Interview with Karl Schlöegel, author of Pushkin Prize 2013 shortlisted book 'Moscow 1937'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack)

How did you first become interested in Russia?

I grew up in Bavaria and my family had no connection. My father had been on the Eastern Front, but he never talked about his experience. I went to a Catholic boarding school and had the very unusual chance to learn Russian because of a teacher who was a displaced person from eastern Poland. Then I heard Yevtushenko talk at Munich in the early 1960s about Babi Yar and Stalin. It made a very great impression on me, and after school I decided to study Russian literature and sociology. I travelled to Prague at that time and then to the Soviet Union. I was a political activist, a Maoist, so more focused on China and Cuba, but I could interpret the events. I had read Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror in 1969 so it was not alien to me or new after perestroika. I travelled all over the world and especially in the Former Soviet Union as a translator, and worked as a journalist, before joining the University of Constance in 1990.

Why did you decide to write a book focused on Moscow in 1937?

How could it happen that violence, illusion, experimentation and utopia could coincide at one moment? In 1937, you had international congresses of geologists, filmmakers, architects. How could these all happen at the same time as persecution? The answers historians gave were too simple and rapid. I wanted to present the simultaneous creation and destruction of careers. The main problem as a historian is finding a narrative of simultaneity. I was happy to find it in re-reading Bulgakov. He gave me the idea with his plot of Margarita flying over Moscow. At one glance, she overlooks the entire scenario: in private households’ kitchens, in public spaces, the violence and the joy.

Why the importance on the city?

All history occurs in a place, which is sometimes forgotten. If you only tell a story in chronological order you ignore what is going on across the street and in the neighbourhood. I linked my book on Russian modernity to St Petersburg, and my book on immigres to Berlin, the capital of the Russian diaspora. To tell the story of the 1930s, I found the place in Moscow. In Red Square, for instance, you had holiday parades with gaity and the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Pushkin at the same time as show trials and demonstrations calling for the death penalty for the accused. As they organised celebrations of Russia’s greatest poet, people carried banners praising the leaders of the NKVD. There was a mixture of culture and terror, enthusiasm and lies.

Did you have any problems gaining access to sources?

There are sources in abundance. In my work in the 1990s for a previous book, I used the state archives to study the immigre community in Germany and had no problem getting the materials I asked for. The problem for 1937 was not that there are no materials but that so many have been published. But they have not been used for my type of research. Russian historians have done a great job and I am full of admiration. They have published dozens of volumes of declassified materials. It’s true there are new restrictions on the presidential archive, but huge amounts are open including local archives.

What do you think of western attitudes to the Soviet Union?

I read Lion Feuchtwanger’s [apologist] book Moscow 1937. The question in post-war Germany was how it was possible that such an intelligent, cultivated man was blind to what happened in 1937. It seemed to me that for a Jewish, liberal intellectual in the 1930s, there was almost no alternative given the Spanish civil war and what was happening in Germany. On the political Left, the attitude towards the Soviet Union was one of the main intellectual burdens. It was a problem in France, for Merleau-Ponty and Camus, though less in Germany as a dividend country which had its lesson on Communist affairs from the German Democratic Republic. It was an unsolved problem: how to explain that the ideal of socialism ended in the nightmare of destruction, described by Koestler and Orwell.

What do you think about Russians’ views today on Stalinism?

I think the legacy of fear and violence is very, very strong. But with the end of the Soviet Union, there is a new generation that grew up outside this which is completely different: they have no memory, knowledge or interest. They are more concerned with computers or the global economy than history. It is a very fragmented experience. You meet people who talk of Stalin with enthusiasm and young people who don’t know who he is. The question is how the country can cope with these many radically different layers. Post war Germany had the luck to have been occupied by forces that established new institutions imposing a radical shift. Russia had to come out of the mess on its own, so it is much more complicated. Very often people who were active actors were treated in the next year as victims, then again became actors. That mixture is at the core of coming to terms with the Russian past. I think it will take time – maybe it is for the next generation.

What plans do you have for another book?

I have been working for two years on a book on the Volga River, and studying in local and regional archives without difficulties. It’s about the radical transformation of Europe’s greatest river with hydropower. It transformed the entire environment, turning the river into a machine. The outcome is still unclear, but there are huge ecological problems, enormous pollution and economic losses. I hope through the book to tell the story of Russia in the twentieth century.