail of the book has held up to archival research, and the book is very much a product of its era. It shies away from criticizing Vladimir Lenin, for example, who launched the first reign of terror in the Soviet Union.

The book was remarkable — and remarkably brave — for its time, because the author criticized not only Stalin, who was dead, but also his “apologists,” who were very much alive. “I have striven for truthfulness,” he wrote, “there are no fabrications in this book. What would be the need? The truth is horrendous enough.”

The book made Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko into a political dissident. Upon hearing of its publication, Soviet authorities ordered a day-long search of his Moscow apartment, and he was kept well away from mainstream historians. Russian versions of the book were subsequently smuggled back into the Soviet Union, where they found an avid clandestine readership.

Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko’s bravery and dedication to truth-telling made him a singular figure during the Soviet era. In his later years, his obstinacy shaded into fanaticism. He quarreled with other historians and fell out with other groups of survivors and activists who also were trying to chronicle the history of Stalinism. Foreign royalties from sales of his book abroad made him relatively well-off, however, which enabled him to function independently.

Survivors include his wife, Yelena Solovarova, and a son, Anton.

In 2001, he founded, almost entirely on his own, the State Museum of the History of the Gulag in Moscow. The project, which opened in 2004, once featured a replica of a barrack from the gulag, kept purposefully chilly, and near it was an interrogators’ room.

The museum received mixed reviews from other survivors and scholars in the former Soviet Union. The museum is poorly funded, not least because Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko did not cooperate with others in its construction.

Mr. Antonov-Ovseyenko remained committed to the remembrance of Stalin’s crimes until the end of his life. At the age of 87, he attended a ceremony at Bukovo, a vast killing field outside Moscow where his father was murdered along with more than 20,000 other people. In 2010 he told a Radio Liberty interviewer that Russia should have removed the Lenin mausoleum as well as Stalin’s tomb from Red Square long ago.

These were “monuments to a great betrayal,” he said, and should be destroyed.

Applebaum is a columnist and historian whose 2003 book, “Gulag: A History,” won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.

Anne Applebaum writes a biweekly foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. She is also the Director of the Global Transitions Program at the Legatum Institute in London.
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