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Gulag Voices

Thirteen writers give voice to their experiences in Soviet prison camps.

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The lively pleasure that a reader can find in such accounts is not just the relief of knowing that the gulag isn’t happening here and now or imagining that it can’t happen to us. Instead, it is a deep appreciation for moments of clarity and peace, and for the wisdom and compassion that come to those who – like Solzhenitsyn – begin to understand that any human being can be tempted by evil.

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My particular favorites in the anthology include the Bronx-born Alexander Dolgun’s “Interrogation,” from his 1975 memoir. Having feigned an inherited susceptibility to brain inflammation, he was allowed to keep his fedora: “When they gave me back my hat, the hell I was living in became a hell I could survive” even though “it was still hell.”

Ethnographer and historian Nina Gagen-Torn, imprisoned twice in the gulag, admired the faith of some of her fellow captives – not only that of Christians but also that of true-blue Communists. “On landing in Kolyma, they declared a hunger strike and demanded ‘political conditions,’ which meant the right to send and receive letters, to read, and to be housed separately from the common criminals.” Having won their point, “[n]ew charges were brought. They knew that they would be shot, but again they went willingly. These were courageous people. No doubt all of them perished, but all had kept their faith, doing battle for communism as they understood it.”

Neatly closing “Gulag Voices” is K. Petrus’s “Liberation,” in which he describes his release: “ ‘So I’m free?’ I whispered to myself, not quite believing that I was on my way to the local militia to get myself an internal passport. I saw a hag-gard woman’s face in one doorway in those barracks; she glanced at the dirty bundles heaved over both my shoulders and bobbed her head knowingly. I kept thinking that everyone was looking at me, that I would be stopped any moment now. But at the same time I felt that I could weather all these hardships, find my family and another life. I ducked around a corner, stopped to take a breath, looked up at the Siberian sky, and remembered the comfort of Psalm 27: ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?’”

Let’s pray “Gulag Voices” becomes a text in modern history courses across the world. Its first stop, however, should be in Russian high schools. Other than Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago,” this is the best introduction I know of to the history of the gulag.

Bob Blaisdell edited “Infamous Speeches: From Robespierre to bin Laden.”

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