The Forgotten Women of the GulagHistorians in the News
tags: Communism, Soviet Union, Stalinism, Gulags
In November 1962, nine years after Stalin’s death, the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s first novel sent shock waves through the Soviet Union. Here, finally, was a candid takedown of Stalinist tyranny—one that was not samizdat but, remarkably, state-sanctioned thanks to the limited easing of restrictions afforded by Khrushchev’s thaw. A fictional account of the trials and horrors of the Siberian forced labor camps, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich drew on the author’s experience of the Gulag, first among common criminals in general camps and later among long-term prisoners in so-called “special” camps.
Readers at home and around the world were stunned by the book’s depictions of the merciless Gulag system and its rigorous, systematic efforts to grind down an innocent man. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov does work that is both arduous and monotonous, and is only excused from it when temperatures plummet to –41° C. Apart from sleep, the only time he “lives for himself” is ten minutes in the morning at breakfast, five over dinner, and five at supper. Not that he and his fellow zeks are able to keep track of time: No clocks tick in the camps and convicts are not allowed to carry watches. Food is scant, barely edible, and hardly nourishing. Team leaders determine a person’s fate: “a good one will give you a second life, a bad one will put you in your coffin.” Resistance is futile. Complaining proves fatal. “Better to growl and submit,” Shukhov tells us. “If you were stubborn they broke you.”
Solzhenitsyn paved the way for more former prisoners to open up and recount their stories. To date, however, the majority of those stories have come from male prisoners; the women who were deported to the camps have largely been overlooked. Czech-born author and translator Monika Zgustova has taken a vital step to rectify that gap. Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag comprises nine valuable eyewitness testimonies from nine women. All endured monstrous suffering. All lived to tell their tale. The book—both a necessary corrective and a compelling read—was originally published in Spanish in 2017. Now, thanks to Julie Jones’ expert translation, it appears in English.