Daily Archives: 20 April 2006

Letters of a True Believer, 1937

During the Great Terror, Lev [Knipper], like hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens, was clearly going through a personal and political crisis. He was desperately trying to convince himself of the rightness of the Stalinist purges, even when surrounded by the madness of arrests and denunciations all around him….

In early April 1937, not long after the second wave of show trials, Lev wrote a striking letter to Aunt Olya [Knipper-Chekhova]. ‘My life has become a lot more complicated, confused, and harder than it was before, when I still had many illusions of youth, self-importance, young unspent strength and boiling energy which covered up for everything else. And now the time has come to pay the bills. And it’s turned out that I’ve accumulated next to no interest on my capital, and that I will have to pay from the reserve.

‘When I was twenty-three, a new life began for me, thanks to you … I was somehow careless about everything – like a bird which knows nothing of tomorrow, like a creature who, it seemed to me, was “lucky” in its life. And really, I’d soared over dozens of my colleagues, like a rocket. I won’t even say it was undeserved. My talent isn’t a minor one, I possess a huge supply of energy, and my will for life is also not small … Selfishness and a somewhat exaggerated self-assurance are the reasons for my loneliness. And now, thirty-nine years old, I am facing myself, absolutely alone in all senses. And this is the most terrible of all. With all the force of my brain, I desire to be a true Bolshevik, and for this I lack knowledge. This has impeded my development as a composer in the last three to four years … Nothing can ever remove my feeling of guilt towards the party and the Soviet regime about the years of the civil war. “White Guardist” in my presence, it’s like a knife in my flesh, and I always think they’ve said it about me. This is the hardest trauma in my life, and there’re only two ways to cure it – either the party would accept me in its ranks, or death will get me. I am not afraid of it, and I’ve thought of it frequently in the last five to six years.’ …

You see, my dearest Aunt Olya, politics is one of the reasons which make the two of us unable to talk to each other from soul to soul. And the reason for this is that for me politics is something deeply personal, lyrical, exciting. I am fighting for the Soviet regime (and therefore love it, and mistakes are painful for me).’ The ‘mistakes’ he referred to were presumably the millions of false accusations of the Great Terror. But Lev was unrepentant. ‘For me, my personal life, my creative work, absolutely everything is intertwined with the issues of the party life. You don’t want to believe in this, you think that I want to “be this way”, rather than I already am this way.’

He went on to reject ‘absolute’ human values, dismissing them as ‘intelligentsia ethics’. Lev had imbibed the essential ruthlessness of Leninism. ‘More than anything else, I can’t stand people who use “intelligentsia principles” and “humanity” to justify a general, deeply anti-Soviet behaviour.

‘I need to learn what sort of a person one has to be to become, in this decisive moment of the fight, part of the millions giving all of themselves (not from the brain, but from the heart) to the future of humankind.’

SOURCE: The Mystery of Olga Chekhova: The true story of a family torn apart by revolution and war, by Antony Beevor (Penguin, 2005), pp. 144-147

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