Some time in the late 1970s, in a Moscow underground train, I was sat next to a man who was reading a book in English. I casually glanced at the open page and he immediately shifted, nervously, away from me. Then he closed his book, carefully wrapped in a newspaper, and turned away. "Gosh", I thought, "he must be really desperate." I recognised right away that his book was Robert Conquest's The Great Terror. It was then circulating among the Moscow intelligentsia, and I had just read it myself.
A copy might be lent to you for just two or three days (and nights). But whether you were able to finish it in this short space of time or not, you certainly did not read it in the underground, even though fewer people in those days could understand English. That is, if you were not a KGB officer entrusted to acquaint yourself with this "enemy slander" so that you could give an idea of what it was all about to your superiors. But this person was not KGB. If he were, he wouldn't have closed the book, but would have looked straight back at me to ascertain whether I knew what he was reading - and then it would have been I who would be in trouble.
After a while, he stole a glance at me. I smiled back. He now knew that I knew and that I was no danger, and also that I knew that he was no danger either. He returned the smile and reopened his book.
I still remember this episode because to me it was the embodiment of that era. It was a time when the second "unbeaten" generation of Russian intellectuals was eagerly discovering the untold truths of its country's recent past, finding forbidden names and grasping novel ideas. They came from "samizdat" and from a range of banned or inaccessible literature. Nikita Khrushchev's suppressed speech at the 20th party congress, Yevgenia Ginsburg's Steep Route, Nadezhda Mandelstam's Memoirs, The Gulag Archipelago, Zamyatin, Orwell, the philosophers Berdyaev, Rozanov and Fedotov, the undoctored poetry of Akhmatova and Mandelstam and of our contemporaries, and the particularly dangerous émigré publications - We savoured it all and much more, tired of being afraid, yet always aware of the danger.