Nearly 20 years after its collapse, even those of us who witnessed the old Soviet Union at first hand can't help marvelling at the scale of its
absurdity. Frank Westerman, who was a correspondent for a Dutch newspaper just as the change came, had a great idea when he decided to tell the story of Joseph Stalin's "engineers of the soul". The "Man of Steel" coined the phrase at a reception one evening, drinking a toast with terrified writers. Soviet Russia was a self-proclaimed scientific society in the making and the role of writers was to enthuse a vast readership for that future.
Maxim Gorky showed Stalin how to politicise literature. Author of a magnificent autobiographical trilogy, Gorky, born into poverty, had also written Mother, a sentimental concoction that made a heroine of the hard-working Soviet woman. A useful tool, Lenin called it, and Stalin agreed. He thought fiction should show the masses how to live in a communist society. Socialist realism had no time for inwardness or doubt. Its pages were populated by strong-minded people of action, devoted to high moral and patriotic ideals.
Gorky was encouraged to set the standard in his personal life, too. In 1933, he infamously led an expedition to see the White Sea canal, then under construction. Later, in post-Soviet Russia, Gorky was vilified for whitewashing conditions at the Belomor prison camp, which supplied most of the labour for the canal. Yet Westerman is right to think there's a rich story lurking here of how a man of enormous talent and independence of mind dealt with the impossible conditions in Stalin's Russia. Westerman makes Gorky's journey to Belomor the first leg of his own, as he rediscovers Stalin's writers and travels to the sites of the scientific projects they were asked to glorify.
A 1932 novel by Konstantin Paustovsky, Kara Bogaz, came his way by happy coincidence. Westerman once trained as a hydro-engineer and was therefore particularly interested in the gigantic water diversion plans dreamt up in the age of Stalin, which were finally cancelled by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986. Kara Bogaz was the novel in which the young Paustovsky forced himself to describe one of these projects, to dam up an "insatiable maw" that swallowed valuable waters from the Caspian Sea. In fact, as Westerman found out, Paustovsky never visited the site, now in independent Turkmenistan. When Westerman got there, 70 years after the book appeared, he uncovered a tale of waste and devastation.
How the outsider gets to his or her destination, overcoming endless bureaucracy in the process, is the stuff of all Russian travelogues. But this one succeeds also in getting under the skin of an ideology in which so many Russians believed.
Soviet scientists were convinced they had the right idea with perebroska, or water diversion, and the Russian people, trained to be optimistic, set to work. As a student, Westerman had read a book by a German writer that suggested there was an intrinsic link between irrigation and despotism: that the degree of planning and the quantity of labour required for such large-scale projects could happen only under central command. The young Westerman was sceptical - until the vision of the bay, now salt pan, of Kara Bogaz persuaded him.
There had always been sceptics, but Stalin silenced most of them. The greatest testament we have to the futile horror behind so many Soviet building projects is the fiction of Andrei Platonov, who clung to his own life but lost his son in the Gulag. The Foundation Pit and Soul, novels that bear tragicomic witness to a deadly social-scientific vision, first appeared posthumously, after the collapse of communism. Both showed that a nation can't be built by engineers, that theory doesn't ensure practice, and that nature can't be bullied into doing the will of man.
Soviet scientific planning was noble, bizarre and mostly a catastrophe. I always hear a faint echo of the hopes that animated it when I read of writers-in-residence in factories and prisons, and, less benignly, when every grant application I see insists that works of art must have measurable social outcomes and must enlighten the people. Our managers don't know where they are coming from.
Engineers of the Soul: in the Footsteps of Stalin's Writers
Harvill Secker, 320pp, £14.99
Lesley Chamberlain's collection of stories about Soviet Russia, "In a Place Like That", is published by Quartet Books (£10)