Gulag Voices

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

Gulag Voices, edited by Anne Applebaum (Yale University Press, 195 pp.)

Solzhenitsyn has been dead for two years and the Soviet Union for 20. Unfortunately, that empire’s gulag – the prison camp system that killed tens of millions of innocent citizens – is alive and well in countries across the globe, even as its ghosts continue to haunt contemporary Russia. The fall of the USSR meant that memoirs about the gulag system could be published in Russia, but somehow – unlike the German Holocaust – the gulag “is not a fashionable topic,” writes Anne Applebaum, American journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Gulag: A History."

“[T]he vast body of Gulag literature is for the most part not read in Russian schools or universities.”

Which makes her anthology Gulag Voices all the more important. In Applebaum’s collection, 13 relatively unknown writers (Alexander Solzhenitsyn, famed chronicler of the gulag, is not represented here) give voice to aspects of the gulag experience, from the early, scattershot days of terrifying repression in the 1930s to the smaller-scale but pitiless ’60s.

The selected excerpts emphasize the daily life of the camps: work, love, sex, religion, food, family, and freedom with the corresponding interrogations, torture, despair, rape, starvation, and other atrocities. All are written with evocative detail and heighten interest in both the prisoners and their jailers. (When it comes to the jailers, the question is always the same: How could they? Journalist Lev Razgon, a gulag prisoner for 18 years, suggests an answer in a description of one of his jailers: “He did not steal, like most of his colleagues. Neither was he a despot: on the contrary, he kept strictly to his instructions. Zaliva was no sadist and when, during -40 degrees of frost, bound and completely naked ‘refusers’ were taken on sledges to the punitive outpost, he would follow their departure with sad regret in his eyes. He even had a certain Ukrainian kindheartedness and cheerfulness about him, tempered by the strictness necessary for his post.”)

Why is it that accounts of survivors of our civilization’s worst actions are so often enlivening and inspiring? “Sometimes people ask me whether there were ever any good times in the camps, ever a good mood,” writes Anatoly Zhigulin, a poet jailed for “anti-Stalinist” activities. “Of course there were. The soul always seeks joy, yearns for it.”

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.

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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