NWSA Journal 15.2 (2003) 161-164
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Remembering the Darkness: Women in Soviet Prisons edited and translated by Veronica Shapovalov. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001, 384 pp., $75.00 hardcover.
Till My Tale Is Told: Women's Memoirs of the Gulag edited by Simeon Vilensky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999, 376 pp., $39.95 hardcover, $19.95 paper.
These two books are collections of excerpts from the memoirs and poetry of 36 women who were political prisoners in the Soviet Union. The majority were victims of the mass arrests of the 1930s; most of these in turn were taken because they were related by marriage or birth to accused men who held middle-ranking positions in the Soviet regime. These women were young, well-educated, mostly loyal members of their society before they were imprisoned. What happened to them thereafter they chronicled in straightforward prose and harrowing detail.
The two collections are drawn from archives of memoirs created in the late 1980s and 1990s. They cover most of the Gulag system, from the prisons of European Russia to the forced-labor camps in Central Asia to Kolyma on the Pacific coast of Siberia. Initially, the arrested were taken to prison for interrogation, trial, and sentencing. After several months or, in some cases years, the women were loaded into converted freight cars and sent to the camps, most of which were in remote areas. There they joined a slave-labor force compelled to contribute to the economic development of the USSR. Some of the memoirists did such heavy tasks as cutting timber, hauling concrete, or digging peat; others were employed in lighter tasks--sewing or growing food. A few worked in their professions. Some even joined camp theater groups.
The severity of the regime in this vast penal system varied. The rules of the 1920s were more lax than those of the 1930s, food shortages were worst during World War II, and some memoirists write that the administrations became more punitive in the late 1940s. Most of the women included in these two collections were released in the 1950s, when the post-Stalin party leaders emptied the camps. Thereafter, the number of political prisoners shrank and the treatment of those who were arrested, while severe, was far less brutal. It bears noting that none of these women had done things that would have brought imprisonment in democratic countries, and most had not even committed the offenses (e.g., "slandering the Soviet Union") with which they were charged.
Shapovalov lists as her main themes "resistance to the totalitarian system, everyday life in the women's barracks, and problems unique to women" (xi). Vilensky emphasizes the preservation of "the ideals of true [End Page 162] humanity" in the midst of the most dehumanizing conditions imaginable (x). Having made these general observations, both editors provide brief interpretative introductions and some explanatory material (Shapovalov has extensive, informative footnotes and Vilensky's co-editors append a glossary of terms and a chronology of events). For explanations of the murderous turn the Soviet dictatorship took in the Stalin years, readers will have to look elsewhere. These books seek instead to take us into the experiences of ordinary women who often did not understand the causes of the persecution inflicted on them, but felt a powerful need to bear witness to all they had seen and endured.
In crafting their stories, the memoirists drew on their own experiences and on the accounts of other camp survivors. Chief among these was Evgeniia Ginzburg, whose two-volume memoirs, Journey into the Whirlwind (1975) and Within the Whirlwind (1982), are masterpieces. Ginzburg's work grew out of long conversations with fellow inmates; the writings of several of those women are included in Vilensky's book. It is no surprise, therefore, that much of the interpretation that Ginzburg developed is supported by the women writing in these two collections. They stress, as Ginzburg did, the importance of friendship with other female prisoners to their emotional well-being and physical survival. They...