Letters and Telegrams to Pavel M Litvinov, December 1967 to May 1968.
Edited and annotated by Karel Van Het Reve, University of Leyden

In September 1967, the Russian physics professor Pavel Litvinov was interviewed by the KGB. He was preparing for distribution a report of a trial recently held of a man called Bukovskij.

(Bukovskij’s own “crime” was to organise a protest about the arrest of four men accused of being involved in the preparation for distribution of a report about the trial of two writers. The “crime” committed by those two writers, called Sinjavskij and Daniel, was to have published work abroad without the approval of the Sovient censors.)

After the interview, Litvinov wrote down the full conversation from memory.

Here is an extract from it:

KGB: We are informed that a group of persons including yourself intend to prepare and distribute a report of the recent trial of Bukovskij and others. We warn you that, if you do this, you will be charged with a criminal offence.

PL: … I don’t understand how such an action can be punishable as a crime…I can’t imagine what law could be broken by the compiling of such a document.

KGB: There is such a law – Article 190-I…

PL: I know that law perfectly well… It is concerned with slanderous fabrications, defamatory to Soviet society and the Soviet political system. What can be slanderous in a report of the hearing of a case before a Soviet court?

KGB: But your report will distort the facts in a tendentious way and slander the conduct of the trial…

PL How can you know that in advance? And in general, instead of holding this silly interview, you ought yourselves to publish a verbatim report of that trial, and put a stop to the rumours that are running round Moscow…

KGB: But why should we publish it? It was just an ordinary case of a breach of public order.

PL: If that is so, then there is all the more reason why you should make the information available, so that everyone can see that it really was just an ordinary case.

KGB: Everything about the case appeared in Evening Moscow of 4 September. Everything one needs to know about it was there.

PL: In the first place, the information given was meagre… In the second place, the information given was false and slanderous…

KGB: Pavel Michajlovic, the information was perfectly correct; keep that in mind.

PL: They said that Bukovskij pleaded guilty, but I have looked into this case and I know for sure that he did not plead guilty.

KGB: What does it signify what he pleaded or didn’t plead? The court found him guilty, so he was guilty.

The rest of the book, after the transcript, consists of letters and telegrams received by (or, at least, sent to) Pavel Litvinov in response to his having sent this transcript, and a letter, to Western journalists who published it. There is also a public appeal, addressed “To World Public Opinion” relating to the trial of the four men involved in publishing details of the Sinjavskij and Daniel trial: Glanskov, Ginzburg, Dobrovskij and Laskova.

Most of the letters express support. One of these letters is signed: Cecil Day-Lewis, Yehudi Menuhin, WH Auden, Henry Moore, Stephen Spender, AJ Ayer, Bertrand Russell, Julian Huxley, Mary McCarthy, JB Priestly, Jaquetta Hawkes, Paul Scofield, Mrs George Orwell and Igor Stravinsky. An impressive list of names, even 40 years later. Most of the letters, however, are from Russians: students, academics and ordinary people. These are people who risked action by the KGB merely for expressing support, some of whom feared to sign their letters or to give an address, for fear of recrimination.

Some letters express outrage that Litvinov should “write a libel on the Soviet power and send it to filthy journalists to be used in a filthy broadcast by the Voice of America… You should be exposed in Revolution Square for passers-by to spit in your mug, you traitor.” Others express dismay that he should air his grievances to foreigners, particularly to corrupt foreign journalists who would take great delight in this opportunity to slander the USSR.

The book – published in Holland in 1969 – must produce a profound effect even on the modern reader. The voices – some ordinary people, some academics, all authentic – bring alive what to most is really a rather dull and uninteresting “subject”. It makes the experience of Russians living under Soviet oppression a real experience, one into which the reader is given a precious, powerful insight.

Epilogue: in 1968, shortly after the events which are the subject of this book, Litvinov was arrested for protesting against the USSR’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. He was tried and sentenced to 5 years in Siberia. After serving his sentence, he emigrated to the United States where he recently expressed the view that his experiences were quite a bit worse than those of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. He (rightly, of course) refused last year to lend his name to Amnesty International’s characterisation of that prison as a “gulag”.