Gulag Voices: two books

This year has seen the publication of two books titled Gulag Voices: an anthology of memoirs edited by Anne Applebaum, and a collection of oral histories by Jehanne Gheith and Katherine Jolluck, so this seems like a good opportunity to look at both of them.

I had previously read all but one of the extracts included in Applebaum’s Gulag Voices: An Anthology, so it was a chance to remind myself how remarkable some of these works are. It’s a well-chosen selection, with one reservation: the decision to exclude Shalamov. In the introduction, Applebaum states that, along with Solzhenitsyn and Evgeniia Ginzburg, Shalamov is sufficiently readily available in English to make his inclusion unnecessary (pp. xiv-xv). I disagree; not even half of his stories have been translated into English, and even now far fewer readers are aware of him than of Solzhenitsyn. One might suggest the fictionalized status of Shalamov’s stories should exclude them from this selection of mainly more straightforward memoirs, but I think he would have contributed an important extra dimension.

The book is structured loosely to mirror the individual’s progress through the system, from arrest to release, but the choice for the first extract is slightly disappointing. Dmitry Likhachev’s memoir does indeed give a clear account of arrest and initial imprisonment, but it differs little from other reports, and as Applebaum herself comments (p. 2), his work is most notable for its description of the early stages of the labour camp system during his imprisonment on Solovki, so including one of the most typical sections at the expense of one of the most unusual seems like a missed opportunity. It looks as though the same thing is going to happen in the next extract, by Alexander Dolgun, when we read:

Dolgun was interrogated in Sukhanovka, a prison and torture chamber from which few emerged alive or sane. Other prisoners considered Dolgun’s survival so exceptional that Solzhenitsyn sought out his testimony when writing The Gulag Archipelago. The selection that follows describes an earlier period of Dolgun’s interrogation, at Lefortovo Prison. (p. 14)

Fortunately, what follows proves fascinating, as Dolgun records the practical and psychological techniques he uses to survive interrogation and isolation.

The extracts are generally quite short (the book is just under 200 pages long) and cover different areas such as informers (Lev Kopelev), camp bosses (Lev Razgon), faith communities (Nina Gagen-Torn), and a prisoner’s transformation, changing sides to become a guard after her release (Isaak Filshtinsky). Two of the most harrowing pieces of writing to emerge from the Gulag are necessarily included: Elena Glinka’s ‘The Kolyma Tram’, which depicts mass rape, and Hava Volovich’s description of the death of her child. Hard though it may be to believe after reading those, humanity is apparent elsewhere. Gustav Herling’s chapter ‘The House of Meetings’, with its detailed observation and understanding of the psychological and emotional challenges facing prisoners and their relatives, ends with the news that a child has been conceived in the ‘normal’ surroundings of a rare conjugal visit (p. 122); the depth and warmth of feeling he describes here indicates that the sense of community normally associated with women’s memoirs of the Gulag at least at times existed amongst male convicts as well.

By the time I’d finished the book, I wanted to re-read several of the memoirs featured in full, and I hope that readers who are new to the subject will similarly be inspired to seek out some of these works. They are of profound historical importance, but still relevant today, even as ‘living memories of the society which created the Gulag are beginning to disappear’ (p. xiv). That this generation is fast dying out is immediately apparent in Gheith and Jolluck’s Gulag Voices: Oral Histories of Soviet Incarceration and Exile, as several of the subjects interviewed have since died; even those who were imprisoned as children under Stalin are now elderly.

The interviews, which were evidently conducted with great sensitivity and are frequently very moving, by and large cover different areas from the usual trajectory of arrest, imprisonment, transport, camp and exile, to which we have become accustomed through reading so many published memoirs. The camps do feature, but  so do life as ‘special settler’ exiles, and in orphanages as children of ‘enemies of the people’ – aspects of the experience that are generally less documented in memoir literature. The particular value of oral testimony is that it can mediate the experience of those who are more marginalized and less educated, and therefore unlikely to write or publish memoirs – although that is not the case with all the interviewees included here – so we gain significantly different perspectives than those of the intelligentsia, whose experience is well known. In many ways the picture that emerges from these interviews is very similar to that of published narratives. But by looking, for most of the testimonies, beyond the dissident movement and the writings associated with it, we get a significantly different view of the attitudes towards the Soviet regime of those who were persecuted by it; for most, their internalization of Soviet values survived their frequently horrific experiences, and it is remarkable how little bitterness is expressed by most of the interviewees.

Gheith and Jolluck are very clear-sighted about the problems of oral history, such as the presence of incorporated memories (pp. 8-9), which is quite refreshing, as the current popularity of oral history seems to have led in some circles to the assumption that such testimonies are automatically superior to or more authentic than written accounts, as though they represent the holy grail of scholarly knowledge, for which memoirs by the likes of Evgeniia Ginzburg are but a poor substitute. That idea seems to be based on the supposition that oral history is in some way more directly mediated than a narrative that premeditatedly orders experience into a story, which is, frankly, dubious; the former may have a greater sense of immediacy or spontaneity, but the gap between the experience and the telling is no less present, and the process of mediation is merely different. While it can often give voice to testimony that would otherwise remain unheard, at other times the proximity of an interviewer may in itself create a problem. For example, it is quite noticeable that the interviews here do not touch on intimate questions. This may, as the authors note, be due to a greater reticence normal in Russian life (p. 11), but the contrast with the testimonies of Glinka and Volovich in Applebaum’s book, and indeed Czelawa Greczyn’s written account of her son’s death in the documents section of Gheith and Jolluck’s, suggests that distance from an audience makes it possible to write about experiences that cannot be spoken of.

This is not remotely to question the validity or significance of Gheith and Jolluck’s work. It’s an important and useful book that increases our knowledge and understanding of the experience of Stalinism by providing access to different dimensions and perspectives. But reading it alongside the written accounts in Applebaum’s collection gave a clear insight into the strengths and limitations of both types of testimony. As I said, Gheith and Jolluck are very alive to the issues surrounding oral testimony, and aim for maximum transparency with regard to the interview transcripts, indicating, for example, where the order has been changed to aid comprehension. This was very welcome, emphasizing the intrinsically interpretative nature of the editing process which, even if it was undertaken for entirely practical reasons, in itself exposes the fallacy of direct mediation. But at the same time it did also reveal what was lost in that process, and on a couple of occasions I was left wishing for unedited transcript.

The other thing I felt was missing was analysis. I don’t mean this in a negative way, as the book is essentially a collection of primary source material. But having heard Jehanne Gheith speak at AAASS (as it was then) a few years ago, and read her article, ‘“I never talked”: enforced silence, non-narrative memory, and the Gulag,’ Mortality, 12.2 (2007), 159-75, I know she interprets her material in really interesting ways. I hope more of that will come soon.

  • Anne Applebaum, Gulag Voices: An Anthology (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011)
  • Jehanne M. Gheith and Katherine R. Jolluck, Gulag Voices: Oral Histories of Soviet Incarceration and Exile (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)
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