A Movie That Matters

  • Katyn
    a film directed by Andrzej Wajda, written by Andrzej Mularczyk and Andrzej Wajda

The ruins of a Russian Orthodox monastery, 1939: paint peels from the walls, light filters in from the cracks in the ceiling, cigarette smoke whirls through the air. Primitive wooden camp beds are stacked up high, one on top of the other, for the monastery has been turned into a prison. The prisoners, soldiers in khaki-brown wool uniforms and black boots, are gathered in a large group. Craning their heads forward, they listen to their commanding officer make a speech. Solemn and tired, he does not ask them to fight. He asks them to survive. “Gentlemen,” says the general, “you must endure. Without you, there will be no free Poland.” Continue reading “A Movie That Matters”

How Hitler Could Have Won

  • The Greatest Battle
    by Andrew Nagorski, Simon and Schuster, 366 pp.
  • Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War
    by Rodric Braithwaite, Knopf, 398 pp

Hitler invaded the Soviet Union at 0400 hours on June 22, 1941. By June 23, the Wehrmacht had destroyed the entire Soviet air force. By June 26, the Soviet commander of the Western front had lost radio contact with Moscow. By June 28, German troops had entered Minsk, the capital of Soviet Belarus. And on the morning of June 29—just a week into the invasion—Stalin failed to appear in the Kremlin. Continue reading “How Hitler Could Have Won”

The Real Patriotic War

  • Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939–1945,
    by Catherine Merridale, Metropolitan, 462 pp.
  • A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army,
    ed. Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova, Pantheon, 378 pp.

Once, during the 1980s, I visited the fortress of the city of Brest. Brest is now in Belarus, just east of the Polish border, but at that time Brest was a Soviet city, and its fortress was the city’s most important shrine to Soviet power. The entrance led through a vast slab of stone, into which had been cut an enormous Soviet star. Inside, the visitor’s eye was immediately directed to a vast, sorrowful human head, carved straight into an outcropping of rock. Continue reading “The Real Patriotic War”


  • The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov
    edited and annotated by Joshua Rubenstein and Alexander Gribanov
    Yale University Press, 397 pp.

Since becoming president of Russia, Vladimir Putin has worked hard to mold Russian memories of the Soviet Union into something more positive, or anyway more nostalgic, than they had been under his predecessor. His goal, it seems, is to make Russians proud of their country again, to find heroes they can once again worship. Continue reading “Hero”

Album from Hell

  • Gulag: Life and Death Inside the Soviet Concentration Camps
    by Tomasz Kizny, Firefly Books, 2004, 496pp.

Yellowed, dusty, covered in thick cardboard, and held together with string, the Gulag photo albums stored in the Russian State Archive look, at first glance, like nothing more than old family albums kept too long in the attic. But even when opened, their true function isn’t immediately clear. Continue reading “Album from Hell”

Pulling the Rug Out from Under

  • The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939
    Terry Martin, Cornell University Press, 496 pp.

During the summer just preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union, I spent several days in Minsk, the capital of newly independent Belarus, in the company of a group of young people who called themselves Belarusian nationalists. One of them had recently converted to Orthodoxy, or rather to a new, “independent” branch of the Orthodox Church. Continue reading “Pulling the Rug Out from Under”

The Worst of the Terror

  • Stalin's Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953,
    Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov, HarperCollins, 399 pp.

On August 7, 1948, Yuri Zhdanov wrote a letter to Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper. Yuri Zhdanov was not only the son of A.A. Zhdanov, a Politburo member and one of Stalin’s “favorites,” he was also Stalin’s son-in-law, and a Central Committee member in his own right. Nevertheless, the letter was an admission of grave error. Continue reading “The Worst of the Terror”

After the Gulag

  • The Gulag Survivor: Beyond the Soviet System,
    Nanci Adler, Transaction, 290 pp.
  • Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia,
    by Catherine Merridale, Penguin, 402 pp.
  • Reabilitatsiya: Kak Eto Bylo (Rehabilitation: How It Was),
    by Andrei Artizov, Yuri Sigachev, Vyacheslav Khlopov, and Ivan Shevchuk,
    Moscow: International Democracy Foundation, 502 pp.

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. Continue reading “After the Gulag”

A History of Horror

  • Le Siècle des Camps
    Joel Kotek and Pierre Rigoulot, JC Lattes, 805 pages.

Contrary to what might be expected, the first recorded use of the expression “concentration camps” did not occur in either Germany or Russia. Nor, even, was the term originally English, as many also mistakenly believe. In fact, as far as it is possible to ascertain, the first person to speak of concentration camps or, more precisely, to speak of a policy of “reconcentración” – was Arsenio Martinez Campos, then the commander of the Spanish garrison in Cuba. Continue reading “A History of Horror”

Inside the Gulag

What we know now that we didn't know ten years ago.

  • Sistema Ispravitelno-Trudovikh Lagerei v SSSR, 1923-1960: Spravochnik
    (The System of Labor Camps in the USSR, 1923-1960: A Guide) edited by N.G. Okhotin, by A.B. Roginsky Moscow: Zvenya, 598 pp.
  • Labor Camp Socialism: The Gulag in the Soviet Totalitarian System
    by Galina Mikhailovna Ivanova M.E. Sharpe, 208 pp., $24.95 (paper)
  • Gulag v Komi Krai (The Gulag in the Komi Region)
    by N.A. Morozov
  • Siktivar: Siktivkarskii Universitet, 181 pp. Gulag v Karelii (The Gulag in Karelia)
    edited by Vasily Makurov
  • Petrozavodsk: Karelskii Nauchni Tsentr RAN,
    225 pp. Vyatlag by Viktor Berdinskikh
  • Kirov: Kirovskaya Oblastnaya Tipografia,
    318 pp. Polyansky ITL (Corrective Labor Camp) Zheleznogorska by S.P. Kuchin
  • Zheleznogorsk (Krasnoyarsk-26):
    Museino-Vystavochny Tsentr, 256 pp.
  • Till My Tale Is Told: Women's Memoirs of the Gulag
    edited by Vilensky Simeon Indiana University Press, 364 pp., $35.00

To some Russians, the memory of a first encounter with Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago is as much a physical memory–the blurry, mimeographed text, the dog-eared paper, the dim glow of the lamp switched on late at night–as it is one of reading the revelatory text itself. Continue reading “Inside the Gulag”