Ease My Sorrows by Lev Kopelev

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Ease My Sorrows

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

On December 7, 1954, Lev Kopelev left the Marfino sharashka, the prison in a former church called Ease My Sorrows, as a free man. In the hell which was the Stalinist prison system, the sharashkas were the first circle: special scientific and technical institutes staffed by prisoners. The prisoners, including engineers, mathematicians, and other technicians, spent their time on research, experimentation, and translation.

It was the last which enabled Kopelev to find himself in such relatively comfortable surroundings instead of in the forests and uranium mines of Siberia. In the sharashka, Kopelev translated technical articles from German, English, Italian, Polish, and other languages, worked on linguistics, and devised a method of recording and reading voiceprints. It was there that Kopelev met Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; the two became close friends, and Kopelev later served as the model for Lev Rubin in Solzhenitsyn’s V kruge pervom (1968; The First Circle, 1968); In fact, Kopelev’s connections with the Russian intelligentsia were helpful in publishing Solzhenitsyn’s first book, Oden den’ Ivana Denisovicha (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), in the literary journal Novy Mir in 1962.

This volume, however, is much more than the recounting of time spent in prison. It is the story of a man’s life. Ease My Sorrows is the third volume of Kopelev’s memoirs, following I sotvoril sebe kumira (1978; The Education of a True Believer, 1980) and Khranit vechno (1975; To Be Preserved Forever, 1977); it is the story of a man grappling with his own best beliefs and thoughts. It was exactly those higher feelings that placed Kopelev in prison, as a result of his attempts to prevent looting and rapine as the Red Army moved through Poland and Germany. His crime was one of aiding and abetting the enemy. He was a “58er,” which was prison slang for political prisoners sentenced under Article 58 of the penal code of the Soviet Union.

This entire trilogy could easily be entitled “The Reeducation of a True Believer,” for Kopelev was indeed a true believer. In the 1930’s, he had been exceedingly active in the forced collectivization of the farms and during the war had served in the propaganda section of army intelligence, where he was responsible for the interrogation and de-Nazification of captured German soldiers. Kopelev did all of this while serving in the front lines. He was quick to denounce that with which he disagreed or believed was wrong, but at no time did he deviate from his faith in Joseph Stalin. When hundreds of thousands suffered and starved during the forced collectivization, Kopelev saw the error and stupidity involved yet rationalized the suffering as historical necessity, believing that it would be “rectified” in the end.

Kopelev maintained this belief during his arrest and imprisonment. In his first trial, he was found innocent, but after a review this verdict was set aside and he suffered through a second trial. At this second trial, he was found guilty and sentenced to three years. Once again, however, the verdict was set aside, and at his third trial Kopelev was given the normal sentence under Article 58—“ten and five,” ten years in prison and an additional five years suspension of civil liberties. Like many other true believers, he attributed his mistreatment to the need for increased vigilance against counterrevolutionary forces. Such flukes or mistakes, he believed, did not expose any inherent flaws in the Soviet system.

Kopelev maintained his dogmatic Leninism-Stalinism even against the constant badgering of many, including that of Solzhenitsyn and his other close prison friend Dmitri Panin. The cool, rational, and scientific Solzhenitsyn and the religious and passionately anti-Soviet Panin provided good counterparts to the faithful and morally impassioned Kopelev. If Kopelev’s beliefs caused his problems, however, they also gave him the strength to endure his imprisonment.

It is these beliefs that have compelled him to...

(The entire section is 1,495 words.)