Friday 14 July 2017


A riddle - the solution is the picture - sent by A.F. Vangengeim to his daughter

There seems to be a special link - a kind of reverse polarity of the imagination - between convicts and pilots. Take Oscar Wilde's famous sky envy:

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky...  (The Ballad of Reading Gaol)

Or consider this paean to aviation, by a 26-year-old airman for whom time spent earthbound was already a kind of incarceration:

The earth is reassuring with her clearly divided fields, her geometric forests, her villages. The pilot dives to enjoy her all the more. From up high, the earth seems nude, dead; as the plane descends, the earth clothes herself. The woods once again cushion her; the valleys and hills undulate over her; she breathes. [...] And the noises he heard? He no longer thinks of them. This is real life, here, so close to the sun. [...] The torrential sun sweeps away under him the roofs, the walls, the trees emerging from the inexhaustible horizon. Landing is a disappointment. You exchange the flooding wind, the growling of your engine and the annihilation of the latest turn for a silent province where you suffocate, a landscape of advertisements with very white hangars, for very green carpets, for neatly cropped poplars beside which young English girls disembark, rackets under their arms, from the blue planes of the Paris-London route.

The passage above is an extract from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's short story L'Aviateur (The Aviator), first published in 1926 and posthumously reprinted by Gallimard in 1956. In the twentieth century, perhaps no-one else has written more evocatively about the air, or about air crashes. Saint-Exupéry visited Moscow briefly, in his dual capacity as a journalist and celebrity pilot, in the late spring of 1935; he wrote copy for Paris-Soir about his experience of flying on the eight-engine propaganda craft Maxim Gorky on the very day before it crashed near Moscow on May 18th. He admired the plane (at the time the largest of its kind in the world) as a triumph of skilled engineering, and also as a unique airborne community, with its own telephone lines and even a typist's office. He understood very well the moral impact of the disaster: 'Its loss is considered here as grounds for national mourning. [Besides the loss of the crew and the thirty-five factory worker passengers for whom this flight had been a reward]... the USSR loses the best evidence it had of the vitality of its youthful industry.'  What Saint-Exupéry ultimately distilled from the tragedy was its stark, Hellenistic absence of meaning: the Maxim Gorky crashed not because of equipment failure, or internal enemies, or Jewish doctors. It crashed because one of a trio of accompanying Soviet fighter planes miscalculated during an aerial manoeuvre, impacting on and shearing through the monster craft's massive flanks. '...The wings, the motors, and the fuselage separated, slowly unfurling like a black flower. Even the speed of the fall seemed controlled. The observers felt they were watching a dizzying glissade or the almost ceremonial shipwreck of a torpedoed vessel. [...] At the bloody crossroads of its peaceful path, the Maxim Gorky was struck down for entering the flight path, rigid as a bullet's trajectory, of a blind fighter plane'. 

The Maxim Gorky, painted by the artist Vasily Kuptsov in 1934
A year or two earlier, another heroic episode in Soviet flight technology had been followed by tragedy: the world's first successful balloon flight into the Earth's high atmosphere (to a height of 19,500 metres) was performed by three Soviet pilots on September 30, 1933. But the next January a follow-up flight reached 22,000 metres but crashed on descent, killing all three 'proletarian Prometheuses' (as Olivier Rolin calls them) aboard. Their State funerals were no doubt sufficient compensation for lives cut short. On January 8, 1934, three weeks before the doomed flight of the Osoaviakhim-1, one of the senior meteorologists involved in preparing the first balloon ascent had his life cut short in a rather different way. This was Aleksei Feodos'evich Vangengeim (1881-1937), a founding member of the Soviet Union's first Hydrometeorological Service, and its president between 1929 and 1934. Despite his Germanic name, his family's (possibly Dutch) origins were remote; he was born in a Ukrainian village, studied mathematics and physics at Moscow University, and worked at weather stations all over continental Russia. His French biographer Olivier Rolin writes lyrically that 'His kingdom was the clouds. [...] He represented the Soviet Union at the International Commission on clouds, he took part in All-Soviet congresses on the formation of fog, he created the Bureau of Weather in 1930 [...]'. But Rolin stresses that Vangengeim would have disowned any such lyricism; he was a pragmatist, a dedicated worker and researcher, and a Soviet patriot. Within his field, he was also a visionary: Rolin describes his subject's ambitions for a wind-chart that would unite weather reports across Russia and the whole world to create a coherent atmospheric map. If we learned to direct the renewable (and inexhaustible) energy of the wind, Vangengeim wrote in 1935, it could be used as an alternative source of heat and light energy; even for powering turbines that would distribute water to arid central Russian regions. 

Sadly, Vangengeim was one of many brilliant, avant-garde minds sacrificed to the paranoid politics of High Stalinism. Despite his influential connections (he knew, personally, Lenin's wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, the much-lionized Arctic explorer Otto Schmidt, even Maxim Gorky himself), once he was denounced as the secret ringleader of a counter-revolutionary, Menshevik clique within the Hydrometeorological Service (an imaginary terrorist ring of actual weathermen: the later American version involved real terrorists and imaginary meteorologists), his days were numbered. He was picked up by the Soviet secret police just before meeting his wife to watch a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Sadko at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre. He would next see his wife, for the final time, four months later just before being exiled. After a relatively brief detention in the Lubyanka Prison, Vangengeim was sentenced to ten year's "re-education" in the notorious SLON prison camp on the Solovetski Islands, in the White Sea. (The camp's full name was 'Solovki Special Purposes Camp'; in Russian, its acronym is the same as the Russian word for 'elephant'). Courageously, indefatigably, perhaps even, as Rolin suggests, pathetically, Vangengeim continued to regard his accusation and sentencing as a bitter mistake. Not until the very end of his imprisonment, in 1937, did he allow himself to doubt the probity of Soviet justice or of the powerful individuals who controlled the state. From Solovki, he wrote repeatedly to friends - like Schmidt - and to politicians - including Stalin, enclosing messages for acquaintances in letters to his wife, deliberately blinkering himself with the hope that once the right person read his case notes, he would be instantly extracted and reinstated and allowed to go back to doing his bit for a glorious Soviet future. 

If Saint-Exupéry had been available at this point (his visit to Moscow was still a year in the future), he could have set Vangengeim straight about the meaning of his sentence. Saint-Exupéry had rather less time to become acquainted with the Soviet justice system, but he understood it better. In a smart article called 'Crimes and Punishments: Up Before Soviet Justice', he quoted an anonymous Soviet judge's statement that justice 'was not a matter of punishment, but of correction'. In France, long prison terms were routinely assigned for major crimes: 'the old lag of fifty is still paying for the youth of twenty who killed in a fit of anger'. In Russia, Saint-Exupéry noted, the death sentence was used freely but no term of imprisonment greater than ten years was ever allotted (it was not yet obvious to foreign observers that camp sentences were as renewable as wind energy). 'The dissident, if he is to reform, will reform within ten years. So why extend a punishment that would no longer be purposeful?' And punishment, Saint-Exupéry discovers, can be made doubly purposeful in Soviet Russia: the correction process can also be practically useful, as in the construction by convict labour of that great white elephant, the Belomor Canal (1930-2). 'Here is the miracle. These thieves, these pimps, these killers are drawn from jails as if from a reservoir and sent, at the point of several rifles, to dig out a canal which will join the White Sea and the Baltic Sea. There they will find adventure, and what an adventure! There they are ordered to plough, like worker giants, a deep ravine-like furrow between two seas, a furrow built for ships. To plant cathedral-sized scaffolding on collapsing ground and to throw up against their walls logs from the felling of entire forests, which part like straw as they dig underneath. At night, they join their comrades under the sights of rifles. [...] And little by little the game takes hold of them. They live in teams, directed by their own engineers, their own overseers, for in a prison every type can be found. They are governed by those amongst them who know best how to impose their natural dominance.'

Saint-Exupéry seems to have fallen, like Gorky before him, for the myth of the Belomor Canal as a triumph of rational, humane re-education, when in fact working conditions were inhumane to an extreme degree, and many of the prisoners were criminals only in the political sense. Nevertheless, he raises another thorny point with his anonymous (possibly composite) Soviet judge: How can Soviet people live with constant scrutiny, with subjection to the collective, with internal passports? But this too is explained to him. Soviet society expects that 'men not only respect its laws, but live them' [my italics]. Soviet justice must be internalized by individuals. Given that many Russians share what Saint-Exupéry calls a 'nomad spirit' that pushes them beyond the confines of social norms as well as geography, they must be taught by the benevolent state to re-orient their aspirations and affections to the local and the concrete. 'Thus they build houses to entice the caravan-dwellers. Apartments are not rented, but sold. The internal passport is introduced. And those who raise their eyes too much to the dangerous portents in the sky are sent to Siberia, where winters sixty degrees below zero will laminate them. And thus they may create a new man, who is dependable, who loves his factory and his social circle, as a French gardener loves his garden.'

One of those 'new men' who had been re-educated building the Belomor Canal was Dmitri Sergeevich Likhachev, the future academician and world authority on the origins of Russian culture. Although Likhachev was not among the Herculean diggers envisaged by Saint-Exupéry (he was employed as an administrator, supervising rail deliveries of construction cargo), he worked on the project for over a year and benefited from Stalin's general amnesty to all prisoners (criminal and political) who had contributed to the canal's early completion. In 1928, Likhachev had been sentenced to five years in Solovki for belonging to a supposedly monarchist and anti-semitic student association at Leningrad University known, jokingly, as the 'Space Academy of Sciences'. (His great crime had been to present and publish a paper which decried the Soviet administration's decision to reform old-style Russian orthography). A much younger man than Vangengeim (Likhachev was born in 1906), he had been and gone from Solovki by the time the latter arrived. They would have shared, however, many of the same camp experiences, from the disorienting end of their long train journey in the coastal town of Kem (briefly, during the Civil War, a bastion of British, Finnish and Serbian anti-Bolshevik troops), and the dangerous journey to the Solovetsky Islands themselves: 'A strange country. No earth - stone and scrub', as Likhachev recorded. Thence followed days, months and years of casual brutality, exposure to extreme cold, inadequate food, inadequate everything, and the terrifying random selections of inmates for execution. Likhachev's secret prison diary and later memoirs also preserve some of the more positive aspects of the camp experience: the survival of protective networks of intellectuals and Orthodox believers (who were sometimes the same people), the existence of limited medical care in the prison infirmary, and the educational opportunities furnished by the many scientists, teachers, and university professors who tasked themselves with organizing evening classes, running the camp library and even publishing a SLON journal. Besides those letters to former colleagues and politicians, which were never answered or even acknowledged, Alexei Vangengeim managed the library, gave lectures on meteorology and mentored younger inmates; and he wrote personal letters to his wife and his daughter, who was only three years old at the time of his imprisonment. His letters to little Elena include delightful pedagogic aids, the parts of a flower intricately coloured and labelled to help her learn numbers, pictures of leaves and deer and Arctic foxes to teach her about Siberian nature. While all prisoners numbered their letters and constantly checked with their loved ones ("Did my ninth arrive?"), Vangengeim asked his growing daughter additional, tender questions: "Have you had your second blue fox?" Meaning, has the chain of illustrations - all he could share with his lost daughter - held? It did, until his death.

Likhachev was unusually lucky at Solovki; firstly, because his parents were allowed to visit him (actually staying in a room they rented from a camp guard), and secondly because their visit saved his life, as he would much later tell a young novelist called Alexander Solzhenitsyn, then compiling a monumental exposé of the Soviet camps (The Gulag Archipelago). Likhachev spent an evening away from barracks with his parents; meanwhile, a selection of 300 prisoners for immediate execution was underway. Guards knocked on Likhachev's door but didn't find him because he was with his family. Later, a friend tipped him off that he was on the list; he spent the night hiding inside a woodpile while others were chosen to make up the required number of victims. Likhachev suffered no repercussions for this act of stealthy disobedience, except that from that moment on he vowed to live two lives: his own, and one for the man who had died in his place. Vangengeim was not lucky at Solovki. On October 9, 1937, in Moscow, in response to a new order from Nikolai Yezhov, the head of Stalin's secret police, to 'clean up' the camps by dispatching more political prisoners, Alexei Vangengeim's name was entered on a list of those condemned. And within a month, with over a thousand others, he was shipped back to the mainland at Kem, transported south in a cattle car in the general direction of a Karelian town with the quaint name of "Bear Mountain" (Medvezhegorsk), shot in the back of the head and buried in the forest.

While I read Olivier Rolin's Le météorologue (2014), which has just been published by Penguin in Ros Schwartz's translation as Stalin's Meteorologist, I was discovering, in parallel, another recent book which links the themes of imprisonment and aviation in a very different yet still more explicit way: Evgenii Vodolazkin's 2016 novel The Aviator (watch this space for Lisa Espenschade's forthcoming translation, which will no doubt be as magisterial as her version of Vodolazkin's Laurus). Cryofrozen in a secret experiment in a prison camp laboratory on the Solovki Islands during the early 1930s, Innokenty Petrovich Platonov is found and revived in a private clinic near St Petersburg. Miraculously, Platonov seems to be both physically and mentally sound, although his memories are fragmentary and elusive. Born in 1900, he retains in the year 1999 the appearance of a man in his early thirties.Very gradually, Dr Heiger and nurse Valentina negotiate the impossible task of explaining to Platonov just what happened to him: '"Was I in an accident?" "One could say that."' (He eventually discovers just how long he has been unconscious by reading the best-before date on a container of pills accidentally left in his room). Dr Heiger encourages him to keep a diary for both returning memories and day-to-day events. That diary becomes The Aviator: in the second half of the book, Platonov's notes are joined by those of both Dr Heiger and Nastya, the granddaughter of Platonov's great love, who dies in the geriatric ward of a public hospital a few weeks after his return to St Petersburg. As Platonov's closest companions (Nastya is carrying his child), both Heiger and Nastya begin to share or even anticipate his memories, even unlocking the terrible secret set to destroy his second chance at life. This is a book about the Solovki experience - its recreation of the journey from Kem and of the camps is terrible and accurate - but it is also about aviation. As a boy, Platonov loves playing at flight so much that his family nickname him "Aviator Platonov" (and the nickname lingers like an echo, so that he asks his doctor if he had actually been a pilot in his previous life). He loves visiting the aerodrome and admiring the pilots, even though they smell of the castor oil that lubricates their engines: his bedroom walls are covered with pictures of famous early aeronauts, such as the French fighter ace Adolphe Pégoud and the Russian Pyotr Nesterov, the first pilot to perform a loop (and who died in the first month of the First World War, bullishly ramming an Austrian plane). Platonov quotes Blok's 1912 poem 'The Aviator': 'But here, in the trembling heat, / In the haze fuming over the meadow, /Hangars, people, everything earthly - / Might have been crushed unto the earth'. Platonov reflects that his earthly life has been well and truly crushed, whereas aviators live by different, glorious, aerial rules. He admires them: he aspired to be one. He might have quoted Yeats' 1918 lines, 'A lonely impulse of delight / Drove to this tumult in the clouds', had they been circulated in peri-revolutionary Petrograd. But, like the narrator of Blok's poem (and the pilot of Saint-Exupéry's short story), the child Platonov also witnesses a plane crash, and even sees the dead aviator up close. Indeed, Blok's poem suggests that the aviator crashes because he sees his own dark avatar approaching: 'Night flyer, in the turbid gloom / Bearing dynamite to earth'. As the reader discovers, Platonov's darker self bears dynamite of its own devising; and the narrative ends, appropriately, mid-flight. 

Despite its darkness, The Aviator is not a novel about death. It is, perhaps primarily, about resurrection. It is significant that its protagonist, aging with the century, is little older than Dmitri Likhachev; and perhaps also that he comes back to life in 1999, the year following Likhachev's death. Both young Mitya Likhachev and little Platonov spent joyous summers at their families' dachas in Kuokalla, now Repino, in the Karelian forest near St Petersburg. Both learned to cherish their families' cultural connections and intellectual heritage. Both are sentenced to camps on apparently trumped-up pretexts. But where Alexei Vangengeim died, and Dmitri Likhachev lived twice, Innokenty Platonov simply stops. He volunteers as an experimental subject at a secret laboratory on one of the remotest Solovetskii islands, because he is aware that the only alternative open to him is slow, brutal death from malnutrition, overwork and cruelty. Thus he is recruited for the LAZAR: another punning acronym, this time on the name Lazarus (since the laboratory studies cryogenic procedures with a view to freezing and eventually resurrecting Soviet grandees such as Stalin himself) and the word lazaret, which means 'infirmary'. When Dr Heiger resurrects him in 1999, Platonov becomes the only known survivor of the procedure, a true contemporary Lazarus. And yet his resurrection, his flight over the darkest half of the twentieth century, cannot be forgiven; he cannot be allowed to bypass history. After returning from Solovki, Likhachev lived through a sequence of horrors and persecutions that would have crushed other men: continued police surveillance and political persecution, threatened exile from Petersburg, the Siege of Leningrad with all its privations and suffering, the hypocrisy and corruption of the Brezhnev era, the death of a beloved child, grave illness. Of these tribulations, the years in SLON may not have been the worst. By comparison, Platonov can only live the years since the early 1930s vicariously, like Saint-Exupéry's pilot looking down at naked, dead terrain from high above. Likhachev, with whose life Platonov's is entangled, resurrected his own Solovki years and the sufferings of many others through his memoirs and his official work to expose the horrors of the Gulags, a task continued today by organizations such as Memorial. Perhaps this is a truer resurrection than Platonov's miraculous return. Vodolazkin, a specialist in ancient Russian literature, worked at St Petersburg's famous Pushkinskii Dom under Likhachev; The Aviator is, at least in part, an homage to his mentor. Memorial have resurrected Alexei Vangengeim too: just after finishing Rolin's book I bumped into his subject, in a manner of speaking, on the very last day of a Russian Revolution exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. I squeezed into an audiovisual booth in the last room of the exhibition and jadedly watched a slideshow of mugshots of Gulag victims, snapped in identically rigid poses by the OGPU and later the NKVD. Every image hung on the screen for forty seconds or so, with a one-line summary of the subject's sentence (and afterlife - if any). Suddenly, Vangengeim was on the screen: stouter, more sedate, more ponderous than I had expected. We looked at each other. Then he was gone: the slideshow proceeded, and new visitors sat down beside me. 

A.F. Vangengeim in 1934 at the time of his arrest
There are two epilogues I would like to offer to the above. First, Likhachev's verdict on his four years in the camps, taken from his memoirs:

What did I learn on the Solovki? First and foremost I understood that every man is a man. My life was saved by the domushnik (apartment burglar) Ovchinnikov, who travelled with us to the Solovki for the second time (he had been brought back from an escape he had heroically achieved in order to see his "Marukha" once again), and the king of all lessons taught on the Solovki was a robber called Ivan Yakovlevich Komissarov, with whom I shared a cell for a year or so. [...] From all this strife I emerged with a new knowledge of life and a new spiritual identity. The good which I had succeeded in doing for hundreds of adolescents, by saving their lives, and many other people's too, the good that I received from my fellow inmates, and the experience of everything that I saw - these created in me a very deeply rooted calm and spiritual health. I did not cause evil [zla], I did not endorse evil, I managed to develop in myself an ability to observe life, and I even managed inconspicuously to carry out my academic work.

That final line is undoubtedly a sincere victory of human dignity over impossible conditions. It is a fitting note to conclude this essay on (and also a useful daily checklist even for those of us not confined in camps). But, somehow (it must be my mother's Diplodocus blood talking) more of me wants to end with the final paragraph of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Aviator. Here there is no reconciliation, no resignation, no dignity, and no evil: only the blind, inevitable collision of human aspiration against nature. Not everyone has the skills or genius to be a Prometheus; but perhaps, at times, we are all Icarus.

The horizon, in one motion, slips over his head like a sheet. The ground enfolds him, turning like a carousel, spinning its woods, bell-towers, meadows... The pilot sees a white villa pass by as if flung from a slingshot... The ground floods towards the slain pilot, like the sea towards a diver.

Disclaimers: All translations are my own (also all mistakes). I have excerpted Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's fiction and essays from his posthumous collection Un sens à  la vie (Gallimard, 1956). Information on Dmitri Likhachev's biography comes from Vladislav Zubok, The Idea of Russia; The Life and Work of Dmitry Likhachev (I.B. Tauris, 2017). A useful source for A.F. Vangengeim's life (and his wonderful pictures) has been compiled here. I haven't read Ros Schwartz's translation of Rolin's Le météorologue, which has already won a PEN translation award, but I can recommend another recent translation of hers which I have just read and enjoyed - Jean-Paul Didierlaurent's charming The Reader on the 6.27.


  1. A magnificent post! And note the first line of the Blok poem, which fits with your prison theme: "Летун отпущен на свободу."

    Likhachev suffered no repercussions for this act of stealthy disobedience

    Reminds me of an anecdote in Grigorovich's Корабль "Петвизан" (my current reading), in which several sailors miss the Retvizan's sailing because they were passed out drunk in the port (Kiel, I think). Grigorovich asks if they will suffer some horrible fate, and an officer laughs and says no, they'll just be sent to another ship. Russia loves randomness.

  2. Thanks for this, Languagehat! I'm glad you liked the post. It's been a labour of love.

  3. Excellent stuff. There's also the great cinematic testament to aviators, the imprisoned, and the brotherhood of man, Renoir's 'La Grande Illusion,' released, co-incidentally, in 1937.

  4. A great movie, eclipsed (in my view) only by his La règle du jeu, probably my favorite movie of all time, which also features an aviator.