Hero or Sneak?

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Review of 'Comrade Pavlik', Catriona Kelly, Granta £17.99

This is the story of how 13 year old Pavlik Morozov became a Soviet hero in the early 1930s.

He lived in a little village beyond the Urals, almost in Siberia. At that time the Soviet authorities were changing life in the villages by collectivising all the private farms in an effort to feed the fast-growing towns. To do this they imposed large deliveries of agricultural products from the new collective farms, to be carried out by a mass of predatory officials. The peasantry were in violent opposition to the collectivisation process, which took a vast proportion of their produce, leaving them starving - and millions dying. The better-off ones, called kulaks, who produced over and above their own consumption, did everything they could to stop it, hiding sacks and barrels of grain in their attics, under their floorboards, even inside their beds. For this they were castigated as enemies of the Soviet government and punished.

Pavlik Morozov found out that his own father, the chairman of the local soviet, was in league with the kulaks, and was helping them evade justice. He decided there was only one solution - he must denounce his father. So he walked 60 kilometres to the nearest town and reported his father's doings to the secret police. His father was sent to prison. When his relatives found out what Pavlik had done they took revenge, and on 3 September 1932 they stabbed him and his younger brother to death.

Pavlik became the first child hero in Soviet history. Canonised as Pioneer No 001, as an example of unswerving commitment to political rectitude, he was the subject of songs, plays, a symphonic poem, an opera, six full-length biographies which became compulsory extra-curricular reading for schools, several poems and countless articles. Streets, parks and cultural clubs were named after him, as were aeroplanes and boats, not to speak of 'Pioneer groups' and 'Pioneer corners' in schools. Monuments were raised all over the Soviet Union. Eisenstein made a film about him. Even Maxim Gorky promoted his memory.

But the story, so pregnant with political, ethical, domestic and other questions, followed a varied career through the big ideological fluctuations of Soviet and post-Soviet periods, and the purpose of this book, written by an expert in Soviet history, is to follow the changes in attitude to Pavlik's actions and his murder, consequent upon the changes in the government's priorities. The story actually lends itself ideally to this exercise as, other than the bare facts of Pavlik's betrayal and his murder, there is no documentation - hence everything else about his life and circumstances had to be invented to chime in with the current ideological bent. In that sense, the book is interesting for a reader with a fair basic knowledge of Russian history post-revolution, under Stalin, after his death in 1953, and after the fall of the Soviet Union until today.

The author shows great skill in matching the prominence or eclipse of the heroic myth to the political and ideological state of the country at different times - for example the changing attitude to children's denunciation of their parents from the powerful anti-kulak period of the first Five Year Plan (1928-33) to the promotion of strong family loyalty in the later 1930s. Was Pavlik hero or sneak? The myth again suffered eclipse as new war heroes arose with a different ethos to the conflicting relationship between blood ties and justice.

There are numerous other contradictions teased out in relation to the changing ethos, the author doing a splendid job of thorough research. But I don't think this is a book for mass readership. For those without a real interest in the detail of Russian living in the period covered - early 1930s to today - the minutiae, particularly the legal details, can prove tedious. For those with that interest, however, there is a lot to learn from it.