The New York Review

After the Gulag

In 1955, the Russian writer Yuri Dombrovsky returned home to Moscow after twenty-five years in Soviet camps and exile—twenty-five years “out there”—to discover that he had not, after all, been completely forgotten. He was handed a rehabilitation document, given a grudging pension, assigned a single room in a communal apartment. Although few of his works would ever be published again, he was allowed to rejoin the Writer’s Union. Most of his colleagues there shunned him.

A few did not, pretending, instead, that they were overjoyed to see him. And of all the insults he had suffered, it was this—their insincere, too-late sympathy—that angered him the most. Offended by their condolences, he wrote the following verse, “To a Famous Poet”:

Even our children didn’t feel sorry for us
Even our wives didn’t want us
Only a sentry shot at us, skillfully
Using our identity numbers as targets…
You were just drifting in restaurants
And scattering jokes over glasses,
You understood everything and welcomed everybody

But didn’t notice that we had died.
So please explain to me now, why
As they are reviewing the order of battle
And I appear from a northern grave
You approach me as if I were a hero?
Women were licking your hands—
Was that for your courage?
For the tortures you suffered?

Dombrovksy’s poem expressed a classic sentiment of the thaw, of the long decade that ran from the death of Stalin in March 1953 to the ousting of Khrushchev in October 1964. During those eleven-odd years, Stalin’s Soviet Union went through enormous but contradictory changes. Within days of the dictator’s death, his colleagues began reversing his decisions, freeing prisoners, even denouncing (to one another, at first) the “falsification” of cases against political prisoners and the use of torture. By 1956, the Party elite had been supplied with reports containing, among other things, numbers of people who had been arrested by “extra-judicial” secret police tribunals (over three million), a number which doesn’t include those arrested and sentenced by other means. They also knew how many political prisoners were still in camps following the initial amnesty (nearly half a million), and had seen case-by-case accounts of how their former colleagues had been tortured into confessing nonexistent crimes. Among other things, Reabilitatsiya: Kak Eto Bylo (Rehabilitation: How It Was), a new collection of documents from the period, contains an official account—delivered to the members of the Central Committee—of how one candidate member of the Politburo was interrogated fifty-four times, sometimes at fourteen-hour stretches, often forbidden even a minimum of sleep in between.

When it was presented to the general public, however, this information took on a somewhat different tone. In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev, then the secretary-general of the Soviet Communist Party, delivered a speech to a closed session of its Twentieth Congress, denouncing Stalin’s “cult of personality.” This “secret speech,” which didn’t remain secret for very long, brought the Party elite’s selective reassessment of the past to a wider audience. Listing Stalin’s crimes, Khrushchev focused almost exclusively on the victims of 1937–1938, singling out in particular the ninety-eight Central Committee members who were shot in those years, as well as a handful of Old Bolsheviks. “The wave of mass arrests began to recede in 1939,” he declared—which was a patent falsehood. In fact the numbers of prisoners had increased in the 1940s, as he well knew.

Khrushchev’s speech also contained other sins of omission. While happy to denounce attacks on Old Bolsheviks, he refrained from mentioning the horrors of collectivization, or the man-made Ukrainian famine, or the postwar arrests and deportations in western Ukraine and the Baltic States. He mentioned the mass deportations of the Chechens and the Crimean Tatars, but left out mass deportations of other nationalities, among them Meshketian Turks and Volga Germans. He spoke of having carried out, thus far, 7,679 rehabilitations. Although those in the hall applauded, this was in fact quite a small percentage of the millions who Khrushchev well knew had been falsely arrested.

The speech was a partial admission of wrongdoing, and very far from a full apology. All blame was laid squarely upon the head of the dead Stalin. No one alive was held responsible. In effect, Khrushchev reasserted the national mythology—”mistakes were made, but no permanent damage was done”—and set the stage for an era of partial reforms in which new privileges were quickly revoked and public discussion was immediately hushed up.

Khrushchev’s half-apology also meant that those returning from five, ten, or twenty years in the camps faced a very odd homecoming. Yuri Dombrovsky was not the only one of the new “returnees” to feel less than welcome—and not the only former victim to detect the scent of hypocrisy in the air. Many have written of being shunned by former friends, out of embarrassment, shame, guilt, or even ideological fervor. Few of those who had been accused, even wrongly, of “counterrevolutionary activity” were ever considered truly fit for polite society again, even if they wanted to join it. One former prisoner, Lev Kopelev, once said that after his return he could no longer stand the company of successful people, preferring the company of failures. With them, at least, he knew he was less likely to be in the presence of someone whose signature had sent all of his friends to prison. “Two Russias are eyeball to eyeball,” wrote the poet Anna Akhmatova of the thaw years, “those who were in prison, and those who put them there.”

Nearly half a century later, the tension between these two Russias has yet to be resolved. During the glasnost era in the late 1980s, it is true, the crimes of Stalin received a far greater public airing than they had during Khru-shchev’s time. In the years since, Russian historians have explored and published thousands of documents from their archives: Reabilitatsiya is one of a series of such publications, produced by Alexander Yakovlev’s International Democracy Foundation—Ya-kovlev being the chairman of the Russian president’s Committee on Reha-bilitation, as well as a former adviser to Mikhail Gorbachev.

But although survivors have published hundreds of memoirs, and historians produce new monographs every year, relatively little thought has been given to the psychology of the victims. During Stalin’s time and afterward, millions of people suffered real injury at the hands of the Soviet state. Afterward —despite Khrushchev’s half-apology— very few people were punished, and very little compensation was given. Because the Soviet elite had never quite admitted to wrongdoing, the victims were not, until the glasnost reforms of the 1980s, allowed to discuss what had happened to them in public. Many feared, in consequence, to discuss the past in private as well, even if anyone was willing to listen.

In fact, those who returned home from years in camps or exile received no victim counseling, no psychoanalysis, no cures for post-traumatic stress syndrome. “Coming to terms with the past” was not an option. Silence was mandatory and repression was obligatory. Indeed, the thirty years between Khrushchev’s secret speech and the start of glasnost might reasonably be described as a vast experiment in anti-therapy.

In the late 1990s, with this strange phenomenon foremost in their minds, two quite different historians set off, tape recorders in hand, to explore the psychological landscape of contemporary Russia. Yet although both were interested in the memory of trauma, and although both used similar techniques—oral history, backed up by archives—they started out by asking different questions and came up, in the end, with surprisingly different descriptions of what had happened in the minds of those who had suffered in the camps and prisons of the Soviet Union.

Of the two, Nanci Adler took the more conventional path, focusing her inquiry first on the official and legal aspects of rehabilitation, readaptation, and what she calls “resocialization” into Soviet society. Since the glasnost era, the community of survivors has developed its own heroes and spokesmen, and she appears to have interviewed all of them. Most agreed that their release from prison or from camps was indeed only the beginning of a new wave of trauma and difficulties.

Often the trouble began with the release itself. Prisoners who had spent two decades in the camps were let go suddenly, with no warning or preparation. Many were simply not ready. One former inmate told me that when he was let out, he boarded a crowded prisoners’ train heading south—but made it past only two stations. “Why am I going to Moscow?” he asked himself—and then turned around and headed back to his old camp, where his old commander helped him get a job as a free worker on the same construction project on which he’d been forced to work. There he remained, for another sixteen years.2

Others found themselves with no money, no tickets, and nowhere to go. Families had moved, wives had remarried, friends had been swallowed up by the system too. As a result, some simply stayed put. In some camps, former barracks were inhabited by former prisoners well into the 1960s, but even there life was not easy. At one point, the KGB itself produced a report revealing that freed prisoners coming out of the Vorkuta, Pechora, and Inta camps in the far north could not buy clothes, shoes, or bedding, since “the towns above the Arctic Circle have no markets.” In desperation, some committed minor crimes in order to be rearrested: at least in prison they were guaranteed a bread ration. 3

Life didn’t necessarily improve for those who made it home. Released prisoners did not automatically receive official certificates of rehabilitation and remained second-class citizens. Many were unable to obtain jobs in their former professions; they could not get housing and were forbidden to finish their university courses. One former prisoner told Adler that “after eighteen years of suffering,” he then led a “miserable homeless existence for two years inside and outside Moscow,” unable to find an apartment in his native city. In the Soviet system, with its endless bureaucratic procedures, many found themselves constantly confronted with the same question, on form after form: “Have you ever been arrested?” Those who answered in the affirmative were invariably refused whatever they required, whether a job or a passport. Those who lied risked losing the job or the passport as soon as they had obtained it.

Life was easier for those who received certificates of rehabilitation, since they could at least answer “no” when asked about their arrests, which had technically been nullified. Yet the rehabilitation process was not a pleasant one for them, either. Not only did no one at any point apologize for the decades they had spent behind barbed wire, for the deaths of their relatives and their confiscated property, but there were long lines to wait in, forms to fill out, supercilious clerks to deal with. Prisoners often had to write two, three, or many more letters before their appeals were granted, and many remained wary of applying at all. Those who received a summons to appear at a meeting of a rehabilitation commission, usually held at the offices of the Interior or Justice Ministries, would often turn up in layers of clothes, gripping food parcels, accompanied by weeping relatives, certain they were about to be sent away again.

The stress of resuming their lives, while simultaneously keeping silent about what had happened to them, compounded the physical and psychological damage which Soviet prisoners had already suffered. As a result, Adler writes, many victims developed “concentration camp syndrome”—persistent anxiety and depression continuing for many years after release—as well as terrible nightmares and traumatic daydreams. Others were unable to shake off the camp culture, unable to readjust to a “normal” life or resume ordinary relationships. In the preface to her book she tells the story of a former dissident, Nikolai Tolstykh, who spent six years in post-Stalinist labor camps only to wind up in a Manhattan shelter for the homeless. He was, she writes, “a current and tragic example of the lot that his predecessors of the Stalinist camps had experienced for decades.”

Adler’s conclusions, for the most part, are grimly predictable. Yet there remains one aspect of the rehabilitation of Soviet prisoners for which she cannot quite account: the undeniable enthusiasm, even happiness, with which returnees rejoined the Communist Party. There were, it is true, social, professional, and even financial reasons to desire readmission. Reinstatement in the Party often meant reinstatement in a prisoner’s previous job, at previous pay levels, and a full restoration of social status. Moreover, many of those who returned from the Gulag often lived in such terror of rearrest that they feared the consequences of failing to reapply.

Even so, neither careerism nor fear quite account for the joy that some prisoners clearly felt upon being readmitted to the fold. By the 1950s, the Communist Party had, undeniably, been responsible for the false arrests of millions, the destruction of a generation of its own leaders, countless pointless deaths, and economic and moral damage impossible to calculate. Nevertheless, one ex-prisoner, who served thirteen years in a labor camp for non-crimes, described his sentiments as follows:

The most important factor that secured my survival in those harsh conditions was my unflinching, ineradicable belief in our Leninist party, in its humanist principles. It was the Party that imparted the physical strength to withstand these trials…. Reinstatement in the ranks of my native Communist Party was the greatest happiness of my entire life!

Nanci Adler grapples with this conundrum—”allegiance to a belief system can have deep non-rational… roots,” she writes—but is mostly interested in other things. To Catherine Merridale, on the other hand, the issue is fundamental, lying at the heart of her own investigation into Soviet history.


Merridale’s project, it must be said, is a very different one from Adler’s. She began not with camp survivors, but with an interest in the funeral rituals that developed in the Soviet Union, and the attitudes toward death that they conveyed. Her interviews were not confined to victims of political repression, but rather included survivors of the Russian Revolution and the Civil War (or rather their memoirs), of the 1930s Ukranian famine, of the deportation of the kulaks, of World War II, of the postwar famines, of Afghanistan, and of Chernobyl.

The result is a more multifaceted— and more confusing—picture. It isn’t always easy, in the former Soviet Union, to sort out who was a victim of what. Children who grew up during the famine of the 1930s suffered during World War II; in some cases their parents died in camps and their children died defending Kabul. At the same time, the public distortion of history affected everyone, not just the camp survivors. They were condemned to silence, but so were those war veterans whose memories didn’t quite fit into the official saga of Glory, Honor, and Victory. Recollections of mass rape and theft in occupied Germany; of the military errors made at the beginning of the war; of tactics that killed far too many soldiers; of political officers who kept order through terror behind the front lines; of the postwar famine, to which many soldiers returned—all of this was suppressed.

Soviet funeral rituals were designed to reinforce the Party line, and to quash any objections that might arise out of an individual’s own experience or personal tragedy. From the time of the Revolution, Bolshevik funerals were deliberately intended to replace their Christian predecessors, sometimes borrowing the same imagery and applying the same customs. When Lenin was buried in Red Square, in the heart of the capital city, his corpse was displayed as if he were a living god. Later, the postwar celebrations of Victory Day, with their enormous banners, marching crowds, tanks, airplanes, lights, and noise, were “intended,” Merridale writes, “to overwhelm a person’s private images, their memories and apprehensions.”

These memorial rituals were so strong, and so emotional, that they were voluntarily incorporated into other celebrations. Few Westerners who visited the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and 1980s could fail to be surprised by the frequent sight of brides in white dresses laying flowers at memorials to the war dead, their new husbands beside them, their wedding guests in a solemn semicircle behind. No Soviet wedding was complete without a visit to a cemetery, or to a World War II monument, as if contact with the dead somehow added to the solemnity of the occasion.

With impressive detail and no small degree of passion, Merridale traces the ups and downs of this death cult, noting at every turn how often the grand words and eloquent language about the dead would have jarred with other experiences. Elaborate monuments were built to war veterans, while “Enemies of the People” were buried in unmarked graves. Medals were given to the widows of fallen heroes, while the wives of those murdered by Stalin had to beg for the rehabilitation certificates that would enable them to survive. In the end, Merridale’s conclusions are surprising. At the beginning of her project, she writes, she expected to discover—as Nanci Adler did—that “for decades the populace of the Soviet Union was both individually and collectively suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.” She expected to find, for the most part, damaged people, unhealed victims, embittered survivors.

She did not find them—or at least not as many as might have been expected. Instead, she found that the “imperial mentality” of the old Soviet Union had helped victims through their suffering:

To speak as a former Soviet citizen and a Russian is to speak—securely, if one chooses—from a culture of endurance and heroism; it is to use the language of historical destiny, to talk (however ironically) of the audacity involved in leading the collective struggle for human liberation…. Some laugh about it now, but almost everyone is nostalgic for a collectivism and a common purpose that have been lost. Up to a point, totalitarianism worked.

The very ideology that prevented people from talking about their pain also helped them, in other words, to forget that pain. If the silence imposed from above made individual “talking cures” impossible, it also forced people to grit their teeth and smile along with their neighbors—and they did. Eventually, they came to believe that they were smiling because they wanted to smile. The mass public rituals achieved what they were supposed to achieve: they allowed people to suppress their individual pain, and to go on living “normal” lives.

Within limits, Merridale’s thesis clearly reflects a truth that is difficult, particularly in retrospect, for outsiders to understand. For one, it helps to clarify the question Adler could not quite answer. If some of the victims of the Gulag wanted their Party cards back, that was because to be in the Party was to be a part of the heroic, forward-looking, glorious national struggle once again. Even though many knew this struggle to be a false one; even though they knew the nation wasn’t as glorious as its leaders claimed; even though they knew that entire Soviet cities had been built through the forced labor of people unjustly condemned, many of whom died—it still felt better to be part of the collective effort than to oppose it.

Merridale’s book also helps to explain how the “two Russias,” the Russia of the victims and the Russia of the victimizers, managed to exist together in relative peace for so long. For many, it was very simple: the victims returned, adopted the Party line—and therefore slid fairly easily back into social relationships with those who never doubted its truth. The two groups got along simply because they both agreed to adopt the same collective values, despite individual experiences that would seem to lead them to different conclusions.

Yet while Merridale’s book makes a unique and invaluable contribution to anyone’s understanding of how Soviet ideology actually worked, her thesis can’t encompass everybody’s experience. In particular, her book doesn’t explain why some people fit in to Soviet society after returning home, and some manifestly did not. When asked about the unfinished mourning process, Merridale’s interviewees tended to reply, “Of course it was terrible. But we had to rebuild our town…. We had defeated the fascists, and now we were building socialism, right there in Kiev.” Yet Yury Dombrovsky felt repelled by the “friends” who welcomed him home from the camps, and Lev Kopelev never again felt comfortable around successful Soviet people. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was impelled to write about his experiences in a distinctly “non-Soviet” manner, and Semyon Vilensky, whose story is told in Adler’s book, spent much of his life, following his return from a camp in Kolyma, trying to publish the memoirs of other ex-prisoners. Even when returnees did try to fit in, very often their children did not. A large proportion of the people who were eventually to shape the Soviet dissident movement of the 1970s and 1980s— Larisa Bogoraz, Arseny Roginsky, Piotr Yakir—turn out to be children of Stalin’s victims as well.

But then, perhaps it is not surprising to find that no one theory can define the strange phenomenon of totalitarian conformity, or can say with any precision why some people rebel and others do not. Asking why the camps turned some people into dissidents and some into loyal Soviet citizens is very much like asking why some people came home from the camps, healthy and mentally stable—and why others did not live long enough to come home at all.

In fact, almost everyone who lived through the experience of the Gulag agrees that survival was impossible to predict in advance. The mildest people sometimes found an inner strength they had not known of before. The bravest sometimes could not accept the daily humiliation, and died quickly. The strongest sometimes suffered the most from the lack of food. The weakest sometimes survived because no one bothered to torment them. In the end, the very quirkiness of human nature defies even the most drastic attempts to predict or control it. It is hardly surprising, then, that it is difficult to explain as well.


1 Yuri Dombrovsky, Menya Ubit Khotyeli, Eti Suki (Moscow: Vozvrasheniya, 1997), p. 77. Translated with the assistance of Galya Vinogradova.

2 Yuri Zorin, interview with the author, September 13, 1998.

3 GARF 9414, opis 3, delo 40, ll. 24-25

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