The Price of Truth

breakingstalinsMy novel Breaking Stalin’s Nose is a book about a young boy’s 
discovery of truth, his loss of idealism, and his subsequent decision 
to walk away from the system he trusted. The boy’s transformation mirrors my own. I also discovered truth about the system I trusted, and I also walked away from it. But unlike my fictional hero, I discovered truth from the books I have read, and I owe my life to their authors.

Reading books in a police state is a very different activity from reading books in a free society. In a police state, reading books can place your life in danger, but it can also encourage you to resist the life predetermined for you by the state. And that is exactly what happened to me.

Where I came from — I was born, raised, and educated in the former Soviet Union — books were taken very seriously. To quote the greatest Russian poet of the last century, Osip Mandelstam, who perished in the Gulag on Stalin’s orders, “Poetry in Russia is taken so seriously, poets are killed for it.”

Books were certainly taken seriously in my family. We lived in what was then called Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, in a communal apartment where several families besides ours shared one kitchen, one toilet, and one cold-water tap. Five of us — my mother and father, my grandmother, my brother and I — lived in one small room. Hastily installed walls between the rooms were thin, and they had ears. The dense living quarters were ideal for spying. Nobody talked about it, but everyone knew that the secret police routinely planted at least one informer per each communal apartment. About twenty strangers lived with my family side by side, and which one of them was the informer no one could say.

At first, I had nothing to worry about. My father was a devoted Communist, a true believer in Communist ideals. Material possessions meant nothing to him. He was ready to give his life for the party or, at the very least, to share his last piece of bread with a fellow Communist. However, my father was quite possessive about one thing, and it was his library. The walls of our small room were lined with books he had collected. The books never left the room but were read and re-read by the members of my family. On occasion, when we had visitors, one of them would get lost in a book he or she couldn’t find elsewhere. No Russian would consider such behavior improper.

By Soviet standards, my father’s library was extravagant. Back then, books were hard to come by. One could not walk into a bookstore and choose a book one wanted to buy unless, of course, it was a work approved or devised by the Soviet propaganda. The real books, the classics, were available by government subscription only. Because of their exalted status in Russia as well as abroad, the classics could not be banned, but their availability was severely limited. In order to subscribe to a complete set of works by Pushkin, Tolstoy, or Dostoyevsky; Chekhov or Turgenev or Gogol, one had to spend untold hours waiting in line, often at night in the most dreadful weather. In all likelihood, my father could have read an entire one of these books in the time it took him to stand in line to subscribe to it. He was not an exception.

The hold that books had on us during the Soviet period is hard to comprehend today. I often wonder about it, pondering the reason (other than their short supply) why books were so important and so valuable.

Generally speaking, most readers experience moments when they come upon a passage that precisely describes their innermost feelings, something they thought was unique only to them. At times the discovery is subtle, slowly penetrating the mind. At other times, truth hits like a thunderbolt. In either case, readers always know when the author is telling the truth. In addition to the many pleasures that reading a good book offers, the discovery of truth is the most essential. At its core, classic Russian literature is humanistic literature. The search for truth in Russian books is the search for what it means to be human.

No wonder, then, that in a country such as the Soviet Union, where for seventy long years the government consistently and skillfully concealed truth from its people, reading classic books acquired such enormous value. What books did for me was to compel me to create my own life from within rather than submit to one from without. In other words, during the breakdown of humanity that occurred under Soviet Communism, reading humanistic literature helped me to become human.

My father, still a young man, passed away in the early 1970s. His library was all he left behind. Being a member of the Communist party, he would have found it difficult, politically, to add to his library a small number of underground books that appeared in Leningrad at that time. These books were not published by the official Soviet presses but by foreign publishers and smuggled into the country by foreign diplomats or courageous tourists. Those books were the works of the Russian authors that were banned by the Soviet authorities. The books were very small, no larger than a deck of cards, and printed in minuscule typeface on cigarette paper for easy concealment. I first read Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, and dozens of other titles suppressed by the government printed in that clandestine fashion.

These books, and there were a very small number of copies in circulation, were passed on from one trusted person to another for no more than a day or two, and often for just a few hours. I remember hurrying to read Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich overnight, as I had to pass the tiny book to a friend the following morning.

At the same time, the collective body of banned works by Russian writers and poets was by then so enormous that only a small portion of it had leaked to the West. In fact, some of our best literature was not even committed to paper. Take poetry, for example. The poet Osip Mandelstam was relentlessly terrorized by the secret police. He was arrested and exiled twice and finally sentenced to a hard labor camp he did not survive. During Mandelstam’s short life, the Soviet censors refused to publish his poetry, and in police searches all of his papers were routinely confiscated and destroyed. At the height of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, anything committed to paper was dangerous. As a result, most of Mandelstam’s poetry had to be memorized and the paper on which it was composed burnt. To preserve his poetry, his wife Nadezhda (which incidentally means “hope” in Russian) committed to memory all of his poems. For over twenty years after her husband’s death, Nadezhda kept his poetry alive by repeating his poems over and over to herself. Finally, after Stalin’s death, she dictated the poems to be written down, but still the censors would not permit their publication. As a result, Mandelstam’s poetry was copied by hand or on home typewriters using carbon paper, and the copies secretly passed on to a handful of courageous readers.

I remember how those blurry, wrinkled, loose sheets of paper felt in my hands. We called them samizdat, which literally means “self-publishing.” As a young man reading these precious works, I began to understand the unwritten rules of our lives, the hidden structures of power, and the way not only our government but also we ourselves, Soviet citizens and the readers of these works, contributed to the uncanny union of oppression and submission we called our home.

The thunderbolt of truth struck in earnest when as a young man I finally read The Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn, a book that for the first time revealed all the horrors of the Soviet system and paid tribute to millions of innocent people who lost their lives to Stalin. I have read and re-read that book since, and keep a nice English-language edition in my library now. But I could never experience again the shock, the horror, and the guilt I felt poring over those thin, hurriedly typewritten pages full of ink smears and typos for the first time. While reading, I listened attentively for any unusual sounds outside our door. There was always a chance that the person who gave you the book was an informer. One never knew when the secret police would stop by unannounced.

The courage of writers like Solzhenitsyn who were still living in the Soviet Union but were published abroad, or were distributed through self-publishing, was awe-inspiring. In retrospect, the courage of their readers was no less so. If apprehended by the police with any of the banned books in possession, one would most certainly face a long journey to the Siberian Gulag with a slim chance of a safe return.

Why did we risk our lives for something as commonplace in free societies as reading? The answer is simple. We were looking for truth. We were looking for truth about our country and our history. The crimes committed by the Soviet government against its own people were carried out in absolute secrecy with most evidence classified or destroyed. The generations of Soviet people either still terrified by or responsible for the crimes kept silent.

I could not learn the truth about those crimes from my father while he was still alive. I could not learn it from my friends. Truth was not taught at my school or the university I attended. Truth was not available in newspapers or magazines, on radio or television. I learned truth from the books I risked my life to read. When I was in my twenties, I understood quite clearly for the first time that knowing what I came to know from reading books and to remain a Soviet citizen would implicate me in the crimes of my government. I did everything I could to leave my country.

In a final twist of fate, I had to sell my father’s library in order to pay for the exit visa from the Soviet Union. A fair price to pay for truth.

From the March/April 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Different Drummers.
Eugene Yelchin
Eugene Yelchin
Eugene Yelchin is a 2018 National Book Award finalist for The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge (Candlewick), with co-creator M. T. Anderson, and the recipient of a Newbery Honor for Breaking Stalin’s Nose (Holt). He received the National Jewish Book Award for illustrating The Rooster Prince of Breslov (Clarion).

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