Women of the Gulag: when life meets history

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women-of-gulagToday Joseph Stalin is one of the most admired figures in contemporary Russia.  Go figure.

Sure he did bad things, but it was worth it, right? So the line of thinking goes. Paul Gregory, author of Women of the Gulag, talked about the matter in a recent talk at Hoover Institution, during its annual summer workshop, which draws international scholars to the world-famous archives (I’ve written about it here ). His new book “attempts to capture the sights, sounds, and smells of the Great Terror of 1937-38 through the eyes of five women caught up in extraordinary circumstances.” (I’ve written about the documentary that accompanies the film, by the Russian-American filmmaker Marianna Yarovskaya, here.)

“Stalin is purported to have said that the death of one person is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic.  Those of us who study Soviet Russia fall into this trap,” he said. “We think we can convince people of Stalin’s evil by citing the millions who died in his famines, the hundreds of thousands shot during the Great Terror of 1937-38, and the millions of men, women, and children who sat in his concentration camps and special settlements.”

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Head of family at 11

With his book, Paul hopes to make statistics into individual stories.  Paul said that “overwhelmingly his victims were ordinary people, confused why they had been singled out. They tell us of the fine dividing line between perpetrator and victim.”  When Paul began looking, he knew that his chances of finding living survivors was slim – they would be women in their 80s or 90s – but he persevered.  “Lo and behold, we found three of our primary characters still living, ornery, and lucid, and in the locale in which their stories take place.  In other cases, we found their daughters, who were old enough to tell their family’s stories.” Ages ranged from 86 to 96.

His research assistant Natalia Reshetova tells the story of the search for one of them, “Fekla,” in the current issue of the Hoover Digest. Fekla’s family of “kulaks,” middle-class peasant farmers (we’ve written about that effort here), were targeted by Stalin’s “dekulakization” of the Soviet countryside.  She grew up to become a founding member of Memorial, the society to preserve the memory of these terrible times. An excerpt from the article:

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Executed

She found herself in the fall of 1931, just short of five years old, in a cold earthen dugout that was part of the vast Gulag system.  … Small children in the children in the Martyush settlement stayed in earthen pits, dug in the birch forest, from fall until spring. They played in those dark, cold dwelling places—digging little rivulets in the dirt walls and watching the soil run down. Fekla’s grandmother gave her grandchildren almost all of her daily allotment of bread; she died of hunger and illness in April 1932, not having survived a year. The children of the settlement rarely saw their parents, who were peasants used to working the land but were now forced to toil as industrial workers from morning to night—Fekla’s father at an aluminum factory and her mother in the mines. After her father’s arrest, the only man left in the family was her grandfather. He worked as a guard, and until his death in 1944 he helped his daughter-in-law and grandchildren as best he could. …

She last saw her father the day after his arrest on March 29, 1938. He was in the cellar of a secret-police building among tens of other prisoners—all standing because there was no room to sit. The NKVD guards pretended not to notice the children who crawled to the window to talk to the prisoners. Fekla remembers how the others told her father, “Andreev, your eldest daughter is here.” He struggled to get to the window and managed to speak only a few words to Fekla, addressing her as an adult even though she was just eleven and a half. “Now you are in charge of the family,” he said. “Educate your sisters. It is harder to oppress an educated person. Get an education, too, and do not abandon your mother and grandpa.”

“I followed his will,” Fekla concluded. …

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Fekla today.

Fekla not only became an educated person who taught for many years, first at a local school and then at the university level, but also completed her dissertation on the celebrated author Alexander Pushkin. Later she also became a historian of the Martyush settlement. She collected hundreds of documents and traveled extensively through areas where the camps and settlements of the Gulag had once stood. She published several books and helped many people achieve rehabilitation: 419, by her count. …

Fekla’s father never returned, and the family did not receive any news of him. Only many years later, after Stalin’s death, did Fekla begin to search for information about his fate. Ultimately she learned that he had been condemned to death by firing squad on September 29, 1938, and executed on October 4, 1938. As one of the innocent victims of the Great Terror, he was among 725,000 people who were unjustly shot.

“It was a real genocide,” Fekla said in the film. “Why did they wipe out five generations of our family?”

Read the whole article here.  Meanwhile, we’ll try to tell some more of these women’s stories in the coming weeks.

 


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2 Responses to “Women of the Gulag: when life meets history”

  1. Dwight Says:

    This is a phenomenal book that I hope to actually get around to posting on soon. Funny how it ties in nicely with some of the other non-fiction I’ve read this year (sadly that I also need to post on). Thanks for getting the word out on this wonderful book!

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    And thanks for posting, Dwight!

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