Paul Goldberg’s novel, “The Chateau,” will be published in February. He is the author of “The Yid,” a novel about Stalin’s death, and a co-author, with Ludmilla Alexeyeva, of “The Thaw Generation: Coming of Age in the Stalin Era.” He is the editor and publisher of The Cancer Letter.
On Jan. 8, 1934, Alexey Feodosievich Wangenheim, the Soviet Union’s premier meteorologist, had a date with his wife, Varvara Ivanovna Kurguzova. They had tickets to “Sadko,” Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera about a merchant’s adventures upon the sea and beneath it. Kurguzova waited under the Bolshoi’s colonnade. Her husband, meanwhile, was nearby, at the secret police headquarters on Lubyanka, getting booked. A loyal, giddily optimistic communist whose titles included director of the U.S.S.R. Hydrometeorological Department, he was facing a torrent of absurdity in place of an accusation. He was falsifying weather forecasts to undermine the battle against drought? He was a saboteur? He was — a spy?
Reality be damned, Wangenheim was convicted for economic sabotage under Article 58, Paragraph 7; sentenced to 10 years of rehabilitation through labor; and ultimately executed. He might have passed into oblivion, except killings have a well-studied peculiarity: Their traces linger.
Thus, by chance, Olivier Rolin, a French journalist, came across Wangenheim’s letters and drawings. This happened in 2012, while Rolin was visiting the Solovetsky Islands, the site of a 15th-century monastery that had been repurposed into the first camp of the Gulag.
Delicate drawings and watercolors of clouds, the aurora borealis, the frozen sea, an Arctic fox, a hen, a samovar and many plants, some pressed, some drawn, were assembled into a self-published journal. The artwork was for Wangenheim’s 4-year-old daughter, Eleonora, named after the youngest daughter of Karl Marx. The journal also contained letters to Kurguzova.
Rolin’s writing is haunting, poetic. “He was an expert on clouds,” he says of Wangenheim in the opening line of “Stalin’s Meteorologist.” As Wangenheim’s letters chime in, the biographer and his subject become a duo. “I am utterly alone here,” Wangenheim writes to Kurguzova. “During my walks, I talk to the moon and ask it to give my greetings to my darlings. It shines on you at the same time as on me.”
To understand Stalin, you need Shakespeare, and Rolin invokes Macbeth’s conception of life as but “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” He calls on an ensemble of writers, poets, witnesses and visionaries — Anton Chekhov, Vasily Grossman, Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam — to ground the story. Maxim Gorky, the “Soviet Voltaire,” gets dragged in by his lapels. Rolin reminds us about Gorky’s glorification of the use of prison labor at the time and place of Wangenheim’s martyrdom.
At the island prison, Wangenheim joined a Chekhovian assemblage of Russian intelligentsia. A disturbing acronym from that time denoted each of these men as a “bich,” short for “byvshy intelligentny chelovek” — a former intellectual.
There was a 30,000-volume library at the prison. Wangenheim worked there. The professor sifted through the monastery’s documents, studying monastic economy. He took measurements of snow accumulations beneath the monastery wall. He read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in French and asked Kurguzova for an English-Russian dictionary.
Fellow prisoners attended his talks. The range of subjects was impressive: the Arctic climate, polar exploration, the conquest of the stratosphere, the feasibility of travel to the moon and Mars with a jet engine.
With urgency, he composed petitions to Comrade Stalin, arguing that his conviction was unjust. “All my thoughts and desires go out towards you, towards you and the Party — which must re-establish the truth,” he wrote to Kurguzova . “I am not losing faith, I don’t want to lose it.”
One of Wangenheim’s art projects, assembling rock chippings into a flattering portrait of Stalin, puzzles Rolin even as he holds it in his hands. Why was it not a caricature? Why wasn’t Wangenheim fighting back? Why did this slave glorify his enslaver? “I would rather admire him, but he was not admirable and that is perhaps what is interesting,” Rolin contemplates. “He is an ordinary innocent.”
One day in late October 1937, Wangenheim and 1,115 other prisoners were marched through the gates of the former monastery. The scene of this Chekhovian procession led this reader to the neurotic realization that Chekhov himself, had he lived 33 years longer, might have been labeled a bich and relegated to share their fate.
Families were later told that these men had been sentenced to an additional 10 years without a right to correspond, a formulation that later still was deciphered to mean they were tried in absentia and executed.
The details of this mass murder would emerge six decades later, thanks to modern-day citizen-detectives from a wonderful organization called Memorial Research Center, who pieced together shreds of evidence from the secret police archives to find the execution site in the forest near the White Sea-Baltic Canal.
These sleuths also identified the executioner. He is believed to have committed 1,111 murders over five days in late October and early November 1937, working singlehandedly, painstakingly, using a short-barrel 7.62 Nagant revolver on the bottom of a muddy pit; one bullet per skull. Capt. Mikhail Matveyev was an udarnik, a shock worker indeed.
Rolin imagines the scene: “The dogs bark excitedly. Captain Matveyev finishes his cigarette, throws the butt in the fire, knocks back a slug of vodka, wipes his mouth, jumps into the grave and cocks his Nagant.” Altogether, 7,000 zeki, or prisoners, from multiple camps were killed in that forest between 1934 and 1941, and it’s a safe guess that hundreds of them had lived lives that could sustain books as smart as this one.
By infusing Wangenheim’s travails with a storyteller’s virtuosity, erudition and moral outrage, Rolin shows that it doesn’t take much to arrest a man, accuse him of all manner of slop, ship him to an Arctic prison, strip him naked and fling him into an open pit, but short of putting a bullet through his skull, there is no way any of this nonsense will extinguish his moral and intellectual core.
Wangenheim was no bich. The nobility of his spirit survived to the end. He was a Russian intellectual until his final breath.
Kurguzova never learned where her husband was executed. Their daughter, Eleonora, who became a well-known paleontologist, did learn the truth. She made annual pilgrimages to her father’s mass grave, and she compiled the commemorative album that captivated Rolin’s attention.
Like her namesake Eleanor Marx, Eleonora died by suicide. On Jan. 9, 2011, 77 years and a day after her father’s arrest, her body was found on the ground by the Moscow apartment building where she lived on the ninth floor.
By Olivier Rolin
Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz
Counterpoint. 179 pp. $26