Martin Dewhirst reviews an anthology of reminiscences by people who lived and worked in the Gulag and survived into their eighties

16 May 2020

By Martin Dewhirst

Martin Dewhirst reviews Anna Artem’eva, Yelena Racheva, 58-ya. Ne”izyatoye: Istorii lyudey, kotorye perezhili to, chego my bol’she vsego boimsya. (The 58th. Still Relevant: Stories of People Who Went Through What We Fear Most of All.) Moscow, ‘AST’, 2018, 368 pp. 2,000 copies.

Why do I want to draw your attention to (rather than review) a rather long book in Russian which few of you will have the time as well as the linguistic ability to read in full and which is very unlikely to be translated into English?  There are several reasons, starting with the second word of the Russian title and the last word of the Russian subtitle.  The word Neiz”yatoye, which I have loosely and weakly rendered as Still Relevant, often means ‘items not confiscated’ during a search of a home before taking the arrested person(s) away for further interrogation.  What it appears to mean here is that even though Article 58 of the long-time Soviet Criminal Code was dropped several decades ago, it is, in effect, still (mis)used by the Russian political and security organs today via other articles in the current legislation in order to deprive some critics of the present Russian political system of their freedom to disseminate their views, ideas and information which the authorities would prefer not to be more widely known and discussed.

This is why the use of the present tense in the last word of the Russian subtitle (‘Fear’, not ‘Used to Fear’) is so important. ‘We’ here does not, of course, apply to the numerous people in Russia who sincerely believe that no better alternative to Putin and Putinism is currently feasible – the same mindset that prevailed in Stalin’s time and explains why Putin is more reluctant than Khrushchev and Gorbachev to criticise his Georgian predecessor.  After all, Putin is not a repentant ‘former’ KGB officer; he passionately wanted to serve in the Soviet secret police and shows no embarrassment about his murky past.

Another reason why this 2018 volume is so timely in 2020 is that it seems to shed prophetic light on Putin’s extraordinary behaviour since the middle of January this year, when he decided not just to alter a few articles in the current legal system but to introduce huge changes into the Russian Constitution itself.  Why?  The most eccentric (to put it mildly) idea was to enable him, health and wishes permitting, to serve as President of Russia until 2036, as he is, allegedly, literally irreplaceable.  It seems to me that this is a sort of ‘false flag’ operation to disguise his real motivation: to make it legally absolutely impossible for him ever to be sent to The Hague to answer a few questions about such strange events as the 1999 explosions in various blocks of flats, the murders of Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov, the illegal annexation of Crimea and the shooting down near the Ukrainian-Russian border in the summer of 2014 of a Malaysian airliner.  It’s unclear whether Putin had already been secretly informed about the impending Covid-19 epidemic in Russia by January 15th, but he certainly must have known that the trial in absentia of some of those responsible for the death of nearly 300 people in the Malaysian plane would finally get under way in March.  This would explain his frantic and apparently ridiculous activity to get the new version of the Russian Constitution into force before the end of the trial in The Netherlands, thus saving him from the sorry fate of his Serbian colleague Milošević.  One of the greatest ironies of contemporary history is that Putin’s lacklustre handling of the Coronavirus epidemic in Russia has, on the one hand, further undermined his reputation there, but on the other hand has given him more time to implement the new Constitution because the same epidemic has put the trial in The Hague on hold.  It currently looks as though Putin will win this race, however fraudulent the means he applies. Naturally, as after Stalin’s death, a little while after Putin’s demise…  However, will his successors be any better?

Now for a few words about this book.  It contains 66 interviews with, or quotations from the writings of, the minority of people who lived and worked in the Gulag and survived into their eighties.  About 15 of these 66 people were more or less voluntary employees of the Soviet penal system, and I found their testimonies of particular interest.  One can dip into these reminiscences, none of which is more than a few pages long, almost at random and in any order: no need to read the volume from cover to cover.  Each contribution is preceded by a photograph of the speaker or writer in old age, and I often failed miserably when guessing in advance whether the person in question had been a political prisoner or an employee of the ‘system’.  Moreover, I realised that I myself, had I been born in the USSR, could easily have voluntarily gone to work in the Gulag if that had been an option during compulsory military service, or if I had had only a very basic school education, or if there were simply no other jobs available in the area where I lived.  It has to be said that none of the Gulag employees expresses much regret for having worked in the ‘system’.  Two of them (see pp. 32 and 110) say they are [now!] firm religious believers.  If you can acquire a copy of this book, strongly recommended on the front and back covers by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Boris Akunin, Lev Rubinshteyn, Viktor Shenderovich and Leonid Parfyonov, I would suggest you first try pages 35-40, 53-56, 139-144, 251-254, 267-271, 283-289, 315-322 and 353-357.  The outcome for me was a feeling not of anger but of sadness and pity for both ‘sides’ in the great, failed, communist experiment: those who tried to implement it and those who were regarded as its enemies.  Many people, of course, moved from one of these categories to the other.  All were victims.  And many have still not drawn what seem to an outsider to be the obvious conclusions.  Putin is just one of them.

By a curious, but ominous, coincidence, I finished reading this book during the morning after Yury Dmitriev was refused permission to be transferred to home arrest from his Petrozavodsk remand facility, the so-called ‘investigation isolator’ which is not really an isolator but a breeding-ground for the spreading of the Coronavirus.  Those readers who still think that the Cold War is over and that Russia is already in a post-Soviet stage of development should look again at the articles by Ulitskaya (on Dmitriev), Bykov and Yavlinsky in last week’s Rights in Russia and, if possible, at Racheva’s and Artem’eva’s remarkable book.

P.S. After writing this article I received a copy of Dmitriev’s new, expanded, 516-page edition of his outstanding work on the victims of Sandarmokh, just published in Petrozavodsk in 1,000 copies.  Some people never give up!

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