Posts Tagged ‘Marianna Yarovskaya’

Women of the Gulag: when life meets history

Monday, September 16th, 2013
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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.

 

Terror’s human face: Women of the Gulag – the book and the movie. Help make it happen.

Saturday, October 27th, 2012
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Marianna Yarovskaya on location

I met Paul Gregory a couple years back, when his Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina (Hoover Institution Press, 2010) was just out.  I wrote about it, with a video of Paul, here) … well, “writing” might be too strong a word.  His noontime presentation at Stanford was so tight and so compelling that I pretty much presented what he said, as he said it.  I didn’t have to do much more.  (I’ve written about his Lenin’s Brain and Other Tales from the Secret Soviet Archives here).  Since meeting him, he’s become a high-powered economics blogger at Forbes 

Filmmaker Marianna

The Bukharin book was such a great story, I kept seeing it as a film.  Instead, he’s saved the film for his newest book, Women of the Gulag.  He’s teamed with Muscovite documentary filmmaker Marianna Yarovskaya.  Paul told me some time ago about his newest effort: I was against several deadlines and didn’t have the extra brain cells to process it then, but given his previous book, I had little doubt that he would knock it out of the ball park.

He has.  From his introduction:

A remark often attributed to Stalin is, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”

This is the story of five such tragedies. They are stories about women because, as in so many cases, it was the wives and daughters who survived to tell what happened.

These five women put a human face on the terror of Stalin’s purges and the Gulag in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.  They show how the impersonal orders emanating from the Kremlin office of “the Master” brought tragedy to their lives. They cover the gamut of victims. Two are wives and daughters in ordinary families unable to comprehend why such misfortune has overtaken them. A third is a young bride living in the household of a high party official. The last two are wives of the Master’s executioners. These stories are based on their memoirs—some written by themselves, others by close friends or by their children.

Writer Gregory

Here’s the deal.  The book will be out early next year with Hoover Institution Press.  But the movie is in limbo until you pitch in over at kickstarter here.  The filmmaker is trying to raise $30,000 to finish the film, and she has 57 more days to raise the money on the kickstarter deal, which ends December 23.  Think of it as a Christmas present to Russia … or better yet, to mankind, because this history is important to record.

Applebaum at Stanford

“Why film a bunch of old babushkas?” Marianna is asked.  According to Washington Post‘s Pulitzer-prizewinning Anne Applebaum, who appears in the film, “Aside from its historic value, a project like this one has special significance in the light of contemporary Russian politics. In recent years, under President Putin, Soviet and Russian history have been re-politicized, and the Stalin period has come to be viewed with ambiguity by politicians, writers, film makers, and regrettably the public. The stories of the victims of the gulag, told by simple people who had little or no understanding of why this was happening to them, make an excellent antidote to creeping historical amnesia. This project is also urgent, of course, because most of their subjects are in their advanced years, and their stories have to be recorded now.”

Filmmaker Marianna explains why she’s passing the hat:  “We are now continuing the campaign and the project and are in post-production. We are also interviewing more women in other parts of Russia. We already have almost 40 hours of footage. These funds will go towards recording more testimonies on HD video and towards editing the footage we have gathered. Clearly the timing is urgent as the survivors and the heroines of the original Stalin gulag are getting very old. This is “the last chance.” (Marcel Krüger has an interview with her here.)

The film below gives a preview of their work.  I hope you find it as riveting as I do – and please do pony up whatever you can over at Kickstarter here.  Time is of the essence.  As always.