Kopalev was born in Kiev and as a young man was an enthusiastic communist. His first arrest came in 1929, for fraternizing with Bukharinists and Trotskyists, and he spent ten days in jail. He worked as a journalist and witnessed the confiscation of grain from Ukrainian peasants and the subsequent genocide-famine, Holomodor. He became a major in the Red Army’s Political Department, charged with maintaining the ideological purity of the troops. Kopalev’s disillusionment with communism started only at the end of World War II, when he witnessed mass murders and rapes committed by Red Army troops in East Prussia. He wrote a letter of complaint to his superiors and in 1945 was arrested. He spent nine years in a camp in the Volga region and in a Moscow prison for scientists, was “rehabilitated” in 1954 and became a writer and literary critic. He helped Solzhenitsyn publish A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962).
For twelve years Kopalev taught in the Moscow Institute of Polygraphy and the Institute of History of Arts. He was fired in 1968 and expelled from the Communist Party and the Writers’ Union for publicly supporting Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, denouncing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and protesting Solzhenitsyn's expulsion from the Writers’ Union. In 1980, while on a visit to West Germany, Soviet authorities revoked his citizenship, which was restored by Gorbachev in 1990.
In her anthology, Applebaum includes an excerpt, “Informers,” from Kopalev’s memoir To Be Preserved Forever (trans. Anthony Austin, Ardis Publishers, 1975). The subject is a rich one. Applebaum refers to informers as “an intrinsic part of the Soviet system.” An informer was responsible for Osip Mandelstam’s second arrest and eventual death in a Siberian transit camp. A network of informers forming a web of mutually enforced anxiety and fear is essential to the ongoing existence of any totalitarian regime. One scholar estimates that 11 million informers, or one out of every eighteen adults, were formally employed in the Soviet Union when Yuri Andropov headed the KGB (1967-82). We shouldn’t congratulate ourselves too quickly. Twitter suggests a certain enthusiastic ripeness in the U.S. for trading in rumors and slander, and denouncing one’s fellow citizens. Kopalev writes:
“In prison we used to be afraid of informers and talked about them in whispers. Here in the camp we spoke of them out loud. The lowest of all the minions of the mighty state, as helpless and humiliated as the rest of us, and often as falsely accused and as unfairly sentenced, they were nevertheless the indispensable cogs of the cruel punitive machine. They served for the little handouts the machine threw their way, and they served out of fear.”