Will Women of the Gulag get an Oscar next month? Please vote yes. Putin won’t like it.


Marianna Yarovskaya filming on location in Russia

Everyone nowadays is terrified of Russia, talking about Russia, condemning Russia – but comparatively few make any attempt to find out what Russia is really about, culturally, socially, politically. Relatively few make an effort to know its history, other than the comic-book version. Author Paul Gregory, an economist and Russia expert, has gone some way towards alleviating our myopia with Women of the Gulag, teaming up with Russian-American filmmaker Marianna Yarovskaya. We’ve written about the Women of the Gulag here and here and here. (We’ve written about Paul’s book on Nikolai Bukharin here, and his curious and complicated tale of Lenin‘s brain here.) Although he’s one of the movers-and-shakers at the Hoover Institution, he’s had to use public fundraising platforms to get the film made.

Marianna Yarovskaya

Now Women of the Gulag is up for an Academy Award, and we couldn’t be more pleased. Women of the Gulag is a story that’s still untold, even in Russia. 

According to Paul, the film “drives home the point that Russia has yet to come to terms with the Gulag and the Great Terror. Consider the striking images of a Stalin look-alike selling photos on Red Square and older men and women sobbing at Stalin’s burial place. There has never been a big event, like Nuremberg or the Truth Commission in South Africa, that wipes the slate clean.  The Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot deny that the Gulag happened, but he needs the Russian people to want a leader with a firm hand. The strategy of admitting Stalin’s ‘harshness’ while emphasizing his presumed contributions has paid off. The Russian people name Stalin as the most significant figure in history!”

The Academy Awards are notoriously whimsical in their choices, but if there’s any justice, I hope Women of the Gulag takes home the statuette in the “short documentary” category. (The Academy finalists are listed in Variety here.) He’s competing against shorts like My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes, which was featured in The New York Times here .

Women of the Gulag was first screened last September in Santa Monica. The John Batchelor radio show featured an episode on the film, and in 2013, Gregory talked about his research, which drew a lot from the phenomenal Hoover Library & Archives, on CSPAN BOOKTV.

Paul says in a Hoover interview here:

My first surprise was that I could gather enough information from the above sources to breathe life into the five remarkable women whose lives I was chronicling. I was also surprised (although I had encountered this in the statistics) by the fine line between executioner and condemned. The two women in my book who married executioners lost their husbands to execution and one was forced into suicide

My second surprise (and this led to the documentary film with Marianna Yarovskaya) was that three of my characters were still alive in their upper 80s and lower 90s. They readily agreed to be filmed. The others were long gone and had no adult children to tell their story first-hand. Therefore, Marianna and I used networking and the good services of Memorial Moscow to identify three additional Women of the Gulag, who told their remarkable stories on camera. We called our subjects “last witnesses” while making our documentary. Indeed, two of the main characters died shortly after their interviews.

My third surprise was that no one had written this book or made this documentary before us. Hollywood has been remarkably absent in the coverage of Stalinist crimes against humanity. Perhaps Women of the Gulag will be a turning point.

Let’s hope so.

You think I’m imagining the international ignorance? Paul writes on his blog earlier this week about a Gulag denier: “A writer viewed the film and concluded that the five female Gulag survivors, telling their story on camera were lying. Such things that they describe – the arbitrary sentences, the beatings, and arrest of innocent fathers and husbands – were made-up fantastic stories. … Surely viewers will not be taken in by such nonsense. Besides, director Yarovskaya is incompetent – a dupe of faux human-rights organizations, like Memorial. In the same edition, another Gulag-denier writes that the much-authenticated order 00447 that initiated the Great Terror is a fabrication of Russian human-rights organizations. So far, Russian mainstream media is waiting and watching, asking should Yarovskaya’s Women of the Gulag be treated as an accomplishment of Russian film makers or an attempt to sully the greatness of Russian history?”

According to Paul, “Stalin is purported to have said that one death is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic. We believe that by giving the Gulag and the Great Terror human faces and human stories, we will cause viewers everywhere to think of the tragedy and not the statistic.”

Postscript on 1/14: Women of the Gulag gets a resounding endorsement from one of the former Soviet Union’s foremost dissidents, Vladimir Bukovsky. Read it here

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7 Responses to “Will Women of the Gulag get an Oscar next month? Please vote yes. Putin won’t like it.”

  1. George Says:

    You would think that the documentary would run in Washington, DC, if anywhere in the US. (Well, New York and Los Angeles apart.) This is the first I have heard of any such movie. I wish him luck, and will keep an eye out for the movie when the AFI has its “Silverdocs” documentary festival.

    There is a broad popular taste for history in the heroic manner, which prefers (in the Russian case) to see Stalin as the director of the Great Patriotic War, and (in all cases) had rather not complicate the story with unfortunate details and footnotes. The taste for this sort of thing must go back to Livy, if not beyond. Having said that, it is hard to deny that Stalin was a significant figure. Malcolm Muggeridge, who had no illusions about Stalin, counted him as one of the three outstanding men of action of his time, along with Ghandi and De Gaulle.

  2. Gulnara Shahinian Says:

    it is extremely important to educate population on atrocities that took place during Stalin regime , barbarity of any past and existing regime should be brought us and denounced .Only education, access to truth and justice may lead to a process for understanding and working on policies not to repeat .
    The history is haunting us with it’s cruelty , but it is enormously dangerous when it repeats itself in even more cruel forms. The film must be nominated and selected for OSCAR.
    In my professional practice as UN Special Rapporteur on slavery I have seen that seemingly denounced past like slavery in it’s old forms has transcended into modern live in even more cruel forms

  3. yulia pessina Says:

    The film must be nominated and selected for OSCAR. Especially at this time!

  4. Andrew Sazonov Says:

    “Everyone nowadays is terrified of Russia, talking about Russia, condemning Russia – but comparatively few make any attempt to find out what Russia is really about, culturally, socially, politically. Relatively few make an effort to know its history, other than the comic-book version.” (Cynthia Haven)

    The Stalinist regime was never on trial. And not only in the USSR or Russia, but also in the world. And after perestroika, when Russia renounced the communist ideology, the Western countries granted Russia an indulgence for all crimes of the previous regime. Some years later the former KGB operative became the President of the new Russia. The question “Who is Mr. Putin,” is still hanging in the air without an answer. Unfortunately, the payback time has come. Now we are discussing the degree of Russian influence on USA politics.

    It’s time to recall the epigraph Hemingway has chosen to his novel:
    “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee”—John Donne.

    When choosing to ignore the past, be prepared to face the consequences. Do not be surprised you have been robbed if you welcomed the criminal to your house.
    Why today of all days, today, when we are concerned that Russia poses a threat to the world, we need to look back at the origins that rest in Stalin’s times?
    It is true that Russia’ appearance has dramatically changed. But while Russia has publicly denounced communism, it retained the inner essence of the former USSR’s policy, which had always been a policy of deception and the seizure of new territories.

    That is why it is so important that Marianna Yarovskaya and Paul Gregory used their talents, courage and passion to get us back in the days of the Gulag and told the world a story of Women of the Gulag. They have chosen to tell the truth about the Stalinist system through the lips of innocent women who suffered from all the repressions in the GULAG. I do hope the film will be the winner. Marianna and Paul do deserve Oscar recognition.

    At the first glance the events of the film are far removed from us. But it is not true. This is the account of the crimes on which the modern Russian policy and the system of power are based.

    The film hits where it hurts. And it is no surprise that the film was attacked by internet trolls and neo-stalinists of all kinds. They do not want people in the West to realize that Stalin’s policies were based on Deception. This policy of Deception is fully accepted and inherited by the modern rulers of Russia.

    The nature of this policy of deception and its catastrophic consequences to the world are discussed in detail in the book of the Canadian researcher A. Seidel “Stalin’s Plan for the Expansion of Communism. 1927-1946” (http://albertseidel.blogspot.com/2019/01/stalins-plan-for-expansion-of-communism.html).

    The Stalinist policy of deception ended in success and led to the occupation of many countries and millions and millions of victims around the world. We must not allow those who continue to use the Stalinist methods in their policies to achieve the same. This film is a warning and an important step in preventing such a scenario.

  5. Milena Cotliar Says:

    This is true moment of understanding of who we Russians are by now. If the work gets that far, it changes the hystorof hymanity. The stuff with Stalin is a serious problem not only of Russia. Sertainly not. The whole world still does not understand what was it and how deep is the wound in the very heart of body of the whole civilisation.

  6. Marianna Yarovskaya Says:

    “When choosing to ignore the past, be prepared to face the consequences.” – Thank you very much for these comments. There are indeed not enough films on the subject in Hollywood and elsewhere. Paul and I are very moved by your words.

  7. Liuba Rabkina Says:

    Es necesario homenajear a las victimas inicentes de la dictadura de Stalin. Para que la presente generación lo sepa y lo cuente en su día a sus hijos. El hombre es un animal muy cambiadizo. Depende del líder de la manada. Ojalá no se repita en ninguna parte.