Russian author and dissident Lev Kopelev was born 100 years ago Monday. The recipient of the German Human Rights Prize saw a "deep spiritual bond" between age-old enemies Germany and Russia.
In an interview with the Deutsche Welle in November 1992, writer Lev Kopelev stressed the unique quality of the relationship between Russia and Germany. "There is no other example of such a deep spiritual bond between two peoples as the history behind the mutual German-Russian acquaintance." This was the core of his studies in Wuppertal, western Germany, he said.
Kopelev, who was born in Kiev on April 9, 1912, spent 10 years at the university in Wuppertal researching the German-Russian relationship. Though he felt deeply connected to the home of Goethe, Schiller and Mann, he did not spend the last 10 years of his life in Germany voluntarily.
In February 1981, the head of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev stripped Kopelev of his citizenship while the author was on his first trip to Germany.
He had been invited repeatedly to visit. German author and Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll was the first to do so when he visited Moscow in 1962, but Kopelev and his wife Raissa, also a writer, had already had several applications rejected.
That both of them tried to get a visa once again in the early 1980s was down to a new pledge by the Soviet regime, Kopelev told Deutsche Welle in his interview. Moscow had promised then-German Chancellor Willy Brandt that Kopelev and his wife would be allowed to return to the Soviet Union after their trip to Germany. That was important to Kopelev. The Soviet Union was his home; a home that he loved, despite everything.
Ten years in jail
The son of an agricultural scientist, Kopelev was born in imperial Russia and studied German, philosophy, literature and history in the Soviet Union, where he became a moral authority. In 1941, Kopelev joined the Red Army and tried to prevent atrocities during the invasion of East Prussia, the easternmost part of pre-war Germany. But then he was found guilty of propagating "middle class-humanistic compassion for the enemy" and sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison.
Following his rehabilitation in 1956 after the death of Stalin, he was given a post as a lecturer in Moscow. But, due to his support for regime critics, he faced government harassment once again from 1966 onwards. He finally turned away from Communism, for which he long nurtured sympathy, after the Warsaw Pact's military invasion of Prague in 1968 and learning of the gulag labor camps.
"As we began to oppose the unjust persecution of people with different opinions, it was not a struggle against the regime," said Kopelev later. "We wanted to make the regime more just. We wanted to improve it; we wanted to reform it. We were not revolutionaries." Kopelev and his fellow critics believed for a long time that the regime could be reformed.
By 1981, the regime didn't want him anymore. "We thought they were being fair-minded - with a kind of gentleman's agreement," Kopelev said of the moment he was finally issued an exit visa. Instead it was a trap - they were effectively permanently exiled. It was a shock for him and his wife. "We were bitter and distraught." But then, it was a feeling of relief: "of liberation from all the obligations toward the Soviet state."
Moscow and back again
Cologne was their new home, where Kopelev quickly became a leading figure for reconciliation between Russia and Germany. In a research project, he analyzed the German image of Russia and the Russian image of Germany.
He also met Böll again, with whom he had corresponded for the last two decades. Kopelev described his German friend later as "one of the most important people in my life." When Böll died in 1985, Kopelev was one of his pallbearers.
His own life ended in Cologne on June 18, 1997. His ashes were returned to Moscow where they were interred next to his wife in Donskoi cemetery. Thanks to the political changes in Moscow, Kopelev had been able to travel to Russia on several occasions, but he never wanted to stay.
Since 2001, the Lev Kopelev Forum has awarded a prize in his name to people, projects or organizations that pursue activities reflecting his life's work. In Cologne, a street was named in his honor in 2009.
Author: Michael Borgers / gb
Editor: Ben Knight