In Other Words

Don’t Go There

Chasing the dying memories of Soviet trauma.

Sean McCabe
Sean McCabe

In November 2004, Nona Panova was being interviewed by a researcher from the Russian human rights organization Memorial, working under my direction on an oral history project about private life in the Stalin era. Nona, a 75-year-old woman whose father had been arrested during the purges of the 1930s, had been talking for several hours about her upbringing in St. Petersburg and her family when she saw the tape recorder with its microphone. The conversation went like this:

Panova: So that’s how it was.… [Notices the tape recorder and shows signs of panic.] Are you recording this? But I’ll be arrested! They’ll put me into jail!

Interviewer: Who’ll put you in jail?

Panova: Someone will.… I’ve told you so much; there’s so much I’ve said.…

Interviewer: [Laughs.] Yes, and it was very interesting, but tell me, who today would want to put you in jail?

Panova: But did you really make a recording?

Interviewer: Yes, don’t you remember? I warned you at the start that our conversation would be recorded.

Panova: Then that’s it. It’s all over for me — they’ll arrest me.

Interviewer: So where will they send you then?

Panova: I don’t know — no doubt to Kolyma, if I don’t get killed before.

Interviewer: When?

Panova: Very soon.

Interviewer: What are you saying?

Panova: I won’t be able to sleep tonight; I won’t sleep.

Interviewer: Just because you told so much to me?

Panova: Of course!

Interviewer: But you know that I’ve come from Memorial.

Panova: Well.… But maybe you … maybe you’re not from the true Memorial.

More than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet regime, it was not unusual to find people of Nona’s generation who were still afraid to talk about their private lives during the Stalinist period. Growing up in the 1930s, they had learned from an early age to hide their feelings and opinions — people were arrested "for their tongue" — and were still afraid of getting into trouble if they said too much to a stranger. The microphone was a device associated with the KGB.

In the interviews, we were entering a forbidden zone of memory. For though a wide range of new material has become available since the glasnost era of the late 1980s — newly published diaries, memoirs, and letters — there is much we still do not know, and it remains unclear what to make of this new material even now, two decades after the Soviet collapse. At the heart of this historical debate is a question: Did Soviet-era subjects allow themselves a private life at all?

That was the issue we wanted to approach in our interviews. All in all, we interviewed 454 people. Like Nona, many were reluctant to talk or very anxious about our conversations. At best, they were reflecting on traumatic events that had occurred several decades before, when most were no more than teenagers. The problems of memory and interpretation were daunting. But it seemed a worthwhile project. Today, more than half of those we interviewed just a few years ago have passed away, and most of the rest would now be too old or frail to answer intimate questions of the sort we asked. The door is closing on the last living sources of information about what it was like to survive in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

For years, what the world knew about the Soviet Union was limited entirely to the public sphere. Apart from a few memoirs by great writers caught up in the repressions of the 1930s, particularly Evgenia Ginzburg and Nadezhda Mandelstam, there was little from a personal perspective coming out of those years. More representative testimonies began to emerge only in the glasnost period, when victims of Stalin’s repression were encouraged to come forward with their stories. Organizations like Memorial helped them look for information about their missing relatives, took interviews, and organized archives from the mass of documents, letters, photographs, and artifacts that people brought into their offices in plastic bags and boxes following the Soviet regime’s collapse.

And yet even these documents were difficult to interpret. Take diaries, usually regarded as the most direct expression of an individual’s private thoughts and emotions. Diarists of the 1930s and 1940s, however, faced serious obstacles. When a person was arrested, the first thing to be confiscated was the diary, which was likely to be used as incriminating evidence. Many diaries that came to light during the glasnost years express conformist political ideas. Should we take their words at face value, as expressions of a genuine yearning to belong to the Soviet collective, which was no doubt felt by many people insecure about their place in the system? Or should it be assumed that fear drove more to hide themselves behind a mask? Two major finds have been translated from Russian: the 1930s diary of Stepan Podlubny, a kulak son fashioning a Soviet identity for himself in a factory school, which was published in Germany as Tagebuch aus Moskau (1996) by historian Jochen Hellbeck; and Nina Lugovskaya’s schoolgirl diary from the same decade, published in English as I Want to Live (2006). For Hellbeck, the Podlubny diary shows how the individual was practically unable to think outside the terms defined by Soviet politics. In this vision of the "Soviet subject" — developed by Hellbeck from several newly discovered Stalin-era diaries in Revolution on My Mind (2006) — there is little space for private life at all, if we take that to depend on independent thought. Yet the Lugovskaya example shows that even a schoolgirl subjected to the full array of propaganda about the "radiant Soviet future" was not only capable of dissenting, pessimistic, and even "anti-Soviet" thoughts, but eager to confess them to her diary as an expression of her individuality.

Memoirs are beset by similar problems of interpretation. The narrative trajectory of literary memoirs like those by Ginzburg and Mandelstam has had a profound influence on amateur memoirists since glasnost, when these works were first published in Russia. Today, there are hundreds of unpublished memoirs about the Stalin years in the archives of Memorial. Many others have been published in tiny editions of a few hundred copies (usually paid for by the author) or put on the Internet. Most have the same narrative structure, beginning with the husband’s or father’s arrest, looking back nostalgically on the family’s happiness prior to the arrest, and then moving on to the consequences for the rest of the family post-arrest: the subject’s own arrest, the time spent in labor camps, the return and hunt for family, and the final reconciliation with the past. The uniformity of these "family chronicles" and "documentary tales" cannot be explained purely by literary fashion. Perhaps these memoirists felt some need to link their destiny to that of others like themselves by recalling their life story according to a literary prototype. Whatever the case, they identified with the emotional and ideological import of books like Ginzburg’s so completely that they took those works as the key to understanding the history of the Terror and their own experiences, suspending their own memories and allowing those books to speak for them.

Oral history has some advantages over written memoirs in this sense. Like all memory, the testimony given in an interview is unreliable, especially when it relates to events that took place many decades previously. But interview subjects can be cross-examined, unlike a book, and oral histories can be checked against other sources more easily than historic documents can.

One of the main problems we encountered throughout our interviews was the dominating influence of family legends. Most people whom we interviewed had been children or teenagers in the 1930s. They had little reliable information from which to reconstruct their family’s history before or during the Terror. Documents disappeared; the state concealed the truth about the fate of people shot by firing squads or worked to death in the labor camps — while grandparents and other relatives usually maintained a self-protective silence about arrested members of the family. To fill this void people drew on legends of the "happy family life" or "good father," sometimes based on no more than a few childhood memories and some stories they were told.

Tamara Trubina is a case in point. For more than 50 years, she did not know the fate of her father, Konstantin. Her mother, a doctor for the Gulag administration in Siberia, wouldn’t tell her anything except that he was a labor camp engineer working voluntarily in the Far East. After her mother died in 1992, Tamara found out that her father had been shot. But she still believed that he had been a voluntary worker in the Far East, until, through her interviews with us, she at last saw archival documents proving her father had been a Gulag prisoner. And yet she refused to believe them, at least at first. Tamara, a successful teacher, was unable to view herself as a victim of the Soviet system. She couldn’t blame her mother, either, for keeping back the truth. The knowledge that her father had been a Gulag prisoner could have poisoned Tamara’s entire life.

There is still so much to be discovered. In 2007, Memorial received 1,500 letters tied in bundles inside one of three huge trunks delivered to its Moscow offices, making up the most extraordinary cache of letters to emerge in the past 20 years. The trunks contained an archive collected over eight decades by Lev and Sveta Mishchenko. Lev and Sveta met in the 1930s, when they were both students in the physics faculty of Moscow State University. Then war broke out. Lev joined the Soviet army but was captured by the Germans and held in a series of concentration camps, ending with Buchenwald. After the war, he was given the option to immigrate to the West and turned it down because he wanted to find Sveta again. But, like many other returning prisoners of war, he was arrested immediately on entering the country and sent to the Pechora labor camp. In 1946, he wrote to an aunt in Moscow asking if she knew what had happened to Sveta. Sveta herself wrote back. She had been waiting for him for five years. Over the next decade they maintained their relationship through a constant series of letters, writing each other two or three times a week. At the end of every day they wrote something down. Because the letters were sent secretly, smuggled in and out by voluntary workers and officials with normal postal rights, they are remarkably frank and uncensored. Lev’s letters are the only major real-time record of daily life in the Gulag that has ever come to light. Filled with the most private thoughts and emotions, they let the reader get inside Lev’s and Sveta’s lives and watch their relationship unfold.

Unsurprisingly, many of the letters are difficult to interpret: The names of people were disguised, and there are euphemisms for the interior ministry ("uncles"), the Gulag ("umbrella"), and bribe money ("Vitamin D," from dengi, meaning money) in case the letters were intercepted. But my colleagues at Memorial and I had a chance to work with Lev and Sveta to unpack their meanings through video interviews before they passed away, within a few months of each other, in 2009. Later I worked in the archive of the labor camp, which explained many further details in Lev’s letters and revealed others about life in the camps that he did not write about. I also carried out a dozen interviews with survivors of the camp who still lived in Pechora and could remember Sveta’s five secret, illegal, and highly dangerous trips to visit Lev there. Nothing like these trips has ever been recorded in the history of the Gulag, but they are all documented in the letters. Lev and Sveta’s correspondence will be published by Memorial. Their story will be the subject of my next book.

Orlando Figes, professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London, is the author of The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia.