History / Stephen F. Cohen

Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin

Out in paperback later this month, read an extract from Stephen F. Cohen’s critically acclaimed The Victims Return, providing a powerful narrative of the survivors of the Gulag after Stalin, from their liberation and return to Soviet society, to their long struggle to salvage what remained of their shattered lives, and to obtain justice.

The Victims Return

‘Now those who were arrested will return, and two Russias will be eyeball to eyeball: The one that put people in the camps and the one put there.’
Anna Akhmatova

Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror in the Soviet Union has been called ‘the other holocaust’, and with good reason. During its twenty-four-year history, more innocent men, women and children perished than died in Hitler’s destruction of the European Jews. Many generalisations have been made about survivors of Stalin’s terror – about their health, psychology, families, and politics – but few of them, if any, are valid. Lives after the Gulag were almost as diverse as the human condition itself.

Some victims were so broken by their experiences they died within a few weeks or months of their release – ‘from freedom’, it was said. Some died on the way home, on a train, in a railway station, in a street. A few dropped dead in the camps just after being notified of their impending release but before the day they were scheduled to be freed. Such was the case of a middle-aged man who had survived fifteen years in Kolyma in the hope of once again seeing his aged mother. She outlived him. For these victims who survived Stalin, there was no post-Gulag life, no return.

But others achieved astonishingly long lives, especially considering what they had endured and that male longevity in Russia even today is less than sixty years. Anna Larina lived to her early eighties, Nikolai Bukharin’s brother, Vladimir, to eighty-eight. Novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died in 2008, in Moscow, at eighty-nine. Still others lived into their nineties, among them Shvernik Commission activist Olga Shatunovskaya, Sergey Snegov, and the well-known film and television actor Georgy Zhzhenov. My friend Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko and the philosopher Grigory Pomerants, Shatunovskaya’s confidant after she was ousted from Party headquarters, were still active in Moscow, at ninety, in 2010.

I know of no general explanation for their remarkable longevity. It may be that the people I knew or studied just happened to have extraordinary genes. Or the explanation may be Darwinian: having survived the Gulag, the rest was easy. Or perhaps they were like Lev Gumilyov, who resolved, ‘The years in camp don’t count; it’s as though I didn’t live them,’ and was determined to make up for lost time after the Gulag.

The psychology of post-Gulag lives also differed markedly. Some returnees had been so traumatised they remained forever fearful, concealing their past, refusing to discuss it even with family members, and shunning fellow survivors. They became submissive Soviet citizens, ‘their fear of their own thoughts, their dread of being rearrested, were so overwhelming that they seemed more truly and thoroughly imprisoned than when they had been doing forced labor.’ Even two of the Gulag’s greatest memoirists never fully escaped its legacy. Fearing the manuscript would be discovered, Eugenia Ginzburg burned a ‘much sharper’ draft of her famous book; and Varlam Shalamov, while writing the most unsparing accounts in his Kolyma Tales, seemed ‘frozen by his experience . . . like a blackened tree struck by lightning, which will never again become green.’

And yet, other returnees remained ‘professional zeks’ (Russian slang for a prison or forced labour camp inmate), wearing their camp experience like a badge of honour, maintaining lifelong friendships with Gulag comrades, and speaking out because ‘they could not do otherwise.’ It took little for Gumilyov to strike ‘his legendary zek pose’ and retell the story of ‘my Golgotha.’ Snegov, a Communist truth-teller, replied in character when a hostile Party official asked if he was in the Soviet or anti-Soviet camp, ‘I am from Kolyma!’ Anton’s years in the Gulag never ceased being the defining aspect of his defiant identity. And a poet adopted the pen name, ‘Vladimir Zeka.’ For them, as for Solzhenitsyn, ‘the question of whether to conceal his past or be proud of it never arose.’ (Already a famous Soviet author when summoned by the KGB in 1974, he showed up in his old Gulag clothing. Told that ‘the masquerade isn’t necessary,’ he was dressed in a new suit and deported to West Germany.)

Many other returnees were neither chronically fearful nor resolutely bold. This was particularly true of ones still young enough to have professional aspirations or ones worried about further stigmatising their children. Aleksandr Bayev, was such a person. After his return in the 1950s, he rose to the top of the Soviet Academy of Sciences without any outward expressions of his seventeen years in the Gulag, confiding only in close friends and trusted colleagues. A decent and tolerant man, he strongly disapproved of dissident activities because they endangered what he had ‘suffered to achieve,’ much like Bukharin’s historian daughter objected to her half brother’s public protests in the 1970s. When Bayev finally told his Gulag story four decades later, a few years before his death in 1997, more people than not were surprised by it.

The great majority of survivors simply slipped back into the anonymity of society, but a significant number, like Bayev, went on to eminent Soviet careers. Though virtually unknown at the time, there were precedents even under Stalin, especially among zeks freed to fight in the war against Nazi Germany. Released with several other military officers arrested in 1937–38, Konstantin Rokossovsky, who had his fingernails yanked out and had been badly beaten by the NKVD (the Soviet Union’s secret police), became one of the most successful and popular wartime generals, rising to the rank of marshal. Another freed general, Aleksandr Gorbatov, led his army all the way to Berlin, where he became head of the Soviet occupation forces in 1945. (His former cellmate occupied the same position in Vienna.)

The wartime return of the rocket engineer and designer Sergei Korolev was no less consequential. Released to develop weapons against Nazi Germany, he later headed the Soviet space-exploration program. As such, considering the Soviet Union’s pioneering role, the former Gulag inmate Korolev may be considered to have been the father of space travel. Nor was he alone. His colleague V.P. Glushko, who helped free Korolev in 1942 after his own release, later accomplished so much in international astronomy that a moon crater was named for him. (Unlike Korolev, whose work remained highly classified, Glushko also rose politically, becoming a member of the Communist Party Central Committee in 1976.)

Of course, many more Gulag survivors rose or returned to prominence after Stalin’s death than before. Several are already known to readers. Eddi Rozner recreated his jazz band and his popularity of the 1940s, though he died in 1976 embittered by his experiences and with his music eclipsed by Western rock-and-roll. Two of the Starostin brothers, Nikolai and Andrei, again became national football figures,  as team executives for FC Spartak Moscow. The once beautiful ingénue Tatyana Okunevskaya resumed her acting career, though in different roles, as did Zhzhenov and another popular star, Pyotr Veliaminov. Aleksei Kapler, after serving ten years for his affair with Stalin’s daughter, returned to the film world as a writer/ director and host of a popular television program about movies. Anna Larina’s Gulag friend, Natalya Sats, another name perhaps known to some readers, created the world-renowned Moscow Children’s Theater.

Such illustrious post-Gulag careers were, however, exceptions. Even after Stalin’s terror was ended and its survivors freed, many gifted returnees and their children could enter public life only obliquely, by glossing over their past, adopting pseudonyms, or constructing dual existences. Nikolai Bukharin’s son, Yuri Larin, for example, struggled to emerge as an artist until the late 1980s, without official support and sanctioned exhibits, while maintaining public silence about his parents. Another example was his friend Yuri Aikhenvald, a handsome, extraordinarily talented man with an equally ‘spoiled biography’, whom I met in the 1970s when his Moscow apartment was an ‘open house’ for political and cultural non-conformists, including other returnees.

Born in 1928, Aikhenvald’s life had been doubly stigmatised from the beginning – first by his paternal grandfather, Yuli, a well-known anti-Communist intellectual deported by Lenin’s government in 1922; and then, on the opposing side, by his father, Aleksandr, one of the prominent Bukharinists shot by Stalin. Following his mother’s arrest in 1937, Yuri Aikhenvald lived with elderly relatives, but by age fourteen was in effect an orphan on his own. In 1949, when Stalin was rounding up the now grown children of his previous victims, including Bukharin’s daughter, Svetlana, Yuri Aikhenvald himself was arrested. Exiled to Kazakhstan, he was rearrested in 1951 and held in a psychiatric prison until his release in 1955.

By the 1960s, while teaching literature to high school students, Aikhenvald had developed into an outstanding poet whose best work was written ‘for the drawer’ or published only abroad. Dissident activities, KGB persecution, and an ensuing heart attack terminated his formal employment. To support his family and achieve some public expression, Aikhenvald became the all-butanonymous translator of popular Soviet theatrical productions, notably Man of La Mancha and Cyrano de Bergerac. Thus was a generation of Soviet theatre-goers, many of them members of the Party-state elite, unknowingly entertained and edified by a former zek, himself a kind of political Don Quixote with a Cyrano-like alter ego, who took the opportunity to embed lines from his banned poems in the text.

But what about the millions of other survivors freed in the 1950s? Some of their stories are known. Vadim Tumanov, the Kolyma zek freed by a traveling commission in 1956, went on to become a Siberian legend for his gold-mining feats. The geologist Pavel Vittenburg, like several other scientists, published major works without revealing that his primary research had been done in the Gulag. Another returnee poet became, using the pseudonym Roman Sef, the Russian translator of My Fair Lady and Walt Whitman. But, and what should be stressed, most of Stalin’s surviving victims vanished into society without leaving recorded traces.

We can only guess, therefore, how many of them found a kheppi end, as Russians also say, and how many never did. When I asked returnees I knew what they thought had happened to all the others, they usually shrugged and replied, in a Russian idiom, ‘Even former zeks had different fates.’ Presumably – or we should hope – many who lived out their lives privately managed to achieve a relatively happy end, at least in the Soviet context. (Even though Kamil Ikramov’s eyesight was so badly damaged in the Gulag that he could not appreciate the paintings of his friend Yuri Larin, he looked back on his return as ‘a happy finale’ and the ‘beginning of a new life.’) But many were not so fortunate. Some of them could be seen over the years living in homes for the aged, railway stations, and makeshift shelters, hopelessly dysfunctional and destitute.

The sad end of two returnees, both admired authors, may tell us something about many unknown ones. Shalamov, once considered by some ‘Russia’s greatest living writer,’ died in exceptionally lonely circumstances, an inchoate ward of the state’s primitive facilities. The frail, once beautiful poet of the Leningrad blockade of 1941–44, Olga Berggolts, whose words, ‘No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten,’ adorn its most revered monument, never recovered from the Stalinist terror. In the 1930s, her first and second husbands were executed and both of her young daughters, one an infant, died, as did the child Berggolts was carrying during her own imprisonment from 1937 to 1939. After fighting the affliction for two decades, she died of alcoholism in 1975, having lived her last years, her sister said, in ‘pain, wine, and loneliness.’ ■

The Victims ReturnStephen F. Cohen is a leading scholar of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, media commentator and author of several widely acclaimed books. He is Professor of Russian Studies and History at New York University and Emeritus Professor of Politics at Princeton. His books include The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, Rethinking the Soviet Experience and Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia.

One thought on “Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin

  1. I’m grateful for your efforts to shed light on these horrific experiences. Not since Robert Conquest have I seen any documentation of the facts of this recent period of time. My father was born in such a gulag…he lives to this day…it is refreshing to see acknowledgment, yet regardless it will not be forgotten.

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