by Andrij Kudla Wynnyckyj
Toronto Press Bureau (Canada)
The Ukrainian Weekly
Ukrainian National Association
Parsippany, New Jersey
July 6, 1997
TORONTO, ONTARIO, CANADA - Lev Zalmanovych Kopelev,
writer, Soviet loyalist turned dissident and a celebrated émigré scholar,
died of heart disease in St. Elizabeth Hospital in Köln, Germany, on June
18 (1997). He was 85.
A Communist Party agitator during the forced collectivization drive in
Ukraine, he later bore witness to the regime's depredations in the
countryside in his memoirs, "The Education of a True Believer" (published
1978), and the 1984 documentary "Harvest of Despair."
Born in Kyiv (Ukraine) on April 9, 1912, to middle-class Jewish parents,
Mr. Kopelev's childhood was marked by all of the currents passing
through the city, from the initial chaos of the civil war, to the imposition
of Bolshevik authority, followed by burgeoning Ukrainization.
After his family moved to Kharkiv in 1926, Mr. Kopelev frequented the
"Blakytny House," as the Writers' Union building was known, and met members
of the Fusilladed Renaissance (Rozstrilane Vidrodzhennia) such as Volodymyr
Sosiura, Mykhailo Semenko, Geo Shkurupiy and Mykola Khvyliovyi. Writing
both in Ukrainian and Russian, Mr. Kopelev helped organize a short-lived
young writers' group named Yun, and began working at the Komsomolskaya
Active in the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Ukraine, he was first arrested
in March 1929 for "consorting with Bukharinist and Trotskyist
oppositionists," and spent 10 days in prison. After a brief stint teaching
remedial education in a village on the outskirts of Kharkiv, he moved back
into the city in the summer of 1930 as editor of radio news broadcasts
(principal agitator) at the Komintern Locomotive Factory.
He attended the notorious Spilka Vyzvolennia Ukrainy (SVU) trials
of 1930 and witnessed the humiliation of the great philologist Serhii
In December 1932, as a correspondent of the Locomotive Worker
newspaper, Mr. Kopelev was sent to the Myrhorod district near Poltava,
and in the ensuing months witnessed the NKVD's grain requisitioning
actions and the murder and deportation of "kulaks."
Of this period Mr. Kopelev wrote in his memoirs:
"Several years were required ... before I could finally begin to understand
what an ugly little pygmy I had imagined to be a handsome giant [Joseph
Stalin], how irremediably disastrous our - my - dialectical illusions and
blind faith had been.
"Today I am convinced that no victories or attainments, neither the rout of
Hitler's forces nor the flights of cosmonauts, can exonerate us, can even be
considered 'mitigating circumstances.'
"And even less forgivable are all the intellectual and emotional factors
which led to my guilt, my participation in those fateful grain collections,
be they explained or predetermined by socio-historical objectivity or purely
In the fall of 1933, Mr. Kopelev enrolled at Kharkiv University. In 1936 he
went to the Moscow Institute of Foreign Languages, specializing in German,
graduating in 1938 as a candidate in philology.
In 1941 he volunteered for the Red Army as a propaganda officer, rose to the
rank of major, and often acted as a translator after the capture of
high-ranking Nazi generals from 1943 onward. In April 1945 Mr. Kopelev was
arrested and charged with "bourgeois humanitarianism" and "pity for the
enemy" because of his attempts to stop looting and raping by Soviet soldiers
in East Prussia.
Initially acquitted by a Moscow District Military Tribunal in November 1946,
he was re-arrested in March 1947 and sentenced to three years of hard labor.
However, Mr. Kopelev ended up serving 10 years in the gulag's camps and
"sharashky" (special workshops for incarcerated technicians), where he met
Released in 1955, Mr. Kopelev was rehabilitated the following year and
worked at the Moscow Institute of Art History. In 1962 he was instrumental
in securing the publication of Mr. Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of
Mr. Kopelev also served as the inspiration for the character of Lev Rubin,
a man who persistently defends Stalin and the Soviet system despite their
responsibility for his unjustified imprisonment, in Mr. Solzhenitsyn's "The
Also in 1962, Mr. Kopelev embarked on his career as a dissident, by
defending Soviet "non-conformist" artists. Throughout the persecution of the
writers Andrei Siniavsky and Yulii Danel he was their persistent and public
advocate. He was finally expelled from the Communist Party in 1968, when he
wrote an open letter to Czech writer Milan Kundera and took part in
demonstrations denouncing the Soviet invasion of the latter's country.
In November 1969 he protested Mr. Solzhenitsyn's expulsion from the Soviet
Writers' Union. In January 1972 Mr. Kopelev wrote letters in defense of Gen.
Petro Grigorenko and requested permission to send him books at the
psychiatric hospital where he was imprisoned.
In early 1975 his first memoir, titled "To Be Preserved Forever," began
circulating as samizdat. It was smuggled out and appeared in the West later
that year. Mr. Kopelev was expelled from the Soviet Writers' Union in 1977.
In 1980, spurred on by the confinement in internal exile of Andrei Sakharov,
he decided to emigrate from the USSR with his wife, Raissa Orlova. Soviet
authorities granted their wish, stripped them of citizenship, and the pair
left for West Germany that November, where he was lionized for his interest
in German literature, his courageous actions in 1945, and his commitment to
Settling in Köln, Mr. Kopelev renewed his friendship with the German writer
Heinrich Böll, and continued his activism in defense of political prisoners
within the USSR. In 1983 he wrote an introduction to a selection of Vasyl
Stus's works and diaries in German translation.
Mr. Kopelev's work on Russian and German literary history was supported by
the Gesamthochschule in Wuppertal. He received honorary doctorates from the
University of Köln in 1981 and from New York's New School for Social
Research in 1984, and was awarded the Erich Maria Remarque Freedom Prize
He is survived by his third wife, Maria Leonene; two daughters from his
first marriage currently living in Los Angeles, Maya Litvinova and Svetlana
Ivanova; two daughters by Ms. Orlova (who died of cancer in 1989); six
grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
The Ukrainian Weekly, July 6, 1997, No. 27, Vol. LXV, Roma
Hadzewzcz, Editor-in-chief, 2200 Route 10, P. O. Box 280, Parsippany,
New Jersey, 007054. Published by the Ukrainian National Association.
Weekly's website presents an extensive collection of material about the
Great Famine in Soviet Ukraine.
For personal and academic use only.