Stalin's Meteorologist: Author Q&A with Olivier Rolin

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Shortlisted for the 2018 Pushkin House Russian Book Prize, Olivier Rolin's book 'Stalin's Meteorologist' is the heartbreaking story of an innocent man in a Soviet gulag, told for the first time in English, and beautifully illustrated with the original drawings he sent to his family from the camp

Why did you become interested in Russia?

It was a question of curiosity first and then chance. I must confess that I was a Maoist in my youth but never pro-Soviet. Ever since I was a child I was fascinated when I looked at maps and saw the stupefying size of Russia. Plus I was interested in its central role in the history of the twentieth century: the enormous hope the October Revolution kindled, then the horror that followed. In 1986, when the Soviet Union started to open up, I wanted to see what it looked like. What interested me was to see what people were like, not the politics. I wrote a book of my impressions afterwards, En Russie. Now I have been there 30 times and written several books on it – it’s certainly by far the country where I’ve passed most time.

What inspired you to write 'Stalin’s Meteorologist'?

In 2010 I was invited to Arkhangelsk. I never travelled as a tourist but I had nothing else to do so I went to Solovetsky, which I knew was a magnificent place. I met a female local historian, Antonina Sobchina, who showed me documents including reproductions of drawings that Alexei Wangenheim sent to his daughter Eleonora, which I found very touching. I returned there in 2011-12 for a documentary on the library of the camp and what happened to it. I knew a Frenchman who had lived for 20 years in Russia and knew Eleonora. He started to tell me the story of the meteorologist, and said I should write about it.

How did you go about the research?

I read all I could on the gulag, including memoirs of people who were in the camp. The most important was by Yuri Cherkov, who was deported at 15 years old, and Oleg Volkov. I couldn’t have done it without Memorial, who gave me information on Wangenheim’s execution. A meteorologist who lives in Kursk and was a friend of Eleonora had access to his files when the archives were open and copied it all down by hand. His daughter also published an album of her father’s life at her own cost. She committed suicide two years before I started work on the book.

What surprised you most during your work?

I already knew that Solovetsky was unusual. Not all camps were like it, with meetings, a library, the chance to observe an eclipse. It was the first big camp, when it was still experimental. That is not to say it was easy but it was less atrocious that Kolyma, for instance. What I didn’t know was the horror of way executions were conducted. People were always described officially as “shot”, but that almost sounds noble. It was more like culled like animals: strangled, beaten, thrown in a ditch. It was a real human horror, right to the end. And at the same time everything was very bureaucratic, with paperwork, stamps, signatures, statistics and so on.

How important was the role of translators for you?

I can get by for basic things in Russian but I can’t speak it. I worked with a great Russian friend to translate documents for me which would otherwise have taken me a long time to read. For the English edition of my book, Ros Schwartz asked me many questions which means she was a good translator: she sent me the text, I made comments – there are always things that escape a translator. I remember that she didn’t understand when I described the overground heating pipes suspended in the streets until I showed her a photo. 

What is your next project?

I have several. I plan to draw a subjective portrait of the world from my notebooks over 35 years during which I have travelled a lot, seen many places and met many people in many countries. I’m also very interested by the Russian Far East, especially the frontier with China. I think in this century serious things will happen there – the Russians and the Chinese will not co-habit as they do now.

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Olivier Rolin was born in Paris, and is a critically acclaimed author and freelance writer. His books have won many prizes, including the Prix du Style for Stalin’s Meteorologist in 2014. He first visited Russia, then the USSR, in 1986. Since then, he has returned many times and has travelled widely throughout the country.

'Stalin's Meteorologist' was translated from the French by Ros Schwartz and is published by Harvill Secker (Penguin - copies are available from the Pushkin House Bookshop. Olivier Rolin was interviewed for Pushkin House Russian Book Prize by Andrew Jack. 

Tickets to the 2018 Pushkin Prize Award Ceremony Dinner on 7 June at the Charterhouse, London, in the presence of shortlisted authors and the book prize jury are on sale here.


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The House of Government: Author Q&A with Yuri Slezkine

Shortlisted for the 2018 Pushkin House Russian Book Prize, Yuri Slezkine's 'The House of Government' tells of the rise and fall of Bolshevism through the history of a notorious block of flats in Moscow, home to the Soviet elite

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What is your background?

I was born in 1956 in Moscow, raised there, went to Moscow State University and then to graduate school in Texas after a year in Lisbon. I got my degree in 1989 and have been teaching Russian history ever since, first at Wake Forest in North Carolina and then at the University of California, Berkeley. As an undergraduate, I studied literature and linguistics. I changed disciplines as well as countries, and discovered all sorts of new things. I was drawn to history in general, the history of the Soviet Union and questions having to do with nationalism and ethnicity.

Why did you decide to write The House of Government?

I wrote an article in the mid-1990s about the USSR as a communal apartment, where “communal apartment” was a metaphor for the Soviet Union as a federal state. Then it occurred to me that it would be very interesting to write a history of an actual communal apartment shared by different families. I looked at various apartments and ended up in the largest building in the Soviet Union. It was called the House of Government or the House on the Embankment, and I could be sure there would be enough people to interview and family archives to look at. Also, there was Yuri Trifonov’s novella, “The House on the Embankement," which made a strong impression on me when I read it in the 1970s.

But was it the best example of communal apartments?

No, it wasn’t. There were several kommunalkas in that building (apartments which contained several families, each one living in a room of its own, sharing the same kitchen, bathroom and toilet), but they were mostly for service personnel. The overwhelming majority of residents lived in their own family apartments. I wouldn’t call it hypocrisy, they weren’t cynical about it. But there was certainly a great deal of tension. The contrast between the way they lived and the way most Soviets lived was striking.

What surprised you during your research?

Most of it was a discovery. I didn’t know much about the private lives and loves of the Bolshevik revolutionaries. There is a great deal of mythology, but not much real research; it was a story that needed to be told. But some things did come as a surprise. Quite a few of the children of the arrested residents were taken to special secret police reception points and then on to orphanages. I was struck by how fondly most of them remembered their time in those places; how connected they still felt to their country, their teachers and other children. I had assumed their “happy Soviet childhoods” would end the night their parents were arrested, but it was not really the case.

But the most interesting, if not necessarily surprising, things were the personal stories. There is one example of 20 years of letters between a very prominent Bolshevik and the secret love of his life. The first was written in February 1917, two days before the February Revolution; the last — after the Central Committee plenum which launched the mass campaign against hidden enemies (including him, as it turned out). It is the story of his love for the woman and for Communism at the same time, a love that began on the eve of the revolution and then vanished. He was arrested within a few months of saying farewell to her and shot a year later.

What about stories from among the secret police?

One of the executioners, one of the most prominent, lived in the House and had personally participated in designing and administering the purges. He was responsible for thousands and thousands of deaths, personally interrogating, and, from what I can tell, torturing, prisoners. When he got a call, late at night, he knew exactly what it meant. He left home after answering the phone, and disappeared. Secret police officials kept calling his wife, coming to the apartment and searching for him untill he finally turned himself in. He had spent 6 or 7 hours in the middle of a very cold, snowy January night in Moscow wandering around before turning himself in. That was the image his widow kept. One wonders if it was enough punishment for the things he had done.

What do you think of the House on the Embankment today?

It’s symbolically less visible today than in the 1990s, when there was a huge Mercedes logo on top of the building, and all kinds of nouveaux riches, visiting foreigners and corporate CEOs were moving in, replacing the old Soviet residents. It’s a monument to another era, another time. Today most Muscovites know it as a building covered in memorial plaques. It lost its appeal to most members of the Soviet elite after the war. The preferred place to live shifted to Kutuzovsky Prospect, the Arbat, and then the western suburbs. But my book is about the heyday, when most top Soviet officials lived in their own House of Government until many of them were taken out and sent to their deaths, one at a time. 

Do you have any regrets over the work?

There aren’t that many people who lived there in the 1930s who are still alive. I feel a little guilty about taking so long – 20 years – to write the book, so most will not get a chance to read it. But I hope it’s a better book for all the work I’ve done.

What is your next project?

At some point, I realised that I should have written that book in Russian. It has a Russian feel; it belongs to a certain Russian tradition; and I think of it primarily as a Russian book. In a sense I began by writing the English translation, and now I’m finally writing the Russian original. I hope it will be out in the autumn.



Yuri Slezkine  is the Jane K. Sather Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include 'The Jewish Century' (Princeton).




'The House of Government' is published by Princeton University Press - copies are available from the Pushkin House Bookshop. Yuri Slezkine was interviewed for Pushkin House Russian Book Prize by Andrew Jack.


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Gorbachev: His Life and Times: Author Q&A with William Taubman

Shortlisted for the 2018 Pushkin House Russian Book Prize, William Taubman's book tells the story of how a peasant boy became the Soviet system's gravedigger


What inspired you to study the Soviet Union?                

Growing up in the 1950s, I was a news junkie interested in the Cold War. I remember seeing Khrushchev riding through Central Park in a limousine in 1959. My mother’s parents came from the Black Sea and spoke Russian. Pretty early on, I began puzzling over how a movement that had begun with a vision of heaven on earth (namely Marxism) could end up with a Stalininst killing field. I wanted to figure that out, so I began majoring at college in Russian history, and eventually made that question a main theme of my course on Soviet politics. 

Why pick Gorbachev for a biography?

Looking back, it seems a very logical choice after my book on Khrushchev. Gorbachev picked up the banner of reform. But actually, it took a night train ride from Moscow to Saratov for a conference in 2004 to convince me opt for Gorbachev. On train with me and my wife  with was a Russian émigré historian, Svetlana Savranskaya, who had read my Khrushchev biography and spent the whole night trying to convince me that Gorbachev was the book I should write. In the US, several biographies of him were written when he was in power but nobody had approached it since. In a way it’s easier to understand why so few biographies of him exist in Russia, because he’s such a controversial figure that anyone who contemplates it is drawn into a polemic--so the serious scholars have stayed away.

What surprising insights did you have during your research?

When he was climbing the ladder in Stavropol and at first in Moscow, my impression from the archives and reading his speeches was that he was a good listener who measured his words. Once he got to the top, especially once things began to go badly, he got more long-winded, and that became a weakness. But my wife (who taught Russian language and literature at Amherst College) and I interviewed him eight times for two hours each. The surprise was how informal, warm, natural and humorous he was. I expected he’d want to see questions in advance, or have his own interpreter, but he didn’t. It was also surprising how often he unintentionally undercut his own cause as Soviet leader. The whole project was arguably doomed from the start given the raw material of Russia he was working with, trying to democratise in a few short years a country that had never really known democracy. But he sometimes sabotaged himself by being overconfident that he could control the hardliners and Yeltsin.

Why did he never feel able to criticise Lenin?

This remains something of a puzzle to me. By 1990-91, Gorbachev had in effect become a kind of social democrat, but he continued to insist he was loyal to Lenin. I think it was partly political, because by reiterating his fealty to Lenin he could try to appeal to the communist hardliners. It was also psychologically important to him to feel that he, like Lenin, was forging a new path, adapting to realities and undertaking reforms (as Lenin did toward the very end of this life) to save the revolution.

Did he have blood on his hands?

Compared with Khrushchev, who said he had blood up to his elbows, Gorbachev compromised along the way and kept his mouth shut. During the Prague Spring in 1968, he gave speeches condemning liberalisation and justifying the Soviet intervention. He condemned a former colleague of his wife’s at the local institute in Stavropol. But you could see he was trying to be as gentle as was possible under those conditions and he kept up good relations with him even after he was banished. He voted “yes” during the repressions under Andropov when he was asked, but he wasn’t consulted on the invasion of Afghanistan.  

How do you explain his relationship with Putin?

It’s surprisingly mixed. Putin has essentially reversed almost all Gorbachev’s reforms: the parliament has been tamed, votes if not rigged at least prefabricated by denying opposition voices, the press muzzled. A new cold war has begun. You might have expected Gorbachev to be unrelentingly critical. In fact he has been from time to time quite positive on Putin, for example, approving the annexation of Crimea and not condemning the war in Ukraine.  The two men are surprisingly close on foreign affairs. Gorbachev doesn’t like the new Cold War that Putin has fomented (with a little help from American leaders), but he’s been very fierce in his criticisms of the US after 1991. I think he feels betrayed by the US and other western powers whom he thought had assured him in 1990 that either NATO would not expand or at least be radically modified and become non-military.

Is Putin a product of Gorbachev?

Putin certainly isn’t following marching orders from Gorbachev, but he is reacting to what he sees as Gorbachev’s legacy. He has reversed much of what Gorbachev attempted to create. You have to add Yeltsin to the pick. The state began to wither away until Putin began to put it back together again. In Putin’s mind, Gorbachev bears a great deal of the blame, and he set out to rectify what he thinks Gorbachev began.

How will Russia judge him in the future?

It depends on whether and when Russia moves back on a path towards some sort of liberal democracy. If that happens – which I don’t expect will happen soon – I think Russians will look back on Gorbachev as the man who opened the door. But if - as is quite possible - Russia remains on an authoritarian trajectory, I’m afraid Gorbachev may seem to the people to be the one who took the wrong turn.

What is your own assessment of Gorbachev?

He is a tragic hero. He laid the groundwork for freedom and democracy in the Soviet Union, organised the first free elections, which have not equalled since. Glasnost became virtually free speech. He replaced a rubber stamp parliament with a genuine one. Even more than any of the other leaders including Reagan, Gorbachev ended the Cold War. It he had not been in power, the Soviet leadership would have continued it. But his is a tragic history: he failed to achieve what he wanted to achieve. It was more a Shakespearian than Greek tragedy: the fault was partly his own, although the basic problem was not he, it was Russia itself.

Do you have a new book project?

I’m afraid I’ve run out of Russian leaders. There are so many good books on Lenin and Stalin. Brezhnev does not excite me. I’m trying to think about projects that might go beyond Russia.


William Taubman by Michele Stapleton

William Taubman by Michele Stapleton

William Taubman is the Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Amherst College. His biography, 'Khrushchev: The Man and His Era', won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts. 

'Gorbachev: His Life and Times' is published by Simon & Schuster - copies are available from the Pushkin House Bookshop. William Taubman was interviewed for Pushkin House Russian Book Prize by Andrew Jack.


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Armageddon and Paranoia: Author Q&A with Rodric Braithwaite


Shortlisted for the 2018 Pushkin House Russian Book Prize, Rodric Braithwaite's book relates how the power of the atom was harnessed to produce weapons capable of destroying human civilisation and considers what this has done to the world


Where does you interest in Russia come from?

My father was a conductor at what is now the English National Opera when I was born. His fellow conductor had a remarkable Russian wife with a very strong personality. Our two families were close so I heard a lot about Russia when I was little. I started learning Russian in 1950. I then spent my military service in Vienna, but I resumed my Russian studies at university, and I was first posted to the embassy in Moscow in 1963. I didn’t go back permanently for some time, though I did spend much of the intervening period dealing with east/west issues, defence, and Soviet affairs. I was Moscow from 1988 to 1992 as the Soviet Union fell apart. I've visited it many times since, and I've written a number of books which are centred on Russia. That's given me the opportunity to get to know Russians from all walks of life I would not otherwise have met.

Why did you decide to take up writing?

I’d always enjoyed writing. But in the Foreign Office I was of course constrained by the need to produce official prose. Once I left I was free of all that. My first book was an attempt to work out what I thought about Russia and the events I witnessed there. It was partly autobiographical, although if I could have left out the first person pronoun I would have done. In my subsequent books - on the siege of Moscow in 1941, on the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and now on the nuclear confrontation - I was trying to sort out things I did not fully understand, and in particular to tell the Russian side of the story, which I felt was often ignored, under-reported, or distorted. I learned a lot in the process, and I enjoyed that.

Why did you decide to write this book?

I was thirteen years old when I read the Times report about the bombing of Hiroshima, and since then I've been trying to work out what honourable and decent men in all countries - America, Britain, and Russia too - thought they were doing as they planned and built systems designed to kill millions of their fellows. I found the issues intellectually fascinating, and in many ways I envied my colleagues who were working on them. But I also wondered if I wanted to be involved in anything so horrendous: a moral cop-out, if you like. My eight-year old daughter Kate believed the world would be wiped out before she grew up. She encouraged me to write the book to explain that fear to a generation that didn’t know it. In fact the fear of nuclear war remained there, below the surface. Recent events have brought it back up again.

Did the nuclear deterrent work?

We don't know if it worked or not. There was no nuclear war. So you can argue that deterrence frightened everyone into behaving sensibly. We were just as deterred and terrified as the Russians. The inexorable logic was: "If they have nuclear weapons, we have to have them too, otherwise they'll blackmail us". But it was a gamble. Nuclear war might have occurred not deliberately, but by miscalculation, by gadgets not working, by a breakdown of discipline.  The film Dr Strangelove tells it all. We were lucky.

Did the Russians over-estimate the threat from the West?

We believe in the West that the Russians were paranoid: we were never going to attack them. But the Russians didn’t know that. For example, when Reagan came to office, he indulged in provocative language, and provocative action too. American aircraft and ships probed right up to the Soviet frontier in a deliberate attempt to unsettle Russian nerves. They succeeded. The Russians got very jittery, and thought that the Americans might indeed be planning something. A tragic consequences was that the Russians shot down a Korean airliner which had strayed into Soviet territory. Then NATO mounted the Able Archer exercise a a couple of months later, which involved a simulated nuclear strike against Soviet forces "invading" Western Europe. The Russians picked that up, and began to put their own forces on alert. Nothing happened, but it was a turning point. Reagan - in my view a remarkable president - concluded that things were going too far (he was much influenced by watching a rather good American docudrama about the effects of a nuclear strike on an American town in the MIdwest). So he was prepared to work with Gorbachev to bring the Cold War to an end.

What things most surprised you in researching the book?

I was struck by the extent of the paranoia on both sides - we were no better than the Russians. I was struck too  by the way governments, like all human organisations, have to develop a common mindset if they are to operate effectively: they cannot spend all their time arguing about first principles amongst themselves, they have to get on with the business. So they tend to ignore evidence that doesn't fit. One very good CIA analyst said that American estimates of Russian intentions were often wide of the mark because the analysts failed to put themselves in the Russians' shoes. But if you did that, he remarked ruefully, you were liable to lose your job. Kennedy said much the same thing in private at the time of the Cuba missile crisis. He was trying to put himself in Khrushchev's place: but it would very damaging politically if that leaked to the press.

What about the Russian perspective?

I started from the proposition that the Russians were also human, and looked for the evidence. They have published much less than we have - no intelligence assessments or military plans. But there is a great pile of fascinating documents about the Soviet nuclear weapons programme, a lot of generals have been interviewed, and politicians and officials have written their memoirs. Enough emerges to see that many of those involved, like those in the West, were worried about the morality and even the rationality of what they were doing. Scientists  such as Sakharov believed that they had no choice but to follow where the Americans had led. But one Soviet scientist accused his colleagues of selling their souls to the devil. When a general asked Brezhnev during a nuclear exercise to press the button, he went white and asked ‘Are you sure this is just an exercise?’ And he went on to make a genuine attempt to improve relations with the Americans.

What lessons do you draw for the situation today?

During the Cold War the two sides were stoked up by ideological fervour. They faced one another with their nuclear forces on hair trigger alert. Their leaders could have had as little as fifteen minutes to decide whether to fire their weapons or not.

The world today is more complicated but less dangerous. Leaders are still trapped in the logic: "If they've got it, we have to have it too". But there is no heated ideological confrontation. The number of nuclear states has not increased as fast as we feared. And our fears of what we call "Rogue States" seem to me exaggerated too. As people acquire these weapons, they begin to understand how awful they are, and they moderate their language. That was true of the Russians and the Chinese. And it seems to be true of President Kim of North Korea, who turns out not to be the madman depicted by Western propaganda, but someone who is healthily aware that if he is not careful he and his country could be wiped out.

That doesn't mean that all danger has disappeared, of course. All the nuclear powers are modernising their weapons. The Americans spend about three times as much on defence as the Chinese, and nine times as much as the Russians. Perhaps because people are less afraid of nuclear war than they were, they feel more able to use provocative language: both Trump and Putin have spoken about nuclear weapons in ways their predecessor tried to avoid during the Cold War.  Some of their supporters are worse. The willingness to talk soberly and discreetly about nuclear arms control has almost frayed away, Relations between Russia and the West have descended to almost unprecedented levels of vituperation and mutual demonisation. Putting all that right will be very hard.

So there is still plenty to worry about.

What is your next project?

It’s provisionally called "Russophobia: Russia’s tangled relations with the outside world”. I’m fascinated by the way both Russia and its neighbours all believe they are the age-old victims of aggression from the West, and the saviours of Europe  from the barbarians to the East. And I’m bemused by the specifically British animus towards Russia. I perfectly understand the Poles and the Balts. But when did the Russians last invade Britain?



Sir Rodric Braithwaite is a former British diplomat and author whose long Foreign Office career took him to Indonesia, Poland, Italy, America and Russia. He was British Ambassador in Moscow during the fall of the Soviet Union, which he described in Across the Moscow River (2002, Yale).



'Armageddon and Paranoia' is published by Profile Books - copies are available from the Pushkin House Bookshop. Sir Rodric Braithwaite was interviewed for Pushkin House Russian Book Prize by Andrew Jack.


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