He was immediately recognized as a master of the form. But as Stalin tightened his grip on the country, Babel famously chose to become the Master of Silence during the 1930s. In that era, even silence was dangerous; Babel eventually died in prison. All of his unpublished work was confiscated and disappeared, along with its author, into Lubyanka Prison and the enormous bureaucracy of the secret police.
At this point Ann Arbor writer Travis Holland begins his first novel. In The Archivist's Story Holland follows Pavel Dubrov, the man second in charge of the Lubyanka's literary archive, the place where all the unpublished novels, stories, and poems written by those killed in the Stalinist purges are catalogued and then destroyed. Literature is not immortal in Lubyanka; it is made with small marks on fragile pieces of paper that are easily burned. Pavel loves literature, but it is easy for him to imagine a day when there will be "no stories, no novels or plays, no poems. Just empty shelves. The end of history."
Pavel accepts this, even as he tries to save two unknown stories by Isaac Babel from the fire. It is a kind of bravery, although Pavel is not an uncompromised man. He has his job because he has been complicit in denouncing a former colleague at a school. He was no longer trusted by his fellows, and now he is not trusted by the apparatchiks he works for in the secret police. Even though he would prefer to mourn his wife, take care of his failing mother, and read his books, he knows that his world will not allow him to do that. He has seen the signs of his own destruction: