The Memories of Lev Kopelev: From Enthusiastic Marxist to Exiled Scholar

May 23, 2017 Updated: June 4, 2018

The Russian-born Lev Kopelev, a disillusioned communist, was something of a legend in Germany where he was invited to give lectures at many universities. But in his homeland he was a victim of multiple Soviet political campaigns, later denounced as a traitor, and forgotten.

Lev Zinovyevich Kopelev was born on April 9, 1912 to a Jewish family living in Kiev, then part of the Russian Empire. In his youth, Kopelev was a communist ideologue. Several years later, the revolution of 1917 indeed brought communism to power in Russia.

But in 1929, as Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin attacked his real and imagined enemies, Kopelev found himself on the political chopping block. He was arrested for the first time in 1929 for “consorting with the Bukharinist and Trotskyist opposition,” that is, for supposedly following the ideas of Stalin’s rivals in the Communist Party. Kopelev was released after ten days, but that was only the beginning.

In 1932, Kopelev was working as a news correspondent when he witnessed the Holodomor famine in the Ukraine that was caused by Stalin’s forced collectivization. As a dedicated communist, he followed the harsh Soviet measures against so-called “kulaks,”–rich peasants considered part of the enemy capitalist class. Between five and 10 million people died in the famine.

‘Bourgeois Humanism’

When war with Nazi Germany broke out in 1941, Lev Kopelev volunteered to join the Red Army. He used his excellent knowledge of German, which he learned as a child and used for his university work, to serve as a translator and propaganda officer, earning himself several medals.

Kopelev interpreting for captured, then defected German general Walther von Seydlitz in November 1943.

Himself a Jew, Kopelev was no stranger to the crimes of the Nazis. His brother died in combat. After capturing Kiev, German troops slaughtered two of his grandparents, an aunt, and an uncle along with 30,000 other people who were rounded up and driven into the Babi Yar ravine before being shot and buried.

At the same time, the subject of Soviet war crimes, including looting, mass murder, and rape of innocent people, was totally forbidden in communist discourse. Even today, it is a source of controversy among some Russians who see discussion of wartime atrocities as an attempt to tarnish the bravery of Soviet soldiers in World War II.

Kopelev did not see things this way and condemned in no uncertain terms the eye for an eye logic some of his compatriots used to justify Soviet treatment of its conquests at the end of the war.

“You can’t condemn an entire nation or class consisting of millions of people for the crimes of several hundred or several thousand,” Kopelev said in one of his last interviews.

This attitude was not welcome among the Soviet leadership. In 1945, trying to protect German civilians from the whims of the occupation forces, Kopelev was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison. His crime was spreading “bourgeois humanist propaganda” and showing “compassion toward the enemy.”

Kopelev in a labor camp, 1948
Kopelev in a labor camp, 1948

In prison Kopelev met a military officer who was arrested for criticizing Stalin in a private letter. Decades later, this man, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, would become famous worldwide for his “Gulag Archipelago” and other works. Lev Kopelev became the basis for Rubin, a character in Solzhenitsyn’s novel “The First Circle.”

“In the past I thought my destiny was very unhappy and undeservedly cruel,” Kopelev wrote. “Now I realize that in reality it was happy and totally deserved. I deserved this destiny because I really should be punished. I obediently and fervently participated in crimes for so many years: I robbed peasants, I slavishly glorified Stalin, I lied, I taught people to believe in lies and worshipped villains. But my destiny was happy because years spent in prison spared me from participation in new misdeeds and lies.”


Kopelev was released from prison in 1954. Because dictator Joseph Stalin was dead and the new Soviet leadership criticized some of his crimes, Kopelev remained faithful to communism. He was allowed to rejoin the Soviet Communist Party, and continued his work on German literature and translation.

Condemning Stalin did not bring about any fundamental change in the Soviet Union’s communist regime. In 1968 the Soviet-controlled communist government of Czechoslovakia tried to introduce political reforms, leading to the country’s invasion by the Soviet Union and its allies.

Kopelev in Moscow, 1978.
Kopelev in Moscow, 1978. (Igor Palmin)

Many Soviet dissidents protested this action, including Kopelev. He was expelled from the Communist Party for his outspokenness. At one Writers’ Union meeting, Kopelev crossed a line when he compared Stalin to Hitler. In 1977 all of his writing was banned and he was stripped of his teaching rights.

And during a one-year study trip to West Germany with his wife Raisa Orlova, the Soviet government revoked Kopelev’s citizenship.

It may have been for the best, as Kopelev became a professor and did good work to further Russo-German cultural exchanges and history. Together with 1972 Nobel Prize laureate Heinrich Böll, he wrote the work “Why Do We Shoot at Each Other?”

Kopelev often gave interviews and held lectures. One of his books, “Holy Doctor Fyodor Petrovich,” was dedicated to Friedrich Joseph Haase (1780-1853), a German doctor who worked selflessly to reform and civilize the Imperial Russian prison system.

In 1989, as the Soviet Union began its final political reforms, Kopelev’s citizenship was restored and he visited his homeland a final time. The democratic transition he saw did not convince him, so he returned to Cologne, where he died in 1997.

Communism is estimated to have killed at least 100 million people, yet its crimes have not been fully compiled and its ideology still persists. The Epoch Times seeks to expose the history and beliefs of this movement, which has been a source of tyranny and destruction since it emerged. Read the whole series at


Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Victoria Kulikova
Victoria Kulikova