In August 1933, a ‘brigade’ of 120 leading Soviet writers went on a boat tour of the White Sea Canal organized by Semyon Firin, the OGPU commander of the labour camps at the canal. The idea of the trip had its origins in a meeting that took place in Maksim Gorky‘s Moscow house in October 1932, at which a number of the country’s leading writers discussed the tasks of literature with several Politburo members, including Stalin, and other Party functionaries. In one of the earliest statements of the Socialist Realist doctrine, Gorky called for a heroic literature to match the ‘grand achievements’ of the Five Year Plans, and Stalin, who compared the Soviet writers to ‘engineers of the human soul’, proposed a tour of the canal to inspire them. Everything was organized by OGPU. ‘From the minute we became the guests of the Chekists, complete Communism began for us,’ the writer Aleksandr Avdeyenko later commented ironically. ‘We were given food and drink on demand. We paid nothing. Smoked sausage, cheeses, caviar, fruit, chocolate, wines and cognac – all was in plentiful supply. And this was a year of famine.’…
The writers had different reasons for colluding in this legitimation of the Gulag. No doubt there were some who believed in the Stalinist ideal of perekovka, the remoulding of the human soul through penal labour….
Gorky was also a believer. He never visited the White Sea Canal. But this was no obstacle to his glowing praise of it in the book commissioned by OGPU (just as ignorance was no obstacle to foreign socialists, like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who also praised the canal as ‘a great engineering feat … a triumph in human regeneration’ in 1935). Having spent the 1920s in the West, Gorky had returned to the Soviet Union on the first of several summer trips in 1928 and had settled there for good in 1931. The ‘great Soviet writer’ was showered with honours; he was given as his residence the famous Riabushinsky mansion in Moscow; two large dachas; private servants (who turned out to be OGPU spies); and supplies of special foods from the same police department that catered for Stalin. So perhaps it is not surprising that Gorky failed to see the immense human suffering that lay behind the ‘grand achievements’ of the Five Year Plan. In the summer of 1929, Gorky had visited the Solovetsky labour camp. The writer was so impressed by what he was shown by his OGPU guides that he wrote an article in which he claimed that many of the prisoners had been reformed by their labour in the camp and loved their work so much that they wanted to remain on the island after the completion of their sentences. ‘The conclusion is obvious to me,’ Gorky wrote: ‘we need more camps like Solovetsky.’