Beauty in the face of pending doom: Gulag Art by Stalin’s Meteorologist
February 27, 2018 11:05 AM   Subscribe

Imprisoned for disseminated false weather forecasts to sabotage socialist agriculture, Alexey Wangenheim sent his family beautiful watercolor paintings of nature with his letters, while continuing to support the Party that imprisoned him in the Solovetsky Monastery, Russia's first gulag.

More of the story, excerpted from Atlas Obscura's article on Stalin’s Meteorologist: One Man’s Untold Story of Love, Life, and Death (Amazon link) by Olivier Rolin,‎ translated by Ros Schwartz:
Alexey Feodosievich Wangenheim was born in 1881 in the Ukrainian town of Krapivno, a name that translates to “the place where nettles grow.” His father, Feodosy Petrovich Wangenheim, was a minor nobleman, a so-called barin. Nurturing his own passion for agronomy—the science of soil and crops—Feodosy encouraged his children to indulge their curiosities and interests in science. Though he studied math and agriculture, Alexey developed an unshakeable fondness for clouds and, in 1929, became the first director of the USSR’s Hydrometeorological Centre.
On a snowy January 8, 1934, Alexey’s wife, Varvara, waited for him outside a theatre, but Alexey never arrived. In the midst of great anxiety about treachery and betrayal of the Communist Party, Stalin began arresting and interrogating members of his government. Alexey was taken to Lubyanka, the secret police headquarters, and, after coercion, he eventually signed a confession stating that he knowingly and intentionally disseminated false weather forecasts to sabotage socialist agriculture. To be clear, Alexey was, in fact, innocent of these alleged crimes and was a mere scapegoat for widespread famine and death. He was sentenced to 10 years working at one of the first forced labor camps, a 15th-century monastery turned gulag, situated on the frigid, isolated Solovetsky Islands, an archipelago in the White Sea near the Arctic Circle.
Alexey was executed in late 1937, and the truth regarding his sudden disappearance was only fully uncovered 60 years later by the Memorial Research Centre, a historical and civil rights organization that seeks to bring to light the buried crimes of Soviet Russia.
Eleonora would become a paleontologist with an expertise in vertebrates. Like her father, she was captivated by the phantasmagoria that is the natural world. She eventually published Alexey’s many letters and drawings, which, in turn, inspired Olivier Rolin’s recently released biography. The book includes Alexey’s letters, drawings, and story of heartbreaking entrapment in the cold, unyielding fist of totalitarianism.
Paul Goldberg provides a very somber footnote in his review for The Washington Post:
Kurguzova never learned where her husband was executed. Their daughter, Eleonora, who became a well-known paleontologist, did learn the truth. She made annual pilgrimages to her father’s mass grave, and she compiled the commemorative album that captivated Rolin’s attention.

Like her namesake Eleanor Marx, Eleonora died by suicide. On Jan. 9, 2011, 77 years and a day after her father’s arrest, her body was found on the ground by the Moscow apartment building where she lived on the ninth floor.
And to cast an even darker despair on this story, the Russian Memorial society (Wikipedia), which records and publicizes the Soviet Union's totalitarian past, and also monitors human rights in Russia and other post-Soviet states, has faced heavy persecution by government agents and agencies, and even direct arson attacks against their buildings.

Form more images from Alexey's correspondences, here's a few more reviews with images: L.A. Times, including a detail of "Riddles," Nature with a riddle and translated text, plus an arctic fox, What's Nonfiction? blog with an illustration of pressed flowers, and six images on Wikimedia Commons (as of writing this post).
posted by filthy light thief (9 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
posted by leotrotsky at 12:55 PM on February 27, 2018

Thanks for this. I was going to mention that Memorial is now facing persecution, but I see you've got that covered. Excellent post. (The Terror will never cease to be terrifying and mystifying; I understand that Stalin wanted to clear out deadwood, make way for new people with Soviet training, and frighten subordinates into making sure nothing went wrong, but the scale is incomprehensible. Shoot a few hundred people, sure, but tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Why the lists sent to provincial bureaucracies to the effect of "your quota is 50,000 shot, 100,000 exiled" with no interest at all in who gets shot and exiled? Sure, to some extent it's a matter of snowballing, with subordinates trying to impress their bosses by overfulfilling quotas, but it's hard to imagine it happening in any society that wasn't completely dominated by an authoritarian ideology drummed into everyone every day of their lives, so that no one could even imagine saying "no" to the whole mess. A People's Tragedy, as Orlando Figes called it in his great doorstop of a history.)
posted by languagehat at 1:04 PM on February 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

Thanks for your comment languagehat. Do you happen to know (or could you pin down) more information on the life of Eleonora Wangenheim? I imagine there's more Russian content, and I found some (possible) resources, but between blocked sites and my own uncertainty on the validity of sources, I didn't include those links here.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:52 PM on February 27, 2018

"your quota is 50,000 shot, 100,000 exiled"

That's what really gets me here, putting a face on just one of those human items. What was lost? Life moves on without them, sure, but what was lost? Heartbreaking.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:58 PM on February 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Those are lovely watercolors. What a waste.
posted by acrasis at 3:07 PM on February 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

until just a couple of years ago my understanding of the purge years was that it was some top-level elimination of Stalin's rivals via show trials etc, like the guy who was airbrushed out of the picture.

I think it was reading about Sorge and his refusal to return to Moscow in '37 that lead me to the Great Purge article that gave me an accurate picture of the horror of the purges -- that it was more akin to the 1918 flu epidemic or medieval smallpox outbreak -- nobody was safe, and the murders moved in waves through the entire state.
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 6:56 PM on February 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

Thank you for the great post!

I find it very remarkable that two fairly similar purges were going on at approximately the same time, one in Nazi Germany against its own citizens of Jewish origin, and the other in Stalinist Soviet Union against its own citizens; a broad spectrum of supposed adversaries of the regime.

One has been the subject of much public debate for over 80 years, the other was kept under lids for most of that time. A case of Winners Write History I guess, but more importantly a reminder how something like this can happen in our societies anytime, even now.

I don't believe for one second that the people who emerged from WWI were substantially different than us in their needs and desires, that we have somehow evolved to be more humane and intelligent, and I fear we are not doing what it takes to prevent the Hitlers and Stalins of our day from rising to power.
posted by Laotic at 7:44 AM on February 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

A case of Winners Write History I guess

And continue to re-write history, in the case of Putin's Russia. That was a punch in the gut for me. Attacking Memorial is so much worse than trying to keep up statues that celebrate a dark period in the country's history - it's about erasing the fact that the country killed millions of people, of it's own people.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:17 AM on February 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

> Do you happen to know (or could you pin down) more information on the life of Eleonora Wangenheim?

Here's a page in Russian, with a photo, and here's the Google Translate version.
posted by languagehat at 12:17 PM on February 28, 2018

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