History of Literature

Russian literature



Lev Kopelev

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Lev Zalmanovich Kopelev (also Lev Zinovevich Kopelev; Russian: Лев Залма́нович Ко́пелев or Лев Зино́вьевич Ко́пелев, German spelling Lew Kopelew: April 9, 1912 – June 18, 1997) was a Jewish author and a dissident.

Kopelev was born in Kiev, Ukraine, to a middle-class Jewish family. In 1926, his family moved to Kharkov. While a student at Kharkov State University in the philosophy faculty, Kopelev began writing in the Russian and Ukrainian languages; some of his articles were published in the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.

An idealist Communist and active Bolshevik, he was first arrested in March 1929 for "consorting with the Bukharinist and Trotskyist opposition," and spent ten days in prison.

Later, he worked as an editor of radio news broadcasts at a locomotive factory. In 1932, as a correspondent, Kopelev witnessed the NKVD's forced grain requisitioning and the "liquidation" (the Bolshevik term) and deportation of the kulaks. Later, he described the Holodomor in his memoirs The Education of a True Believer, quoted in Robert Conquest's The Harvest of Sorrow (see also Collectivisation in the USSR).

He graduated from the Moscow State Institute of Foreign Languages in 1935 in the German language faculty, and, after 1938, he taught at the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History where he earned a PhD.

When the Great Patriotic War broke out in June 1941, he volunteered for the Red Army and used his knowledge of German to serve as a propaganda officer and an interpreter. When he entered East Prussia with the Red Army throughout the East Prussian Offensive, he sharply criticized the atrocities against the German civilian population and was arrested in 1945 and sentenced to a ten-year term in the Gulag for fostering bourgeois humanism and for "compassion towards the enemy". In the sharashka Marfino he met Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Kopelev became a prototype for Rubin from The First Circle.

Released in 1954, in 1956 he was rehabilitated. Still an optimist and believer in the ideals of Communism, during the Khrushchev Thaw he restored his CPSU membership. In 1957–1969 he taught in the Moscow Institute of Polygraphy and the Institute of History of Arts.

It was Kopelev who first urged Aleksandr Tvardovsky, editor of the literary journal Novyi mir, to publish Solzhenitsyn's short novel about the Gulag, "One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich." The appearance of the work in "Novyi mir" in November 1962, with approval of the Soviet leadership, caused a sensation.

Since 1966 Kopelev actively participated in the human rights and dissident movement. In 1968 he was fired from his job and expelled from the CPSU and the Writers' Union for signing protest letters against the persecution of dissidents, publicly supporting Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel and actively denouncing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. He also protested Solzhenitsyn's expulsion from the Writers' Union and wrote in defense of dissenting General Pyotr Grigorenko, imprisoned at a psikhushka.

Kopelev's books were distributed via samizdat and were published in the West.

For his political activism and contacts with the West, he was deprived of the right to teach or be published in 1977.

As a scientist, Kopelev led a research project on the history of Russian-German cultural links at the University of Wuppertal. In 1980, while he was on a study trip to West Germany, his Soviet citizenship was revoked. After 1981 Kopelev was a Professor at the University of Wuppertal.

Kopelev was an honorary Ph.D. at the University of Cologne and a winner of many international awards. In 1990 Gorbachev restored his Soviet citizenship.

Kopelev was married for many years to Raisa Orlova, a Soviet specialist in American literature, who emigrated with him to Germany. Her memoirs were published in the United States in 1984.

Lev Kopelev died in 1997 in Cologne, Germany.


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