Academic journal article Kritika

Distant and Present Voices from the Soviet Gulag

Academic journal article Kritika

Distant and Present Voices from the Soviet Gulag

Article excerpt

Anna Artem'eva and Elena Racheva, 58-ia: Neiz'iatoe. Istorii liudei, kotorye perezhili to, chego my bol'she vsego boimsia (Article 58: Uneliminated. Stories of People Who Survived That Which We All Fear Most). 336 pp. Moscow: AST, 2016. ISBN-13 978-5170926398.

A. Kozlova, N. Mikhailov, I. Ostrovskaia, and S. Fadeeva, eds., Papinypis 'ma: Pis 'ma ottsov iz GULAGa k detiam (Papas Post: Fathers' Letters from the Gulag to Their Children). 240 pp. Moscow: Izdatel 'stvo AgeyTomesh/WAM, 2014. ISBN-13 978-5910020379.

It seems inappropriate to use the words "Gulag" and "beautiful" together, but two new Russian-language volumes addressing aspects of Gulag history are indeed beautiful. Printed on heavy stock and lavishly illustrated, these two works pull in readers with their visuals and hold them with their emotional texts. Anna Artem'eva and Elena Racheva--a photographer and journalist, respectively, for Nov aid gazeta--have put together a collection of interviews and stunning contemporary portraits of person's whose lives were connected to the Gulag. Meanwhile, a team from the International Memorial Society's archive and museum has compiled a volume of letters from imprisoned fathers to their children. Examined together, these books not only remind us of the broad sweep of suffering and hardship experienced by Soviet citizens in the 1930s and beyond, but they also illuminate new angles on preserving the history and memory of the Gulag for a generation that has grown up after the excitement about historical revelations that characterized the perestroika period. These volumes break the history of repression into discrete family stories that for the most part are left to speak for themselves, shorn of the pathos common in perestroika-era presentations. (By contrast, consider the narrative voiceover in the documentary film Vlast' Solovetskaia, dir. Marina Goldovskaia, 1989.)

In 58-ia: Neiz "iatoe, Artem 'eva and Racheva profile more than 50 elderly person's, mostly former prisoners but also some retired prison- or labor-camp employees. A few of the interview subjects will be familiar to those who have studied Gulag literature or the history of dissent. (1) Some respondents, however, are telling their histories for the first time. Indeed, in their introduction, Racheva and Artem'eva describe sitting with a former prisoner in her apartment, which ironically has a view of her former barrack. Yet as the woman tells her story, her "no longer young son looked at his mother with horror and love; all this he was hearing for the first time" (3). That stories of imprisonment have remained taboo in some families is a powerful reminder that the burst of enthusiasm of the late 1980s for "filling in blank spots" in history did not extend to everyone and that fear of being stigmatized as an "enemy of the people" still lingers.

Artem 'eva and Racheva sought out histories not only from Moscow and St. Petersburg but from Ukraine, Lithuania, Vladimir, and the northern Russian region of Komi. Asking their respondents to reflect on moments of ugliness and joy, the interviewers captured diverse recollections from their subjects' long lives. No doubt to the frustration of historians, Racheva and Artem'eva elide their own questions from the text, making it difficult to know which opinions are spontaneously volunteered and what information is extracted by dint of repeated queries. (2) The artful distillation of interviewees' direct speech into powerful short accounts, however, serves the authors' purpose of making the book compulsive reading for a broad Russian-speaking audience. (3)

Given the sentiments of their probably liberal readers, the authors of 58-ia: Neiz'iatoe took the bold step of mixing together the stories of camp guards, prison workers, and former inmates. The reader turning the page to a new entry cannot immediately discern from the luminous color portrait of the elderly subject or the accompanying black and white photograph of a younger self whether this is a "victim" or a "perpetrator. …

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