Russian Nights Autocracy and Testimony: Life in Russia during the Soviet Period as Told by Those Who Lived it

by Roberto Echavarren

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“An extraordinary portrait of repression against freedom, that reverberates with contemporary authoritarianism and coercion threatening world democracy, by one of the most gifted Latin American writers and thinkers today.”

Alejandro Varderi
Professor, Manhattan College
the City University of New York

“Whether the reader is touched by the courage of the survivors or horrified by the perverse cruelty of oppression and the annihilation of human life and the human spirit, this book completes the devastating landscape of the supposedly most advanced era of human history: the twentieth century. While the monstrous "Third Reich" forever looms ominously, the focus here is the insane Leninist and Stalinist regime (and implicitly its well-intentioned supporters on the Left) that murdered incalculable millions of human beings. Like the unspeakable words and images left behind by the vanished victims of the Holocaust, these testimonies from Russian survivors are as relevant to us as tomorrow’s news because, out of ignorance, futile divisiveness, and indifference, we are on the brink of submitting to Autocracy, of allowing the Putins and the Trumps of the world to destroy civilization once again.”

Suzanne Jill Levine
Professor Emerita
University of California, Santa Barbara

“After reading this powerful and effective account of the rise of modern autocracy by prolific, award-winning writer Roberto Echavarren, one cannot help but hark back to Montesquieu’s sagacious advocacy for the separation of powers in governments. Russian Nights: Autocracy and Testimony lifts the veil of secrecy behind which autocrats hide and flourish; an incisive combination of judicious commentary and personal testimonies from those who have suffered under autocratic rule, this book reminds us how Lenin’s single party gave rise to modern autocracy’s thirst for political dominance at any cost.”

Francisco Soto
Professor, City University of New York (CUNY),
former Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences

“In ‘Russian Nights Autocracy and Testimony,’ poet and scholar Roberto Echavarren offers an intimate yet panoramic view of the horrors of Russia’s totalitarianism under Lenin and Stalin. As the forces of autocracy have once again successfully clutched the gears of history (from Russia to the U.S., from China and Hungary to Brazil and Austria), this book is not only timely but an urgent appeal. In that spirit and through a heart-wrenching mosaic of first-person accounts, Echavarren gives us the true measure of the fragility of democracy and the extent to which autocracy, and even systemic and mass terror, is always and intractably a clear and present danger.”

Pablo Baler
Chair of Modern Languages and Literatures
California State University, Los Angeles

“A profound and illuminating commentary on political power, incisive and thought-provoking, written with clarity and verve, this book is a combination of political essay and testimonials, a timely and singular account of autocracy in the 20th and 21st centuries, and a required reading for anyone interested in a chronicle of our times, by brilliant scholar Roberto Echavarren.”

Elena M. Martínez
Professor, Baruch College and the CUNY Graduate Center

“‘Russian Nights Autocracy and Testimony’ contrasts two voices: on the one hand, the univocal litanies of the demagogue; on the other, the testimonies of those who have broken a silence imposed by prejudice, the law, the barrel of a gun, or perhaps worse, by the silence that indifference turns into oblivion. Echavarren’s remarkable compilation of these testimonies is a labor of love containing an urgent warning. In any latitude, under many guises, deceitful narratives of power are sustained by the silencing of those who oppose them. ‘Russian Nights Autocracy and Testimony’ seeks out those voices, lost and now reclaimed, asking us to listen, suggesting that perhaps our collective survival depends on it.”

Oscar Montero
Retired Professor at Lehman College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York;
he has been visiting professor at SUNY, Stony Brook; Princeton, and Columbia universities

“‘Russian Nights Autocracy and Testimony,’ Roberto Echavarren, one of the most intelligent critics publishing from Latin America, presents the testimonies of people who suffered the atrocities of autocracy in the 20th century Russia: the GULAG, World War II, life in the countryside and in cities under Lenin and Stalin, in its “rarity and fragility,” which like “the Dead Sea scrolls” to which Echavarren compares them, enclose a powerful truth in the voice of people who refused to lose their humanity and faith in justice. It does not matter that justice has not been done—if we understand justice as the immediate punishment of the guilty—but, as Echavarren explains, the power of these testimonies lies in the work of memory, which is not only “another kind of punishment” but, above all, triggers illuminations of the past to make visible the dangers of the present and the future. The book is meticulously researched, allowing Echavarren to trace the creation of modern autocracy in Russia from Lenin, who found in terror and lies the perfect weapons to impose his apparatus of domination, its evolution in Stalin’s regime of extreme terror to conclude with Putin “as an all-powerful autocrat,” the fictional person with whom he uses capitalism for the benefit of himself and his lackeys. The testimonies unearthed in ‘Russian Nights Autocracy and Testimony’ show truths of what was hidden for so many decades behind the immovable wall of Russian secrecy, the reality of autocracy, a reality that must be heard because of its relevance in our present and not only in Russia in the person of Putin but in the nation that is considered the cradle of democracy, in the United States under Trump. “

María Rosa Olivera-Williams
Professor of Latin American Literature
University of Notre Dame

“The wide variety of life stories collected in ‘Russian Nights Autocracy and Testimony’ remind us that, in the bloody fresco of the 20th Century, no chapter is more brutal and less known than Russia’s Red Terror. Each of the witnesses that take the stand in these pages opens up a rare opportunity for us to remedy our ignorance, pay a long-due tribute, and —more importantly— escape from a repetition of the past. Because Roberto Echavarren is right: the new wave of autocracies rising around the world today makes urgent his task of denouncing the conditions that allow the imposition of mass terror.
‘Russian Nights Autocracy and Testimony’ is a masterfully crafted piece of witness literature. The writing flows with the awe of the best fiction, but tragically, it surpasses what imagination could conceive. With a simple act of listening, its pages bring back a bit of the dignity that tyranny stripped from the victims. This book is an overwhelming elegy.”

Benito del Pliego
Professor, Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures
Appalachian State University

[...] Only a poet like Roberto Echavarren, with a unique voice and an absolute ear for the voice of others, could have conceived this project to rescue and preserve these personal stories, allowing us to experience firsthand the real impact that politics can have on the personal. 'Russian Nights' can be read as an intimate encyclopedia of injustice, pain, and redemption; and yet, it manages to granularly trace the entire historical arc underpinning these testimonies. [...]

[Extract from interview with the author appearing on 'No Country Magazine'. 11/27/2023. Interviewer: Pablo Baler. ]

[...] Russian Nights brings to the forefront the voices that have long been silenced, shedding light on the experiences of the powerless while examining one of the most traumatic chapters in Russian history, which is a part of that vaster present, as indicated by Echavarren in his conclusion. This continuum is characterized by a global division, echoing the concept presented by Étienne Balibar, who describes it as a division into “life zones and death zones” (Balibar) due to extreme violence. I would add that this division is exacerbated by extreme polarization, leading to an unyielding an intolerant perspective on global issues with little room for negotiation and compromise. [...]

[Extract from book review appearing on 'A Contracorriente: una revista de estudios latinoamericanos.' Vol. 21, N. 2 (Winter 2024): 328-336. 2024-02-17. Reviewer: Alejandro Varderi (The City University of New York.) ]

The details of the Jewish Holocaust have become part of our history through the testimony of those who survived the death camps. The details of Lenin’s and Stalin’s reigns of terror are far less known because they took place behind a wall of secrecy, and survivors have been reluctant to speak about them for fear of retribution.

This is an encompassing volume presenting an intense display, as complete as can be, of testimonies, gathered between 2001 and 2005 of actors implicated in different aspects of Russian life roughly through the period 1917-1956. They were people who had lived under the Soviet regime in times of peace and in times of war, from the Red Terror through the Great Terror. One must bear in mind the political and economic conditions in which those lives developed: the one-Party rule placed above both the government and the citizens, the abashment of the division of powers, the suppression of private property and private economic initiative, the political police, and the GULAG.

Russian Nights offers a wide and detailed perspective of what we call “the Russian Century”: Lenin’s takeover, the all-powerful Party, the GULAG, and the Second World War.

About the Author
Acronyms of the Soviet Union Political Police

Part I. The GULAG 1
Chapter 1 Escape through the North
Chapter 2 From the Stage to the GULAG
Mikhail Vorontsov

Part II. Everyday life in the cities
Chapter 3 Man-eater
Chapter 4 Kiev
Chapter 5 In the Library of the Academy of Sciences

Part III. Everyday Life in the Countryside
Chapter 6 The Wooden Shack
Chapter 7 The Kolkhos and the Factory
Volodya the Kid

Part IV. Preparations for World War II
Chapter 8 The Purge in the Army
General Sheretenko

Part V. The Spanish Civil War and the Soviet Union
Chapter 9 The Girl from Spain
Raquel’s mother
Chapter 10 The Pilot from Spain
Vicente Navarro

Part VI. World War II Begins
Chapter 11 The German Invasion
General Vasili Shulgin

Part VII. Early defeats
Chapter 12 The Poet as a Young Soldier
Naum Grebnev
Chapter 13 Double Identity

Part VIII. Guerrilla warfare
Chapter 14 The Partisan
Galya Vasilyevna
Chapter 15 Sabotage in Rovno

Part IX. The war around Leningrad
Chapter 16 The Crane Woman
Chapter 17 The Hospital
Valentina Nilolaevna
Chapter 18 The Siege
Chapter 19 The Boat on the Neva
Nina Voronina

Part X. The War around Stalingrad
Chapter 20 My friend Petia
Jacob Mavrinski

Part XI. European Fronts
Chapter 21 Murmansk Budapest Vienna
Anna Kuznetsova
Chapter 22 At the Gates of Warsaw
General Gennady Kochkov
Chapter 23 Mothers of Soldiers
Yelena Yurevna

Part XII. The War Ends
Chapter 24 The Fall of Berlin
General Gennady Kochkov

Part XIII. Between Two Fires
Chapter 25 The Russian Liberation Army
Pyotr Nikitin

Part XIV. Goodbye to Russia
Chapter 26 Ploshad Pobieda: Victory Square

Roberto Echavarren is a poet, novelist, essayist, and translator. He was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, where he studied philosophy and law. He then pursued graduate studies in Philosophy at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, and received his Ph.D. at the University of Paris VIII. Echavarren taught at the University of London before teaching at New York University for twenty years. He has published five novels, notably his last three short novels combined under "Archipiélago" (Archipelago). He was awarded the 2021 Amado Alonso International Prize of Literary Criticism for his "El pensamiento chino" (Chinese Thought) book. In 2022 he published "One Against All, Lenin and His Legacy."

WW2 history, Great Patriotic War, Stalin government, Lenin government, Soviet kholkoz, Soviet factory, Spanish Civil War, GULAG, Andrei Andreievich Vlasov, Russian Liberation Army, Guerrilla warfare, forced collectivization of agriculture: Holodomor: Ukrainian genocide, Purge of Red Army, Totalitarianism, Russian / Soviet Autocracy

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Book Title

Russian Nights Autocracy and Testimony: Life in Russia during the Soviet Period as Told by Those Who Lived it





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Publication date
September 2023