The Archipelago of Gulag Survivors

Scholar Stephen Cohen's latest book is a reminder that Stalin's crimes can't be explained away as "necessary measures" for modernizing Russia.

[amazon 1933002409 full]After the death of Josef Stalin, and as the prison camps of the gulag were emptying out, Metropolitan Nikolai of Krutitsy, a leading clergyman in Russia, preached a famous sermon on the occasion of the Feast of Our Lady of Unexpected Joy, saying, "We know this joy in our everyday life. Someone disappears. For many years we hear no news of him; his nearest believe him to be dead. Suddenly he sends us news or appears in person. Here is yet another grace of God! Here is an unexpected joy!"

But was the return of the millions from what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described as an "archipelago" of camps and prisons initiated by Vladimir Lenin and expanded dramatically during the tenure of Stalin, always an occasion of joy? Stephen F. Cohen takes up this subject in The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag after Stalin.

Scholarship has tended to focus on the "dead" of the Soviet period—those who starved in famines, were killed in war, executed during the purges and worked to death in the slave labor camps. But, as Cohen notes, the genesis of this work began when he and another noted scholar of the Soviet terror, Robert Conquest, wondered what happened to the millions of survivors who made it through the holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s. While archives can disgorge their secrets as to the mechanics of how Stalin's terror operated—and tell us how the victims were fed into the conveyer belt of the gulag-to discover what happened to those who came out is a far more painstaking process-of tracking down survivors and finding the memoirs and autobiographical material—much of it unpublished or circulated only to a few-and committing it to paper.

Cohen narrates how he started on this project, almost as an afterthought. While doing his research on the rise and fall of Nikolai Bukharin, he was introduced to Bukharin's widow Anna Larina, and through her, began to make contact with other gulag survivors, and started to collect their testimonies and recollections.

For those who have read some of the literature which precedes The Victims Return—whether the writings of Solzhenitsyn, Eugenia Ginzburg, Roy Medvedev or Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, or even the memoirs of Walter Ciszek, an American Jesuit who was imprisoned in the camps and then released to live and work in Siberia for years after until being repatriated to the United States, Cohen's book continues and amplifies (and draws together) these disparate streams to present a coherent account of the diversity of experiences of the survivors. Some of what Cohen narrates is what is to be expected; people who came out of the camps broken by their experiences, barred from returning home, unable to fit in to Soviet society. What may be surprising for the reader is the extent to which many of those who went through the gulag, however, were released to take up productive positions within Soviet society, even becoming pillars on which Soviet power rested. Engineers and scientists, among them Valentin Glushko and Sergei Korolev, who propelled the USSR into space, or military officers, like Konstantin Rokossovsky, who helped lead the Soviet Union to victory against Nazi Germany in World War II, were not uncommon figures. Even more amazing would be those Communists who were caught up in the Terror, yet resumed their membership in the Party on their release. Certainly one could not imagine victims of the Nazi Holocaust, particularly the Jews of Europe, becoming active supporters of the Third Reich.

Perhaps it is because there was no clear distinction between those who experienced the Terror and those who carried it out. Cohen quotes the poet Anna Akhmatova, "Now those who were arrested will return, and two Russias will be eyeball to eyeball: The one that put people in the camps and the one put there." Cohen himself concludes that "the mass terror had been possible only due to mass guilt. An estimated five percent of the nation had been secret informers and at least one million people had been Gulag camp employees, including economic managers and bookkeepers."

This may also explain why, in addition to the fears that exposing the crimes of the gulag would delegitimize the Soviet system (which is why even reformers such as Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev only went so far in their revelations, and why those interested in preserving the status quo, like Leonid Brezhnev, were not interested in pursuing these questions), there has never been a Nuremberg-style reckoning. If, as Cohen points out, nearly every family in the Soviet Union had some personal connection with the gulag (personal experience or those of relatives), many simultaneously also had connections with those who were part of its apparatus. Khrushchev may have been on to something when he said, "More people would have to be imprisoned than had been rehabilitated and released." The gulag system, in essence, was a self-inflicted wound, certainly in the case of Russia, but even for many of the other republics and nationalities of the USSR as well.

These contradictions persist to this very day, and also help to illuminate the continued debates over Stalin's legacy in post-Soviet Russia. "A nation cannot leap out of its history"; the returned victims, and their descendants, continue to struggle to ensure that the crimes of the Soviet period are not rationalized away as "necessary measures" for modernizing the Russian state. This work helps to cement that legacy.