Of the millions put to death in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s reign of terror in the 1930s, the case of the Russian literary critic and historian D. S. Mirsky (1890–1939) is surely one of the strangest. Unlike so many other victims of the Terror, Mirsky may be said to have written his own death warrant by choosing to return to the Soviet Union from a decade-long exile in Britain at the very moment that Stalin was declaring war on intellectuals like himself as class enemies. There were many other Russians, to be sure, who were persuaded to repatriate themselves in order to participate in the brave new world of Soviet Communism, only to find that their ultimate reward was humiliation, arrest, and execution. But few were as heavily burdened as Mirsky was by politically incriminating antecedents. From a Soviet perspective, there could never have been any doubt that Mirsky really was a class enemy.

He was born...

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