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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.3 (2003) 159-160

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Leona Toker, Return from the Archipelago: Narratives of Gulag Survivors. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. xv + 333 pp. $39.95.

Leona Toker has set herself the ambitious task of providing a comprehensive overview and interpretation of what she identifies as a particular genre of literature arising out of the Soviet experience—the gulag survivor narrative. Toker defines the genre quite broadly, including both memoir and fictional accounts of the Soviet concentration-camp universe. By and large she is able to rise to the challenge presented by the scope of her work, proving knowledgeable about the genre's great breadth (her bibliography of primary texts runs to over 180 items) while still providing an in-depth look at a few of the best-known survivor accounts.

Toker begins with a brief review of the gulag's history, extending from the 1917 revolution through the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. She then moves on to a quite comprehensive review of gulag narratives written through the early 1990s. She displays an impressively broad knowledge of the gulag literary corpus. Toker classifies gulag literature primarily according to the date of writing. This approach offers a number of advantages, showing how each generation of gulag writers responded not only to their contemporary political and cultural context but also to the writers who came before them. Nonetheless, by focusing solely on the date of production, she obscures other fruitful ways of categorizing gulag literature, whether by dates of imprisonment, region (or camp) of imprisonment, nationality or political background, or other factors. Although Toker refers to many of these factors when evaluating individual memoirs, she does not do so in a sustained or systematic fashion.

Other problems arise with Toker's definition of the genre as the "survivor narrative," a definition that might be too restrictive. She regards only certain works as authentic gulag narratives. She believes that memoirists such as Boris Dyakov (pp.50-52) are insufficiently anti-Soviet in outlook, and she regards them as pariahs. One of the most intriguing elements of Soviet history is that many Soviet citizens maintained at least some degree of acceptance of the Soviet system despite their own imprisonment in the gulag. Rather than treating such attitudes as insincere or morally illegitimate, Toker should have explored them for what they reveal about the gulag and the Soviet system at large. The constricting nature of her conception of the survivor narrative also keeps her from considering the influence of official Soviet depictions of the camp system. Rather than dismissing Soviet representations of the system as mere propaganda, she could have used them to help elucidate more of the Soviet worldview and to show that many gulag survivors were responding to the official depictions in their own work. For example, when Toker examines Gustav Herling's AWorld Apart, she notes the heavily metaphorical nature of the work, stating that he describes the dismantling and reassembling of the prisoner's personality through "a combination of engineering and surgical metaphors." Anyone familiar with official Soviet representations of "reforging" prisoners would have pointed out the similarity in metaphors. [End Page 159]

Toker follows up the brief overview with perhaps her strongest chapter, a consideration of gulag memoirs as a unique genre. Surveying a wide array of gulag memoirs, Toker takes her readers on a journey that highlights the intricate features of this genre. The remainder of the book gradually leaves the world of memoirs (with a chapter on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago serving as a transition point) and enters the world of gulag fiction. Chapters on Varlam Shalamov's and Solzhenitsyn's gulag fiction form the bulk of this section of the book. Here, Toker devotes herself to atruly in-depth evaluation of a very small number of works. Her analysis is strong. One only wishes that Toker could have devoted as much interpretive energy to some of the lesser-known but fascinating memoirs as she does to the well-trod ground of Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn.

Although Toker...