They led you away at dawn. So begins the section of Anna Akhmatova’s iconic poem “Requiem,” which Monika Zgustova chose as the frontispiece for this immensely powerful book about women’s experiences in the Soviet gulag.
Zgustova was a teenager in the mid-1970s, when her family fled Czechoslovakia to escape political persecution from the Communist regime (her father was a prominent Czech linguist). She grew up in the US. Intensely interested in Russian literature, she moved to Barcelona, where she worked as a translator of Russian and Czech literature, especially dissident writings. Traveling to Moscow in September 2008, she met a group of former gulag prisoners, many of them Jewish. Seated around kitchen tables, supposedly out of range of KGB listening devices, they told their stories. As she listened to them, Zgustova realized that the men’s narratives detailed experiences that were generally much better known. She resolved to bring forward the women’s stories. And thus germinated the idea for this book.
Zgustova traveled in Russia and Europe (to London and Paris) to interview female gulag survivors. The gulags, Soviet prison camps, were first established by Lenin in 1918, soon after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. From 1930 to 1953, during Stalin’s rule, approximately 18 million people were confined; about 1.7 million of those are estimated to have perished. As Zgustova’s interviews show, however, repression did not stop with Stalin. True, people were no longer arbitrarily shot, but after Stalin’s death in 1953, the murderous terror of his regime was replaced by a police state that never really went away. During the Khrushchev (1953–1964) and Brezhnev years (1964–1982), the KGB and the gulag system kept on, and much of the brutality and indifference persisted. Some camps still exist under Vladimir Putin’s autocratic rule. Imprisoned members of the feminist opposition group Pussy Riot, among others, have documented the abysmal conditions of post-Soviet incarceration.
Those Zgustova interviews tell of unspeakable horrors—the dreaded knock on the door at some ungodly hour; the callous KGB agents rifling through their belongings; the travel to the far north or some other inhospitable climate; the scarce and often repulsive food; the grueling efforts of forced labor: felling trees, moving rocks, digging ditches, repetitive and often meaningless work.
It is hard to believe that these women survived. As Zgustova notes, they live with lasting physical effects of what they were put through. For example, many cannot stand up for long, the result of years of endless lineups, unspeakable deprivation of all kinds, a diet of barely digestible slop, and solitary confinement for months at a time at the whim of those in authority.
The brutal indifference of the guards, the arbitrariness of the administration, all this is recounted. Some women came from the humblest of backgrounds, while others were connected to famous dissidents.
The harassment of Boris Pasternak’s mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, the model for Lara in Doctor Zhivago, is recalled by Ivinskaya’s daughter. Zgustova also interviews Ella Markman, a friend and gulag mate of Marina Tsvetaeva’s daughter Ariadna Efron. Markman recounts the trials and tribulations of the great poet Tsvetaeva, lured back to the Soviet Union in 1939, only to experience her husband Sergei Efron’s death at the hands of Stalin’s secret police and the harassment and imprisonment of her daughter Ariadna. Subjection to a sort of internal exile, privation, and psychological torture led Tsvetaeva to suicide in 1941. Unlike Anna Akhmatova, who was threatened but never imprisoned, remaining in her Leningrad apartment until her death, Tsvetaeva simply could not withstand the loss of loved ones and the pressure put on her after she returned to Stalin’s socialist paradise.
Zgustova shows that Soviet-style repression extended beyond the country’s borders, ensnaring citizens of neighboring states. She interviews Poles who wound up in the gulag and who testify that they saw other foreigners, including Americans, there. All the accounts confirm that guards, camp officials, and criminal prisoners generally demonstrated callousness and random cruelty. The women were often saved by the few compassionate or bribable staff.
The stories also illuminate the broad range of people detained for political reasons by the Soviet dictatorship, from committed communists to deeply orthodox nuns and other religious believers.
This system did not end with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The pattern of late Soviet repression is once again felt in Russia today. The gulags have enjoyed a resurgence with former KGB agent Vladimir Putin’s ascension to power in 2000 and subsequent strengthening of the police state. Some of Zgustova’s interviewees attest to this, recounting repression extending almost to the present.
Natalia Gorbanevskaya’s presents one of the strongest and most harrowing testimonies of this continuing pattern of repression and abuse. She was active in dissident circles in the 1960s as a friend of Akhmatova’s and an editor of the journal Chronicle of Current Events. When the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia under Brezhnev’s orders, in August 1968, she and seven friends staged a protest in Moscow and were attacked by KGB operatives. Despite being arrested and physically assaulted, Gorbanevskaya continued her public demonstrations. A year later, she became a victim of a newer KGB tactic. State agents confined her to a mental hospital and forcibly fed her psychotropic drugs. As a result, she suffered severe long-term side effects, including Parkinson’s disease. Still, she didn’t stop protesting. In 1975, she was forced to emigrate to Israel with her two small children. Relocating to Paris, she last traveled to Moscow in 2013 to participate in protests on the forty-fifth anniversary of the Czech invasion. Once again, she was arrested for organizing “an unauthorized demonstration.” Subsequently released, she returned to Paris, where she died three months later.
No one work can provide a full picture of a system that dates to the early days of Lenin’s Bolshevik rule. One topic on which Zgustova’s informants are silent is same-sex relations among the political prisoners. Lesbianism is only mentioned once, in a list of deviants whom the interviewees encounter on their journey through the gulag system. Either Zgustova didn’t ask or she and her interviewees shared a common desire to keep this topic in the closet. In this they share the general silence and/or negative attitudes of current Russian society, very much part of Putin’s so-called “traditional values” agenda. Yet historians like Laura Engelstein and Dan Healey have shown that pre- and immediately post-1917 Russian “traditional values” included a greater acceptance of homosexuality than did Western societies at that time.
This omission aside, Zgustova has followed in the footsteps of Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich in seeking out and documenting the too often invisible stories of women’s experiences in the gulag. She has made a significant contribution to our understanding of women’s experiences of repression in the Soviet Union and in the post-Soviet space.