A prizewinning French writer tells the story of how a Soviet meteorologist lionized by Stalin was wrongfully imprisoned and executed during the Great Purge of the 1930s.
Alexei Feodosievich Wangenheim (1881-1937) was a distinguished weather scientist. Appointed the first director of the Soviet Union’s Hydrometeorological Centre in 1929, he worked tirelessly to promote the interests of the Communist Party. He believed that the Soviet Union’s ascendancy as a world power lay in its ability to convert wind into electricity that would heat and light its vast terrain. As Rolin (Hotel Crystal, 2008, etc.) writes, “[Wagenheim’s] role in the construction of socialism was to help the revolutionary proletariat control the forces of Nature.” His work was recognized by Stalin, who praised the scientist as a national hero for his help in ensuring the success of one of the Soviets’ high altitude balloon experiments in 1933. Then a colleague implicated him in the activities of what he claimed was a counterrevolutionary organization within the Hydrometeorological Centre. In January 1934, authorities imprisoned an innocent and utterly dumbfounded Wangenheim—who was also a descendant of the hated Russian aristocracy—without ever telling him the exact nature of his crimes. The meteorologist was eventually sent to northwestern Russia, where he spent the last three years of his life doing forced labor in Stalin’s gulag system while stubbornly clinging to his socialist beliefs. Part of what makes this book so fascinating is the way Rolin, using letters and other historical documents, depicts the unswerving nature of Wangenheim’s faith in the Communist Party despite his mistreatment. The real horror is not so much the fate he and his gulag comrades suffered, but the extremes to which they were subjected before they even began to question the political system they held so dear. Timely and well-researched, the book is a reminder of the real, human cost of blind loyalty to totalitarian political ideologies.
A movingly illuminating biography.