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This article is taken from PN Review 6, Volume 5 Number 2, January - March 1979.

Solzhenitsyn's 'Prussian Nights' Donald Davie

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Prussian Nights: a narrative poem, translated by Robert Conquest. Harvill Press, £3.75.

THE DIVORCE that we habitually make between the literary and the political imaginations shows up quite clearly in such a case as Robert Conquest. Among literary people, I'm afraid, the author of The Great Terror is thought of only as the anthologist of New Lines; and the biographer of Lenin as the author of three books of graceful verse. Worse still, I fear, this most knowledgeable and scrupulous of the opponents of étatisme is dismissed as a hack journalist of the Tories (whereas he has been known to vote Labour, when the Labour candidate was intelligent, hard-working, and a solid Social Democrat). And if the literary world thus dismisses Conquest's political writings as pot-boilers at best, our politicos doubtless think of his poems and his literary polemics as marginal and harmless dilettantism. That a man seriously concerned for poetry should be, and needs must be, imaginatively engaged with politics both national and international, and that the converse is also true, is thus a possibility unthinkingly ruled out on both sides of the fence.

In Eastern Europe things are seen very differently. There The Great Terror, so far as it is known (and it is widely known about), is revered or else feared as the only book in any language to explore with scholarly reserve and unflagging diligence an area of modern history where one would have sworn scholarship was hamstrung, because ...

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