Rescuing voices from the Gulag before they’re gone
A complex story of suffering and hope from women who survived Siberian imprisonment
Along time ago, in a pre-ereader era, I spent a year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. One day after class, haunting an English-language used book shop somewhere off King George Street, I bought the novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Its author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, had not yet published The Gulag Archipelago, and suspicions about his antisemitism lay far in the future. But he had already won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
By then, having read Holocaust memoirs and novels, I grasped something about the literature of testimony, although Elie Wiesel had not yet dubbed it the literary innovation of our age, akin to the Greeks giving the world tragedy and Renaissance writers bequeathing us the sonnet. Reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich back in my Mount Scopus dorm, I encountered the literature of the “other Holocaust,” Stalin’s reign of terror.
Now, as its last witnesses are passing from the scene, we meet its victims in Monika Zgustova’s Dressed for a Dance in the Snow. In the great tradition of another Nobel Laureate, Svetlana Alexievich, who gave World War II female voices in The Unwomanly Face of War, Zgustova gathers testimonies of women who against all odds survived the Gulag’s frozen horrors.
In her early teens, Zgustova fled Czechoslovakia with her family after the “Prague Spring” of 1968. Educated in the US, the award-winning novelist has translated modern Russian and Czech writers into Spanish. More than a decade ago, while visiting Moscow, she attended a gathering of some of the Gulag’s former prisoners. To her surprise, many were female and Jewish.
Zgustova decided to interview them to mine the female experiences of imprisonment, forced labor and exile. Dressed for a Dance in the Snow contains the oral histories of nine women who survived the Gulag, interlaced with their memories of others they met in its camps.
Zayara Vesyolaya entered the Lubyanka, Moscow’s notorious prison, dressed for a party. Her father had been shot as “an enemy of the people” during Stalin’s Great Purge, one of some three-quarters of a million murdered under that brutal program. Her mother, a nurse, served 10 years at hard labor. Her “crime”? A neighbor heard her say that American penicillin was better than Soviet penicillin.
The night five armed policemen banged on her door, Zayara was celebrating her sister Gaira’s thesis defense. Gaira protested. Surely they had come for her. Only later would they arrest her. Zayara left the apartment wearing a straight black skirt, red blouse, silk camisole, stockings and high heels. Months later, dressed in the same clothes, she boarded a train bound for a Siberian village.
NOW AN old woman, a survivor, she recalled her exile as “inspiring,” and her life after she finished her sentence, returned to Moscow, married and had two children as “ordinary.”
Zgustova heard similar words from her other interviewees. In stark landscapes near the Arctic Circle, with their dark winter days and nights and summers without a setting sun, these women glimpsed moments of beauty from which, so they remembered, they drew sustenance. Reciting poems – those they had memorized and those they wrote – gave them the strength to carry on. So too did the deep friendships forged in the camps.
Zgustova uses these threads to link the narratives. After Susanna Pechuro was arrested and charged with membership in a Zionist cell, she survived 11 prisons and seven work camps. In one, she befriended Lina, wife of the composer Sergei Prokofiev.
Friendships, like that of Susanna and Lina, forged in extremis, are characteristic of testimony literature. In Survival in Auschwitz, as Primo Levi’s Se Questo è un Uomo is titled in English, the author wrote of how his friendship with Alberto kept them both alive. Only as the Russians approached did their fates tragically diverge. The Nazis evacuated the camp. Levi, too sick to move, remaining in its hospital, survived. Alberto perished somewhere on the forced march into Germany.
Zgustova, as is her prerogative, does not refer to this wider context. Nevertheless, I was surprised to read little about rape. Only Irina Emelyanova, the daughter of Olga Ivinskaya, the inspiration for Lara in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, related how the guards came in the night either to rape the women or to take them to their commanders to be raped. Surely sexual violence played a much larger role in the Gulag than Zgustova and her interviewees reveal.
Reading these painful accounts, I kept thinking about the women and men – an estimated thirty million – who, digging in the Gulag’s mines 14 hours at a stretch or senselessly building a wall one day, tearing it down the next, and building it again the day after, never lived to tell their tales.
We are entering the third decade of the 21st century, but Zgustova has made a significant contribution to the literature of the 20th, rescuing, just before their voices would be silenced forever, the powerful stories of these women who survived the “other Holocaust.”
Pamela S. Nadell’s recent book, America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today, will be translated into Hebrew. She holds the Patrick Clendenen Chair in Women’s and Gender History at American University in Washington, DC.
A SIBERIAN settlement, seen in 2018, which was founded as part of the Soviet Union’s Gulag prison labor system.