Women in the Gulag

I always welcome new contributions to the study of the Gulag, particularly (because it is a dimension that remains much less explored than the history) those that focus on personal experiences of the Soviet labour camp system and the writings associated with it, so I was looking forward to reading Paul R. Gregory’s Women of the Gulag: Portraits of Five Remarkable Lives (Hoover Institution Press, 2013). It’s interesting because the book is related to a documentary project and follows the survivors and their children, but the book itself came as something of a surprise and disappointment as so little of it rests upon experience of the labour camp system. Instead, Gregory informs us, ‘the Gulag refers to a state of mind – to the knowledge that anyone and everyone could be shot, jailed or exiled as the victim of mass insanity and hysteria originating from somewhere above.’ (p. viii) In fact, the Gulag per se forms a central part of only one of the five stories. In two other cases it features only in the ‘aftermath’ chapter (just over one page is devoted to Agnessa’s imprisonment for black marketeering, and Adile’s deportation to Kazakhtstan is covered in two pages), while of the other two women included, Evgeniia Ezhova committed suicide before she could be arrested, and Fekla’s family was deported to a special settlement as kulaks – a traumatic experience that affected her subsequent life in many ways, but in a somewhat different way from that of imprisonment. So the Gulag does not actually appear to be the subject of the book at all, and because of the presentation of the lives specifically as stories rather than objects of research, no space is devoted to comparing the different types of experience.

This focus away from the labour camps may in itself be significant, given the tendency of many memoirists to devote far less attention to the years of hard labour than they do to the months of imprisonment (Evgeniia Ginzburg is a case in point), which can be related to Gorianchikov’s reflection in Notes from the House of the Dead that:

Записывать ли всю эту жизнь, все мои годы в остроге? Не думаю. Если писать по порядку, кряду, все, что случилось и что я видел и испытал в эти годы, можно было, разумеется, еще написать втрое, вчетверо больше глав, чем до сих пор написано. Но такое описание поневоле станет наконец слишком однообразно. Все приключения выйдут слишком в одном и том же тоне (pt 2, ch 9)
Am I to describe the whole of that life, all of my years in prison? I think not. If I were to write down in ordered sequence everything that happened, everything I saw and experienced during those years, I would of course end up writing three or four times the number of chapters I have already written. In the end, such a description would become monstrous. All the events could come out sounding the same. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead, trans. D. McDuff (Penguin, 2003), p. 339

But this at least should be a subject for reflection, not an excuse to avoid the main issue.

Equally problematic is the choice of the five women whose stories make up the book, as all five women came into contact with the Gulag or the Terror because of their husbands or families. ‘Family members’ did indeed account for a significant proportion of women arrested and sent to the Gulag or exile in this period, but far from all, and it surely cannot have been impossible to find at least one woman who experienced the repressions as an autonomous individual. Moreover, three of them were married to or related by marriage to high-ranking party officials and NKVD officers. This is a deliberate choice made in order to explore the consequences of the ‘Faustian bargains’ made by such women (p. x), but the domination of this question over others skews the perspective away from more normal experiences of Stalinism, and while I am very interested in Evgeniia Ezhova (Vasiii Grossman’s story about the Ezhov family, ‘Mama’, plays a central role in a forthcoming article in the Journal of European Studies) I would have preferred a wider variety of subjects, including more that could be counted as typical.

I’m slightly mystified by Gregory’s contention that his book is different because of the focus on women. He claims that ‘most belles-lettres on the Gulag, starting with the classic accounts of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov, explore primarily the travails of the men’ (p. x). This ignores a vast amount of material by women, starting with the classic account of Evgeniia Ginzburg (well known long before the publication of Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales), and more recently including two important collections of memoirs: Simeon Vilensky, ed., Till My Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag, trans. John Crowfoot (London: Virago, 1999) – a selective translation of Semen Vilenskii, ed., Dodnes’ tiagoteet: Zapiski vashei sovremennitsy (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel’, 1989) – and Veronica Shapovalov, ed. and trans., Remembering the Darkness: Women in Soviet Prisons (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), which takes its material from the Memorial archives in St Petersburg. Neither of these books makes it onto Gregory’s bibliography, but they offer a far wider perspective on the Gulag experiences of women and will remain my first recommendations.

Remembering the Darkness contains perhaps the most unusual individual story of life in the Gulag, the memoir of Valentina Grigorievna Ievleva-Pavlenko (pp. 317-53). It’s a text that I love teaching because it confounds all my students’ expectations and makes them confront all sorts of questions that many traditional narratives – particularly by women – tend to sweep under the carpet. Eighteen when she was sentenced to six years in the camps, Valentina’s story is one of love and sex in the Gulag. We follow her through a series of affairs as she moves through the camp system, and read of the men who fall in love with her, the thieves and brigade leaders who try to make her their property, the times when she has to pay for favours with her body, or finds ways to avoid doing so, and the jealousy she encounters from other women. It in no way conforms to the standard, uplifting narrative of mutual support and virtuous conduct that we normally associate with women Gulag survivors, which frequently give the impression that sex is an activity the occurs only amongst the most depraved of female criminals but is entirely absent from the lives of political prisoners. The first time I read Ievleva-Pavlenko’s memoir I felt that because it was the most trivial account of the camps I’d come across, she was in fact filling in some of the missing detail from narratives which – as much as I admire them – present self-images of such purity and respectability that one has to suspect they are not telling the whole story. That may well be because of survivors’ reticence about revealing intimate details, rather than any desire to deceive, but in a sense Ievleva-Pavelenko, because she lacks any such scruples, normalizes the Gulag narrative. Hers is not a tale of moral superiority and the triumph of the human spirit, of extraordinary behaviour in extraordinary circumstances, but of the continuation of her normal life; the camp system here is not a space of exception, but simply an extension of everyday life in the Stalin era.

But Ievleva-Pavelenko’s behaviour is unusual in another way, because we repeatedly see her refusal to cooperate – with the interrogation, with the prison rules, and, most strikingly, in refusing to work unless it suited her, even when that resulted in punishment. And while the latter in particular may have derived from a basically self-centred attitude which is hardly admirable in itself, it still demonstrates a spirit of resistance and a startling rejection of the state’s terms of existence that one seldom encounters in Gulag narratives. In a way she remains more firmly outside the system than any prisoner convicted under Article 58 that I’ve come across, and her position perhaps more closely resembles that of the professional criminals (the ‘thieves in the law’). Given the scarcity of sources by members of that fraternity, Valentina’s perspective on labour camp life may be valuable as a proxy that can reveal something of their mentality. So while her memoir may shock my students, and is certainly neither edifying nor moving, in its author’s failure to stick to the rules – of both camp life and survivors’ narratives – it shows aspects of the Gulag that are otherwise largely inaccessible. Sometimes the trivial and ordinary is exactly what we need.

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