INTRODUCTION TO THE AMERICAN EDITION
A TRIP TO MOSCOW
When the liberation movement known as the Prague Spring ended in August 1968, suppressed by Soviet tanks, and Czechoslovakia was once again under the aegis of the Soviet Union, Soviet authorities began to persecute my father, an eminent linguist, for having participated in the protests in his native Prague. It was then that my parents started to think about fleeing and settling in the US. It wasn’t an easy task, because under communism it was illegal to leave the country. After a long period of deliberation in the mid-1970s, my parents went with their two teenage children—my brother and me—on a trip to India organized by the Czech state travel agency Čedok. Sixty people undertook the journey and only four of them returned to Prague. Our family was among those who absconded. As a college student in America, my main fields of interest were Russian language, literature, and culture as well as Eastern European cultural history. I read most of the nineteenth-century Russian classics, but didn’t stop there—I also researched the dissident movements in the USSR and its satellite countries. After that I taught Russian in several American universities and always encouraged discussion among my students about Russian cultural and historical issues. Later on I moved to Barcelona, where I started translating Russian and Czech literature into Spanish and Catalan. The dissidents as well as the internal and external émigré writers were at the top of my list: Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova, Václav Havel, Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Josef Škvorecký . . . I feverishly translated them all. And ever since I started to write my own fiction, my novels have always dealt, one way or another, with the subject of women under totalitarianism.
In September 2008, I traveled to Moscow. Once I was there, a writer friend, Vitaly Shentalinsky, who was familiar with my interests, invited me to accompany him to a meeting of former prisoners of the Gulag. I had never met anyone who had been kept in the Gulag, but I knew that Stalin’s reign is referred to as “the other Holocaust” because many more people perished during the twenty-four years of his terrifying reign (1929–1953) than died under Nazi rule (although they died over a longer period of time); most historians estimate that 30 million people were killed by Stalin’s regime. I said yes.
I had imagined the ex-prisoners as lifeless shadows, but the people who showed up, most of them old and poor, were often lively. I was surprised to see many women—most of them Jews—at that literary and political gathering. While I listened to them reciting their poems and reading their stories and essays, I began to wonder how they had endured the cruel conditions of the Gulag. I decided then and there that I wouldn’t leave the Russian capital without interviewing some of those survivors.
At the gathering, they introduced me to Semyon Vilensky, another ex-prisoner and, like so many others, a Jew. He kept an archive of texts in prose and verse that people had composed in the Gulag. The next day I visited him at his apartment on the outskirts of the city. “The prisoners could write almost nothing down,” Vilensky explained, “because they were only allowed to write a few letters to their families every year. They usually didn’t have paper or a pencil, so they had to create the poems in their minds and then memorize them. I know a few who had memorized tens of thousands of verses. They didn’t forget them, and when they got out of the Gulag, they transcribed them.”
It was then that I started to see the magical power of beauty—the beauty of poetry but also, as I later learned, of the natural world—for a person who has been downtrodden, and I longed to discover more about the people who had had to spend years or even decades in the forced labor camps. I decided I’d interview only women, because they were less documented than the male prisoners. Semyon Vilensky gave me a few names and telephone numbers. “These are all passionate readers, and they are fond of art and music,” he told me. “In their houses you will find excellent libraries and works of art. Most of the people who survived had a certain level of culture. To put it another way: culture helped them survive.” To reach them, I had to take the metro and then trains, buses, or streetcars. There, on the outskirts of the capital, the former political prisoners greeted me with what I had come to see as Russian hospitality. Never completely rehabilitated, they remembered their years of captivity with horror, but many also told me their lives would have been incomplete without that experience.
It was hard for me to accept this. However, as the conversations continued and they showed me their photographs and books (Semyon Vilensky was right: they had all gathered impressive libraries in their modest apartments), I began to understand. What these women found in the Gulag was their hierarchy of values, at the top of which were books and invulnerable, selfless friendship.
These exiled Russian women found refuge in friendship and poetry.
Zayara Vesyolaya showed me some tiny handmade books that she’d fabricated after her punishment came to an end: the poetry that had been written in the Gulag. “Since books were forbidden, at night we recited the poems we had composed and memorized; we preferred to sleep less and to try to develop our minds through literature,” she explained.
I remembered her words when, a few years later, in Paris, I visited Irina Emelyanova, the daughter of Olga Ivinskaya, Boris Pasternak’s last love and the inspiration for Lara, the heroine of Doctor Zhivago. Irina told me that after Pasternak’s death, both she and her mother were sent to the Gulag. Irina fell in love with another prisoner there, a translator of poetry, and the two communicated by hiding poems in the bricks of the wall that separated the women’s and the men’s camps. He left her poems he had written himself and poems by French writers that he had translated. She left him Pasternak’s poetry transcribed onto minuscule scraps of paper.
Valentina Iyevleva, an actor who had spent eight years in the frozen desert of Kotlas because she was the daughter of an “enemy of the people” (her father had been shot in the 1930s), shared a memory with me. Once, after a brutal beating inflicted by the camp guards, they had to operate on her hand. In the infirmary barracks, by some miracle, she found a copy of War and Peace. It was the first book she had touched in years. While she recovered from the operation, she read it secretly, and, as soon as she had finished it, she started reading it all over again, avidly. Since she had no other books, she read Tolstoy’s novel four times. When she left the Gulag, she filled the room she was renting with books stacked up to the ceiling. “I spent every day and every night reading; I was insatiable,” Valentina confessed. “I couldn’t start life over after I left the Gulag because people distrusted someone who had been a prisoner. Books gave my life meaning.”
Galya Safonova is younger than the others. She was born in a Siberian Gulag in the 1940s. Since all she knew at the time were the barracks she lived in with her mother and other women, prison life was natural to her, and even today she keeps the books the women prisoners made for her. My eyes fell on one by chance: Little Red Riding Hood. It was made of scraps of paper of different sizes, sewed together by hand, with drawings sketched with colored pencils on each page: Little Red Riding Hood with her basket of presents, the wolf with the grandmother, the wolf in disguise with Little Red Riding Hood; the text of the story was written in ink. “Each one of those books made me happy!” Galya exclaimed. “As a little girl, they were my only cultural points of reference. I have kept them all my life. I treasure them!”
Elena Korybut-Daszkiewicz Markova, who had spent more than ten years in especially hard circumstances in the mines of Vorkuta in the treeless tundra, way beyond the Arctic Circle, showed me a book by Alexander Pushkin adorned with engravings and published in 1905: “In the camp, this book passed through hundreds, maybe even thousands, of hands. Books have their own lives, their histories and their end, just as humans do. You can’t imagine what a book meant to the prisoners: it was salvation! Beauty, liberty, and civilization in the midst of total barbarity!”
There were many foreigners in the Gulag. In 2013 I took advantage of a trip to London to interview a representative of this extensive group: the Pole Janina Misik. Her family was one of the tens of thousands arrested in the part of Poland that now belongs to Belarus and sent to Siberia. They later traveled by foot across Russia to the south—Uzbekistan—to seek refuge in Persia and Israel. Finally, a boat took Janina and her family to Great Britain.
While preparing to write these pages, I read a number of nonfiction books about the Gulag, but I would like my readers to learn about it through the stories of the nine intelligent, sensitive, and strong women I had the honor of interviewing—women who, in these interviews, relived their own lives and the lives of their friends, all rich in incident and experience. Talking to “my” women, I realized that human beings are capable of great fortitude, and I also realized that there is no situation, no matter how awful, that we cannot survive.
—Monika Zgustova, New York City, May 2019