Lev Kopelev: No Easy Solution

Siegfried Lenz was honored for his lifetime achievements at an award ceremony in Cologne last month, with this year’s Lev Kopelev Prize for Peace and Human Rights. The following are excerpts from his lecture. At the center of it are his thoughts about Lev Kopelev.

When a man is indicted, our insight may be twofold: We learn something about him, and we learn something about his times, about the spirit in which laws are written. The indictment which major Lev Kopelev of the Red Army was facing accused him of “bourgeois humanistic propaganda of compassion towards the enemy”. As what was then seen as an appropriate degree of penalty, the military court brought a ten-year Gulag sentence.

The reason which caused a stir with a lot of military judges – in the West, too – was that he kept making representations – Representations against the habit of triumphant soldiers of looting, raping, taking what had fallen to them at the end of the war. He later told me, “there is a shame of the victor, and it is about the temptation to give full rein to ones vengeance.” What an example of unheard-of relinquishment, of forgiveness, when bearing in mind the baggage of memory he carried with him: the scorched earth left behind by German soldiers in his country, confiscations, the countless dead. What a power it took, in an extreme situation, to remain true to the values which meant so much to him for all his lifetime: tolerance and humanity. The account of his life, called confession by himself, showes what enabled him. It’s compassion.


Compassion – for Lev Kopelev, it wasn’t revolutionary messianism, but something which expresses the longing for brotherliness. Similarly as with Dostoevsky, this missionary of compassion, we learn from him that an unacceptable world can only be saved by altruism [or charity]. Departing from the experience that almost everyone is surrounded by a variety of misery, we are advised that the compassionate doesn’t only give, but that he also takes; by connecting a stranger’s fate with his own, he opens his relationship with the world. The own existence is stepped up. Compassion can’t only be found in positive samaritanism. Rather, compassion gives to those who exercise it, a strength of empathy which virtually on its own leads to the readiness to help others. From the confessions of his friend Lev Kopelev, Heinrich Böll saw a new sacramental teaching of elementary commitment between people.  It shows, not least, in the accentuation of the old sources of vitality: bread and water.


Committed to enlightenment, Kopelev made a decision one can only view with admiration and emotion. He went to camps where German prisoners of war were held. He gave lectures. To those who suffered from hunger or homesickness, he didn’t talk about the teachings of Marxism, but about German culture, the indestructible spirit of the country which had brought his own people unparalleled misery. He spoke about Hölderlin, about Kant, and Hegel, he reminded the exhausted, the defeated of what they once possessed, and, within the misery of internment, acquainted them with Dürer and Cranach. One can assume that for many of his listeners, it was their first encounter with German spirit, and I imagine how they reacted to the lecturer’s profound proficiency. I’m sure that, besides astonishment, there was admiration, and I wouldn’t rule out that, even if only with a few, a sensitivity for their own actions started to grow. The jurisdiction that applied saw a “glorification of bourgeois German culture” in it. We may explain it in a different way; we may see the ethics of forgiveness here. This was confirmed by repatriates who, after long imprisonment, often mentioned the humanity of the Russian people, their helpfulness, and also their compassion.


[Lev Kopelev] raised his voice for embattled authors, he named the names of the ostracized, from Bulgakov to Pasternak, from Tvardovsky to the great poet Anna Akhmatova and pointed out their importance for Russia’s intellectual tradition. It had been a Russian – Pushkin – who called the printing craft a new kind of artillery, and thinking of that, one will understand why Kopelev translated the essay by Heinrich Böll, Language as the Bulwark of Freedom, an avowal which went from hand to hand in the Soviet Union, as samizdat copies.


This man, who had always advocated a ban on all bans, had to get into conflict with a power which dictated ideological instructions to authors. He came to Germany, he was expatriated, he decided to stay here.

I won’t forget the days we stayed with our German publisher. Lev Kopelev was no foreigner. Similarly to Heinrich Heine, who spoke of a portable fatherland when in Paris, Kopelev, a Russian, spoke of Germany as his adopted country. […..] German poetry, philosophers too, were always part of his life, while the great, “holy” Russian literature lived in his heart.


One turns to an author by reading him – a simple but essential experience -, and what the books by the undispirited author Kopelev have to offer, contains a lot of eye-opening truth. In Ease My Sorrows, he familiarizes us with substantial chapters of his autobiography, including the years spent in the so-called sharashka, the prison of scientists.


That he could return to Russia after ten years in exile was a miracle to him, but as he said more than once that sometimes, all people can do is to hope for a miracle. Let’s honor this man who kept demanding freedom of speech as an advocate of tolerance and humanity, let us take the words he used to remind us, in merciless times, of the transforming power of compassion. Let us preserve what he has left behind. There are only few of his kind.

My translation in extracts of the lecture by Siegfried Lenz probably leaves a lot to be desired. But I think it still reflects the spirit of the lecture. It reminds me of a Christian sermon, and maybe there lies my problem with it. Forgiveness on a personal level is a gift. That’s one of the things which made Kopelev a great man. But forgiveness on a national level is a different story. Forgiveness is something individual. To me, the lecture by Lenz doesn’t make it clear enough if Kopelev spoke for Russia, or for himself.

In our own interest, we shouldn’t believe that anything is forgiven.

That’s not to say that we should feel bad either. We should only be aware of a simple truth: that the murder of an innocent victim can’t be forgiven. It can’t be forgiven, because dead people can’t forgive. We can only work for the goal that there won’t be more victims in the future.

In 1979, one year before his exile began, Lev Kopelev, Heinrich Böll, and Klaus Bednarz (German Television’s correspondent in Moscow) had this discussion:

Kopelev: In 1933, when Heinrich Böll was just sixteen, I was twenty-one and already married. I must emphasise that from 1933 right up to 1941, our propaganda was never intended to sound anti-German, only anti-Fascist. We had a large German community here in Moscow and I had many German friends at the time, like Erich Weinart and Willie Bredel, both writers living in exile. The question was never put that way, nor did it have anything to do with our attitudes to Germany. My generation was more inclined to play down the threat of Nazism, to think it wasn’t as strong as it really was.
Böll: You mean people in the street…
Kopelev: Yes, it was, and still is, a problem with no easy solution.

I have a lot of respect for Siegfried Lenz, and for his works. But I have a problem with his lecture.

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