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Stalin’s Scribe, Brian J. Boeck

I bought Stalin’s Scribe on a whim whilst on holiday in the town of my Alma Mater, St Andrews university. It was my first time visiting Toppings Books and I happily spent a few hours in there.

I’ve had a fascination with the Stalin era of the Soviet Union since my army days when I studied GCSE Russian Studies and wrote a paper on the show trials and purges.

You might find this a little hard to believe, but I had never heard of Sholokhov, or his famous novel The Quiet Don. Why should it be hard to believe? Because I studied Russian language and literature for four years and spent years living in the former Soviet Union. When I saw the book in Toppings, I thought I was buying a book written about Stalin by his official scribe!

So, even though I thought I was reading something else entirely, I found myself completely drawn in anyway.

On the face of it, it’s about an author whose magnum opus ‘The Quiet Don’ is iffy at best because of plagiarism charges levelled against Sholokhov, and who wrote very little of note after that. But there is so much more to it than that.

It’s about an author who was able to navigate the tricky political landscape and still managed to stay alive, become wealthy and even win the Nobel Prize for Literature. That in itself makes for a good story, and that is exactly what this book turned out to be.

Sholokhov was not afraid of speaking truth to power and was able to use his influence over the years, including instigating the release of 3 political prisoners released from the clutches of the NKVD after he’d learned of the truth behind the great terror.

Not only did Sholokhov manage to keep from being imprisoned, exiled or shot, he also managed to stay in the good books of the leaders of the Soviet Union right up to the present, as it is mentioned in the afterword that Putin visited Sholokhov’s home in Vioshki in 2005 to mark the centenary of Sholokhov’s birth.

The writing style of the book made it easy to read. The research was well done and obviously extensive. It did seem to jump forward in time pretty fast towards the end, but I guess that’s because there wasn’t much else to say? Maybe it was edited down to make it shorter and an easier read? I’m sure it could quite easily have been twice as long.

It was interesting to read that there are still documents in locked archives.

“Though some of his secrets no doubt remain buried deep in closed archives, his contributions to Soviet history can now be recognized.”

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Sholokhov seemed to be ahead of his time in the way that he perceived the dangers of Soviet policy. First he spoke of the failings of the agricultural policy as he saw them when Stalin launched collectivisation. He saw what was happening on the front during the war and was able to see through the propaganda with his mind before seeing it with his own eyes.

And later on, the 23rd Party Congress in 1966:

The remaining environmental portions of the speech still packed a few punches. He accused an unnamed factory of criminal indifference to poisoning the Volga River and killing between 11 and 22 million fish.

He claimed that the “glorious sea, sacred Baikal” was in danger from the felling of forests and the construction of cellulose paper industries along its pristine shores. He cited statistics about the dumping of waste water into the Don River and condemned the tenfold decline in the number of fish. In spite of key deletions, he still skewered the Fisheries Minister for bringing the Azov sea basin to “the edge of catastrophe.” Sholokhov was the only keynote speaker at the congress who spoke of nature as something more than a resource for immediate economic exploitation.

Dozens of other speeches emphasized the conquering of nature for industrial growth, but his was the only one to even mention the problem of industrial waste.

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I took some personal pleasure at the reference to Santa Barbara in the afterword. I spent a year in Odessa from 1995-96 and my landlady was obsessed with that show!