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Russian Jew who survived purge by Stalin, wrote of gulag dies at 91

MOSCOW, Sept. 8 (JTA) – Lev Razgon, a Russian Jewish writer and human rights activists, has died at the age of 91. Razgon’s name became famous in the Soviet Union during the late 1980s after he published his memoirs about his years in Stalin’s gulags. When “True Stories” was first published in a Moscow literary journal in 1988 and 1989, the book was recognized as significantly different from most of the literature about the gulags. His stories of what happened to the famous Soviet political and intellectual figures of the 1930s, whom he came to know before and during his 17 years in the camps, are still considered a unique document about Russia’s totalitarian past. Born in 1908 in eastern Belarus, Razgon grew up in a politically left Jewish family. He studied history at a Moscow university, joined the Bolshevik Party and made a successful career as a journalist and as an author writing for young adults. Arrested in 1938 on the trumped-up charge of counter-revolutionary agitation, he survived many prisons, labor camps and penal colonies. Following Stalin’s death, Razgon and his wife, Rika Berg, whom he met in a gulag, were released in 1956 and later rehabilitated. Razgon resumed writing children’s literature, while secretly beginning to recount the events of the camps in his memoirs. With the dawn of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s era of perestroika, Razgon was able to publish these personal stories in a novel that brought him great success in Russia and abroad. Razgon was the last survivor among almost 2,000 people who attended the 17th Bolshevik Party Congress in 1934, which made the nation’s only attempt to oust Stalin. Shortly after the congress, most of the delegates were executed on Stalin’s direct orders. After the collapse of communism, Razgon served on Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s Clemency Commission, which examined appeals by convicted criminals, especially those sentenced to death. As one of the most respected and well-known Russian Jews, Razgon also served as a board member of the Russian Jewish Congress since its founding in 1996.

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