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Women of the Gulag: From Stalin to Pussy Riot

A new history and film remind amnesiac Russia of the individual lives shattered and disfigured by Stalinist oppression

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Nadezhda Levitskaya, 86, Solzhenitsyn’s assistant. (Michail Bogachev, © Mayfilms)
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Forty years ago this week, the YMCA-Press, then based in Paris and founded by White Russian emigrants, published Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago to the collective horror of the civilized world. A moral lightning bolt, the book was a capaciously thorough investigation of the forced-labor camp system and a systematic indictment of the totalitarian force that underpinned the entire Soviet project. Reading it would quickly disabuse anyone who still harbored a lingering belief in the system’s probity. Yet more than two decades after the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Russia still has a Gulag problem.

Posing as a defender of a supposedly merciful church, President Vladimir Putin took a young woman away from her husband and newborn baby for years for the crime of being personally disloyal to him in the public space. Putin’s ostentatious recent display of benevolence, by pardoning the ladies of Pussy Riot in much the same manner that the tzar used to amnesty bomb-tossing revolutionaries before Christmas, is certainly not a repudiation of their arrests and grotesque show trial. In fact, the pardon only further reinforced the lesson he intended to inculcate in the populace: Anyone who wishes to criticize the new tzar or his government’s policies would do well to remember that concepts such as freedom and incarceration, grace and perdition, justice and retribution are held by the tzar alone.

It is the exaggerated and prolonged case of Stockholm syndrome from which Russian society suffers, as well as its state-sponsored ignorance of the recent past, that has rendered such methods of political conditioning feasible. Much of the Russian population remains willfully ignorant of the extent to which Soviet society was brutalized by the arbitrary war that the Communist Party waged against its own citizens. Sizable swaths of both the educated and uneducated public remain dubious that the Gulag was really as bad as advertised, while Stalin himself is held in wide esteem for “having won the great patriotic war”—despite the scholarly consensus that his paranoiac purging and execution of something like half the Red Army officer corps very nearly derailed the war effort. The fact that thousands of aging Communists brought carnations to Stalin’s tomb earlier this year to mark the 60th anniversary of his death is one clear sign that many Russians have failed to reckon with the country’s Soviet past. Vladimir Putin’s regular references to the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” are merely the official refraction of beliefs widely held by the general population. The corollary of this intuition is a skepticism of the facts about the Gulag as spurious or worse—maliciously overexaggerated by the intrinsically seditious liberal intelligentsia.

We should of course take extreme care here to avoid the overagitated and imprecise conflation of historical parallels: Putin is certainly not the new Stalin, and claiming that he is is an insult to millions of Stalin’s victims. However, the reversion to undemocratic methods of pacifying the political opposition is essentially a grotesque form of historical farce. The Putinist reliance on popular ignorance and national awareness of Russia’s terrible recent history in order to legitimize antidemocratic tendencies and tools is a deep insult to the past that does damage in the present and may have much worse consequences for Russia’s political future. The deeply chauvinistic disciplining of the naughty girls of Pussy Riot for acting out in church was possible only because the general population saw such disciplining actions as normal rather than as a grotesque continuation of Soviet techniques of control.

One remedy for this shameful ignorance is to be found in recounting the stories of individual lives shattered and disfigured by the Gulag. Now, as the last witnesses and victims of organized state violence are entering the twilight of their lives, we are presented with what may be a final opportunity to correct the widely held misconception that the vast majority of the system’s inmates were “politicals” (in any sense of that term) or members of the elite. The average Gulag inmate was an ordinary worker taken into custody on spurious charges such as sabotage after the NKVD chief in Moscow had signed off on the latest directive for the month’s arrest quotas from the provinces. The prisoner’s wife would be taken to a women’s camp, his children to a state orphanage. Both Stalin and the regime he presided over were deeply chauvinistic in the traditional sense, a quality that often manifested itself in the execution or dispatching of his henchman’s wives to labor camps as a test of their loyalty. Consequently, the stories of the trials and travails that Soviet women underwent are the ones that are most seldom recounted. A recently published history, Women of the Gulag: Stories of Five Remarkable Lives, by American historian Paul R. Gregory, along with what promises to be a great forthcoming documentary by the Russian-American filmmaker Mariana Yarovskya, aims to fill those gaps in our knowledge.

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A professor of economics and a research fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford (from whose archives this book, as well as his previous excursions in Gulag history, are culled), Gregory has been part of a small group of stalwart historians—including Robert Service, Robert Conquest, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Norman Naimark, and Anne Applebaum—who have labored assiduously to bring the horrific workings of the Gulag to the Anglophone reading public since the Soviet archives were first opened. (This November, Gregory used his own personal history to make a signal contribution to the study of American history when he published his account in the New York Times Magazine of his family having taken the young Lee Harvey Oswald into its home in the early 1960s.) Gregory’s monograph The Political Economy of Stalinism (2003) may be the definitive macroeconomic study of the command structure and economic policy of the Soviet Union in the English language. A volume that followed, Terror by Quota (2009), detailed the fashion in which the Soviet economy was suborned to a shadow superstructure of systematic political repression. Even when taking the availability of the slave labor that built such marvels of engineering as the Moscow metro into the economic calculus, running a vast network of prison camps to incarcerate a significant chunk of the population turned out to be an economic disaster for the Soviet Union.

“When the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia was born,” Gregory explained to me, “the archives opened up and we started to get a mother lode of information to process. This was 10 years of work.” A natural storyteller, if not a natural stylist, he has a talent for illuminating complex systems with flourishes of revelatory archival finds. My own favorite of his books is his quirky chronicle of the archetypally romantic and doomed Bolshevik marriage in Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larin. At the conclusion of that book Gregory wonders whether it was inevitable that Stalin would emerge as general secretary of the party against seemingly better-organized, more charismatic, and stronger adversaries like Trotsky, Bukharin, or Lev Kamenev—all of whom were outmaneuvered and liquidated. His answer was, “most probably.”

In brief alternating chapters, Women of the Gulag tells the fascinating stories of five representative Soviet women—Agnessa, Maria, Evgenia, Adile, and Fekla—drawn from across the class and geographic spectrums of the Soviet empire. Three of these women were connected to the highest echelons of the nomenclatura by marriage, though the common denominator is that all were arrested for the actions of their husbands or fathers. Agnessa, the wife of the ambitious Jewish NKVD officer Sergei Mironov, was in some ways the most representative of the quick trajectory of ascension and tumble that constituted the implicit risk of working for the intelligence agencies. The capable Mironov took himself and his wife from Western Siberia to Moscow before being arrested and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor by his successors. His hostess wife was cast out of Kremlin balls into the Karlag labor camp in Kazakhstan and forced to acquire a new set of skills on the black market.

Adile was a 15-year-old Abkhazian beauty who was married into the family of the dashing communist leader Nestor Lakoba. When her new brother-in-law lost his struggle for control over the Transcaucasian Communist Party to his archival, Lavrenti Beria, he was poisoned and his entire extended family and a thousand clan members arrested: Adile was deported to an austere camp in Kazakhstan.

Eugenia, the vivacious and ambitious daughter of a rabbi from provincial Gomel in Belorussia, made her way to Odessa. There she traded up husbands, from a Jewish journalist, to a second secretary in the Soviet embassy in London, and finally to the utterly ruthless NKVD head Nikolai Ezhov. Her marriage catapulted her to artistic heights as an editor of the legendary Soviet glossy art mag USSR in Construction. During her third marriage to the debauched alcoholic Ezhov, who was legendary for his cruelty (the book reveals that he kept photo albums of the tortured bodies of his enemies’ children), she found herself entangled with Isaac Babel before the great writer’s own arrest and shooting over his ill-judged but entirely correct observation that “arresting and executing people had become as regular as weather reports.” Ezhov was himself soon engulfed by the inferno he had tended and was succeeded by Beria: His execution took place in the basement of the Lyubanka prison, where he had presided over the executions of thousands of others, including his own predecessor, Genrik Yagoda, and where Beria himself would be shot several decades later. After penning a series of unanswered personal letters to Stalin begging for clemency, Eugenia took her own life before the system could do it for her.

Maria’s husband, a railway engineer named Alexander Ignatkin, was arrested by the NKVD, which had been instructed to unearth phantom saboteurs operating along the Chinese/Russian border. After Ignatkin was executed for his supposed role in minor railway accidents that he had dutifully reported, Maria was sentenced to eight years imprisonment. It was only after years of searching for her husband that she learned of his torture and execution. She would be forced to wait years for the Khrushchev thaw before her husband’s name could be rehabilitated and would afterwards devote her energies to founding a memorial organization for the victims.

Fekla came from a religious family of Russian Orthodox landed peasants—kulaks, or “fists”—who were dispossessed of their small farm and meagre private property by a Soviet campaign of “dekulakalization.” A frenzied mob broke into their house and “socialized” their pots and linen. After the family patriarch was executed for absurd and nonexistent economic crimes, the rest of the family was sent to a barbed-wire-enclosed “special settlement” in the Urals. There the deracinated kulaks lived in pits that they had dug out of the frozen earth, unable to grow anything, their considerable farming skills utterly squandered on the barren wasteland.

These testimonies are of course a mere handful of millions; they are also deeply personal for all involved, including Gregory, whose grandfather, a Russian refugee from Harbin, worked as an engineer on the Trans-Siberian railroad and thus would have been shot if he had heeded Stalin’s call for the Harbinite diaspora to return. He and Maria’s husband would have known each other. Yarovskaya, the daughter of a Soviet actress and playwright and the granddaughter of a well-known Soviet actor, grew up with the specter of repression hanging over her household: After receiving accusations of straying from party line and being banned from some of the leading roles at the Moscow Art Theater and Lenfilm, he suicidally volunteered for the front and was almost immediately killed in action. In the film, she visits a relative who moved next door to the prison that had held her arrested husband and lived next door to it every day for the rest of her life after he died. “I grew up with it, and I feel that our generation is sort of paying for what was happening back then. I think that the lack of historical memory is what produces governments like [that of] Putin, who simply don’t care,” Yarovskaya explained.

That some of the book’s protagonists, like Fekla, are still with us into their late 90s is a remarkable testament to human endurance and resilience. “The most touching thing is to see how tough these Russian women are,” Gregory marveled. “When we got to them they would invariably ask us: ‘Where have you been all these years? I have been waiting to tell my story.’ ” It is hard not to feel that the inability of contemporary Russian society to remember its repressed and mangled kin is directly related to the authoritarian direction it is now taking.

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Women of the Gulag: From Stalin to Pussy Riot

A new history and film remind amnesiac Russia of the individual lives shattered and disfigured by Stalinist oppression