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Gulag Voices Edited, By Anne Applebaum
The Victims Return, By Stephen F Cohen
Reviewed by Mary Dejevsky
Friday, 1 April 2011
That these two books appear at almost the same time is doubtless coincidence. The volume edited by Anne Applebaum, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Soviet prison-camp system, Gulag, is the latest in Yale's Annals of Communism series. It aims to chart different aspects of Soviet and international communism through judiciously selected primary sources. Stephen Cohen's book is the product of a 40-year old project, originating in his doctoral thesis, that he picked up again when Soviet-era archives started to be opened.
But, in one respect, the timing is not fortuitous. Applebaum and Cohen share a determination to relate the Gulag experience through those who endured it - and their families - while there is still time. With the first great wave of releases, ordered by Nikita Khrushchev at the start of his "Thaw" in the 1950s, and the mass rehabilitations ordered by Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, the number of those with their own memories are fast dwindling. Only a small minority recorded their suffering for posterity, and by no means everyone in subsequent generations cared to dwell on the past.
The other - equally laudable - objective they share is to reach the widest possible audience. Both have eschewed the natural academic instinct to cram as much information as possible into a fat volume and have opted for distillation instead. Their books are both slender by current standards but selectivity becomes a virtue. Each paragraph, and in Cohen's case each picture too, has had to earn its place.
Beyond that, the two books could not be more different. Applebaum's preface to each of her selected excerpts is spare, strictly factual and almost clinical. The former inmates (zeks) are left to speak for themselves. Cohen brings all his personal passion, loyalty and exuberance to his subject. There is a distinct bias towards the first generation of purged communists, reflecting the thesis he wrote on Nikolai Bukharin. His acquaintance with Bukharin's widow, Anna Larina - made, as happened so often in Soviet times, through a bizarre combination of luck and courage on both sides - gave him a unique window onto a whole world of Gulag survivors. To that extent, his book has elements of memoir. But it is a generous memoir that gives pride of place to others.
Cohen, you feel, has come a long way from his American student self to a state of more reflective understanding. He knows how to relate what he saw and heard then to what he is seeing and hearing now. Like many, though not all, of his Gulag survivors, he studiedly refrains from judgement - not about the system, which he palpably abhors, but about the conduct of individuals in extreme circumstances.
Concentrating on the lives of those who returned, he reserves accepting bemusement for those who simply slotted back into Soviet society, while expressing awed admiration for those who resolved to keep the flame of memory alive. He ranges widely, from the cost in family breakdown and destroyed social cohesion to the political effects of the mass returns and the way Stalin and the camps became totems for political struggles - struggles which, as he notes, are not yet completely resolved even now.
Though in a different mode, Cohen's chronicle of survival essentially picks up where Applebaum leaves off. In a decision that does not quite convince me, Applebaum has arranged her "Gulag voices" not chronologically but according to theme, from arrest to release, through the various set-pieces of camp life - jailers, informers, religion, the punishment cell - so familiar from the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Yevgenia Ginzburg and others. The chronology is that of the camp rather than history.
Applebaum notes that she has omitted these luminaries of camp literature because their work is already widely available and well-known in English translation. Yet, for all the searing personal accounts, including Hava Volovich's vain quest to keep her baby daughter alive, it is hard not to feel the absence of these giants from such a volume, even if the idea was to present more "ordinary" lives. Hard, too, to accept that the Annals of Communism series - intended for students and scholars as much as the general reader - is well served by such glaring omissions. The result is a book that cries out for a list of essential further reading.
Inevitably, these are sombre books, with occasional bright points - small victories won by prisoners against the odds, feats of personal forbearance; costly acts of honour. But there is another bright point, too. Both are also being published in Russian: not smuggled to and fro like the early Gulag literature, but to appear legally in Russian libraries and bookshops. They will inform a generation fortunate enough to be living in different times.