Interview with Olivier Rolin, author of Pushkin Prize 2018 shortlisted book 'Stalin's Meteorologist'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack)

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.