Keeping Faith with the Party

I’ve been working on my research project on narratives of imprisonment, hard labour and exile for several years now, and am at last making concrete progress with my book. While I’m completing it, I plan to use the blog to organize my notes by writing short reflection pieces on primary and secondary sources as I read or re-read them – not reviews as such, as my main aim is to clarify my own thoughts. So, first up, admittedly for the somewhat random reason that I felt like reading it, rather than because it pertains most immediately to my current plans for chapter revisions, is:

Nanci Adler, Keeping Faith with the Party: Communist Believers Return from the Gulag (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012)

Adler coverThis is a necessary book for me because in its focus on questions of memory and testimony in the context of political belief systems, it addresses the very significant question of how the experience of the Gulag differs from that of the Nazi concentration camps. The existence of ‘official’ narratives publicizing the work of labour camps (notably the White Sea Canal book) and loyalist narratives such as those by Boris Diakov and Georgy Shelest disrupts our understanding of Gulag writing as a primarily ‘dissident’ literary mode. The studies that have already addressed these texts, Cynthia Ruder’s Making History for Stalin  (University Press of Florida, 1998) and Dariusz Tolczyk’s See no Evil (Yale University Press, 1999), although interesting in many ways, do not really integrate this phenomenon into the camp writing tradition. Adler’s book does not do so either, but this is because she uses narratives (and oral histories) to examine her subjects’ perception of events, rather than looking at them as narratives, which is my focus. Nevertheless, her analysis of communism as a faith system is useful in highlighting, for example, the ability of belief to survive contradictory evidence, the conception of the individual as less important than the larger whole, or the means justifying the ends, and the tendency to absolve the party of responsibility (in a sense the individual here comes back into play, but as a scapegoat, effectively confirming his or her insignificant status in relation to the party).

These factors are no doubt significant, and yet in some ways they seem to me insufficient to explain the tenacity of belief in communism amongst some of its victims. It suggests that faith is inviolable, which is clearly not true. Faith is frequently accompanied by doubt; some people lose faith when faced with circumstances that challenge their beliefs, and that certainly happened to some communists. What made those who held onto their beliefs different? Was their belief in some way different, not allowing space for doubt? In which case was it fanaticism rather than faith? Or was it simply a matter of different personality types? And how many (or what proportion of) party members continued to believe despite their own victimization? Adler discusses some cases of communists who lost faith much later, even though it had survived the Gulag, but I didn’t really find an answer to those questions – probably because there is probably no more concrete answer (or statistics) to be found here than in relation to any faith system. Perhaps more comparison with people who did lose their faith would have helped in this regard.

What did come across strongly was the sincerity of many of her subjects – an important consideration, as popular perceptions of the Gulag tend to assume that all those who supported it were mendacious. This was evidently not the case, despite the massive corruption in the system. At the same time, insincerity is reintroduced through the more practical explanations for maintaining belief, most significantly the fact that party membership remained the only viable route to self-advancement. This became especially important for those struggling with material difficulties and limited job prospects when they returned from the Gulag. But can this group of convicts and ex-convicts in any way be described as believers?

So the picture that emerges from from Adler’s study is, unsurprisingly, one of mixed motives, and although the cases she examines are very interesting in themselves – and the book is worth reading for these alone – overall I was left slightly unsatisfied. I suspect that is because it doesn’t quite get beyond the position of an outsider looking in. But for insiders, one can see how it makes sense. For instance, Yuri Trifonov’s novel Disappearance (1987 – unfinished and unpublished during the author’s lifetime, but probably one of the best novels about the purges) gives us a typically subtle insight into the mentalities of that period. The main adult characters facing arrest, the Bayukov brothers – old Bolsheviks based on the author’s father and uncle – and their friends, including an ageing former prosecutor who has fallen out of favour with the rise of Andrei Vyshinsky, have little comprehension of why the purges are taking place and whether those arrested really are enemies. But they understand one thing quite clearly: they showed no mercy to the enemies of the revolution during the civil war, and they in turn expect none to be shown to them. What matters is the continued existence, and ultimate success, of the whole enterprise, so not only can others be sacrificed to the greater good, one also accepts one’s own sacrifice when necessary.

What is remarkable – and Adler notes this several times – is that it didn’t seem to occur to anyone to ask whether (or why) such sacrifices were truly necessary, and what sort of party would demand them, or, to reformulate it in the language of the Thaw, would make such ‘mistakes’? This ultimately brings us back to the question I end up emphasizing repeatedly in my Russian Thought classes about the de-centring of the self, and the fact that the liberal subject has practically no place in Russian philosophy – does it make any substantial appearance outside Herzen’s thought? So in a sense examining the whole question of adherence to a collective ideal at the expense of the self is perhaps addressing the wrong issue, as this could be seen as the norm rather than the exception.

In saying this I have no wish to downplay Adler’s achievement. Her research is very sound and she has unearthed some fascinating stories that shed new light on the experience of the Gulag. But for me the failure to get entirely to grips with this aspect of the subject raises significant questions, not least because of the centrality of conceptions of identity to some of my own recent articles on labour camp narratives (this post contains a link to one example), and to my book. So what is not said here gives me as much food for thought as what is.

Discovering Ivy Litvinov

A post for Women’s History Month

A few weeks ago whilst preparing for my final-year undergraduate Dostoevsky class I plucked an old translation from my shelf that I’d bought a couple of years previously at the Amnesty shop in Shoreditch boxpark. I’d barely looked at it before – I tend to collect old Dostoevsky translations more out of habit than anything else – but I was very surprised when I opened it to see that it was translated by Ivy Litvinov, the British wife of the Soviet diplomat. Beyond the facts that Maxim Litvinov had lived in London prior to the revolution and had acquired a wife in the process – which had registered during research Lenin for my Russians in London project – I knew nothing at all about Ivy Litvinov, so I was intrigued, and sat down to read her translation of ‘Skvernyi anekdot’. It has the title ‘Most Unfortunate’, which didn’t convince me at first, although the more I think about it, the more it seems like a suitably idiomatic English expression that reflects not so much the period when she was translating (the 1950s), but, as is so often the case with expats, her previous life in Britain, which she had left in the early twenties, with only irregular visits thereafter.

The translation itself really impressed me, which is not something one can often say about that era; of those published in Britain, David Magarshak’s translations for Penguin are remarkable mainly for making Dostoevsky, Gogol, Goncharov and Chekhov sound exactly the same, while those produced by the various foreign language presses in the Soviet Union at the time are generally even worse, ranging from the merely laboured to the grossly inaccurate. Litvinov, on the other hand, captures the verbose pomposity and humour of Dostoevsky’s narrative in a rather stylish and readable manner.

I started to scan my shelves and discovered this was not the only translation by Ivy Litvinov I owned – I also had some Chekhov, and Alexei Tolstoi’s three-volume Ordeal – the latter given to me as a joke by a friend when I decided to study Russian at university. A quick search of the SSEES library catalogue, Amazon and Abe Books revealed several more, as well as some of her original works, and as no such thing is available elsewhere, I have compiled a list which I hope will encourage people to seek out her work. I’d be grateful for any additions or corrections. There are certainly a few short works published in Russian that I haven’t yet managed to track down.

There are a couple of websites that give some details of Ivy Litvinov’s life (the best comes from a family member, while there are a few interesting details here), but the best source is undoubtedly the affectionate but clear-sighted biography by John Carswell, The Exile: A Life of Ivy Litvinov (Faber, 1983). I don’t therefore intend to present her biography in enormous detail here, but will just give the outlines.

She was born Ivy Therese Low on 4 June 1889. Her parents were Walter Low, the son of a Jewish immigrant from central Europe, and Alice Baker, the daughter of an officer in the Indian army. Walter died when Ivy was only five years old, and her mother remarried a medieval scholar who worked at the British library and eventually became Assistant Keeper of books. After a fairly unhappy childhood – the present step-father as despised as much as the absent father was adored – in which Ivy drifted towards more intellectually broad-minded relatives, she ended up working at the Prudential offices in Holborn, and began her writing career. Her first novel, Growing Pains (Heinemann, 1913), published at the age of 23, exhibited the autobiographical streak that is apparent in much of her best writing, and the same is true of her second (rather racy) novel, The Questing Beast, which, according to Carswell (p. 72), is one of the first novels to depict women in office life. The first book is difficult to get hold of now, but the second has been published as an ebook.

Ivy Litvinov, Moscow, 1920s

Ivy Litvinov, Moscow, 1920s

It was through her relatives in 1916 that she met Maxim Litvinov, who was then living in London, as many of the Bolshevik revolutionaries did at one point or another (see my post on Lenin in London). The story of their courtship and marriage is given fictional treatment in her rather wonderful 1969 short story ‘Call it Love’ – a highly evocative depiction of London in that era as well as of the tentative romance between two strangely unmatched people from very different backgrounds. The story ‘Early Days’ (1973) gives a more straightforwardly autobiographical account of the same events (Carswell, p. 81). Maxim Litvinov stayed in London after the revolution as a quasi-diplomat – holding meetings on benches in St James’s park – but was arrested in September 1918 in retaliation for the arrest in Moscow of Bruce Lockhart, and after 6 weeks in Brixton prison was exchanged for the the British agent. Ivy stayed in London with their two children, Misha (later the father of the dissident Pavel Litvinov) and Tania (who later became a renowned English to Russian translator, as well as collaborating with her mother on many Russian to English translations).

The family was reunited in Moscow in 1922, and although there were trips abroad, mainly to Europe but also accompanying her husband to Washington DC when he was made Soviet ambassador during the war, Ivy remained in the Soviet Union for more or less the next fifty years, despite never converting to the cause politically. Her relationship with Maxim was rather bumpy. There were numerous affairs, mainly Ivy’s, who was clearly fairly adventurous; for example, Carswell (p. 119) quotes a letter with pretty frank description of an orgy with a lover and his friends in Hamburg in 1928. There were also periods of separation from her husband, including a stint in self-imposed exile in Sverdlovsk in the late thirties when the purges were at their height and things were looking most dangerous for Maxim. But whatever else was going on, there was clearly a lasting loyalty there, and they remained a couple throughout.

Basic Step by Step, by Ivy Litvinov

Basic Step by Step, English language textbook by Ivy Litvinov

Although she had produced a few short pieces, Ivy made a more serious attempt to resurrect her writing career later in the twenties and even underwent hypnotism to help her. The eventual result, published by Heinemann in 1930 under her maiden name, was His Master’s Voice (later published in the States as A Moscow Mystery), a somewhat Agatha Christie-ish murder story set in the shadow of the Kremlin. I’m reading this at the moment and have to say that while I’m enjoying the local colour (which her British publishers saw as unmarketable at the time), I don’t think it’s as accomplished as her later short stories. Writing mystery novels certainly didn’t become a habit, and in the thirties Ivy became more involved with English language pedagogy, producing several text books, readers and dictionaries, and promoting C. K. Ogden’s Basic English programme.

It was after Maxim’s death in 1951 that Ivy turned to translation, and during that decade she kept up a phenomenal work rate, translating, either on her own or with her daughter Tatiana, around 25 novels and collections of stories, plus a couple of critical works. And to judge from the ones I have read so far, they are worth seeking out – Carswell makes very little of her translation work in the biography, but in fact I think this is one of her most significant contributions. In the sixties she also began to write short stories again – some fictional and some as part of her ‘sorterbiography’ (rather more interesting in terms of their form than the straightforward memoirs many people probably wish she had written) – which were published mainly in the New Yorker from 1966.

In 1960 she made her first extended visit to Britain for many years, but returned to the Soviet Union because of her family. However, in 1972 she returned to Britain permanently, living in Hove, actually, until her death in 1977. By this stage part of her family was already in the west, including her granddaughter Vera and her husband Valery Chalidze (whose 1977 book Criminal Russia has proved very useful to my research recently) and, later, Pavel Litvinov and his wife and children. Tatiana – ironically entitled to a British passport because of her father’s lack of official diplomatic status when she was born (Carswell, p. 200) – eventually came to join her mother in 1976.

I recommend the stories Ivy Litvinov published in the sixties and seventies, and strongly disagree with the verdict of Samuel Lipman who, in an extended review of Carswell’s biography, dismisses them as ‘a stale rehash of old memories of an England now forgotten or a retelling of scene from Russian life better done by native practitioners’ (Music and More: Essays, 1975-1991, Northwestern University Press, 1992, p. 276). Certainly in the British-set stories, there is a sense of a life that had disappeared by the time of writing, but for stories set in that period, as in the case of ‘Call it Love’, it is entirely appropriate. In the case of the Russian tales, I think she does have a new and different perspective.

she knew she was rightProbably because of my main research interest, what has really struck me about some of these stories is the persistent presence of the Gulag. This gives her depictions of often very mundane situations a traumatic underpinning that occasionally reminds me of the later short stories of Vasily Grossman. At times this has a really unsettling effect, as in the story ‘Apartheid’ (1970), in which a bourgeois couple rent a dacha for the summer and initially try to keep their children away from the ‘potentially undesirable’ granddaughter of their landlady who lives round the back, and who is equally reluctant to let the children mix. But they play together anyway, so attempts to separate them are abandoned. However, once they have invited the little girl, Milochka, into their dacha, the parents are horrified when she starts prattling on about Magadan, and they realize her mother must be in a labour camp in Kolyma. An uncanny effect is created by the jarring discrepancy between Milochka’s positive references (‘In Magadan we had cream with our kasha…’) and what the parents and readers know. This sense is intensified by Milochka’s gradual appropriation of all her playmates’ toys and their habit of parroting her explanations (”Milochka says…’), so that this small child becomes a very sinister figure, who infiltrates their family through her ideological domination of the children, and forces the adults to contemplate aspects of life they wish to ignore.

‘Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, Where Have You Been?’ is not as successful, but this curious tale which submerges the story of a camp survivor within an animal fable contains a similar theme. It reminded me of one of the subjects in Jehanne Gheith’s oral history work with Gulag survivors – a former prisoner who named his dog Stalin and, by caring for it on a daily basis, went through a process of ‘non-narrative healing or repair’ (J. M. Gheith, ‘”I never talked”: enforced silence, non-narrative memory and the Gulag’, Mortality 12.2 (2007), p. 171). In Litvinov’s story, the cat, acting as the one point of continuity between the past and the present, represents both a comfort and the threat of exposure, which for me exemplifies the ambivalence of the Soviet experience.

There are other stories that address the Gulag theme, such as ‘Bright Shores’, and I may write about those at a later date. I am persuaded that Ivy Litvinov is worth reading as a writer and as a translator. I hope this post will encourage others to read her and contribute to her emergence from the obscurity she has never entirely managed to escape.

Four short links: digitized 20th-century collections

Ovod (The Gadfly), 1906

Ovod (The Gadfly), 1906

In the last few days I’ve come across a couple of nice collections of digitized early 20th century Russian journals and books, reminding me of what great resources there are out there, freely available to read and in some cases reuse (which does beg the question of why so many other things are locked away and unusable – at SSEES we’re lucky that the library has been investing in quite significantly in digital collections recently, but access to these materials ought not to be a matter of luck). Anyway, for our enjoyment and delectation, and possible future research, we have:

1. The Russian State Public Historical Library’s collection of 145 Russian Futurist books. Includes works by Burliuk, Goncharova, Kamensky, Kruchnykh, Mayakovsky, Khlebnikov and others. More Russian avant-garde books are available from the Getty Museum’s web page for the 2009 exhibition Tango with Cows.

2. Russians without Russia: press archive of emigré journals. 21 stunning emigré journals in excellent reproductions, downloadable as single pages.

3. Russian political satire at the Digital Public Library of America. Some fabulous titles here, collated from various collections. It’s not immediately obvious how to get to the full content, but if you click on the image, then on the eye icon, you’ll be transferred to the appropriate page.

4. It’s not remotely in the same league as the others visually, but SovLit’s list of early Soviet journals has much to recommend it, not least the full text (and in plain text – joy!) of a number of titles, including Novyi LEF (New LEF) and Kuznitsa (The Forge).

The image is taken from the front cover of Ovod (The Gadfly), 1 (1906), from the library of the University of South California. It is reproduced under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 licence.

Bedtime reading

A fit of nostalgia following the recent death of the actor Lewis Collins has seen me revisiting old episodes of The Professionals, which was probably the first grown-up TV series I watched as a kid. It’s very entertaining, not least in the way it confounds expectations. The default position may be causal sexism, for instance (and much of it is appalling), but then suddenly there’s a surprisingly sensitive discussion about the challenges of being a lesbian in the police force. Equally unexpected are the high-brow cultural references. I was taken aback when Waiting for Godot was mentioned in an early episode, but nothing prepared me for Doyle’s bedtime reading in episode 9 of the first series, When the Heat Cools Off.

The Professionals, series 1, episode 9: bedtime reading

The Professionals, series 1, episode 9: bedtime reading

Yes folks, that is a copy of Zhores Medvedev’s Ten Years After Ivan Denisovich. The episode, which reveals something of Doyle’s backstory in the police, revolves around the reinvestigation of a case in which a man may (or may not) have been wrongly imprisoned, so this may explain the choice of reading matter. It’s a reminder, as well, of what a high profile Solzhenitsyn had in the seventies – even my parents had a copy of the Gulag Archipelago on their shelves, despite having no noticeable interest in Russian literature or Soviet politics. But while one might perhaps have expected to see a copy of Ivan Denisovich itself, the Medvedev book seems to me to be on a different level altogether. Is this the most obscure cultural reference ever to appear in a popular TV programme? Answers on a postcard please.

The Crocodile: a Preface

Regular readers will know that The Crocodile is one of my favourite works by Dostoevsky, because of its connections to the Crystal Palace as well as its humour. But it was only a couple of weeks ago, while I was preparing a class on the story, that I got round to reading the fake “Editorial Preface” that accompanied its original publication in Dostoevsky’s journal The Epoch. I don’t know why this is not normally published with the story – it’s hidden away at the back of volume 5 of the 30-volume Complete Works (pp. 344-6), and I’ve not seen it included in other editions – but I think it’s brilliant. It’s a rambling masterpiece of pomposity and equivocation, but also, in raising the question of the attribution and veracity of the story, it acts as a hilarious addition to the parody of knowledge that is so central to The Crocodile itself. So I decided to translate it (I admit, this was a displacement activity – I had a set of essays that needed marking), and because I’ve not had time to publish many posts recently, here it is. The translation is somewhat rough and ready, and I’d be grateful for any suggestions for improvements. The original text can be found at the end of this version.

The Crocodile: An Editorial Preface

The editors are surprised to print this almost incredible story only because perhaps somehow all of it really did happen. The story explains that a gentleman of a certain age and a certain appearance was swallowed whole by a crocodile located in the Passazh arcade, and that he not only remained alive, but even lived in the bowels of the crocodile unharmed and, apparently, willingly for two weeks; that he was, during this time, visited by vacuous members of the public inclined to amusements, that he entered into conversation with visitors, fussed about his pension, often changed direction (both physically, i.e., turning from side to side, and morally, in terms of his behaviour) and, towards the very end, from idleness and frustration, became a philosopher. Such dreadful piffle would, of course, be unnatural, if the extremely sincere tone of the author had not inclined the editors in his favour. Besides which, almost all the newspaper articles, even poems and furious polemics, that appeared on account of the swallowed gentleman, were cited in the greatest detail. All this rubbish was delivered to the editors by Mr. Fyodor Dostoevsky, a close associate and member of the editorial board, but the real author of the story remains unknown. One day, while Mr. Dostoevsky was away from home (on business not germane to the reader) some unknown person turned up at his apartment and left on his table a manuscript with a short letter from himself, but without a signature. In this letter he briefly but pompously recommends his work and asks for it to be made public by publishing it in “The Epoch”. Since the story was also not signed by anybody, the editors authorized Fyodor Dostoevsky, for the sake of appearances, to sign it with his name, and at the same time, by way of justice, to invent a decent pseudonym for the unknown author. Thus, the unknown author was named Semyon Strizhov, for some unknown reason. As for Mr. Dostoevsky, he eagerly signed his name, justly arguing that if the public liked the story it would be better for him, because they would think he’d written it, but if the public didn’t like it, he would only have to say he didn’t write it and that would be the end of it.

The editors, however, do not conceal from the public one very important fact, namely, no matter how they tried, how much they sought at least something that might shed some light on the unheard of incident in the Passazh, nothing helped! No-one, absolutely no-one had heard or read a word about anything even remotely similar to it, although it turned out that many people went to see crocodiles in the Passazh. In short, to the great regret and annoyance of the editors, there turned out to be no gentleman whatsoever who had been swallowed alive. The editors tried to find the newspapers issues and articles mentioned by the author, but to their surprise, quickly realized that newspapers with such names do not exist. In such an emergency only one possibility remained: to believe it all and decide, albeit reluctantly, but at the same time in all honesty, that the stranger who had revealed the manuscript could not be lying, and therefore everything reported by him was truthful. This we did, but right here we consider it our duty to declare that if, by chance, it all turns out to be a lie and not the truth, then there has never been a more incredible lie in our literature, except perhaps that famous case when a certain Major Kovalyov’s own nose one morning escaped from his face and later went for a stroll in the Tauride Gardens and down Nevsky in full dress uniform with a feather in his hat. In any case the editors would very much like the public to believe it all, for if they don’t believe it, it means they’re accusing the editors of lying, which would be disagreeable.

And yet, we say sincerely, although not without some embarrassment, there are people, even among the editors, who have opposed us heatedly for deciding to believe such (supposedly) arrant mystification. This minority has furiously accused us, despite us doing everything required of us to vindicate such an incredible occurrence in the eyes of the public. Not sufficiently appreciating our efforts, they screamed, obviously missing the point, that the unknown person’s story is not only contrary to the natural sciences, but even anatomy, that it’s impossible for a crocodile to swallow a person of a certain age, perhaps seven vershoks tall and, most importantly, educated, etc., etc. – you don’t need to read all their clamour, it’s not worth it, especially since the majority vote was in favour of the editors, and it’s already been decided there’s nothing better than the principle of the majority vote for establishing the truth. Nevertheless the editors, to fulfil their duty in all good faith, bent their ears to these interjections. Immediately four permanent members were commissioned from their midst to find the truth in the Passazh. They were all required to enter the crocodile room as a collective, acquaint themselves with the crocodiles and search everything themselves on the spot. On the commission were both secretaries to the editorial board, with and without portfolio, a critic and a novelist. Sparing no expense, the editors gave each of them a quarter-ruble to pay for their entrance to the crocodile room. All the quarter-rubles comprised the inalienable property of the editors and were acquired by them through legal means, without any kind of intervention from any other editors whatsoever.

The members of the commission came back just an hour later in the greatest indignation. Moreover, they did not even want to talk to us, probably from frustration, and all looked in different directions. Finally won over by the strenuously tender attentions of the editors, they agreed to break their silence and announced directly, but quite rudely all the same, that the editors had no business sending them to the Passazh, that the whole absurdity of it was apparent at first glance, that a crocodile could not swallow a person whole, but that, who knows, perhaps it could somehow happen. This sharp and even, one might say, one-sided verdict alarmed the editors in earnest. Nevertheless, it was all very soon definitively settled. In the first place, if “perhaps it could somehow happen”, then that means it really could have happened, and secondly, according to the research of the former commission it turned out to be clear that the unknown person’s story was not talking about those famous crocodiles now being shown in the Passazh at all, but some other, foreign crocodile that was also apparently shown in the Passazh, that lived there for three or four weeks, and, as is clear from the story, was taken back to his homeland in Germany. This latter crocodile could, of course, have been bigger and more capacious than the two crocodiles there now, and, consequently, why shouldn’t he have been able to swallow a gentleman of a certain age, and educated to boot?

Such reasoning finally resolved all the editors’ perplexity. The main thing was that they triumphantly vindicated the story and could print it, although they could have managed quite well without it, already having a sufficient set of articles and exactly the number of pages that had originally been promised to the public for each issue of “The Epoch”. But, not constrained by this promise, the editors added those superfluous pages. If we’ve already let “superfluous men” out into the world, why should it not come to pass that a magazine can also have superfluous pages?


The version does not include the letter that supposedly accompanied the manuscript, but it appears in the Complete Works (p. 346):

Письмо неизвестного сочинителя к Ф. Достоевскому

Милостивый государь, спешу сообщить Вам, как члену редакции журнала “Эпоха”, историю об одном из самых необыкновенных и даже, смею сказать, невероятных событий, которое может обогатить оригинальностью не только одну вашу “Эпоху”, но даже и всю нашу эпоху. Прошу вас немедленно предать его гласности.

Неизвестный сочинитель

Letter from an unknown writer to F. Dostoevsky

Sir, I hasten to inform you, as a member of the editorial board of “The Epoch”, of a story about one of the most extraordinary and even, dare I say, incredible incidents that may enhance the originality not only of your “Epoch”, but even of our entire epoch. I ask you to publish it immediately.

An unknown writer

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.

New article: Knowing Russia’s Convicts

This week has finally seen the publication of my article ‘Knowing Russia’s Convicts: the Other in Narratives of Imprisonment and Exile in the Late Imperial Era’ in Europe-Asia Studies. It’s a special issue based on the Villains and Victims workshop which I wrote about previously, and it contains some great articles that really reflect what an amazing event that was.

My contribution, comparing attitudes to peasant convicts in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead, Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island and Kennan’s Siberia and the Exile System, relating particularly to the question of knowledge, represents my first shift backwards from Gulag narratives into pre-revolutionary prison/exile texts, which has subsequently generated a whole new approach to the subject. Some ideas relating to that will appear in an essay in a forthcoming collection based on last year’s workshop on prison experience in Russian culture, and I’m working on a book manuscript that will eventually bring everything together.

For readers who do not have institutional access to Europe-Asia Studies, click here for a free e-print – I have 50 of these to give away and will remove the link once they’ve all gone.

Update (July 2014): thanks to an agreement between UCL and Taylor & Francis, this article is now open access.

“Russians” in Lewes

Last weekend I visited Lewes to give a lecture on Crime and Punishment at the Lewes Little Theatre, ahead of their forthcoming production of the novel, which opens on 12 October. I had a wonderful time, with a very appreciative and knowledgeable audience, and really interesting discussions with the cast and production team, whose perspectives on Crime and Punishment were thought-provoking in all sorts of ways.

Monument to the prisoners of the Crimean War, Lewes

Monument to the prisoners of the Crimean War, Lewes

During our visit, Miles Jenner, the director of the play and head brewer at Harveys (brewer, among other fine products, of the Tsar of all the Beers, Imperial Extra Double Stout), took us into the atmospheric and rather overgrown churchyard next to the Little Theatre to show us the monument erected in 1877, on the order of Tsar Alexander II, to honour twenty-one “Russian” prisoners from the Crimean War who died in captivity in Lewes between 1854 and 1856. The Lewes Naval Prison held around 350 prisoners of war, whilst officers were paroled in the town. Conditions were apparently pretty good for the prisoners, who were allowed to go for walks on the Downs, and took up making wooden toys and puzzles, which they sold to the townsfolk, becoming rather well off – they certainly had enough money to make the Tsar’s easter gift of sixpence each for the prisoners to buy hot cross buns look somewhat insignificant. After the soldiers were repatriated at the end of the war, the Senior Constable of Lewes received a letter thanking the townspeople for their kindness and good treatment of the prisoners.

Plaque on the site of the Lewes Naval Prison

Plaque on the site of the Lewes Naval Prison

It’s an interesting story in itself (and my thanks to Miles for providing the details), but it has another curious aspect, in that the soldiers weren’t Russian at all, but mainly Swedish and Finnish, as the names on the monument attest. Obviously the Grand Duchy of Finland was part of the Russian Empire in the 19th century, and this article from the Telegraph on the recent refurbishment of the monument explains that the prisoners were captured as part of an attack on the Åland Islands in 1854 that was intended to stop the Russian Empire making use of its Baltic fleet during the Crimean War. So it’s both Russian and not. [updated on 29 September 2013 shortly after initial posting.]

The monument was restored by the Soviet government in 1957, “At the instance of the Friends of Lewes Society,” as one of the panels informs us – the slightly antagonistic tone framing this as a minor intervention in the Cold War. So there’s a story there as well, and it makes me wonder how many places have these curious little Russian connections. Time to turn Russians in London into Russians in Britain?

Photographs by John Levin, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

New publications: the spatial turn

I have a couple of recent publications to announce. The first is on Shalamov: ‘Mapping Space as Factography: Human Traces and Negated Genres in Varlam Shalamov’s Kolymskie rasskazy,’ Slavonica, 19.1 (April 2013), 1-17 ) (£). The second, co-authored with John Levin, is  ‘Mapping Machines: Transformations of the Petersburg Text’, The Spatial Turn in Literary StudiesPrimerjalna književnost (Comparative Literature) 36.2 (2013). The latter is the first publication of research from our Mapping St Petersburg project, and you can read a bit more about this and other developments on the site (including some new maps of Crime and Punishment that we discuss in the article) here.

The two articles relate to very different projects, and for a long time the different strands of my research seemed largely unconnected beyond the significance of Dostoevsky to both, or all of them, and I’ve often worried about my research lacking coherence for that reason. But increasingly I see how recurring themes and ideas are bringing aspects of my work together in rather unexpected ways. One such theme is performance, which was fairly central to my book Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot’ and the Ethical Foundations of Narrative. In quite a different context, it’s the subject of a forthcoming article comparing the representation of criminals in nineteenth- and twentieth-century prison/hard labour narratives, appearing in a collection of essays based on papers from last year’s conference on Russian prison experience in Uppsala. I’m also currently working on an article about Petersburg narratives that also focuses on motifs of performance, developing a paper I gave at the BASEES conference last year.

That article on Petersburg will also link the question of performance to the spatial dimension, which is another major preoccupation, and central to both new publications. Clearly Mapping St Petersburg is based on ideas about the exploration of space in literary texts, but until recently it hadn’t really registered as a significant aspect of my katorga/Gulag research. That may seem surprising, given the importance of Siberia to the  project, but most of my ideas have in fact dealt with questions of interiority and identity, and geography has generally played a lesser role than I expected.

My Shalamov article changes that somewhat. It addresses two aspects of the spatial dimension of Kolyma Tales that both derive from the loss of the sense of time in the camps: the network created by the non-chronological arrangement of the stories and the connections between tales that are distant from each other in both time and space; and the uses of space as a metaphor for writing, notably in the recurring motif of surveying and mapping the Kolyma region. To develop these questions further (and investigate the connections with my other project in more detail), I’m thinking about network visualizations of the stories, and currently working on a map to interrogate the geography of Shalamov’s stories, However, progress is slow, as some of the camps and places he mentions are proving very elusive (if anyone can provide any information on the location of Chernaia rechka – a camp in Kolyma, not the area in Petersburg where Pushkin had his duel – I’d be enormously grateful).

Two more articles are imminent: one on seeing trauma in Vasily Grossman’s late work, from the Oxford conference marking the BBC’s production of Life and Fate, and a long-awaited one on conceptions of peasant convicts in katorga narratives, from the Villains and Victims conference in Nottingham. More on these when they appear.

Top ten fictional writers in Russian literature

The Guardian’s list of the 10 best writers in novels is so patently rubbish (two each entries for Martin Amis and Stephen King!?) that I feel compelled to respond with my own round-up of fictional writers in Russian literature. The usual rule applies: no more than one work per author. On the basis that he makes it onto the Guardian list, I have excluded Charles Kinbote from Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

10. Elena Gan, The Ideal.  Gan’s 1837 society tale contains a brilliant portrait of a cynical Petersburg poet, Anatoly Borisovich. We see him the eyes of the normally level-headed Olga, as she becomes first infatuated and then disillusioned with him. Gan is one of several female 19th-century Russian writers who deserves to be far better known than she is.

9. Ivan Panaev, The Petersburg Feuilletonist. Included in Nikolai Nekrasov’s famous 1845 almanac The Physiology of Petersburg, Panaev’s sketch is a slightly heavy-handed, but witty depiction of the rise and fall of the most Peterburgian of literary figures. Replete with references to fashionable Petersburg life, it represents the most self-reflexive piece in a collection based on the idea of self-reflection, as the sketch-writer is typified to become the subject of a sketch himself.

8. Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago. I have to admit I’m not a great fan of Pasternak’s prose, which rather too often feels like wading through soup, but one cannot deny that his mystically-inclined poet-hero is a classic depiction of a writer in his time.

7. Nikolai Leskov, Cathedral Clergy. Archpriest Tuberozov’s journal takes up a significant proportion of part I of Leskov’s chronicle. It is a wonderful depiction of his struggles against the various opponents he faces (both old believers and free thinkers), as well as giving insight into his character and to his surprisingly tender relationship with his wife.

6. Kharms, Starukha. Possibly the least successful writer on the list, the narrator of Starukha can write only one sentence of his story: ‘The miracle-worker was tall.’ He also loses the ability to understand time and is incapable of managing the task of narrating the story of what is happening to him. | English translation

5. Evgeny Zamyatin, We. D-503 begins his journal, which forms the entire novel, in order to praise the OneState. As much as it charts his flirtation with rebellion, the journal reveals the development of his imagination, and the process of him becoming a writer.

4. Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time. I have in mind Pechorin’s journal, a superb mixture of honesty and cynicism that keeps on playing with our perception of the extent of his self-knowledge. But the novel as a whole is important because of its multiple narrators and chronological shifts, which show remarkable understanding of the potential of the novelistic form before it had properly established in Russian literature. | English translation

3. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. As usual with Dostoevsky, there are multiple possible entries here: the underground man’s endless confession; Raskolnikov’s article; Ippolit in The Idiot; the hilarious chronicler of Demons, or the writer Karmazinov, a vicious caricature of Turgenev, in the same novel; Arkady Dolgoruky in The Adolescent... In the end I felt I had to go for Ivan Karamazov, because his story, The Grand Inquisitor, has taken on a life of its own. Has any other story-within-a-story gained so much currency in its own right? Both that text and Ivan’s article on ecclesiastical courts play central roles in framing the novel’s philosophical debates that perhaps ultimately overshadow their author within the text. | Russian text: part 1 | part 2 | part 3| part 4

2. Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita. The Master’s novel about Pilate and Yeshua is itself significantly influenced by Ivan Karamazov’s story, and as in The Brothers Karamazov, the author of the inserted narrative receives little attention in comparison with his work. The Master’s self-effacement means that he is less memorable than many of the other characters in the novel, and that his status as a broken, tragic figure is often undermined.

1. Nikolai Ostrovsky, How the Steel was Tempered. I regularly denounce this book in my early Soviet literature classes as being monumentally badly written and  cliched, and I stand by that. But as a writer-hero, Pavel Korchagin takes some beating: blind and paralysed, but determined to continue to serve the revolution, he dictates his autobiographical novel, only for the sole copy to be lost in the post. So he writes it again. | English translation: part 1 | part 2

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