Gulag narratives: recommended reading

A short annotated list of recommended narratives about the Gulag (very broadly conceived), both fictional and non-fictional, by survivors and others. It includes a few pre-revolutionary narratives, on the grounds that these texts founded a tradition of writing on prison/exile in Russia and therefore they belong in the same list — sometimes too much categorization doesn’t help. In any case, they’re all worth reading.

This list has now been superseded by my new Gulag bibliography, which will continue to expand and will be extended to include pre-revolutionary works at a later date.

Amalrik, Andrei, Involuntary Journey to Siberia, trans. Manya Harari and Max Hayward (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970). A playwright and dissident first arrested in 1965, Amalrik’s book is about period of exile he spent on a collective farm near Tomsk — an unusual and interesting perspective on an aspect of Soviet life that has received little attention.

Aksyonov, Vassily, The Burn, trans. Michael Glenny (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1984). Aksyonov’s novel is very complex and varied, and to a great extent is about the fragmentation of the personality and moral corruption caused by the legacy of Stalinism. For me it’s mostly interesting for the middle section, which depicts a young boy’s life in Magadan with his mother, who had recently been released from the camps of Kolyma. It’s a reworking of Aksyonov’s own experiences, and creates a very interesting perspective from which to compare his mother Evgenia Ginzburg’s memoirs.

Amis, Martin, House of Meetings (London: Vintage, 2006). A novel about two brothers who both spent years in the Gulag, and the effect it has on their later lives and relationships. I’m not a great fan of Amis (that is something of an understatement!), and was slightly horrified when I discovered he was turning to the labour camp theme, but I was surprised to find this very effective and perceptive. His polemical/historical study of Stalin, Koba the Dread, is also worth reading, though both books have divided opinion.

Bardach, Janusz, and Kathleen Gleeson, Man is Wolf to Man: Surviving the Gulag (London: Simon & Schuster, 1998). Written many years after the events it describes, this is nevertheless an extraordinary, vivid and moving memoir. Bardach, a Jewish Polish prisoner, was sent to Kolyma and worked in logging camps and gold mines, before being released at the end of the war to discover that most of his family had perished in the Holocaust.

Buber-Neumann, Margarete, Under Two Dictators, trans. Edward Fitzgerald (London: Victor Gollancz, 1949). Buber, a member of Comintern and wife of a leading German communist, Heinz Neumann, was arrested in 1937 and incarcerated in the Gulag for three years, before being deported to Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany. Even though her experience in Ravensbruck was relatively privileged, probably because she had renounced communism by this time, the perspective in her book on both camp systems was unique.

Bukovsky, Vladimir, To Build a Castle: My life as a dissenter, trans. Michael Scammell (London: Andre Deutsch, 1978). Sardonic and blackly humorous in its analysis of the absurdities, misworkings and corruption of the Soviet system, this is also a fascinating description of the development of the dissident movement in the 1960s.

Chekhov, AntonSakhalin Island, trans. Brian Reeve (London: Oneworld Classics, 2007). Chekhov visited the penal colony on Sakhalin in 1890 and published this travelogue-cum-research treatise-cum-campaigning text in 1895. The book has been criticized for being obsessed with statistics and lacking the artistry of his other works, but I find it increasingly fascinating.

Chukovskaya, Lydia, Sofia Petrovna, trans. David Floyd (Lodon: Collins Harvill, 1989). Chukovskaya is best known for her memoirs of Anna Akhmatova, but this novella about a woman coping, or rather not coping, with the arrest of her son and the gradual disintegration of her life and her mind, deserves equal attention. The follow-up, Going Under, describes a woman discovering ten years after the arrest of her husband that the ubiquitous sentence ‘ten years without right of correspondence’ meant that he had been executed.

Dostoevsky, FyodorThe House of the Dead, trans. David McDuff (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985) Dostoevsky was arrested for political crimes in 1849 and sentenced to death, commuted to penal servitude. In 1862, having returned to the capital, he published this fictionalized account of his imprisonment, which became one of the foundation texts for the genre of Russian prison/exile memoirs. Russian text

Dovlatov, Sergei, The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard’s Story, trans. Anna Frydman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985). Dovlatov served his military conscription as a camp guard, and The Zone was the result. Like much of his writing, it takes the form of generally quite riotous short stories held together by a central conceit — here, letters to his publisher about the process of writing and publishing the stories of his experience as a camp guard. Dovlatov remains a rather under-rated writer, and I don’t understand why. I think he’s amazing. Russian text

Ginzburg, Evgenia, Into the Whirlwind, trans. Paul Stevenson and and Manya Harari (London: Harvill, 1999), and Within the Whirlwind, trans. Ian Bolland (London: Harvill, 1989). Ginzburg’s memoirs are rightly famous, even if some of the criticisms made of her politics and her gender politics hold true. Her focus on the values of community and friendship in the first volume, and her more personal approach in the second, as she constructs a new family, makes these two books very moving and inspiring.

Grossman, Vassily, Everything Flows, trans. Robert Chandler et al (New York: NYRB, 2009). An extraordinary, moving novel, about memory and guilt, and the return of one survivor from the Gulag. The chapter when Anna talks about her involvement in the collectivization famine in the Ukraine is one of the most powerful and painful things I’ve ever read. This is a book everyone should read, and Robert Chandler’s new translation is wonderful. Russian text

Herling, Gustav, A World Apart, trans. Andrzej Ciolkosz (London: Penguin, 2005). Herling was only in the Gulag for two years, in Vorkuta in the far North, arrested shortly after the beginning of the second World War and released following the German invasion of the USSR, but his memoir, first published in 1951, is one of the most vivid books written about the Gulag.

Kopelev, Lev, To Be Preserved Forever, trans. Anthony Austin (Philadelphia and New York: Lippincott, 1977). Kopelev, the model for the character of Rubin in Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle, was arrested in 1945, and the brutality he witnessed during the war, as well as post-war anti-Semitism, provide the backdrop for the moral dilemma which forms the centre of this memoir: the struggle faced by genuine believers in communism who can see clearly the hypocrisy and immorality of both individuals and the system.

Kropotkin, Peter, In Russian and French Prisons (London: Ward & Downey, 1887). Kropotkin travelled round Siberia working as a geographer in his youth, and served on committees for prison reform. Later imprisoned in both Russia and France (and famous for his escape from the Peter and Paul fortress in Petersburg), Kropotkin wrote this agitational text after he moved to Britain. See also The Terror in Russia (London: Methuen & CO, 1909).

Kuznetsov, Eduard, Prison Diaries,  trans. Howard Spier (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1975). Kuznetsov was a member of the dissident movement in the 1960s, whose arrest for involvement in a plot to hijack an aeroplane resulted in a charge of high treason; the death sentence was commuted to 15 years imprisonment. Unusually, he wrote Prison Diaries and its follow-up, Mordovian Marathon, whilst in prison, and smuggled the manuscripts abroad.

Larina, Anna, This I Cannot Forget: The Memoirs of Anna Larina, Nikolai Bukharin’s Wife (London: Pandora, 1993). Although Larina does also chart her own journey through the Gulag, the main focus of this book is Bukharin’s fate, and it is particularly interesting for its depiction of the show trials and explanation of the apparent willingness of high-ranking defendants to incriminate themselves.

Likhachev, Dmitrii Sergeevich, Reflections on the Russian Soul: A Memoir, trans. Bernard Adams (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2000). Likhachev’s memoir covers his time in the Solovki camps following his arrest in 1928, and is full of fascinating details about intellectual life in the camps at that time.

Lipper, Elinor, Eleven Years in Soviet Prison Camps, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (Chicago: Regnery Publishing, 1951). Lipper was a Swiss communist who was arrested in 1937 and sent to Kolyma.  She states in the preface that her aim is to write about the general experience rather than her personal journey through the Gulag, but the consequent absence of a strong narrator figure makes the book rather too impersonal and unmemorable. However, she is interesting on the relative experience of men and women in the camps, viewing women as more able to cope with the hardships they faced. The preface and first few pages of the book are available here.

Marchenko, Anatoly, My Testimony, trans. Michael Scammell (New York: Dutton, 1969). Marchenko was an unusual member of the dissident movement in that he did not have an intellectual background; he worked in a drilling gang, was first arrested following a brawl, and then for attempting to leave the Soviet Union, and was politicized in prison. Solzhenitsyn described Marchenko as the true historian of the camps of the 1960s. My Testimony, a graphic account of the violence and brutality of the post-Stalinist labour camp system, was written after his release, but he was soon re-arrested following its publication in tamizdat, and endured several further sentences, dying in a prison hospital in 1986. He wrote two further volumes of memoirs, From Tarusa to Siberia and To Live like Everyone.

Petrov, Vladimir, It Happens in Russia: Seven Years Forced Labour in the Siberian Goldfields (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1951). An early memoir of the Gulag in Kolyma, by a convict who was arrested in early 1935. It provides a very detailed account of arrest, imprisonment and interrogation, work in the gold mines, and life in the camps, plus a large number of portraits of the other prisoners Petrov encountered. The author was released in 1941 shortly before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, and made his way back through the USSR to Europe.

Serge, Victor, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: New York Review of Books, 2003). Serge was an anarchist revolutionary, briefly a Bolshevik, and a writer, who worked for Comintern and had extensive contacts in the party, particularly in the Left Opposition, which led to several periods of imprisonment, before he was able to leave the USSR in 1936. A highly under-rated writer, The Case of Comrade Tulayev is an amazing novel about the terror, as the reverberations of an assassination spread wider and wider.

Shalamov, Varlam, Kolyma Tales, trans. John Glad (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994). It’s very unfortunate that only around a third of Shalamov’s stories have translated into English, and the translations in this edition aren’t brilliant, but even though you really need to be able to read the whole thing to get the full picture, these are still very powerful and worth reading. Russian text

Shentalinsky, Vitaly, The KGB’s Literary Archive, trans. John Crowfoot (London: Harvill, 1995). an incredibly important book exploring the KGB’s files on various writers who were killed (Babel, Mandelshtam, Kliuev, Pilniak, Florensky) or persecuted (Platonov, Bulgakov). There’s a chapter on the ‘poets’ of the Gulag, Nina Hagen-Torn and Georgy Demidov (though for some reason Shalamov, who wrote about Demidov in ‘The Life of the Engineer Kipreev’ among other stories, does not receive any attention), one on informers such as Diakov, and one on Gorky. It’s a mine of fascinating and useful information, and gives a good insight into the process of interrogation and the mentality of the KGB.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-56: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (3 vols), trans. Thomas P. Whitney and Harry T. Willetts (London: Collins Harvill, 1974-1978). An extraordinary, gripping work by any standards, but particularly when you consider the pressurized and secretive conditions Solzhenitsyn was working under. It does contain errors, though perhaps fewer than one might have expected given the circumstances of its writing, but it’s still a valuable history, as well as a compendium of individual accounts, the story of Solzhenitsyn’s own journey through the Gulag, and a remarkable and entertaining polemic. Russian text parts 1-2 | parts 3-4 | parts 5-7

Solzenitsyn, Aleksandr, In the First Circle: The Restored Text, trans. Harry T. Willetts (Harper Perennial, 2009). At last, the full text of Solzhenitsyn’s novel is available in English, and by his best translator as well. I’m on the fence about whether it’s actually a better novel than the self-censored version that was originally published in 1968, but it is the text the author considered the correct one. So I’d still consider the old version, The First Circle, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (London: Harvill, 1988), worth reading. Russian text part 1 | part 2

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, trans. Harry T. Willetts (New York: Vintage, 2008). Needs no introduction. It doesn’t have the capacity to move me in the way that many Gulag narratives do, and I find Solzhenitsyn’s longer novels, not to mention The Gulag Archipelago, a lot more powerful, but you can’t argue with how important Ivan Denisovich is. Russian text

Tarsis, Valeriy, Ward 7, trans. Katya Brown (London & Glasgow: Collins Harvill, 1965). A novel about the practice of psychiatric incarceration of dissidents in the Soviet Union (see also Bukovsky on both psychiatric wards and Tarsis), depicting a ward where all but one of the inmates are sane. The title brings to mind Chekhov’s Ward 6, but the main intertext here is Dostoevsky, as questions of the nature of good and evil come to the fore.

Trifonov, Yuri, Disappearance, trans. David Lowe (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996). A semi-autobiographical novel about the arrest of Trifonov’s father and uncle — high-ranking party officials — during the purges, the story is seen through the eyes of a child, with switches in time-frames showing the effects of those events in later years. Trifonov was a very profound and subtle writer, one of the few socialist realists worth reading, and his evocations of life during the terror, particularly for children, are extremely moving. See also The House on the Embankment.

Vilensky, Simeon, Till My Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag, trans. John Crowfoot (London: Virago, 1999). A selective translation of Semen Vilenskii, Dodnes’ tiagoteet: Zapiski vashei sovremennitsy (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel’, 1989). The publication of this book in Russia was groundbreaking  and it remains a very important collection of memoirs. The English language version does not include some of the texts that are readily available elsewhere — notably Evgenia Ginzburg — but there are all sorts of other interesting and incredibly moving works here — memoirs of the whole journey from arrest to forced labour, stories of particular episodes, and poetry — by both famous former prisoners and complete unknowns. On the whole it’s life-affirming and full of the most amazing compassion, though a couple of the memoirs are absolutely heartbreaking. The Russian edition was republished by Vozvrashchenie in 2004 with a second volume.

Wigmans, Johan H., Ten Years in Russia and Siberia, trans. Arnout de Waal (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1964).  Wigmans was a young Dutch Catholic who by a combination of naivety and bad luck ended up serving in the German army when he was trying to get to Britain to join the Dutch army and fight against the Nazis. He deserted on the Eastern front but was arrested as a spy and spent the next ten years in Soviet prisoner of war and labour camps. He retains his faith and refuses to inform on his fellow prisoners. His focus is on the incompetence and negligence of the Russians and the farce of their attempts to propagandize amidst the terrible conditions of the camp. The book is also inadvertently interesting because of the many mistakes in the spelling of Russian words, place names etc., which speak volumes about the isolation of foreign convicts who spoke very little Russian.

Leave a comment


  1. Hello, Ms. Young:

    Robert Chandler says he won’t be translating Shalamov because living through the work would be too depressing.

    Do you know who might be? Yale?


    Fred Willman
    Madison, WI

  2. Hi Fred,
    I know how Robert feels – working on Shalamov can become very oppressive. I think this is one of the reasons so little has been written about him.
    Yes, I believe Yale is planning a translation of the complete Kolyma Tales, but I know there have been delays, mainly surrounding copyright issues. I don’t know whether those have been resolved, or whether the recent death of Irina Sirotinskaia, who controlled Shalamov’s archive, will speed up or slow down this process.

  3. susan corbett

     /  April 22, 2011

    yuri dombrovsky’s fakultet nenuzhnikh veshchei and khranitel drevnostei are worthy of inclusion in this list: aside from their literary merits i think dombrovsky is alone among the gulag chroniclers in giving the sledovateli something of a human face. dmitri mamin-sibiryak, in his “zoloto” and “tri kontsa”, gives an account of forced labour in the early industrial development of the central ural region – he was a writer of great originality, imo

  4. You’re right about Dombrovskii, and these two novels will definitely be on the list at some point (it’s a work in progress, and I haven’t had chance to pay it much attention recently…). Thanks for the tip about Mamin-Sibiriak – I’ve read a couple of things by him, but not these.

  5. Maris

     /  May 28, 2011

    This is a fantastic list, with very helpful descriptions for a student like myself who is studying the Gulag system and wants to find the most relevant published accounts, be they memoirs or literature. Thank you.
    I was wondering if you could offer any particular recommendations on accounts of time in exile, rather than in lagers? I am attempting to write a masters thesis on this topic at the moment and I am looking for any accounts I may have missed in English (though Russian would be helpful too, of course!)
    Thanks again for making your work available to others.

  6. Thanks for this – I think I have a couple of accounts of exile and some notes on others in my office, so I’ll dig them out next time I’m in.

  7. günther

     /  August 30, 2011

    Do you (or anyone else) have more biografical information about Elinor Lipper, especially what she did after the publication of her Gulag-experiences? There are so many rumors around …

    Thanx a lot for any hint!


  8. I don’t know anything off hand, but if I come across anything I’ll let you know.

  9. Kelly

     /  November 7, 2013

    An excellent list. One of the most compelling narratives of the Gulag era is Nadezhda Mandelstam’s 2 volume series, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned. A very detailed account of the Cheka’s arrest and then release of Osip Mandelstam and the ultimate disappearance of the great poet in the black maw of the Gulag. The author, his widow, refuses to permit the Soviet regime to allow her husband to disappear from public memory and lobbies successfully in the 50’s, after Stalin’s demise, for his pardon. Her farewell letter to her husband which she writes in the vain hope that he will receive it in some unknown dark corner of the Gulag is heartbreaking and is alone worth reading. The author’s courage and love for her doomed husband and poet radiates from every page and provides a testament to the survival of memory in a regime dedicated to the destruction of personality and freedom.

  10. Thank you! I absolutely agree about Nadezhda Mandelshtam’s books – they’re extraordinary (Shalamov makes some very thought-provoking comments about them in terms of their challenge to traditional genres). I’ve been meaning to expand this list, but probably want to do so in a slightly different form, so it may take a little while…

  11. Guy Krueger

     /  February 4, 2014

    Great list, and very helpful to me in finding some works I had not read. But I don’t see Ratushinskaya’s Grey is the Color of Hope, which is a major female Gulag account. Thought I might pass it along, as you have passed on some wonderful titles to me.

    Take care!

  12. Thanks! I’ve been meaning to do some more work on the list for some time, but never seem to find the time… I read Grey is the Colour of Hope a very long time ago, when it was first published – in fact it was probably one of the first Gulag narratives I ever read – and yes, it certainly belongs on the list, though I have to say it never had the impact on me that some works on the subject have had. I probably need to re-read it to find out why.

  13. I recently posted my father’s account of surviving the Gulag, the Red Army and a German POW camp during World War II. I thought this might be of interest.

  14. Cassandra Cavanaugh

     /  April 7, 2016

    Thanks for this, Sarah. See also Esther Hautzigd’s The Endless Steppe, her account of life as a young Lithuanian Jew deported to Magadan after the Soviet invasion of ’41. It’s suitable for young people but also quite revealing and moving.

  15. Petru Clej

     /  May 5, 2016

    Hello, you did not mention White Nights, by Menachem Begin, first published in 1957.

  16. Indeed – there are many excellent memoirs that are not on the list at the moment, and that is a very good example. I’m planning to do some major work on this list at some point soon and turn it into a proper bibliography of Gulag narratives, and it will certainly appear then.

  17. Thank you – this is not one I know, so I will look out for it.

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