Res­cu­ing voices from the Gu­lag be­fore they’re gone

A com­plex story of suf­fer­ing and hope from women who sur­vived Siberian im­pris­on­ment

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - • PAMELA S. NADELL

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.

(Ilya Nay­mushin/Reuters)

A SIBERIAN set­tle­ment, seen in 2018, which was founded as part of the Soviet Union’s Gu­lag prison la­bor sys­tem.

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