Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Wom­en’s Voic­es from the Gulag

  • Review
By – April 27, 2020

One might won­der why an anthol­o­gy of women’s voic­es from the Gulag” might be impor­tant to read in the year 2020. Didn’t we all read Solzhen­it­syn back in the day? Weren’t Stalin’s crimes con­demned by the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment? What does this anthol­o­gy of inter­views with women who sur­vived” (a rel­a­tive term) the gulags, real­ly offer?

First, it address­es a notable gap in the his­to­ry of the gulags — the absence of women’s accounts. Apart from Euge­nia Ginzburg, her cell­mate Julia Kare­po­va, and a few oth­ers, women’s expe­ri­ences are rarely men­tioned. This anthol­o­gy shifts the focus. Some women were sen­tenced to hard labor after mali­cious rumors by infor­mants who were jeal­ous of their apart­ments or appar­ent priv­i­leges. Oth­ers were pun­ished for lov­ing the wrong sort of man, maybe a for­eign­er or a mar­ried man with an unhap­py wife. Many were­po­lit­i­cal dis­si­dents. After prison and a per­func­to­ry tri­al,’ they’d be sent to dis­tant prison camps, packed into freight trains for days on end with no pro­vi­sions. Or they were sen­tenced to a sort of inter­nal exile, forced to find their own trans­port to dis­tant regions where they had to arrange their own job and lodgings.

Most of these women, at least Zgustova’s inter­vie­wees, had not been labor­ers or ath­letes in their for­mer lives. Ill-pre­pared for any kind of phys­i­cal labor, they had to log trees in the tun­dra, build stone walls or dig out frozen earth — all with very lit­tle tools, cloth­ing, or food. It killed the weak­er ones. Even worse was the utter futil­i­ty of much of the work: they’d be forced to build a wall, then ordered to tear it down. They could not even pre­tend that their suf­fer­ing served any use­ful pur­pose. It didn’t help that the often-sadis­tic over­seers were actu­al­ly oth­er pris­on­ers; almost every­one in the gulags was a prisoner.

How did they sur­vive? Some found a friend in the camps who sus­tained their spir­its. Some sur­vived by mem­o­riz­ing and recit­ing poet­ry, mak­ing small draw­ings, or engag­ing with the stark aes­thet­ics of the wilder­ness­es they endured. More than one woman describes a Siber­ian shaman who treat­ed them with folk reme­dies and spir­i­tu­al solace. Some held onto life so they could reunite with a moth­er, fiancé, child, or sib­ling. Oth­ers became deter­mined to sur­vive so they could see their tor­men­tors pun­ished. But, most reached the point of doubt­ing they would survive.

The sur­vivors faced new chal­lenges. After release, many were banned from liv­ing in the big cities, faced dif­fi­cul­ties return­ing to their pro­fes­sions, and griev­ed friends they’d lost. Some mar­ried oth­er gulag vet­er­ans, real­iz­ing these were the only peo­ple who tru­ly under­stood what they’d endured. Yet, a sur­pris­ing num­ber of the women said the gulag expe­ri­ence gave their lives mean­ing. If you sur­vived, it gave you armor, and every­one who hadn’t been through it seemed friv­o­lous. As Ella Mark­man put it, extreme suf­fer­ing teach­es you about your­self, about the peo­ple around you, and about human beings in general.”

This vol­ume helps the rest of us under­stand these remark­able women, their impor­tant sto­ries, and the dan­gers of the total­i­tar­i­an state.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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