Engineers of the Soul

Frank Westerman

Engineers of the Soul

Engineers of the Soul is the riveting story of two journeys – one literal, one imaginary – through contemporary Russia and through Soviet-era literature.

Travelling through present and past, Frank Westerman draws the reader into the wild euphoria of the Russian Revolution, as art and reality are bent to radically new purposes. Writers of renown, described by Stalin as ‘engineers of the soul’, were encouraged to sing the praises of canal and dam construction under titles such as ‘Energy’, ‘The Hydraulic Power Station’ and ‘Onward, Time!’

But their enthusiasm – spontaneous and idealistic at first – soon becomes an obligatory song of praise. And as these colossal waterworks lead to slavery and destruction, Soviet writers labour on in the service of a deluded totalitarian society. Combining investigative journalism with literary history, Westerman examines both the landscape of ‘Oriental despotism’ and the books – and lives – of writers caught in the wheels of the system.

‘It is easy to die a hero’s death,’ wrote Konstantin Paustovsky, ‘but it is difficult to live a hero’s life.’

Westerman skilfully sweeps the reader along to the dramatic final confrontation between writers and engineers that signalled the end of the Soviet empire.

‘A compelling combination of literary criticism and travelogue.’ Scotland on Sunday

‘Westerman is a very fine writer and his stories, characters and digressions are as delicately wrought as a watch mechanism. Like Bruce Chatwin and the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, he has elevated the authorial journalist-traveller into a brilliant, magic storyteller; like them he seeks out the smaller, human-sized epics that play out their tragedies against the backdrop of history.’ Books of the Year, The Sunday Times

‘Westerman completes a portrait at once engaging and devastating. As such, it comes closer than any conventional literary history to defining the elusive Socialist Realism.’ Independent

‘This is a terrific read, with vivid, well-researched and reflective insights into Soviet society.’ Irish Times

‘An extraordinarily compelling, imaginative and subtle mixture of history, literary criticism and travelogue.’ History Today

‘Brilliant, illuminating and rich.’ Literary Review

‘The fate of Soviet writers under Stalin is movingly explored in this outstanding mix of travel book and literary study, which has about it more than a hint of Bruce Chatwin.’ The Sunday Times

‘Westerman merges investigative journalism, literary history and travel writing as he journeys across modern Russia to look at the legacy of literature under the Soviet Union… intriguing.’ The Big Issue

‘As he travels around the former USSR talking to ordinary Russians and visiting landmarks of the Soviet era, Westerman tells the story of authors like Pasternak and Gorky, the latter considered so important to the cause, Stalin launched an undercover operation to bring him back to Russia.’ Glasgow Herald

‘Winding his way along numerous interconnected lines of inquiry, Westerman engages the reader with ease in the surprise and satisfactions of his fascinating, often tragic discoveries about broken human lives, forgotten books and films, and places the desert has reclaimed.’ Times Literary Supplement

‘Highly recommended… to wrestle travelogue, literary biography, social history and bad communist cinema into such a readable tale is a triumph.’ Brian Schofield, The Sunday Times


  • De Bezige Bij, Netherlands
  • Harvill Secker/Vintage, UK
  • Woodstock: The Overlook Press, USA
  • Christoph Links/Berliner Taschenbuch, Germany
  • Christian Bourgois, France
  • Siruela, Spain
  • Iperborea, Italy
  • Editora Âyine, Portugal
  • Nya Doxa, Sweden
  • Durieux, Croatia
  • Iskry, Poland
  • Sinisukk, Estonia
  • Studentska založba, Slovenia

Material: Finished copies and pdf of the Dutch and English edition (240pp)