Despite being executed by the Nazis in 1944 as leader of an underground organization Musa Calil (pronounced Jalil in English) was posthumously convicted as a traitor. His literary achievements as a Tatar poet were largely forgotten and his bravery as a resistance fighter in the Great Patriotic War (World War II) unknown until the 1950s.
Calil was born in the village of Mustafino in the Orenburg Oblast (province) 900 miles southwest of Moscow near the border with Kazakhstan. Post the 1919 revolution Russia was embroiled in a civil war. Orenburg was under the control of the White Movement (a loose coalition of forces opposed to Lenin’s Bolshevik form of socialism). Calil became a Bolshevik activist, rising through the ranks of the Komsomol (Communist Union of Youth). By 1925he was an instructor with the Komsomol and had published his first poems. He was nineteen.
Calil moved first to Kazan, where he joined the October Literary Society which backed Prolekult; a federation of cultural societies that aspired to create a new revolutionary working-class aesthetic and then to Moscow to study at the Moscow State University. He continued to work for the Komsomol.
In the 1930s he edited several magazines and newspapers. Collections of his work were published, The Millions Decorated With Orders and Verses and Poems. His poems were being translated into Russian, he was also translating Russian poems into Tatar and writing librettos for the Tatar State Opera.
Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of Russia, commenced in 1941 and Calil volunteered for the Red Army. Due to his literary and political standing he was sent to the Volkhov Front near Leningrad as a war correspondent. Witnessing the horrors of the Eastern front deeply affected Calil and the effects of war on ordinary people became the main themes of his poetry.
Wounded and captured he was eventually transferred to Deblin in German occupied Poland where the Germans were trying to establish a Volga-Tatar national legion. Calil formed a resistance group and joined the Wehrmacht propaganda unit for the legion using a false name. With the intention of wrecking German plans the group infiltrated the editorial board of the German Idel-Ural newspaper and circulated anti-fascist leaflets amongst the legionnaires. The first of the Volga-Tatar legions sent to the Eastern front rebelled, shot their German officers, and joined the Soviet partisans.
Calil and his comrades were arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the Moabit prison in Berlin. Sentenced to death Calil and his group of twelve were executed by guillotine later that month. Their bodies have never been traced.
After the war the Ministry of Soviet Security branded Calil a traitor and added him to a list of dangerous criminals. At the same time notebooks written by Calil in Moabit that had been preserved by his cellmates were passed to the Tatar Writers Union. The Writers Union and Tatarstan state security managed to prove Calil’s resistance to the Nazis and the notebooks were published in Kazan as Moabit Däftäre (The Moabit Notebook).
Post war few people in the Soviet Union had ever heard of Calil. Through the Stalinist era his existence had been hushed up. In the year that Stalin died (1953) Konstantin Simonov published the Moabit Notebooks in Russian in Literaurnaia Gazette. With this translation and his rehabilitation Calil’s poetry became popular in the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries and he is now regarded one of the major representatives of Tatar literature in many languages. He was posthumously awarded The Lenin prize for Literature in 1957 for The Moabit Notebooks.
Many Tatars had fought against the Red Army in the Volga-Tatar legion and the new recognition of one of their own as a hero of socialism helped to end the collective Soviet suspicion against the Tatars as a group.
Monuments were erected to Calil in Kazan, Orenburg and Moscow, an opera written about his life, he appeared on a postage stamp and a library in Romania, a ship and even a small planet have been named after him. Today every child in Tatarstan and many beyond its borders know his name.
The Crisis of Socialist Modernity: The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the 1970s (2011) edited by Marie-Janine Calic, Dietmar Neutatz, Julia Obertreis. Published by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht