Ease My Sorrows

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1464

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...

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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 write his memoirs, to recount as accurately as possible the lessons learned. In this volume, he recounts the kindnesses, the expressions of human want and need that made life in the sharashka bearable. He tells of the relationships that developed between the zeks (prisoners) and the free female employees who served as technicians, assistants, and supervisors in the sharashka. He describes the stoolies, those who spent their time informing on their fellow prisoners; who returned evil for good, and who preyed on those weaker than they were. The stupidity of an irrational bureaucratic system also feels the lash of Kopelev’s pen—a system capable of informing a man that his appeal has been denied four months after he has been freed; a system in which much-needed technical apparatuses are destroyed because they do not appear on an inventory. To question the correctness of such orders was to be guilty of anti-Soviet agitation and, if done in concert with another, to be guilty of conspiracy as well. Kopelev did speak out and narrowly escaped punishment for it; the arbitrary terror of Stalinist Russia swept his would-be accuser away, for reasons totally unrelated to him.

Despite the privations of imprisonment and the irrational tangle of bureaucracy, the sharashka was an island of genuine comradeship. The zeks were reasonably well fed, and their lives were not dominated by a search for food and warmth. There was sufficient time and energy for discussions of art, literature, politics, and philosophy as well as for the animated conversations that take place among people engaged in the same project, struggling to accomplish the same goal.

While the zeks were physically separated from the rest of the world by prison walls and guards, they were not mentally cut off. Indeed, they were much better informed than their free counterparts. They had newspapers, radios, and even televisions which they had built themselves, salvaging parts from discarded and defective apparatuses. Kopelev’s desk had a miniature radio receiver permanently tuned to the BBC. The men worried over the Cold War and the Korean conflict, with the threat of another world war.

The prisoners’ work also connected them to the larger world. Kopelev’s main duty was the translation of technical articles into Russian; he easily met his quota of twenty-four pages every four days. At the same time, he was engaged in attempts to develop a secret telephone. In the course of these experiments, the Marfino zeks created the first machine capable of recording voiceprints; Kopelev called them “word pictures.” The prisoners also built the first machine capable of speaking. These accomplishments were, unfortunately, to be lost out of stupidity and bungling; the bureaucracy could see no use in such things, although voiceprints were used to catch a spy.

Another connection with the larger world was the free employees, many of whom were university students writing their dissertations on work being done at the sharashka. These students had to be tutored and trained; this was especially imperative after prisoners were forbidden to appear as authors or coauthors of articles. The only way to make their work public was through these assistants, and this they felt compelled to do. They believed that their work was important, that the motherland needed it, and that their actions served their country. Kopelev’s work, however, never made it into a dissertation; his assistant failed to pass her examinations.

Kopelev’s memoir is full of pain: the pain of separation from family and friends; the pain of seeing one’s children grow up as strangers; and one’s parents growing old without being there. Kopelev was able to see his wife and parents only two or three times a year; years passed between visits with his daughters. Kopelev evokes the prisoner’s constant anxiety, the beautiful and pleasant dreams of the night dashed to pieces in the cold gray of the morning, when one awakens in a prison dormitory and realizes that he still has years left to serve. Then there are the nightmares, dreams of never leaving prison, of dying there. One hides from these fears and immerses oneself in work, music, books, conversation—anything to fill the time and distract one’s thoughts as the seconds turn to hours, to weeks, and eventually to years.

Ultimately, however, this is a book about lessons. Kopelev is not a Solzhenitsyn and has not felt compelled to embrace reaction. Certainly, he has repudiated his earlier Leninism-Stalinism as well as the later scientific Karl Marx—but not the early Marx. He has learned those lessons which are imperative if the world is to survive. They are the lessons of tolerance, free expression, and peacemaking. As Kopelev puts it, “I tried to overcome my inability to listen to people who disagreed with me, my inability to look from a point of view other than my own—that deafness and blindness that I used to think was ideological adherence to principle.” These are lessons for all humanity.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 31

Choice. XXI, January, 1984, p. 711.

Library Journal. CVIII, September 1, 1983, p. 1702.

The New York Review of Books. XXX, October 13, 1983, p. 9.

The New York Times Book Review. September 18, 1983, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, July 22, 1983, p. 126.

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