Books and Terror

Does reading books make you a better person? Students beginning university this week might wonder if learning brings wisdom, kindness or resilience. Faced with an ungenerous teacher in his book-stacked room, students might remember the warning of Thomas à Kempis: ‘On the Day of Judgement we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done.’

Judgement Day came to Soviet readers as much as anyone else. For better and worse, reading books was at the heart of the Soviet project. Soviet rule dramatically increased literacy levels after the revolution. Stalin-era books — even socialist realist texts filled with propaganda — entertained exhausted workers and opened their minds. Notwithstanding censorship, books formed a bridge across the Iron Curtain, introducing Paris and London into the imaginations of millions of Soviet book-buyers. Bookshelves lined the apartments of the capaciously-defined Soviet intelligentsia. Right through to 1991, the Soviet Union prided itself on having the ‘world’s greatest readers’.

But did it make them better people? A book for truly committed readers of Soviet history hints at an answer. In the longest single volume ever published by an American press on the history of the USSR, Yury Slezkine brilliantly recreates the 1930s world of the people who lived in the ‘House of Government’. This elite apartment house, just across the river from the Kremlin, was widely known as the House on the Embankment. Many of its residents were senior officials whose revolutionary lives had been filled with books. They might run a commissariat, but read Chekhov and Gorky with their children at the weekend. Their literary heritage did not help them between 1936 and 1938, when so many of them perished during the Great Terror.

Just as Slezkine is getting into his stride, on page 835, we read the stories of people who helped the children of those arrested during the Terror and others who turned even their own relatives away. There were good reasons to do bad. One might betray a nephew to protect a son. Why did some people, on the contrary, take risks to show kindness? It ‘may have had something to do’ — Slezkine speculates, in discussing some people who did ‘good’ — ‘with the fact that they were former workers and peasants, not “students”, and that they assumed that being a good Soviet was compatible with fulfilling traditional neighbourly and kinship obligations.’ By contrast, Slezkine suggests, ‘the House of Government’s most articulate intellectuals […] were not up to this task.’

Did the act of reading ever make a person better? In this long and complicated book, Slezkine might be suggesting that a propensity for reading had nothing to do with whether you saved the person who came to you for help. They all seemed to be great readers in the House of Government in 1937: those who opened their homes to the desperate and those who closed their doors in the face of suffering. In the time of Terror, reading was a neutral activity. But what you did with that reading — the noisy, empty intellectualizing — might well have made you disinclined to generous choices.