Return (1953–6)


After long delays, Sonia Laskina finally returned from Vorkuta in November 1955. The entire Laskin family waited at the Iaroslavl Station to meet her train. Apart from her sister Zhenia, who had been to visit her in the labour camp, none of them had seen her for the past five years. At last Sonia’s train arrived, and she emerged from the crowd of passengers alighting from her carriage, looking very tired, pale and thin. Sonia walked towards her family. Standing before Samuil and Berta, she dropped her bags, fell on to her knees on the platform and begged her parents to forgive her for all the misfortune that she had brought them.

Like so many of the people who returned from Stalin’s labour camps, Sonia was burdened with a sense of guilt for the grief her arrest had caused. In Vorkuta, she had starved herself of food so that she could send some money home and had become dangerously thin. After her return, she lived for her family. At the age of forty-four, without a husband or children of her own, she dedicated herself to the welfare of her parents and to the children of her two sisters. ‘There was nothing she would not do for us,’ recalls her nephew Aleksei. ‘She was ready to drop everything if she felt that she was needed, to search the shops for medicine or run some errand. Her devotion to the family had an almost religious character, it had an element of self-negation and self-sacrifice, although she herself was not a religious person in the least.’1

Following the Russian tradition of freeing prisoners on the death of a tsar, a million prisoners were released from the labour camps by the amnesty of 27 March 1953, a figure representing about 40 per cent of the total population in the Gulag. In addition to convicts serving sentences of less than five years, the amnesty applied to prisoners convicted of economic crimes, women with young children, juveniles and prisoners who had reached retirement age. Political prisoners were excluded from the amnesty. Their cases needed to be reviewed by the Soviet Procuracy, a process that could take several years, especially in cases such as Sonia’s, where senior Party leaders (in her case Khrushchev) had been implicated in the creation of ‘anti-Soviet plots’. By the end of April 1955, the Soviet Procuracy had reviewed 237,412 appeals from political prisoners (less than a quarter of the appeals it had received since March 1953) but only 4 per cent had resulted in the release of the prisoners concerned.2

There was no rhyme or reason to these decisions. For example, the Stalin Factory Affair, in which Sonia was involved, had its origins in the ‘Zionist conspiracy’, supposedly organized by Solomon Mikhoels, the former head of the Jewish Theatre in Moscow. Mikhoels himself was posthumously rehabilitated on 3 April 1953, and after that he was praised frequently as a loyal patriot in the Soviet press. Yet in November of that year Sonia was informed by the General Procurator that there were no grounds to justify a review of her case. A prisoner in the Inta labour camp who had also been arrested in connection with the Stalin Factory Affair was outraged when he got a similar response. It came in a letter with the single sentence, ‘No grounds for a review of the case’, which he was meant to sign and return to the Procurator to acknowledge its receipt. ‘There is no logic in it,’ he compained to his fellow prisoners. If Mikhoels was innocent, why wasn’t he? One of the other prisoners replied: ‘Sign the letter now – and they will send the logic later on.’3

The Soviet leadership was divided over how far to go with the release of prisoners. Immediately after Stalin’s death, Beria had argued for a general amnesty for all prisoners who ‘did not represent a serious danger to society’, including 1.7 million political exiles. Beria was the dominant figure in the collective leadership of Politburo members that took control on Stalin’s death. With his power base in the MVD and MGB, he ran the government in partnership with Malenkov (Chairman of the Council of Ministers) and Voroshilov (Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet), although Khrushchev (the Secretary of the Party’s Central Committee) was bitterly opposed to Beria and campaigned against him from the start with the support of Nikolai Bulganin (the new Defence Minister). Senior Party and military leaders were certainly suspicious of Beria’s programme, which involved the immediate dismantling of the Gulag system and the relaxation of Soviet policies in the newly annexed territories of western Ukraine, the Baltic region and East Germany. In the spring of 1953, Beria imposed a series of reforms on the East German leadership. The Communist hardliners in Berlin dragged their heels over implementing the measures, resulting in a week of mass demonstrations on the streets of East Berlin that were put down by Soviet tanks. Back in Moscow, Beria was blamed for the uprising by Khrushchev, Bulganin, Molotov and even Malenkov. On 26 June, he was arrested in a Kremlin coup, organized by Khrushchev with senior army personnel in the Soviet capital. Held in an underground bunker at the Staff Headquarters of the Moscow Military District, he was tried in secret and then shot in December 1953 (it is even possible that he was shot before his trial). There was no legal basis for the coup: the charges against Beria were extremely vague (there was nothing he had done without the agreement of the collective leadership); and the verdict against him was announced to the Party long before his trial was held. But none of the leaders opposed the coup, or even questioned its legality. Trained in the traditions of Stalinist obedience to the Party line, they were a docile group of functionaries, quick to bend their principles when they sensed a shift of power at the top. Khrushchev emerged from the coup with new confidence. Simonov recalls the Party Plenum of 24 December when the execution of Beria was announced. He was struck by the ‘passionate satisfaction’ with which Khrushchev recounted the ‘capture’ of Beria: ‘You could tell from his account that it was Khrushchev himself who had played the main role… that he had instigated the action, and had turned out to be more discerning, more talented, more energetic, and more decisive than the other leaders,’ who had no choice but to submit.4

Although Malenkov was formally the head of the Soviet government, Khrushchev was the growing force inside the collective leadership. The coup had nothing to do with policies: it was a naked struggle for power. Khrushchev had supported Beria’s programme and he now took it for his own. From the end of 1953, Khrushchev introduced a series of reforms to reinforce the principles of ‘socialist legality’, a term used throughout the Soviet period but never taken very seriously. He ordered a review by the Soviet Procurators of all cases involving ‘counterrevolutionary crimes’ since 1921. Khrushchev took a particular interest in the Leningrad Affair, in which his rival Malenkov had served as Stalin’s main henchman. In April 1954, several MGB officials closely linked to Malenkov at the time of the Leningrad Affair were arrested. Malenkov was clearly under threat. For the moment, Khrushchev held back the evidence he had gathered against Malenkov – he still needed his support in the collective leadership – but in the early months of 1955, as Khrushchev launched his bid for the control of the Party, he saw to it that Malenkov was charged with ‘moral responsibility’ for the Leningrad Affair and demoted from Chairman of the Council of Ministers to Minister of Electrification.

Khrushchev used the exposure of Stalin’s crimes to strengthen his position and undermine his rivals in the leadership (what he did to Malenkov in 1955 he would do to Kaganovich, Molotov and Voroshilov at the Party Congress in 1961). It was a dangerous game to play, because Khrushchev had himself been deeply implicated in the mass repressions of the 1930s, first as the Moscow Party boss in 1935–8, and then as Party chief of Ukraine, when he oversaw the arrest of at least a quarter of a million people. But Khrushchev was able to limit the Procurators’ activities if they went against his own interests. The Stalin Factory Affair was one such example. Because Khrushchev was involved, there were long delays in the review of prisoners’ appeals that might throw up incriminating evidence against him. In June 1954, Sonia Laskina was promised a response to her appeal by August; in August she was told that it would be done by September; in September this became October, then November; and then in February 1955, she heard that it would be completed by the end of March. The case was finally considered in September 1955.5

Like the other Party leaders, Khrushchev was afraid of what might happen if all of Stalin’s victims were suddenly released. ‘We were scared,’ he wrote in his memoirs. ‘We were afraid that the thaw might unleash a flood, which we wouldn’t be able to control and which would drown us all.’ According to Mikoian, a Politburo member for over thirty years, it would have been politically impossible for all the ‘enemies of the people’ to be declared innocent at once, because that would make it clear that ‘the country was not being run by a legal government, but by a group of gangsters’. The Party leadership had no real interest in speeding up the release of political prisoners. Nor did the officials of the Procuracy, who were reluctant to admit mistakes in the prosecution of politicals, let alone to confess their part in the fabrication of evidence against them during Stalin’s terror. In 1954, serving the interests of both institutions, the staff of the Soviet Procuracy was cut by two-thirds, thereby prolonging the procedural delays.6

The Laskin family at their Ilinskoe dacha near Moscow, 1956.
From left: Zhenia, Berta, Sonia, Samuil, Fania

The Laskin family was one of the lucky ones. They were able to return to the old rhythms of domestic life, and in many ways they became even closer after Sonia came back from the labour camps. Sonia herself was invited to take up her old job at the Stalin Factory. After months of writing applications to the Procuracy and battling with officials in Soviet offices, she received a certificate of rehabilitation, clearing her of all the charges against her, restoring her civil rights and entitling her to a small sum in compensation for the five years she had wasted in the labour camp. Sonia was given a small room in a communal apartment on the outskirts of Moscow, which was used by various relatives, as were all the places where the Laskins lived. The famous Laskin suppers at Zubov Square carried on as usual on Sunday evenings. The apartment was always full of family and friends, including some, like the poet Lugovskoi, Simonov’s old teacher at the Literary Institute, who became part of the extended clan. Aleksei, who was already sixteen when Sonia returned, recalls the atmosphere of the Laskin home:

It was a place of extraordinary warmth and hospitality governed by the outlook of my grandfather [Samuil Laskin]. He ran it by this rule: anyone who came into our home was welcomed as a member of the family. Once I tried to test this rule: for several Sundays in a row I brought home to dinner various girls I had picked up on the streets. No one said a word, not even my mother, who was morally very strict, because those were Samuil’s rules.7

The return of relatives from the labour camps drew many families closer. Years of separation brought home the joys of domestic life even to those Bolsheviks who had once lived entirely for politics. Before her arrest in 1937, Ruth Bonner had taken little interest in the upbringing of her two children. She was totally committed to her work in the Party. The letters she wrote to her teenage daughter Elena from ALZhIR were cold and loveless, with instructions for her to study hard, ‘help your grandmother’, and ‘be a model Komsomol’. Her main concern was to petition Mikoian (an old friend) to save her husband, who had been arrested in the purge of the Comintern in 1937, insisting in her letters that he ‘had always been faithful to the Party’. Released in 1946, Ruth was not allowed to return to Leningrad, so she settled in Luga, 135 kilometres to the south, where, with the help of Elena’s friends, young poets, she got a job as a housemother at the Writers’ Union Pioneer camp. Meanwhile, Elena had returned to Leningrad from the army, having spent the war years serving as a military nurse, and was studying pediatrics at the Medical Institute. She shared a room with several girlfriends (including Ida Slavina) and, during the winter, when the Pioneer camp was closed, Ruth would come to visit her. At first their relations were tense. ‘I could tell that she didn’t share our post-war jollity and didn’t approve of our way of life,’ recalls Elena in her memoirs.

Now I understand that each of us had her own experiences. She had the death of her husband, prison, and camp. I had my own losses and, as it seemed then, a completely different life. Neither of us knew how to be open with the other, and I didn’t want that. I was annoyed by the way Mama still treated me like the fourteen-year-old she had left, and her questions drove me crazy: ‘Where are you going?’ ‘When will you be back?’

Reflecting on these years in interview, Elena admits: ‘I often wished my mother would just go to hell. I couldn’t kick her out, but I could drop out of the institute and run away somewhere, anywhere to earn a living, as long as I was free from her.’ After the birth of Elena’s daughter Tania in 1950, there was a dramatic change in Ruth’s priorities. ‘We found a common focus – the upbringing of her granddaughter – and that brought us closer,’ recalls Elena. From that moment, Ruth ceased to have any real interest in politics. Although she rejoined the Party after her return to Leningrad and her rehabilitation in 1954, she never played an active role and, according to Elena, remained a member ‘mainly because she was afraid for us, above all for her grandchildren’.* ‘Only the grandchildren [Tania and her brother Aleksei] mattered,’ Elena recalls. ‘It was amazing how much warmth and inner radiance she had preserved for them.’ Ruth was rediscovering the values of her own mother, Elena’s beloved grandmother Batania, who had taken charge of her grandchildren while her children dedicated themselves to their Party work. Reflecting on this transformation in her mother’s character, Elena Bonner remembers the morning of Ruth’s funeral in December 1987:

I was getting tablecloths from the cupboard, setting the tables for the wake. The first to fall on me was a heavy cloth with coloured embroidery… Under it was the pink one! Now, after innumerable washings, it merely gave off a pink tint, and Mama’s beautiful and fine mending stood out in bright pink. Could I have ever imagined that my mother, a Party worker, antibourgeois and maximalist, who never allowed herself to use a tender word to Egorka or me, would be mending tablecloths, sewing dresses for me, dressing up Tania, that she could turn into a ‘crazy’ grandmother and great-grandmother, for whom her grandchildren and great-grandchildren would be the ‘chief light in the window’, the justification for all the losses of her entire life? I couldn’t even imagine that she would come to love potted flowers on the windowsill and tend them, making them grow and live. Or that she would turn in her Party card with a certain pride and challenge. This was not a demonstration for the sake of the Party or a settling of accounts… It was simply that with that difficult, almost impossible step she fully gave herself to us, her warm, living love, which was higher and greater than abstract ideas and principles. She said almost before her death that in life you must simply live in a good and kind way.8

Families had a miraculous capacity for survival despite the enormous pressures arrayed against them during Stalin’s reign. The family emerged from the years of terror as the one stable institution in a society where virtually all the traditional mainstays of human existence – the neighbourhood community, the village and the church – had been weakened or destroyed. For many people the family represented the only relationships they could trust, the only place they felt a sense of belonging, and they went to extraordinary lengths to reunite with relatives.

Few people made quite as many sacrifices as Valentin Muravsky. He was born in 1928 to the family of a radio engineer in Leningrad. In 1937, after the arrest and execution of his father as an ‘enemy of the people’, Valentin was exiled with his sister Dina and his mother to Uzbekistan, from which they returned to Leningrad in 1940. During the war, when they were evacuated to Cherkessk, near Stavropol, the three of them were captured by the Germans and sent to work in various factories in Austria and Germany. In 1945, Dina was working at a factory near Nuremberg that was liberated by US troops. She married an American officer and emigrated to the USA. But Valentin returned to Leningrad, where he was reunited with his mother. The war had made him think more critically about the Soviet system and about the reasons for the arrest of his father. His experience in Germany had led him to conclude that one could live more freely in the West, a view he expressed in letters to his sister in America. In 1947, Valentin was arrested and interrogated by the MGB, which tried to persuade him to convince his sister to return to the Soviet Union. When Valentin refused, he was charged with ‘anti-Soviet propaganda’ and sentenced to three years in a labour camp near Krasnoiarsk. His mother was arrested in 1948, also on the basis of her correspondence with Dina, and sentenced to ten years in the ALZhIR labour camp. Valentin was released in 1950. He went to live with an aunt in Anapa, on the Black Sea coast near Krasnodar, and found a job in a cement factory. But he was soon conscripted by the Soviet navy and sent to Sevastopol, where he was forced to serve for the next four years. He married a nineteen-year-old girl from Sevastopol, and they had a daughter, who was born in 1953.

In 1954, Valentin was released from the navy. He decided to go and live near his mother in Kazakhstan rather than to return to his native Leningrad, and took with him his wife and their daughter. Valentin gave up good job prospects in Leningrad. He had excelled in the navy and left it with an excellent report. But his conscience told him that he should help his mother, who, at the age of sixty-one, was physically weak and mentally damaged by the years of living in the labour camp. Looking back on his decision, Valentin explains it in terms of the principles he was taught in his childhood:

My mother always told me to be moral and honest, to live a life of truth, as preached by the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century, Herzen in particular, whose works she read to us when we were young… When I got married I told my wife that I would not hide the fact that my mother had been in a labour camp and that I would live in such a way to help her as best I could… I could not have acted otherwise. It was my moral duty to help her.

Valentin’s decision to follow his mother into exile was partly influenced by the example of the Decembrist wives, the noblewomen who had followed their husbands into political exile in Siberia after the failure of their uprising in December 1825. As he himself admits, there was perhaps in his decision a conscious element of political dissent, a deliberate withdrawal from the Soviet system and the career path that awaited him in Leningrad, which was born from his own injury and sense of injustice.9

Valentin Muravsky with his daughter Nina, Karaganda, Kazakhstan, 1954

In Kazakhstan Valentin worked as the driver of a combine harvester on a large collective farm in the middle of the steppe. The Soviet government was just then investing in new technology as part of the Virgin Lands Campaign, an optimistic and ultimately disastrous project to open up vast new tracts of arid steppeland in Kazakhstan and Siberia for wheat cultivation. Valentin’s kolkhoz was among the first to launch the campaign in 1954, when no less than 19 million hectares of grazing land went under the plough. Valentin lived with his wife and daughter in a primitive barracks in a remote steppeland settlement. Once a week he walked the 100 kilometres to Akmolinsk to visit his mother in the ALZhIR labour camp and bring her clothes and food. The burden of caring for his sick and aged mother, and the hardships of the steppe, placed an unbearable strain on Valentin’s relations with his wife, who was not prepared for such a sacrifice. In 1956, she left Valentin and went back to her family in the Crimea, leaving Valentin with their three-year-old daughter and his mother to care for. In the same year, Valentin’s mother was released from the camp. Valentin returned with her to Leningrad, where they lived together in a small room in a communal apartment. He got a job as a labourer in the construction of the Leningrad Metro. In 1957, his mother died: eight years of life in the labour camp had broken her entirely. Two years later, Valentin was rejoined by his wife; they had two more children; but then, in 1964, she left them once again. Valentin brought up their three children on his own.10

Marianna Fursei was reunited with her family in the most extraordinary way. Four years old and dangerously ill, in 1942 she had been given away for adoption to the Goldenshteins by her grandmother, who had then gone with Marianna’s brother Georgii to Irkutsk. After the war, Georgii returned to his mother’s family in Leningrad. They had no way of finding Marianna, because they had lost all contact with the Goldenshteins and did not even know their proper name. Marianna grew up with the Goldenshteins in Tbilisi. She thought of them as her parents and had no memory of her real family. But things began to change in her teenage years.

Marianna first began to suspect that the Goldenshteins were not her real parents in 1949, when other children at a Pioneer camp teased her as a foundling. The incident brought back traumatic memories of her early childhood in Arkhangelsk. She had a vague memory of her grandmother and could recall that she had a brother. As she grew older and began to rebel against the strict discipline of the Goldenshtein household, she attached even more importance to these distant memories, building them into an almost mythical picture of her long-lost family. Recalling that she had been in a hospital in Arkhangelsk, Marianna set out to trace her brother:

I was sixteen years old – it was 1954. I wrote a letter to Arkhangelsk. To the Medical Institute. On the envelope I wrote: First Year, First Group, to the First Female Student in Alphabetical Order. I told this girl that I had lived in Arkhangelsk as a child, on Pavlin Vinogradov Street, that I had a brother, and that there was a female doctor who might know something about him. Could she find her? And, would you believe it, this girl tracked down the doctor! The doctor told the girl how my grandmother and Georgii had been destitute and hungry. She also found out through acquaintances that my brother was studying physics somewhere in Leningrad. When the girl wrote back to me with all this information, I was in a frenzy of excitement. I sent letters to all the institutes in Leningrad, asking them to find a student called Georgii who had come from Arkhangelsk. It turned out that he was studying in the Polytechnic Institute. He wrote to me and sent a photograph.11

Georgii spent three months with Marianna in Tbilisi during the summer of 1954. He remembers their reunion as a joyous occasion, although he sensed some jealousy on his sister’s part, as he recalls, ‘that I had lived with grandma while she had been given away to strangers’. The Goldenshteins were decent people who loved Marianna as their own daughter. They never told her anything about her real parents, partly because they were trying to protect her from the facts of their arrest, but mainly, it seems, because they were afraid that she would leave them if she found out. Their ‘materialistic values’, according to Georgii, were very different from those of the Fursei family, who were artists and musicians, and from those of the German family, on their mother’s side, who were part of the cultural elite in Leningrad. In the autumn of 1954, Marianna spent a week with the Germans in Leningrad. They showed her photographs of all her relatives, including pictures of herself in Arkhangelsk, but did not tell her that her parents had been arrested, or that they had died in labour camps, only that they had been killed during the war. Looking back on that visit, Marianna thinks that there must have been some agreement between the Germans and the Goldenshteins to keep the truth from her, and perhaps there was.* Her brother Georgii, who also knew about the fate of their parents, concealed it from her as well. ‘The truth was an inconvenience for him,’ concludes Marianna, seeking to explain the silence of her brother, who was then a physics student at Leningrad University (he went on to become a professor). ‘The only thing that was important for him was to study and get ahead.’12

Marianna with Iosif and Nelly Goldenshtein, Tbilisi, 1960

Marianna enrolled at the Institute of Light Industry in Tbilisi and then worked as a schoolteacher in the Georgian capital. She did not discover the true story about her parents until 1986, when she received an invitation to view an exhibition of her father’s paintings in Arkhangelsk, where she was told everything by his old friends and colleagues. Having grown up in a strictly Communist household, and having always thought that her father had been killed as a soldier in the war, it was a shock for Marianna to discover, at the age of nearly fifty, that he had been shot as an ‘enemy of the people’. It opened her eyes to a history of repression in the Soviet Union which she had previously ignored in the naive belief that it had not affected her own family. ‘I felt sorry for these people (my blood parents),’ she recalls:

I sympathized with them and wondered how it could have been that such good and law-abiding people could have been repressed so unjustly… I could not understand. I mean if they were suspected of some crime, why was there no investigation? Why didn’t the courts function properly? I began to question the Soviet system, which I had been brought up [by the Goldenshteins] to accept uncritically… Gradually, I came to realize that I shared the values of my real parents, even though I had been apart from them since the age of three.13

Along with the return of prisoners, the years after Stalin’s death witnessed the release of tens of thousands of children from orphanages and other children’s homes, where many of them had grown up without any knowledge of their relatives.

Nikolai Kovach had no idea of family life when he was released from his orphanage, at the age of sixteen, in 1953. He had no memory of his parents, who had both been shot in labour camps when he was only one, nor any recollection of his older sister, who had been sent to a different orphanage. His earliest experience of living with a family occurred after he was sent by the Komsomol to help with the first harvest of the Virgin Lands Campaign in Kazakhstan (more than 300,000 people were recruited by the Komsomol as volunteers for the harvest of 1954). One of the leaders of the tractor brigade, an older worker, took a paternal interest in Nikolai. He brought him back to live with his wife and their three children, who all accepted him as an equal member of their home. ‘It was just an ordinary Russian household. The three children were all younger,’ recalls Nikolai, ‘and they fell in love with me. I played games with them and loved them too.’ Nikolai lived with them for eighteen months, until 1957, when he was mobilized by the army. ‘I had never known what a family was,’ he says:

But I observed how this family functioned, how all the relations worked, and the experience was good for me. Later on I read books by psychologists which explained that children grow up like their families. When I was a child I did not have a family, and I was an adult before I knew any kind of family life. I was lucky to meet such wonderful people. I married [in 1962] and brought up a family of my own. I could not have achieved that without that experience in Krasnoiarsk… It taught me the importance of respect and love – they were always helping each other, thinking of each other and of me – and I had never seen that before, certainly not in the orphanage.14

Elizaveta Perepechenko knew nothing about her father when he came to collect her from an orphanage in 1946. She was just a baby when he was arrested in 1935, and he had not been heard from in the ten years he had spent in a labour camp and exile in Kazakhstan. Elizaveta’s mother had died in a labour camp, and she had no other family. So she had little choice but to join her father in Alma-Ata, where he worked as a geologist. They lived in the basement of a large communal house, which was shared by several other families. Although she was only a teenager, Elizaveta took on all the household duties for her father, a taciturn and difficult character who had been deeply damaged by his experience in the camp. It was particularly hard for Elizaveta to get on with him and to relate to him as a father, because she had never been close to any men (all the workers at her orphanage had been women). Like many parents who had returned from the labour camps, Elizaveta’s father was strict and controlling. He would not let her go out in the evenings without knowing exactly where she was and with whom. There were frequent conflicts, as they each tried to impose their will on the other. Elizaveta remembers ‘one occasion when we sat at a table facing each other for more than an hour, because I refused to eat a piece of bread. We were both equally stubborn.’ Her father never spoke to her about his past, and she never spoke to him about the orphanage. So they lived together in a state of mutual estrangement. In 1953, Elizaveta moved to Leningrad and applied for a job in the MVD: she had no idea that her father had once been arrested as an ‘enemy of the people’. When he found out about his daughter’s application, he came immediately to Leningrad to tell her prospective employers about his spoilt biography. He was afraid she might be punished if it was discovered that she had not declared it in the questionnaire. On his request the MVD agreed not to tell Elizaveta about her father’s history. She did not find out about his arrest until 1959.15

During the years of separation from their parents, children naturally constructed an image of their mothers and their fathers in their minds. It was often very different from the reality they encountered on their reunion.

Galina Shtein was eight years old when her father, Aleksandr Sagatsky, was arrested in 1936.* Galina grew up without knowing anything about what had happened to her father, an economics professor from Leningrad. Her mother, who was sacked from the library where she worked after the arrest of Aleksandr, cut all ties with him and reverted to her maiden name. During the war, when Galina was evacuated with her mother to Siberia, she began to feel a desperate need for a father. She recalls:

Everyone was talking about their ‘papa at the front’, about how their papa was a hero, or how he had died. I began to feel inadequate. I did not have a father. I did not even know who or where or what he was. I did not know what he looked like, because Mama had destroyed all the photographs of him.

Galina wrote to the Bureau of Addresses in Leningrad in the hope of tracking down her father’s younger brother, but she was told that he had died in the siege of Leningrad. She gave up hope of finding her father, until 1947, when chance put her on his tracks. Galina was studying biology at Leningrad University. One day, while standing in a library queue, she heard a student say the name Sagatskaia. The student was referring to a lecturer in Marxism-Leninism. Galina waited for the lecturer outside one of the lecture halls:

A middle-aged woman with an attractive face came out of the hall. I was very nervous, apologized profusely for disturbing her and then asked: ‘You aren’t by any chance a relative of Aleksandr Pavlovich Sagatsky?’ She was silent for a moment. Then she said: ‘Are you Galina?’ It turned out that she was my father’s first wife.16

Galina’s father was in Norilsk. He had been sentenced to ten years in the labour camp and then, after his release in 1948, to another five years of exile in the Gulag settlement. Galina wrote to him, giving her address at the central post office in Leningrad. ‘I did not want to worry my mother,’ she explains.

I went to the post office every day to see if my father had replied. I started going there in the autumn [of 1947] and was still going there in the winter. There was never a reply. Finally, in April 1948, I decided that I would make just one more journey to the post office, and if there was nothing, then I would give up. It was fortunate that I made that final trip. At the counter they gave me four fat envelopes. They were made by hand out of some sort of crude paper. Inside each of them, on light-blue writing paper, was a long letter.

The first letter was full of feeling:

4 April 1948. Norilsk

Letter No. 1

(I am sending three letters all at once on 6.IV)

My darling daughter Galia!

Your letter filled my heart with joy… One of the greatest tragedies of my life is to have been separated for so many years from the child I love. You write: ‘My letter, no doubt, will be a surprise, but I hope, nonetheless, that it is a pleasant one.’ And I reply: 1. A surprise – yes; 2. Pleasant – more than that – it is a joy. Even in the way you phrase your thoughts, that ‘nonetheless’, I recognize myself! In your place I would have written just the same. It makes me smile to notice traces of myself in you… Believe me, Galia, you have found your father, who lost you for so many years but never stopped loving you.17

Through their letters, Galina started an intense relationship with her father. She imagined him to be the sort of romantic hero she had read about in books: ‘I admired courageous men, bold scientists, fearless explorers, or people like my father who had survived against the odds. I had never come across such people in my life.’ In the early correspondence her father matched her ideal image. His letters were passionate and emotionally engaging, full of details about how he lived, what he read and how his views had changed in recent years. Galina fell in love with this literary persona. ‘In my mind I had a fantasy of the father I had yearned for all those years,’ she recalls.

He seemed the sort of man with whom I could be open, to whom I could say absolutely anything, and he would always listen, give me advice, and so on. A new life began for me, and I was entirely absorbed by it. Despite my reserved character, and my general reticence, it seemed that I, like him, was an emotional person after all. Now of course I understand that it was easier for me to be emotional in these letters than it was in real life.18

In 1956, Aleksandr visited Galina in Leningrad. But the meeting was a disappointment: they could not re-create the connection they had forged in their letters. Recently released from exile in Norilsk, Aleksandr had been rehabilitated by the Party; he was preoccupied with the resurrection of his political career. According to Galina, he was too busy with his work in the Party to engage with her. ‘I had the impression that he was no longer interested in me,’ she recalls.

I even think he disapproved of me. I remember he once said to me, ‘You have become such a slut.’ Why did he think that? Because I didn’t show an interest in the poetry of Mao Tse-tung. Because I hadn’t read some political article that he wanted me to read. I wasn’t interested in politics. But he lived for it.

Aleksandr and Galina, Leningrad, 1956

In 1956, Aleksandr moved to Ulianovsk, Lenin’s birthplace on the Volga. He taught political economy at the university and wrote on the subject for various journals. ‘My father hated Stalin,’ Galina recalls, ‘but he remained a convinced Leninist. Despite everything he had suffered, he continued to believe that there was no other way. He had been unjustly treated, but Soviet history was correct.’ This unshakeable belief in the Communist ideal, so necessary for his own survival, became an obstacle to Aleksandr’s communication with Galina, who was more sceptical but saw no point in political debate. ‘What was the point of arguing with a believer? He was totally rigid in his opinions. Politics, which was at the centre of his life, became a subject we could not talk about.’ Galina went to see her father in Ulianovsk in 1958. It was her only visit there. They barely said a word to each other, except to ask some polite questions about each other’s work. Out of duty, Galina went on writing letters to her father until the early 1960s. But, as she admits,

I did not really have anything to say. I no longer felt like opening my heart to him, as I had in the early years. And the letters he wrote to me were really nothing more than political reports. They were all about the Party conferences he had attended, or about the books that he had read. There was nothing personal in them. I had lost the father of my dreams.19


Bulat Okudzhava tells the story of how he met his mother when she returned from the labour camps in his ‘autobiographical tale’ The Girl of My Dreams (1988). The future poet and songwriter was just twelve years old when his mother was arrested and sentenced to ten years in the Karaganda labour camps in 1937, following the arrest of her husband, a Communist official of Georgian origin. Bulat was brought up by his grandmother in Moscow and then went to live with his father’s family in Tbilisi. In 1941, at the age of seventeen, just before his graduation from high school, he volunteered for the army. After his demobilization in 1945, he became a student at Tbilisi University. His mother spent a total of eighteen years in the Gulag, returning from the camps in 1955.

In The Girl of My Dreams Okudzhava revisits the night of her return. The narrator is a student, ‘an innocent young man’, who lives with a flatmate in a one-room apartment. He is happy because he is in love. The one source of sadness in his life is the absence of his mother. He keeps a photograph of her when she was young, ‘with big brown almond eyes’, and recalls her gentle smile and tender voice. One day a telegram arrives: ‘Meet the 501. Mama.’ On his way to the station he imagines their reunion as a happy and simple occasion:

I meet her. We eat at home. The two of us. She tells me about her life, and I tell her about mine. We don’t analyse, or try to understand the motives of those who were to blame. What took place is over, and now we are together again… And then I take her to the cinema and let her relax a bit.

But things turn out differently. The arrival of the special train, the 501, with prisoners, is delayed several times, and when he comes at midnight to meet it, he learns that it arrived an hour earlier. He finds his mother walking to his house. They embrace and walk home together in silence. At his apartment she sits at the kitchen table and smokes constantly. When he looks into her eyes, he does not see the ‘big, brown almond eyes’ but something else:

Her eyes were cold and remote. She looked at me, but she did not see me. Her face was frozen, turned to stone, her lips slightly open, her sunburned hands resting weakly on her knees. She did not say a word.

She cannot hold a conversation. She does not understand what her son says. When he asks her if she wants something to eat, she says, ‘What?’ And when he asks again, she says, ‘Me?’ She does not ask her son about his life. She mutters only isolated words, the names of places near her camp. She is frightened of her son’s flatmate and asks him if he comes from the camps as well, suspecting that he might be an informer. She is afraid to leave the house. When her son drags her to the cinema, she leaves after a few minutes, before the film begins.20

People returned from the labour camps physically and mentally broken. A few years in the Gulag was enough to make a person prematurely old. Some prisoners had aged so much that they were barely recognized by relatives when they came home. Ivan Uglitskikh was thirty-three when he was released from Kolyma and returned to Cherdyn. In an interview he recalls his homecoming:

I came back in November 1953. I had not seen my family for thirteen years. My younger brother was living in our old house. He was not in, he had gone to get some hay, and his wife did not know who I was. We sat down for some tea, and when she said that I looked like her husband, I told her that I was his brother, but that she was not to tell him when he arrived. I wanted to surprise him. My brother arrived with the hay, put it in the barn and came to join us… He saw that there were guests – the samovar was on the table, and there was a bottle of vodka… His wife said to him: ‘Do you know who this is?’ And he said: ‘No, who is it? An old man passing through?’ And then he said to me: ‘Where are you going, old man?’ He did not know who I was at all. We sat there drinking tea’[Ivan breaks down and ends the interview].21

People came back from the camps with physical deformities and chronic illnesses. Fruza Martinelli, the wife of the director of the Dallag Gulag complex until his arrest in 1937, returned to Moscow from the labour camps of Kazakhstan as an invalid. She had been tortured and beaten heavily in the labour camps, and her body was covered with the marks. Her daughter Elena never knew about these beatings, until her mother’s death in 1960, when the doctors questioned her about scars and bruises. ‘They said they had never seen a body so damaged,’ Elena recalls. ‘Even the heart had been beaten out of place.’

‘Was your mother in a labour camp?’ they asked. They could not imagine how my mother could have survived in such a state. It was only then that I understood why my mother was so coarse and cruel when she returned from the camp. She was always swearing, hitting us and breaking things in one of her temper fits. I used to ask her if she had been beaten in the camp, but she refused to say. ‘There are things one cannot talk about,’ she used to say. And I never asked her again.

Fruza Martinelli, 1956

Elena found it increasingly difficult to live with her mother, who became fanatically religious and showed signs of mental derangement after her return from the labour camp. Fruza was violent towards Elena’s son, who was born handicapped in 1953. She would break his toys and steal his sweets, which she hid with other food in her bedding. Unable to cope with her behaviour, Elena moved to Leningrad in 1958.22

Gertrud Ielson-Grodzianskaia had pictured her mother in the ALZhIR labour camp as ‘good and beautiful and living in a distant land’. It was an image she had formed from the letters that her mother had sent her, and from the little presents she had made for her, like the embroidered towel with pictures of animals. When Gertrud was fourteen, her mother was released from the labour camp and allowed to settle outside an exclusion zone of 100 kilometres from Moscow. She chose to live near Vladimir, where she found a job as an agronomist on a collective farm. She passed through Moscow, where Gertrud lived with her uncle’s family, on her way from ALZhIR to Vladimir. Gertrud went to meet her at the station:

Suddenly a woman stepped off the train. She was dressed in a sheepskin and had a plywood case and a rucksack. Her head was shaved. She smelled frightfully. She had been travelling for a week. We brought her home, and I was asked to help her wash… I heated the water on the kitchen stove and helped her to undress. The smell was overpowering. It was a real shock. She had lice all over her body and cockroaches in her clothes. I was repulsed. I did not see this woman as my mother but as someone else.23

Esfir Slavina was released from the ALZhIR labour camp in 1943. Forbidden to return to Leningrad, or to any of the other major cities in the Soviet Union, she was rescued by her daughter Ida, who was already working as a teacher in Novosibirsk and arranged for them to live in an empty office at the school. Ida recalls her mother’s appearance:

She was very thin and brown, burned by the sun of Kazakhstan and showing all the signs of having suffered from malaria. She did not look at all like her old self. She was not the mother I had known. She was sick and hardly able to move, and relied on me for everything.

In 1944, Esfir moved to Moscow, where her son, a research scientist, had received permission for her to live with him. Ida married a schoolteacher in Novosibirsk. In 1945, she returned to Leningrad, where she lived in a communal apartment with five other families. Esfir lived illegally with them so that she could help with Ida’s new-born son, who was often ill. In 1949, Esfir was rearrested for breaking passport regulations (she was not registered to live in Leningrad) and exiled to the town of Malaia Vishera, 110 kilometres to the south-east, where she lived in terrible conditions, unable to cope on her own, without work and constantly harassed by the local residents, who took against her as a ‘political’, which in their eyes made her a ‘fascist’. Six months after her arrival in Malaia Vishera, Esfir was arrested yet again, this time as an ‘anti-social element’, and exiled to Shadrinsk, in western Siberia, where she lived in the cheapest rented room on the outskirts of the town. Without a job, she lived on the money Ida sent each month. In 1951, Esfir was finally allowed to return to Leningrad. ‘She was completely broken,’ recalls Ida, who took care of her:

She was silent nearly all the time. She was afraid to speak and spoke only in whispers. You had to coax every word from her: as soon as she said anything she would immediately regret it. She never told me anything about the camp. I tried to get it out of her, my brother tried as well, but it was no use. She was afraid to go out of the house. If she was in the street and saw a policeman she would run to hide in the entrance of a building and not come out until she was sure that the policeman had disappeared. This was totally out of keeping with her character; she had always been strong and confident. But she came home from the camp a different person. Her confidence was gone, so was her health; she had two strokes in the first three years after her return. And she had lost all her liveliness and sociability. She never wanted to see anyone. She spent her last years bed-ridden.24

Left: Esfir and Ida in 1938. Right: Esfir in 1961.

The ALZhIR camp had a different effect on Zinaida Bushueva. It made her cold and strict, according to her daughter Angelina, who was ten years old when her mother was released. Zinaida did not like to talk about the past. She was emotionally withdrawn. ‘It was very hard to live with her,’ recalls Angelina.

She was silent all the time. She never talked to us about what she was thinking or feeling. And I blamed her for that. I wanted her to talk. But perhaps she wanted to protect us from everything she had suffered… She was always very distant from us. She would never show affection, she would never stroke our hair or hold us close. Her idea of being a mother was to make sure that we were fed, that we went to school and that we remained physically healthy – but that was all. She gave us nothing spiritually or emotionally. The truth is, after the camp, she had nothing left to give.

Angelina attributes her mother’s emotional austerity to the labour camp, where Zinaida had requested heavy manual work so as not to have time to think about the children she had lost. Closing herself off had become a mechanism of survival, and it continued as a means of coping with the problems of return. This same instinct for survival manifested itself in her obsessive eating: she would carry bits of bread around with her, hoard supplies of food and get up in the night to eat something because she was afraid of feeling hunger.25

Liuba Babitskaia came back to Moscow from the ALZhIR labour camp in 1947. Forbidden to settle in the capital, she came back illegally in search of work and family and friends. Despite his earlier efforts to persuade her to return to him, her first husband, the filmmaker Anatoly Golovnia, had begun an affair with a young production assistant (and probably an agent of the NKVD) called Tatiana Lobova, who exercised a malign influence on him and alienated all his relatives, most of all his daughter Oksana, who saw their romance as a betrayal. Physically exhausted, her film-star looks all gone, Liuba was shunned by most of

Liuba after her return, Moscow, 1947

her old friends in Moscow. ‘As soon as people recognized her as the former wife of Golovnia, the widow of the executed Babitsky, they crossed the street to avoid her,’ recalls Oksana. The one person who came to Liuba’s aid was the actress Liubov Orlova, an old friend who may have felt some guilt because her husband, the film director Grigorii Aleksandrov, who had close ties to the NKVD, had been behind the denunciations at the Mezhrabpomfilm studios that led to the arrest of Babitsky. Orlova took Liuba in and suggested that she contact Mikhail Gurevich, the Deputy Minister of Geology, who, she said, might help her get permission to remain in Moscow and find a job. ‘All his life he has been in love with you,’ Orlova explained, calling Gurevich and passing the receiver to Liuba. Gurevich asked Liuba where she was, and then said: ‘Wait for me, I am coming now. We will get married.’ Thanks to their marriage Liuba got rights of residence and a job in Moscow; Gurevich was dismissed from his post.

When Liuba was arrested in 1938, her daughter Oksana was eleven years old; by the time she returned, just nine years later, the girl had become a wife and mother. ‘Relations between us were very difficult,’ recalls Oksana. ‘Something had broken in our relationship – there was so much pain, love, jealousy, all mixed up with estrangement, a yearning for closeness, to understand each other, and at the same time an inability to find the words to communicate.’ Liuba wanted to control Oksana’s life. In 1948, when her daughter started an affair with an American diplomat, she became frightened and threatened to report her to the MVD for contacts with a foreigner unless she broke it off. Oksana’s husband, Albert Rikhter, a naval officer from a German-Jewish family in Odessa, had already been arrested and sentenced to ten years in Magadan for ‘espionage’, so the report would probably have led to her arrest. In the end, Liuba used her connections with Gurevich to send Oksana to Siberia as an assistant on a geological expedition, which brought the affair to an end.

Liuba returned from the camps with a different personality: the warmth and affection that she had once shown as a mother had all gone, and in its place was a new harshness and insensitivity. She never gave affection to her grandchildren. If they fell and hurt themselves, she would tell them to get up and stop crying, because there was ‘much worse’ that could happen to hurt them, ‘things that would really make [them] cry’. Liuba brought home the customs of the camps. She was selfish, even greedy, when it came to food; short-tempered, sometimes cruel and violent; emotionally closed to everyone. ‘She kept a suitcase packed with winter clothes and dried food beneath her bed in case they came for her again,’ recalls her granddaughter. ‘She was terrified of the telephone and doorbell when they rang at night, and took fright when she saw policemen in the street.’ These camp traces remained in her character. ‘A person who is released from the camps is afraid of freedom,’ Liuba wrote in her last notebook, just before she died in 1983. ‘Deeply wounded once, you are forever easily hurt again.’26

Many people came back from the camps with nervous habits and obsessions. Elena Cherkesova would count the steps she took at home. It was a habit she had picked up in the Temnikovsky camps as a way of maximizing her efficiency and avoiding all unnecessary exertions. Elena had never worked before she was sent to the camps, and she was exhausted by the regime there, which pushed her to the brink of starvation. During the war years, in particular, when the work quotas for Gulag prisoners were raised, Elena had often failed to meet her quota, which meant that she received less bread. To save her energy she taught herself to keep her steps to a minimum. A similar obsession was brought back from the labour camps by Aleksandra Fillipova. She was paranoid about people stealing her food. Living with her daughter in a communal apartment, she would conceal bits of food in hiding-places in their room and then forget having eaten them. When she looked for the food and found that it was gone, she would accuse her daughter, or the other neighbours, of having taken it. Relations with her daughter became so bad that Aleksandra forced her to move out of the apartment.27

Mikhail Nikolaev had grown up in a children’s home. He did not know who his parents were. He spent his teenage years in the Red Army, and then fifteen years in various labour camps. In every institution where he had lived there had been a struggle over food – a constant battle to get the glass or plate that was most full – so that he had learned to grab whatever he could without thinking about anybody else. The thirty-six-year-old who was released from the labour camps had no idea how to behave in a normal family home, never having been in one. A large handsome man with a thick beard, he was known in the literary circles of Moscow as a ‘wild man from Mars’, recalls Viktoriia Shweitser, who fell in love with him and married him. When she introduced him to her family, she was shocked by his table manners. She could not understand how he could help himself to all the food from the table without offering it to others first. For a long time, she said nothing, but one day she finally lost her patience and told him off for grabbing the last orange instead of leaving it for the children, as was the custom in their household. ‘Mikhail replied: “I didn’t know, nobody ever taught me that, why didn’t you explain it to me?”,’ recalls Viktoriia. ‘He was not greedy, but as he said about himself, he was tight-fisted’, perhaps even selfish, because of the way he had grown up. As she recalls in interview, it was at this point that she realized that she had fallen in love with a man whom she did not really know. ‘I had to learn to fall in love with him again, only this time with the real Misha, the boy from the orphanage, so that I could understand him properly and help him live a normal life.’28

It was often very hard for people who returned from the labour camps to re-establish relationships with relatives. After years of living in the Gulag, what sort of ‘normal family life’ could they hope to lead? There was no counselling or psychoanalysis for these people, no help for their physical and behavioural disorders, not even any recognition of the traumas they experienced. At the same time, those who returned often had little understanding of the tension under which their families had lived or the horrors they had suffered in the intervening years. People on all sides – those who had returned from the camps and those who had remained at home – felt rejected and estranged.

For various reasons, survivors of the camps found it difficult to talk about what they had been through ‘on the other side’, and closed themselves off from their families. Some people were afraid to talk for fear of punishment (on their release, prisoners were told not to discuss what had happened to them in public, and many feared, in consequence, to talk about their past in private too). Others did not tell their relatives because they were reluctant to burden them, or because they were afraid that they would not and could not understand what they had suffered. Parents were afraid to tell their children, in particular, because they did not want to say anything that might alienate them from the Soviet system or get them into trouble with the authorities.

Even within families where talk became the norm, parents remained cautious about what they said to their children. On her return from Kolyma, Olga Adamova-Sliuzberg discovered that her son had grown up in her absence to become an active member of the Komsomol, fanatically devoted to Stalin. One day over dinner, she asked whether it was true that Stalin had been ill:

Nobody knew, but my son answered in a meaningful tone: ‘I don’t know whether he’s ill or not, but if he were ill and I had to give my life’s blood and die for him, I’d gladly do it.’ I understood that this was intended as a lesson and as a warning to me, and I bit my tongue.29

Adamova-Sliuzberg’s experience in the labour camps had made her sceptical of the regime, but she knew that she could not say that, even though she wanted her son to understand what she had been through. She recalls:

I was afraid to tell him what I had discovered ‘on the other side’. I could probably have persuaded him that there was a great deal wrong in our country, that his idol, Stalin, was far from perfect, but my son was only seventeen. Had I explained everything to him, and had he agreed with me, he would have been unable to applaud Stalin’s name, to write letters to Stalin, to proclaim in class that our country was just. And if he could not have done that, he would have died. Perhaps he would have found a way to live a double life. But I could not make him go through that. I was afraid to be frank with him. But somehow, gradually, I did win him over. He would look at me carefully. After several months he said to me: ‘Mama, I like you.’30

The opposite dynamic was more prevalent. Parents who remained committed to the Bolshevik ideals of the 1930s often came home from the labour camps to discover that their children had developed altogether different ideas and attitudes in the relatively liberal climate of the Khrushchev thaw, when censorship was gradually relaxed and the Stalin era was re-evaluated in the Soviet media. Young people turned away from politics and took up the pursuit of personal happiness, stimulated by the economic boom of the Khrushchev years, when private housing blocks were constructed, more consumer goods became available, and new technologies, fashions, art and music were imported from the West. Yet this inevitably gave rise to the fear, voiced by Communists whenever the regime relaxed control on the private sphere, that individualistic tendencies would lead to the demise of social activism, collectivism and other Soviet values in the young. There were thus renewed calls for Soviet youth to join the Komsomol as well as to become ‘enthusiasts’ of collective projects like the Virgin Lands Campaign.31

When she returned from the Potma labour camps, Maria Ilina encountered this form of the generation gap with her daughter Marina. Before her arrest, in 1937, Maria had been the director of a large textile factory in Kiev; her husband was the Party boss, until his own arrest and execution that same year. On her release, in 1945, Maria found Marina, then aged ten, in a Ukrainian orphanage. She had not seen her daughter since she was two. Mother and daughter lived together for the next twelve years, first in Cherkassy, and then Moscow, until 1958, when Maria moved back to Kiev. Until Maria’s death in 1964, they would visit one another on every holiday. Yet their relationship was difficult. Maria wanted to direct the way her daughter lived. She wanted her to be a model Communist, to be the sort of youth that she had been until her own arrest. Rehabilitated in 1956, Maria rejoined the Party and became an active propagandist of the Party cause. According to her daughter, ‘she needed to believe in the Communist ideals that had sustained her and my father when they had been young: otherwise the sacrifices she had made would have been too much to bear’.

Maria gave herself entirely to the political education of her daughter. She organized a programme of reading, a mixture of Soviet and Russian classics, designed to inculcate the correct Communist ideas and attitudes. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was considered bad, for example, because Anna was selfish, and ‘the main thing for a woman was not love but comradeship and duty to society’.

She wanted me to be strong and resolute, brave and courageous, an active member of the Pioneers and the Komsomol… She wanted me to be the master of myself, to overcome the negative in me, to improve myself constantly, like the heroes of Soviet literature. For Mama that was the most important thing – to become the master of oneself… I was always being told that I had to do things I did not want to do.

Maria intervened in all sorts of ways. Her daughter wanted to study literature and become a schoolteacher, but she made her go to the prestigious Moscow Power Engineering Institute. Marina joined the Komsomol and became the chairman of the Komsomol committee at the institute. Having qualified as an engineer, she worked at a research institute in Moscow. Maria wanted her to join the Party and pleaded with her to accept the invitation to do so from the Party secretary of her factory, which she had worked hard to arrange. But Marina now had different ideas. Like many of her friends, she was inspired by the liberal climate of the Khrushchev thaw. Self-assured and independent in her thinking, she became increasingly sceptical about politics. She thought that joining the Party would demand too much from her – far more than she was prepared to give to activities in the public sphere. These ideas were reinforced by her new husband, Igor, whom she had married during her third year at the institute. Igor was critical of the Soviet system, and argued frequently with Maria, but Marina was not interested in their political debates. She rejected the Party, and politics, not because she had reflected deeply on the reasons for her family’s tragedy, but, on the contrary, because she wanted to forget about the past and begin a ‘happy life’. Her main interests were music and the cinema, dancing, and socializing with her friends. She was encouraged to pursue these interests by Igor, who was paid well as an engineer, and dreamed of keeping her at home. Marina’s attention to her personal appearance met with constant disapproval from her mother, whose Communist convictions and Spartan attitudes left no room for such ‘petty-bourgeois’ diversions. Maria was always neat and tidy. She had a good figure. But after her return from the labour camps, she never made the most of her appearance or even cared that much about the way she looked. Poorly paid, she could not afford to spend a lot on clothes or cosmetics. But according to her daughter, there was another reason for her lack of interest in such things: the experience of the camps had left her in a deep state of depression which became even worse after 1955, when she found out about the death of her son Vladimir in the Gulag. ‘After everything she had been through,’ Marina says,

she gave up on herself and let herself go. She never looked at herself in the mirror… or wore perfume or make-up… Only once she bought a coat that fitted her well, and from the back she looked very good. She was tall and slim with slender legs and fine ankles. Men would overtake us in the street and look back at her – but they could not understand. She looked completely different from the front… Her hair was grey and thin, and her face marked with cuts.

Short of money, Maria sold the coat and wore instead a quilted jacket, like those worn by prisoners in the Gulag.32

Vladimir Makhnach, the former boss of the Mosgaz Trust, which controlled Moscow’s gas supply, returned to the Soviet capital in June 1955 after fourteen years in the Taishet labour camp. His son Leonid, now a young man of twenty-two, had long resented the stigma of his ‘spoilt biography’. Born into the privileged conditions of the Soviet elite, he had lived with his mother in a desperate state of poverty following the arrest of his father. His mother had no income of her own. They occupied a room in a communal apartment which was raided several times by the police in search of incriminating evidence against the ‘relatives of enemies of the people’. Anxious to get on, Leonid lied about the arrest of his father when he applied to join the Moscow Film School (VGIK). By the time his father came back, Leonid was moving in the bohemian circles of the film world, which flourished in the liberal climate of the thaw. He had also developed connections with the MGB. His fiancée Tamara was the stepdaughter of Naftaly Frenkel, the man responsible for the conception of the Gulag system in 1929, who lived as a recluse in the Soviet capital. Frenkel took a keen interest in Leonid.

Vladimir’s return was bound to ruffle Leonid’s feathers. The young man was suddenly confronted by a father who insisted on asserting his authority over wife and child. Vladimir ‘was a difficult character’, according to his son.

He was moody and taciturn. He would not speak about the camps. Emotionally he was closed to us. He brought into the house the habits and the fears he had acquired in the camps and expected us to adapt to them. He would not sleep in the same bed as my mother, who was then forty-six. I remember how she said to him in tears one day: ‘I have stopped being a woman for you!’

Vladimir in 1956

Despite his years in labour camps, Vladimir remained a staunch Leninist; he continued to believe that Stalin’s policies of the early 1930s – the forced collectivization of agriculture and the industrialization programme of the Five Year Plans – were essentially correct. He himself had played a leading role in the execution of these policies. In his opinion, it was only in the later 1930s that Stalin ceased to be a Communist. For Vladimir the process of return was a question of putting the clock back. He rejoined the Party, which retroactively recognized his membership to 1921. He re-entered his old sphere of work and was appointed Deputy Director of Moscow’s Fuel and Energy Administration in 1956. He even received a chauffered car and a dacha near the one the Makhnaches used to have in Serebrianyi Bor. But Vladimir had little sense of the social changes that had taken place since his arrest. He came from the generation of peasants who had risen to the Soviet elite during Stalin’s industrial revolution of the early 1930s. His politics were radical, but his social attitudes were conservative (he had made Maria give up work when Leonid was born because he thought that ‘a senior party leader should have a wife who stays at home’). Now Vladimir fully expected to become the patriarchal head of the household once again. He did not like it when Leonid stayed out late at night, not least because the camps had left him with severe insomnia. There were constant arguments between the two. One night, Leonid returned from a party at midnight. There was an argument which became a fight. Vladimir punched his son in the face. Leonid stormed out of the apartment and went straight to Frenkel’s house, where he remained until his marriage to Tamara in 1958. As Leonid recalls, after the break with Vladimir, Frenkel became the main paternal figure in his life. An opponent of the Khrushchev thaw, Frenkel retained strong connections with the MGB, which promoted Leonid as a film director and commissioned his first film, a propagandist story about Soviet spies in the Cold War.33

A widespread feeling among survivors of the camps was a sense of the incommunicability of their experience, of an unbridgeable gap between themselves and those who had not been in the camps. In 1962, Maria Drozdova returned to her family in Krasnoe Selo after twenty years of imprisonment and exile in Norilsk. ‘What could I tell them?’ she writes:

That I was alive and had returned. But what could I say about my life out there? How I travelled in a convoy to Norilsk? How could they understand what the word ‘convoy’ really meant? However much detail I described, it would still be incomprehensible to them. Nobody can understand what we went through. Only those who know what it was like can understand and sympathize.34

Like many former prisoners, Maria felt much closer to her Norilsk friends than to her own family, and she continued to see them regularly after her release. ‘The friendships formed in the labour camps were friendships for life,’ writes one ex-prisoner. According to many Gulag survivors, people who had been in the camps together tended to be more supportive of each other than relatives and friends at home. In a society where former prisoners were frequently the victims of prejudice and malice, they forged special bonds of trust and mutual reliance. While prisoners did not talk to their families about the camps, they did talk with their friends from the Gulag. They would correspond, meet on holidays, visit one another and arrange reunions. Sonia Laskin had a large network of old friends from the Vorkuta camp. She was always putting someone up in her apartment in Moscow. Some of them were practically members of the Laskin extended family and attended all the Laskin anniversaries. ‘The spirit of comradeship was extraordinary,’ recalls Valerii Frid of his old friends from the Inta labour camp. ‘Without any affectation, without long conversations, we would simply help each other out.’ According to Frid, the great writer of the Gulag, Varlam Shalamov, was wrong when he wrote that there was nothing positive a prisoner could take from his experience in the camps. His own life-long friendship and collaboration with the film-maker Iurii Dunsky was strengthened by the years they spent together in Inta. ‘I was grateful to the camps for teaching me the meaning of friendship,’ recalls Frid, ‘and for giving me so many friends.’35

Some prisoners returned home with new husbands, or new wives, whom they had met ‘on the other side’. For women, in particular, these ‘Gulag marriages’ had sometimes been motivated by the struggle to survive. But they were also based on the understanding and trust that frequently developed between prisoners.

After her release from the Norilsk labour camp in 1946, Olga Lobacheva, the specialist in mineralogy, stayed on in Norilsk as a voluntary worker. She married a geologist called Vladimir, a student volunteer from Saratov University, who was twenty years younger than herself. In 1956, they returned together to Semipalatinsk, where, before her own arrest, Olga had been living in exile, following the arrest of her first husband Mikhail. Olga did not know what had happened to Mikhail. Without any news of him, she had presumed that he was dead, and on that understanding she agreed to marry Vladimir. In fact Mikhail had been sentenced to ten years of labour in the Karaganda camps. There he had married a fellow prisoner, a young and beautiful Hungarian Jew called Sofia Oklander, who gave him a daughter in 1948. ‘They too had been brought together by their need for love and friendship in the camps,’ reflects the son of Olga and Mikhail. ‘It was not their fault, but both my parents fell in love with younger people and ended up betraying each other.’ In 1956, Mikhail moved with his new wife and their daughter to Alma-Ata. He got in touch with Olga and went to visit her in Semipalatinsk. He even tried to persuade her to return to him. But Olga refused to forgive her former husband for marrying Sofia without trying to locate her first.36

Liudmila Konstantinova also married someone she had met in the labour camps. Mikhail Yefimov, a strong and handsome peasant man from Novgorod, had been sent to Kolyma on some petty charge of ‘hooliganism’ in 1934 and was part of a team of labourers that built the town of Magadan. By 1937, Yefimov had served his three-year sentence, but he did not have the money to return to Novgorod, so he stayed in Magadan as a volunteer. Liudmila met him in 1938, when she had been working as a prisoner in a cotton factory where Yefimov was building ventilation pipes. Liudmila had been in Kolyma since 1937; she did not know what had happened to her husband after his arrest in 1936. Shortly after she met Yefimov, Liudmila became very ill with a kidney infection. Yefimov nursed her back to health, buying special medicines and food for her. In 1944, she learned that her daughters Natalia and Elena had been rescued from an orphanage by their grandmother, who had brought them up in exile in the remote steppeland town of Ak-Bulak. A year later, when Natalia and Elena returned to Leningrad with their grandmother, Yefimov began to send them parcels and money. Liudmila was released from the labour camp in the autumn of 1945, but she remained in Magadan to be with Yefimov, who was refused permission to move to Leningrad. In 1947, she married Yefimov. Ten years had passed since the arrest of Liudmila’s husband, and she had not heard from him. She could not get any information from the Soviet authorities, so she presumed that he was dead.* ‘You cannot keep someone waiting for ever,’ she wrote to her mother in 1945, after she was granted a divorce from her first husband. ‘People need to live in the real world.’

Liudmila was not in love with Yefimov. In her letters to her mother she describes him as ‘a good comrade from the first painful days in Kolyma’. He was strong and kind and supportive, they had a lasting friendship based on their experience of the Gulag, and she relied on him for emotional sustenance after her release. In 1948, Liudmila moved with Yefimov to Novocherkassk, near Rostov-on-Don, where she would live until her death in 1992. Once a year she visited her daughters and mother in Leningrad. Sometimes Yefimov would come with her. He remained a distant figure to his stepdaughters, who addressed him with the polite ‘you’ (vy) normally used for speaking to strangers. ‘Only shortly before Mama died did I start to use [the informal] “ty”,’ recalls Natalia. Elena and Natalia remained with their beloved grandmother until she died in 1968; they were never reunited with their mother as a family.37

From left to right: Elena Konstantinova, her mother Liudmila, her grandmother Elena Lebedeva, and her sister Natalia, Leningrad, 1950

Ilia and Aleksandra Faivisovich were hairdressers in Osa, a small town in the Urals, south of Perm. They were both arrested in 1939, following reports by clients that they had complained about shortages. Ilia was sentenced to ten years in a labour camp near Gorkii; Aleksandra to five years in a camp near Arkhangelsk. Their daughter Iraida was brought up by her grandmother, until Aleksandra returned in 1945. Four years later, Ilia was released. Aleksandra had waited patiently for his return. Finally, the day came. The house was full of Aleksandra’s relatives; Aleksandra had prepared a special meal for Ilia’s homecoming. But Ilia did not appear. Instead his sister Lida came from Perm and told them that he had arrived at her house with a young woman, his new wife. Aleksandra and her daughter went to visit him, a scene Iraida remembers:

The door opened and there was Father – we had not seen him for ten years. He gave me a hug and kissed me… Nina [his new wife] was standing in the room. Mama started crying. Lida tried to calm her down: ‘What do you expect if you don’t see each other for ten years?’ she said. Mama went on crying. Father held me close to him, as if to say that there was nothing I could do. He had been drinking heavily and he was drunk, I think. Mama began to curse him. ‘You have ruined my life! You have destroyed our family!’ she kept shouting… ‘Why couldn’t you have written to me telling me not to wait?’

Aleksandra suffered a nervous breakdown and spent four months in a psychiatric hospital. Ilia and Nina settled in a small town near Sverdlovsk where they lived in an old bath-house. They had met in the labour camp, where Nina, a young Jewish doctor from Leningrad, was working in the hospital. Nina had saved Ilia’s life. He had been brought to the

Nina and Ilia outside their house, near Sverdlovsk, 1954

hospital with severe frostbite after he had collapsed from exhaustion, felling timber without food, and had not been found for several days. Nina gradually nursed him back to health. She fell in love with him. Ilia returned from the labour camps an invalid. He relied on Nina to help him walk. Once a year he would visit Aleksandra and Iraida in Osa. Sometimes he wrote to them, but the family was never close again. After Nina’s death, in 1978, Iraida tried to persuade her father to return to Aleksandra, but he married someone else instead. Aleksandra did not remarry. She never got over Ilia’s betrayal. According to her daughter, she was still in love with him. She kept his photograph by her bedside and had it with her when she died.38

Zinaida Levina was one of the founders of the Pioneer Organization in the Ukraine, where she was born into a Jewish family in 1904. She was arrested in 1937 and sentenced to eight years in the Kolyma labour camps. Her husband, Daniil, an engineer, was arrested too, as a ‘relative of an enemy of the people’, and exiled for three years to Turkmenistan (after his release he served in the army, was wounded at the front and evacuated to Siberia). Their daughter Larisa, who was four years old on the arrest of her parents, was brought up by her grandmother in the communal apartment the family shared in Kiev. In 1945, Daniil returned from Siberia with a new wife, Regina, and their daughter. They moved into two small rooms where Daniil’s three sisters also lived. Larisa went to live with them. She got on well with her half-sister but was hated by Regina and her aunts. According to Larisa, Daniil had chosen to renounce and divorce Zinaida because he was afraid he might be rearrested on his return from exile if he was still married to an ‘enemy of the people’. But Zinaida’s mother, who viewed her son-in-law as a womanizer, thought that he had simply taken advantage of his wife’s arrest to marry Regina, who was young and beautiful, and refused to visit them. Cut off in this way from her grandmother, Larisa’s situation in her father’s home became more difficult.

After her release in 1946, Zinaida was ordered by the state to live in Zvenigorodka, a small town near Kiev. One day, she turned up at her mother’s apartment with a little boy called Valerii and introduced him as her son. In the Kolyma camps Zinaida had learned about the massacre of Kiev’s Jewish population at Babi Yar in September 1941. Fearing that her family had been destroyed, she resolved to have another child before it was too late (she was then thirty-seven) and gave birth to Valerii in 1942. She refused to say who the father was (and took her secret to her grave) but everyone assumed that it was a prison guard. In 1949, Zinaida was rearrested as an ‘anti-social element’ (it was the height of the campaign against the Jews) and sentenced to three years in the Potma labour camps (she was later exiled to Dzhambul in Kazakhstan). Valerii was taken in by his grandmother; but a few months later the old woman died. Larisa begged her father to rescue Valerii. She felt responsible for her half-brother, a difficult boy with severe behavioural problems: ‘Something made me love him. I had this feeling of responsibility. It came from the heart. I had no family, and wanted to protect him as my own.’ Valerii, however, was given to an orphanage by Daniil’s sisters, who took the view that the son of a prison guard should be looked after by the state. Valerii disappeared until 1953, when he wrote to Larisa from another orphanage, in Uzhgorod, in western Ukraine. Larisa went to collect him and took him to their mother in Dzhambul, where they all lived for the next two years. ‘At that time,’ recalls Larisa,

I hardly knew my mother. I had never really lived with her, and that time, from 1953 to 1954, was the first I had spent with her… She drowned me with her love… I was overwhelmed by it. I was not used to it… But I soon discovered the joy of family love.

In 1955, Zinaida fell in love with another Jewish exile in Dzhambul, a man who had lost his family at Babi Yar. He helped her with Valerii and loved him as if he were his own. They were married in 1956. Released from exile, they returned to Kiev, where they began a new life as a family.39

For some prisoners, family life itself was no longer possible. They were too afraid – of disappointment, of being a burden, of being unable to connect.

Natalia Iznar was born in 1893 to a family of lawyers in St Petersburg. In the 1920s she worked as a graphic artist and stage designer for the Moscow Art Theatre and Stanislavsky’s Opera Studio. In 1932, she divorced her first husband and married Grigorii Abezgauz, a minor official in the Commissariat of Education and the Arts. In 1937, Abezgauz was arrested and shot. Natalia was arrested and sentenced to eight years in the ALZhIR labour camp. After her release, in 1946, she remained in Dolinka, where she worked as a decorative artist for the MVD’s Political Department, which was responsible for propaganda art and theatre in the labour camps. Natalia had relatives in Moscow and in Leningrad. She had a daughter from her first marriage. But she chose to remain in the Gulag settlement rather than return to her family. Years of separation in the labour camp had broken something inside her and it could no longer be repaired. Natalia wrote to her sister-in-law in Moscow to explain:

Chistye Prudy 15, Apt. 27
Elena Moiseyevna Abezgauz

My dear, it is fortunate that Liudmila Aleksandrovna [a friend from ALZhIR] can deliver this by hand. At last I can explain in a way that you may understand. Six weeks have past since I gained my freedom, and yet this is my first letter. How can I explain? It is painful to have to recognize that after the long years of separation there is now an unbridgeable division between us. In the short period of my so-called freedom I have come to realize that I can’t feel close to you again. When I think of coming back to you, I am overcome by the terrifying thought that I will not be needed, that I will be out of place, and that I will be no help to you. I have lost the confidence of a mother. I am a different person after all these years – I have become more sober. I want to work. I am trying to educate myself to live without the feeling that I need a family, to eradicate that feeling to such a degree that it might never have existed in me in the first place. There is nothing that I need except my work… Liudmila Aleksandrovna will tell you everything about the way I live, my character, appearance, and so on. She is the dearest person to me in the world, closer to me than any family could be, because she has been with me and experienced the same things in the camp. It is such a joy when you meet a person who is absolutely good… I feel that I have lost you all internally. I no longer feel the need for a family – that feeling has died inside of me… It’s not a bad thing. It’s just how it is’ 40


When Sonia Laskina was released from the Vorkuta labour camp, she was given two things: a certificate of release signed by two administrators of her labour camp and a second-class train ticket to Moscow. Sonia had a family, a job and an apartment to return to in Moscow. Other prisoners were far less fortunate. They had nowhere to go: either their families had broken up or moved away, or their homes had disappeared or been taken over by others, or they were forbidden to return to the cities where they had once lived. Banned from the major centres, many ex-prisoners were forced to live a marginal existence in temporary housing, wherever they were able to get registered as residents by the Soviet authorities, which were often reluctant to give such rights to former ‘criminals’. The struggle to overcome the legal obstacles and institutionalized discrimination that prevented them from returning to their towns and homes was long and complicated.

Sonia’s certificate of release. It gives the dates of her imprisonment, cites the decision of the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court to close the case against her ‘for failure to prove the charges’, and allows her to return to Moscow as her place of residence

In 1953, at the age of seventy-eight, Liudmila Tideman (née Obolenskaia) returned to Leningrad from Orenburg, where she had been living in exile since 1935. The eldest of Simonov’s three Obolensky aunts, Liudmila was the only one to have survived the hardships of exile (Dolly and Sonia had both died in Orenburg). After much petitioning, she received permission from the city Soviet to move back to her old room in the communal apartment where she had lived with her son and daughter before her arrest. When she returned to the apartment, however, the house committee refused to register her as a resident, on the grounds that three people in her family had previously been living there, so she could not live there on her own. For several weeks Liudmila stood in queues at the police station, the local housing department, the city Soviet and various other offices in an effort to establish her right to occupy the room alone. ‘The most disgusting aspect of it all was that everywhere they thought I was a swindler,’ she wrote to Simonov. ‘They said I had listed extra names [on the housing order from the Soviet] to receive more living space.’ The authorities would not let her live there on her own, nor would they change the names on the housing order, claiming, as she put it, that ‘they do not make mistakes’, so the case dragged on. Months later, Liudmila was finally allowed to return to her home.41

Simonov’s personal secretary, Nina Gordon, had an equally difficult time. Her husband, Iosif, had been rearrested and sent as a punishment to Krasnoiarsk, where Nina joined him in 1951. On the couple’s return to Moscow in 1954, they stayed with Simonov until they could find a place to live. Although Nina and Iosif were Muscovites, it proved impossible to get them registered as residents, even with the help of Simonov, who wrote to the city Soviet and even to the head of the Moscow militia on behalf of this ‘honest working couple who have suffered such misfortune during recent years’. Eventually, they were permitted to stay in Moscow for a year, and they moved into a room in a communal apartment obtained for them by Simonov. Iosif got a job at the Gorky Film Studios, while Nina went back to work for Simonov. But their rights of residence were soon annulled, for no apparent reason, and the couple were informed that they would have to leave the capital within a month. As Simonov protested in a letter to the head of the Moscow MVD,

The conclusion is simple: a person who for no crime whatsoever has spent many years in prison and exile, and who at last has returned to the work from which he was unjustly torn away, is being forced to leave that work again and go away. His wife, who already gave up her own job once to be with her husband, must now give up her job and again leave her native city, if she wants to be with him. It is not only unjust, it is inhumane.

Thanks to Simonov’s petitioning, the couple were allowed to stay on a temporary basis in Moscow. They lived in eight different rooms and apartments over the course of the next four years, until at last they were registered as permanent residents. In 1958, Simonov got them put on a waiting list for an individual flat in an apartment block, which was then being built for the workers of the Gorky Film Studios. But the building was delayed, forcing Iosif and Nina to find yet more temporary accommodations. It was not until 1966, shortly before Iosif’s death, that the couple finally got a small flat of their own.42

Finding work was just as onerous as finding a place to live. Soviet officials were generally mistrustful of former prisoners, and many employers continued to regard them with suspicion as potential troublemakers and ‘enemies of the people’. The return of political prisoners followed the release of common criminals from the labour camps as a result of the amnesty of March 1953. The mass of the Soviet population did not distinguish between ‘politicals’ and criminals. They associated all the releases from the Gulag with the rise of crime and ‘hooliganism’ after 1953 (just as they connected them with the reappearance of ‘internal threats and enemies’ after the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, when the Soviet press was full of propaganda on that score). Even after their rehabilitation, many former prisoners were refused work. The very fact of their rehabilitation was frequently a cause of prejudice and suspicion among employers, who did not want to run the risk of taking on a person who had been labelled as a political ‘criminal’ only a few years before. One ex-prisoner recalls being told by a factory boss in Kharkov that ‘even though I had been rehabilitated, in his eyes I was still a person with a shameful past’. Until Khrushchev’s explicit condemnation of Stalin’s crimes, at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, the public attitude towards the returning Gulag prisoners wavered between mistrust and hostility. People were afraid to have any connection with the former ‘enemies’ who came back from the camps. The sight of these returning prisoners stirred up awkward memories, perhaps even feelings of guilt and shame, in many citizens, who had had a relatively comfortable existence while their compatriots had languished in the labour camps. Most people preferred to put the returning ex-prisoners out of sight and out of mind, just as during Stalin’s reign they had avoided any mention of the missing millions. Lev Kopelev recalls that, after his return from the labour camps, he felt uncomfortable with successful people who had managed to avoid the purges of the Stalin years and that he preferred the company of people who had been ‘unlucky in some way’. With them at least he could be sure that he was not in the presence of someone who had made his or her career by collaborating with the system of repression.43

The problem of finding work and housing was so acute that some ex-prisoners ended up returning to the labour camps. After 1953, many of the camps remained in operation as special economic zones employing nominally free labour, mainly released prisoners. They received a wage but were not free to leave the remote settlements because of legal restrictions on their movements. There were also those who chose to remain in the camps and settlements because they felt unready to return to society. In some labour camps the old barracks were inhabited by ex-prisoners well into the 1960s. There were even cases of former prisoners committing minor crimes in order to be arrested and sent back to the camps, where at least they could be sure of a bread ration.44

After his return from the Kolyma camps in 1953, Ivan Uglitskikh was unable to find a job or a place to live in his home town of Cherdyn; the police had refused to grant him the necessary passport for rights of residence. He travelled round the country in search of work, living from the money he had saved as an electrician in Kolyma. First he went to Moscow. It was his great ambition to see Red Square. But he was so badly dressed in his patched-up wadded camp jacket that he was immediately stopped by the police and deported. He was, in any case, prohibited from going to Moscow. Next he went to Novozybkov, a small town in the Briansk region, south-east of the capital, where his former wife was living with her new husband and their two children, but he could not find work there. Then he went to the Donbass, hoping for a job in the mines, but there was nowhere for him to live, and without registration as a resident no one would hire him. He encountered the same problem in Zhdanov and Taganrog. After months of desperate searching, Ivan ended up on a state farm near the Azov Sea where all the workers lived in dug-outs in the ground, but even here he could not find a job: one look at his release certificate from Kolyma was enough for the farm officials to reject him. Ivan finally got work just as he decided to return to Kolyma. On the way there he stopped in Krasnokamsk to visit his brother’s family, who were living in the barracks of a former labour camp. Ivan approached an official at the brick factory attached to the camp, asking for a job. Although he was turned down initially, a bribe of a watch persuaded the official to change his mind. Ivan remained at the brick factory until his retirement in 1981.45

Between 1953 and 1957, an estimated 612,000 former prisoners were rehabilitated, many of them posthumously, by the Soviet authorities. In the rhetoric of the Soviet leadership the process of rehabilitation was about restoring truth – about reviving faith in the principles of justice established in 1917 – and seen from the outside it had something of this idealistic quality. But from the perspective of the ordinary people trying to regain their civil rights the practical reality was very different. For them it meant a long and humiliating series of visits to offices, where they were made to stand in queues, fill out forms and battle with officials who were often hostile to their cause. It was not unusual for a former prisoner to write a dozen letters before his appeals were granted by the Soviet authorities, although the process of judicial review and rehabilitation was speeded up after 1956. Sometimes appellants were summoned to appear before a commission in the offices of the MVD or the Justice Ministry, places that inspired fear among former prisoners, who would often turn up in their winter coats, accompanied by weeping relatives, convinced that they were about to be sent back to the labour camps. Not surprisingly, such fears and obstacles deterred many people from applying for rehabilitation altogether (which was probably the intention of the authorities). The required judicial reviews and bureaucratic procedures were carried out extremely grudgingly. Soviet officials had an obvious motive to drag their feet: many had been promoted on the basis of cases they had fabricated against ‘enemies of the people’, and they were afraid of being prosecuted if these injustices were revealed. Some of their attempts to salvage something from these cases were petty and ridiculous. One war veteran, for example, had been sentenced in 1947 to ten years in a labour camp for ‘anti-Soviet propaganda’ (he had told some ‘anti-Soviet’ jokes). In 1954, he had his sentence reduced to five years on appeal and he was immediately released. The investigating procurator in his judicial review had decided that the jokes were not anti-Soviet after all. But he had justified the original prosecution (and thus refused to overturn the case and rehabilitate the prisoner) on the grounds that one of them was capable of being understood as anti-Soviet.46

Finally, when rehabilitation was granted, it came with no apology for the citizen’s unjust arrest, let alone for the years wasted in a labour camp. In the eyes of most officials, the rehabilitation of a former criminal did not expunge all his guilt. As one ex-prisoner was reminded by a KGB major in 1960: ‘Rehabilitation does not mean that you were innocent, only that your crimes were not all that serious. But there’s always a bit left over!’47

For many people the need for rehabilitation was so strong that no obstacle could deter them. It was particularly important to former Party members and to those who had dedicated themselves to the public values of the Revolution of 1917. The recognition of their civic worthiness was fundamental to their personal dignity. For the same reason, many of these people wanted reinstatement in the Party. Only when they were given back their Party cards did they feel fully revalidated as Soviet citizens. The widow of an ‘enemy of the people’ who spent twelve years in the ALZhIR labour camp recalls her pride when she got her husband’s pension and notice of his posthumous reinstatement in the ranks of the Party. As the widow of a Party member, she got many special benefits which were not given to other repressed families (and this gave her a distorted view of the position of the rehabilitated generally), but these advantages were important to her first and foremost as a symbol of her reintegration in society:

Politically and as a citizen I felt that I had finally become a whole person again. More than that, I was in a sense a ‘hero of the day’. Those in the Party who were rehabilitated rose in social status. We were placed at the head of the queue for living quarters, holidays, financial help and so on.48

For others rehabilitation was important because it restored meaning to their lives and political beliefs. Despite the injustices they had suffered, many people still held firm to their commitment to the Soviet ideal. This belief gave meaning to their lives, and perhaps to their sacrifice. Many even took pride in the idea that their labour in the camps had made a contribution to the Soviet cause, as Aleksandr Degtiarev, a scholar at the Lenin Agricultural Institute, explained to the journalist Anatoly Zhukov in the 1970s:

I dug by hand so many precious metals in the labour camp that I could have ended up a multi-millionaire. That was my contribution to the Communist system. And the most important factor that ensured my survival in those harsh conditions was my unflinching, inextinguishable belief in our Leninist Party and its humanist principles. It was the Party that gave me the strength to withstand these trials. The Party kept alive our spirits and our consciousness, it helped us fight. Reinstatement in the ranks of the Communist Party was the greatest happiness of my entire life.49

There was another category of people who sought rehabilitation because they thought it would lift the shame that had been attached to their name. Maria Drozdova, who was released from the Norilsk camps, did not feel she was really free until she had been rehabilitated: ‘It was only then that I could look people in the eye with a sense of honour and with pride. Nobody could curse me any more.’50

Rehabilitation was a huge relief for the Turkin family, which had been stigmatized as the relatives of an ‘enemy of the people’ since 1936, when Aleksandr Turkin, the veteran Bolshevik and journalist from Perm, was arrested as a ‘Trotskyist’. For twenty years, Aleksandr’s wife and their two daughters believed that Aleksandr was guilty of some crime against the state: it was the only way they could explain the hostility of former friends and neighbours. Aleksandr’s mother-in-law had cut his face out of the family portrait in the living room (‘If we have an enemy among us, we must clear him out’) and since then the family had avoided all mention of him. So when Aleksandr’s wife was told that her husband had been innocent, and she then received his rehabilitation on appeal, it was a liberation for the family. At last they could talk, without a sense of shame, about the husband and the father they had lost.* ‘Once people learned that my father had been rehabilitated, they began to soften in their attitude towards us,’ recalls Aleksandr’s daughter Vera. ‘It was important for us morally, because we had doubted him as well, and it turned out that we had been wrong.’51

Not everyone saw rehabilitation as an adequate response. Some took the view that they had always known that they were innocent, that they did not need the vindication of a system that had proved itself unjust. This viewpoint was often to be found among older Party members, the followers of Lenin, who regarded Stalin as a ‘counter-revolutionary’. Others, such as Lev Netto, one of the leaders of the Norilsk uprising, who was released from the labour camp in 1956, refused to apply for rehabilitation, ‘on principle’. Speaking for his comrades in the uprising, Netto explains, ‘we all felt that we did not need forgiving by the state, which was guilty of a crime against us. It was a matter of our self-respect and dignity.’52

For many Party members and their families, rehabilitation was not enough to restore justice without reinstatement in the Party (which also meant they received extra compensation from the state). But the process of reinstatement was extremely slow, particularly in the provinces, where many Party organizations continued to be ruled by the old bosses, who had risen to the top by fabricating cases against ‘enemies of the people’ and risked losing everything if they now acknowledged their mistakes. Aleksandr Turkin was one of thirty Bolsheviks in Perm unjustly arrested as ‘Trotskyists’ in 1936. At the time of his rehabilitation, in 1956, the local press had raised the issue of their reinstatement in the Party, but despite the efforts of their families, the question was then buried by the Party organization, until it resurfaced in the glasnost period of the 1980s. But even then, the city’s leaders dragged their heels: not one of the thirty Bolsheviks was reinstated in the Party before its abolition in 1991.53

Unless they were reinstated in the Party, the compensation given to ex-prisoners on their rehabilitation was so derisory that many refused to take it. When Zinaida Bushueva was rehabilitated in 1957, she was given two months’ wages, calculated at the values of 1938, the year of her arrest, in compensation for the eight years she had spent in the ALZhIR labour camp, and another two months’ wages for her husband, who was shot in 1938 and rehabilitated posthumously ‘for failure to prove the charges’ against him. She used the money to buy a coat for her two daughters, a suit for her son and a table with six stools for the one-room flat they were given by the Soviet in Perm.54

Olga Adamova-Sliuzberg applied for rehabilitation for herself and her husband in 1954. She waited for two years before receiving the usual certificate, in which it was stated that her case had been reviewed and the charges dropped for lack of evidence. ‘I had paid for this mistake with twenty years and forty-one days of my life,’ she writes. In compensation, she was entitled to two months’ pay for herself and her dead husband, and a further 11 roubles and 50 kopecks to compensate for the 115 roubles which had been in the possession of her husband at the time of his death. In the waiting room outside an office in the Supreme Soviet building in Moscow, where she was presented with this gift, there were twenty other women, all receiving similar certificates. Among them was an old Ukrainian, who became hysterical when she was told what her son’s life was worth:

The old Ukrainian woman began to shout: ‘I don’t need your money for my son’s blood. Keep it yourselves, murderers!’ She tore up the certificate and threw it on the floor.

The soldier who had been handing out the certificates approached her: ‘Calm down, citizen,’ he began.

But the old woman started shouting again: ‘Murderers!’ She spat in his face and began to choke in a fit of rage. A doctor ran in with two assistants and took her away. Everyone was silent and subdued. Here and there were the sounds of stifled sobs. I too found it hard to contain myself… I returned to my apartment, from which no policeman could evict me now. There was nobody at home, and I was free to weep. To weep for my husband, who perished in the cellars of the Lubianka when he was thirty-seven years old and at the height of his powers and talent; for my children, who grew up as orphans, stigmatized as the children of enemies of the people; for my parents, who died of grief; for the twenty years of torture; and for friends who never lived to be rehabilitated but lie beneath the frozen earth of Kolyma.55

Millions of people never came back from the camps. For their relatives, who were seldom told where they were or what had happened to them, the years after 1953 were a long and agonizing wait for their return, or for information about their fates. In many cases it was not until the 1980s, when ‘openness’ or glasnost became the watchword of the Soviet government, or even after the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991, that this wait came to an end.

Zinaida Bushueva never found out that her husband had been shot in 1938. Until her death, in 1992, she did not know whether he was dead, in which case she would have mourned for him, or whether he was still alive but had chosen not to return to his family, in which case she would have probably concluded that he had been guilty after all.56

Afanasia Botova continued to believe that her husband might still be alive until she died in 1981. Her husband had been arrested in 1937 at his work in the engineering workshops attached to the railway station at Perm. He was sent to Bamlag, the Gulag complex organized for the construction of the Baikal–Amur railway line, and from there to a camp near Magadan, where, as his daughter Nina was informed in 1989, he died from exhaustion in November 1940. None of this was known to Afanasia, who received a note from him in January 1941: ‘So far still alive. The temperature is minus 50 degrees.’ For forty years this tiny scrap of faded paper was enough for Afanasia to hold on to the hope that her husband would return.57

Elena Cherkesova clung to the belief that her husband was alive until she died in 1982. Her husband, Vsevolod, a geologist at the Mining Institute in Leningrad, was arrested in 1937 and sentenced to be shot in February 1938. Before his execution Vsevolod was allowed to phone his wife. He told her that they would never see each other again, but he did not say that he was about to be executed, telling her instead, as no doubt instructed by his executioners, that he had been sentenced ‘without rights to correspond’. Like millions of other relatives with loved ones in the labour camps, Elena did not understand that ‘without rights to correspond’ was Gulag code for the death sentence. After 1953, she presumed that his sentence must have ended, so she tried to track him down. She made inquiries at the MVD headquarters in Leningrad and wrote to the Soviet Procuracy in Moscow, but none of the officials would tell her anything. Shortly after her trip to the MVD headquarters, Elena was visited by a strange woman, who told her that she had been a prisoner in the same labour camp as Vsevolod and that she had seen him there a few years before. The woman encouraged Elena to believe that her husband was still alive.58

It was a common ploy of the MVD to deceive the relatives of executed prisoners in this way. Soviet officials took great care to cover up the facts of their killings. Their main concern was to hide the huge death toll of 1937–8 by claiming that the people executed in those years had died later, usually during the war years. They fabricated death certificates and informed relatives that prisoners had died from heart attacks or other illnesses when in fact they had been killed many years before.

Ida Slavina successfully appealed for the rehabilitation of her father in 1955. With the certificate of rehabilitation she received a death certificate from the registry in Leningrad which stated that her father had died of a heart attack in April 1939. Ida was puzzled because in 1945 she had been told by the Soviet authorities that her father was alive. She went to the headquarters of the MVD in Leningrad, where she was advised to trust the evidence of the death certificate. Ten years later, in 1965, when she applied for information from the KGB in Moscow, she received the same advice. Ida continued to believe this version until 1991, when she gained access to her father’s file in the KGB archives and discovered that he had been shot, only three months after his arrest, on 28 February 1938. In his file she also found an order from a KGB official in 1955, which stated that ‘for reasons of state security’ Ida should be misinformed that her father died of a heart attack in 1939.59

Irina Dudareva never gave up hope that she would find her husband after his arrest in the southern town of Azov, where he was the leader of the Party committee, on 30 August 1937. Ten years later, she had not heard anything from him, but he was due to be released, so she began to write to the MVD and to all the labour camps whose names and addresses she had collected from the relatives of other prisoners arrested in the Rostov region where she lived. Shortly afterwards she received a visit from a man, one of her husband’s former Party colleagues from Azov, who claimed that he had seen him in a labour camp, where, he said, he was alive and well. Irina went on writing to the authorities, who informed her that her husband was alive but still serving his sentence in a labour camp ‘without rights to correspond’. After 1953, she wrote with increasing frequency, assuming that her husband must surely now have been released, since she had never heard of anybody serving more than fifteen years in the labour camps; she thought she would have been told if his sentence had been extended for some reason. Finally, in 1957, Irina received a certificate stating that her husband had died from an illness in 1944. This is all Irina knew until her death in 1974. But in 1995, her daughter Galina was given access to her father’s file in the KGB archives, in which it was stated that he had been executed on the night of his arrest.60


‘Now those who were arrested will return, and two Russias will look each other in the eye: the one that sent these people to the camps and the one that came back.’61 With these words the poet Akhmatova anticipated the drama which unfolded as prisoners returned from the camps to confront the colleagues, neighbours, friends who had informed on them.

In 1954, Maria Budkevich came back to the communal apartment in Leningrad where she had lived with her brother and their parents until their arrest in 1937. Their two rooms had been taken over by the next-door neighbours, a married couple with three children. The wife had been on very friendly terms with the Budkeviches until the mass arrests of 1937, when she denounced them as ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and ‘foreign spies’ (Maria’s father was of Polish origin). She had even claimed that Maria’s mother was a prostitute who brought clients to the house. In 1954, the same woman, now grown old and thin with long white hair, was living in the rooms, her children having grown up and left the apartment, and her husband sent to a labour camp in 1941. Maria needed the woman to sign a document testifying to the fact that her family used to live there. She had recently received the rehabilitation of her parents, who had both been shot in 1937, and needed the document to apply for compensation for the living space and personal property which had been confiscated from the Budkeviches at the time of their arrest. The woman’s face went white when she heard Maria say her name. ‘I didn’t think you would come back,’ she said. Maria explained the purpose of her visit and reassured the woman that she had no intention of making any claim to her living space. The woman invited Maria to sit down while she read and signed the document. Maria looked around the room. She recognized her mother’s collection of ceramic pots, the leather sofa which her father had brought back from Minsk, cushions, lamps and chairs, familiar to her from her childhood. When she had signed the document, the woman asked Maria to sit down with her on the sofa. ‘There is something I must tell you,’ she whispered. The woman told Maria that, shortly after his arrest, her husband had written her a letter from the labour camp, which she had destroyed out of fear. He had written to tell her that during his interrogation they had knocked out all his teeth, that he did not think he would return from the labour camp, and that she should not wait for him but should marry someone else. Her husband never returned from the labour camps. She was telling Maria this, she explained, because she wanted her to understand that she had suffered too and that she was sorry about what had happened to her parents.62

Iurii Shtakelberg was arrested in 1948 on charges of belonging to a group of ‘Jewish nationalist students’ at Leningrad University. It was claimed that the group was organized and financed by a German baron as a ‘spy-ring’ against the Soviet Union. Iurii was accused of trying to set up a secret printing press to spread anti-Soviet propaganda in the university. The charges had no foundation. They were based entirely on a made-up story and denunciation signed by four of his fellow students at the university, who, it seems, were motivated largely by their xenophobia and had picked on Shtakelberg because of his foreign name (it is also possible that they knew about the arrest of Iurii’s father for ‘disseminating German propaganda’ in December 1941). In March 1949, Iurii was sentenced by a court in Leningrad to twenty-five years of hard labour. He was sent to the Bamlag camp (where his father had perished in 1942) and put to work building bridges for the railway. In 1956, he was seriously injured from a fall and released as an invalid. At first he lived in Luga and then finally he returned to Leningrad, taking a job in the Public Library. When Iurii was invited by the KGB to look at the records of his trial, he saw the names of his fellow students who had reported him. He paid a visit to each one in turn. ‘They all understood that I knew what they had done,’ recalls Iurii.

One woman told me that it made no difference that I had returned, that it changed nothing, because I had been a bastard then, and I was a bastard now… She said that I should have been shot. One of the men – the one who had always been a provocateur, and a stupid one at that – took me to his home and in the entrance showed me a large bundle of paper. It was the sort of consignment that was sometimes sold in the big shops. He said: ‘If you want some, help yourself. Perhaps now’s the time to start your printing press.’ I laughed it off, but it sent a shiver down my spine. I thought of telling him that the paper was of no use for a printing press because it was cut too small, but I said nothing.63

Ibragim Izmail-Zade was a senior professor of medicine and a departmental head at the Institute of Medicine in Baku at the time of his arrest, in 1938, on charges of belonging to an ‘anti-Soviet group of Azerbaijani nationalists’. After his release from the Kolyma camps, he returned to Baku, where he took up a junior position in the same institute. Instead of the cutting-edge research he had done in the 1930s, he was now employed in routine clinical work. During the trial of M. D. Bagirov, the former Party boss of Azerbaijan, in 1955, Ibragim appeared as a witness for the prosecution, in which capacity he was allowed to look at his own file from 1938, when Bagirov had led the terror campaign in Baku. Ibragim discovered that he had been denounced by his favourite student, who had since gone on to become the head of his department at the institute. While Ibragim was in Kolyma, the former student had often visited his wife and daughter, who treated him as a member of the family. The old student was noticeably cooler in his behaviour after Ibragim’s return, rarely coming to the house, and never in the evening, when he would have been obliged to eat or drink with him. After his discovery of the denunciation, Ibragim and his family were forced to see the former student several times, and while they never spoke to him about his actions, it was clear that the Izmail-Zades now knew of the betrayal. One day the political director of the institute appeared at the Izmail-Zade house. He wanted Ibragim to sign a document stating that his family had no grievance against the former student, and that they would remain on friendly terms. Ibragim refused to sign. He had to be restrained from throwing the official out on the street. According to his daughter, Ibragim was crushed by the betrayal. He felt humiliated at being forced to work beneath someone who, he felt, was hardly qualified. Being asked to sign the document had been the final straw.64

In 1953, Kolia Kuzmin, the former leader of the Komsomol in Obukhovo, who had denounced the Golovins as ‘kulaks’ during the collectivization campaign of 1930, came to live in Pestovo, the small town near Vologda, where the Golovins had settled after their return from exile in Siberia. Before his denunciation of the Golovins, Kolia had often been a guest in their house. He had even been employed in the leather workshop of Nikolai Golovin, who had taken pity on the teenage boy, because he came from the poorest family in the village. Nikolai and his wife Yevdokiia were religious believers. When Kolia came to visit them shortly after Stalin’s death and asked for their forgiveness, not just for his denunciation but for his part in the murder of Nikolai’s brother, they not only forgave him but invited him to come and live with them in Pestovo. Their daughter Antonina, who was then working as a doctor in Kolpino, near Leningrad, took exception to her parents’ generosity and tried to persuade them to change their minds. ‘He killed Ivan [Nikolai’s brother] and destroyed our family. How can one forgive a man for that?’ she reasoned. But Yevdokiia believed that ‘a truly Christian person should forgive his enemies’. Kolia settled in a house next door to the Golovins. He was ashamed of his actions in the past and tried to make amends by running errands for the Golovins. On Saturdays he would go with Nikolai to the public baths; on Sundays he would go with both of them to church. In 1955, Yevdokiia died, followed three years later by Nikolai, and in 1970 by Kolia Kuzmin. They are all buried in the same churchyard in Pestovo.65

Many former prisoners were surprisingly forgiving towards the people who had informed on them. This inclination to forgive was seldom rooted in religious attitudes, as it was with the Golovins, but it was often based on the understanding, which was shared by everyone who had experienced the prisons and the camps of the Gulag system, that virtually any citizen, no matter how good they might be in normal circumstances, could be turned into an informer by pressure from the NKVD. The journalist Irina Sherbakova recalls a meeting of the Moscow Memorial Society (established to represent the victims of repression) during the late 1980s:

one woman, who had been arrested in about 1939, said to me in a completely calm voice: ‘Over there is the man who informed on me.’ And she greeted him quite normally. Catching my perplexed expression, she explained: ‘Of course we were just eighteen then, his parents were Old Bolsheviks who were repressed, and they [the NKVD] tried to recruit me too. And of course he himself was repressed later on.’ I felt that what she said was motivated, not by a lack of concern for the past or a desire to forget it, but by the realization of the shameful things the system had done to people.66

That realization was certainly more likely to develop in the 1980s, when painful memories had perhaps softened over time, and the victims of repression, informed by history, had arrived at a more objective understanding of the Soviet system. But the tendency to refrain from the condemnation of individuals was already noted in the 1950s, when Soviet émigrés, apparently, were not hostile to ordinary Party functionaries, because they understood that they were really powerless and perhaps themselves victims of the same system.67

Not surprisingly, the return of Stalin’s prisoners provoked great fear in the people who had helped to send them to the camps. ‘All the murderers, provocateurs and informers had one feature in common,’ recalls Nadezhda Mandelshtam: they never thought that their victims might return one day:

They thought that everybody sent to the next world or to the camps had been eliminated once and for all. It never entered their heads that these ghosts might rise up and call their grave-diggers to account. During the period of rehabilitations, therefore, they were utterly panic-stricken. They thought that time had gone into reverse and that those they had dubbed ‘camp dust’ had suddenly once more taken on flesh and reassumed their names. They were seized by terror.

One ‘wretched woman informer’ was constantly summoned to the Prosecutor’s office to retract testimony she had given against the living and the dead. After every session, recalls Mandelshtam, she would run to the families of those she had denounced and plead, ‘as God was her witness’, that she had ‘never said anything bad’ about them, and that ‘her only reason for going to the Prosecutor’s office now was to say good things about all the dead people so they would be cleared as soon as possible’. Mandelshtam concluded that

the woman had never had anything remotely resembling a conscience, but this was more than she could stand, and she had a stroke that left her paralysed. She must at some moment have got so scared that she really believed these rehabilitations were serious and that all the slanderers and other minions might be brought to trial.68

Mandelshtam also tells the story of a senior MVD official in Tashkent who was pensioned off after Stalin’s death but ‘occasionally summoned to interviews with former victims who had by some miracle survived and returned from the camps’. The man could not stand it and hanged himself. Mandelshtam was able to read a draft of the suicide letter he addressed to the Central Committee. The official wrote that he had always worked hard for the Party, and that it had never crossed his mind

that he might have been serving not the people, but ‘some kind of Bonapartism’. He tried to put the blame on others: on the people he had interrogated for signing all kinds of bogus confessions, thereby misleading the officials in charge of their cases; on the officials sent from Moscow with instructions concerning ‘simplified interrogration procedures’ and demands that the quotas be fulfilled; and, last but not least, on the informers who volunteered the denunciations which forced the secret police to act against so many people.

The death of the MVD official was hushed up. He had named too many functionaries and informers before his suicide. But his daughter was determined to get even ‘with those who had caused her father’s death’. As Mandelshtam noted:

Her anger was directed against the ones who had stirred up this nightmarish business. ‘They should have shown some consideration for the people in official positions at the time! They didn’t start all this, they were just carrying out orders.’69

Another one of Stalin’s henchmen to commit suicide was Aleksandr Fadeyev, the alcoholic leader of the Writers’ Union, who was removed from that post in 1954. Fadeyev had been suffering from depression for a long time, but Stalin’s death completely unhinged him. ‘My illness is not in my liver,’ he wrote to a fellow Union member, ‘it is in my mind.’ Fadeyev confessed to Simonov that he was ‘bankrupt’ as a writer. He gave up working on his last novel, a Socialist Realist tale about the Party’s struggle against industrial sabotage, which made use of materials from the 1930s trials, after he had realized, as he explained to several friends, that its moral import was completely wrong: there had been no industrial sabotage. Fadeyev was overcome by feelings of remorse for his part in the repression of writers during his leadership of the Writers’ Union. ‘I was such a scoundrel,’ he wrote to Chukovsky. He was particularly remorseful about his old friend Iogann Altman, who died in 1955, two years after his release from jail. Fadeyev had denounced Altman during the ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign and had done nothing to save his friend when he was arrested and imprisoned in 1949. After Altman’s death, Fadeyev went on a drinking binge. He confessed to a friend that he had sanctioned the arrest of many writers he had known were innocent.70

After 1953, Fadeyev attempted to redeem himself by petitioning the authorities for the release and rehabilitation of writers who had been sent to the labour camps. He wrote to Malenkov and Khrushchev, calling on the Party to loosen its ideological control of the cultural sphere, but he was ignored and then removed from his leadership position. By 1956, Fadeyev had become an isolated figure, widely denounced as an unreconstructed Stalinist by the literary intelligentsia, which knew nothing of his later efforts on behalf of repressed writers. Just before he shot himself, on 13 May 1956, Fadeyev wrote a letter to the Central Committee which remained hidden in the Party archives until 1990:

I see no possibility of living any longer, because the cause of [Soviet] art, to which I gave my life, has been destroyed by the arrogant and ignorant leadership of the Party… Our best writers have been exterminated or died before their time because of the criminal connivance of those in power… As a writer, my own life has lost all sense, and it is with joy, with a sense of liberation from this vile existence, where the soul is crushed by malice, lies and slander, that I depart this life.71

Fadeyev was broken by the conflict between being a good Communist and being a good human being. He was by nature a kind person, as many of his victims recognized, but his conscience, his identity and in the end his will to live were gradually destroyed by the compromises and accommodations he had made in his many years of service to the Stalinist regime.72

Despite Fadeyev’s pessimism about the state of literature, Soviet writers played a leading role in the beginning of the thaw. As the regime ceased to exercise a direct veto over writers, literature became the focus for a new emphasis on the individual and private life, and on the rejection of the meddling interference of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Soviet writers moved away from the public themes and heroes of Socialist Realism and strove to portray real people in their domestic and social context. The most daring work of fiction in those years, Ehrenburg’s The Thaw (1954), was deliberately provocative, as if it were a test to see how far it was possible to go in the new climate. The novel tells the story of a despotic factory boss, a ‘little Stalin’, who becomes increasingly corrupt and inhumane, stealing money assigned for workers’ housing to invest in the factory, as he struggles to fulfil the production quotas of the Five Year Plan. The boss’s wife cannot bear to stay with such a heartless man, and the spring thaw, which promises a new and better life, gives her the courage to leave him. In the political climate of 1954, when the thaw had only just begun, it was too early for Soviet readers to discuss the novel’s anti-Stalinism, which was not obvious in any case. Instead they concentrated on the novel’s other theme, the independence of the artist, which was contained in its sub-plot about a painter. The artist churns out works to order by the state and lives comfortably as a consequence, but he recognizes his own mediocrity compared with other painters whose art has not been compromised by service to the system.

The publication of The Thaw split the Soviet literary world. Liberal journals such as Novyi mir, where the novel was first published, hoped it would mark the start of a new era, when writers could at last be honest and sincere, when they would return to their true role of shaping private sensibilities rather than reflecting the interests of the regime. In a discussion of his work at a Moscow library in 1954, Ehrenburg maintained that the purpose of art was to express the ‘culture of emotions’ and help the ‘individual understand his fellow human beings’.73 Alarmed by all this liberal talk, conservatives in the Soviet establishment began to organize a series of attacks on the liberal writers of the thaw. In August 1954, they secured the dismissal of Tvardovsky, the ‘kulak’ son and poet, from the post of editor of Novyi mir. The task of criticizing Ehrenburg fell to Simonov, who replaced Tvardovsky as the editor of Novyi mir. Simonov was chosen because he was regarded as a moderate conservative, and therefore more authoritative than Stalinist hardliners such as Sofronov. In two long articles in Literaturnaia gazeta Simonov attacked The Thaw, arguing that its portrayal of Soviet Russia was too dark and that the conclusion of its sub-plot was simplistic: it was possible, Simonov argued, to be a good artist and to serve the state.74

Simonov remained in the Stalinist camp until 1956, when he began to embrace the spirit of reform. Like many people who had lived in Stalin’s shadow, Simonov was confused and disoriented by the leader’s death. At first, it was far from clear which way Kremlin politics would go: a return to the Terror was quite plausible. In this climate of uncertainty it was not unreasonable for people in positions such as Simonov’s to play it safe by sticking to the political ground they had occupied before Stalin died. ‘In those years,’ recalls Simonov, ‘my attitude to Stalin kept changing. I wavered between various emotions and points of view.’ For much of 1953, his main feeling was a ‘profound sense of grief at the loss of a great man’, which led Simonov to write a startling eulogy in Literaturnaia gazeta (‘The Sacred Duty of the Writer’) in which he argued that it was ‘the highest task of Soviet literature to portray the greatness and the genius of the immortal Stalin for all nations and all future generations’. The article enraged Khrushchev, who insisted on Simonov’s removal from the newspaper’s staff. Simonov remained loyal to his Stalinist origins throughout 1954, placing a portrait of Stalin on his desk. It was a picture he particularly liked: Stalin gazing on that monument to Gulag labour, the Volga–Don Canal. During Stalin’s lifetime, Simonov had never hung a portrait of the ruler in his office or his house. He did so now because he was repulsed by the ‘turncoats’ and ‘careerists’ who had proclaimed their love for the Soviet leader when he was alive but renounced him as soon as he was dead. ‘It was not Stalinism that inspired me [to display the photograph],’ recalls Simonov, ‘but something closer to the noble or intelligentsia idea of honour.’ This same refusal to renounce his past led Simonov, in 1955, to include in a collection of his verse a truly awful ‘Ode to Stalin’ that he had written in 1943 but not published, in which he praised the Soviet leader as the greatest human being in the whole of history.75

Simonov with his son Aleksei, 1954

Simonov followed his critique of Ehrenburg with a series of attacks on other writers in the vanguard of the liberal thaw. In a major Pravda article, in July 1954, Simonov decried the literary rejection of the traditions of Socialist Realism and the growing trend towards satire, singling out for criticism the Ukrainian dramatist Aleksandr Korneichuk for abandoning the theatre’s responsibility, as Simonov defined it, ‘to teach the Soviet people how to love and cherish the Soviet system’.76

As the editor of Novyi mir, Simonov was also critical of Vladimir Dudintsev’s explosive novel Not by Bread Alone, submitted to the journal for publication in serial form. The novel tells the story of an inventor, a physics teacher dedicated to the betterment of life in the Soviet Union, whose creativity is stifled and destroyed by the petty corruption and inefficiency of Soviet officialdom. Simonov forced Dudintsev to tone down his attack on the bureaucracy, fearing that the novel might raise doubts about the system as a whole, before he published it in Novyi mir in 1956. Despite the changes demanded by Simonov, the book was still hailed by the reformers as a battering ram against the establishment. The first public discussion of the novel drew so many people to the Writers’ Union, with students climbing water-pipes to listen to the debate from the windows on the second floor, that mounted police had to be called in to disperse the crowds.77

Simonov was also responsible for Novyi mir’s crucial decision not to publish Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. In September 1956, he wrote to Pasternak on behalf of the journal’s editorial board, outlining their political objections to his novel, an epic human drama set against the backdrop of the Revolution and the Civil War. The letter was used and prominently cited by the Soviet leadership in 1958 during its campaign to force Pasternak to turn down the award of the Nobel Prize.* Simonov had a very low opinion of the novel, ‘a vile and spiteful work of philistinism and in places simply anti-Soviet’, as he described it in a letter to his son. Simonov took the view that in posing the central question of his novel – whether the Russian intelligentsia had made the right decision to accept the October Revolution of 1917 – Pasternak had set things up so that it could only be answered in the negative: that by deciding to go along with the Bolsheviks, the intelligentsia had betrayed their duty to the Russian people, to Russian culture and humanity. In Simonov’s opinion, not only did this bias make the novel anti-Soviet; it was also an insult to a whole generation of professionals, to people like his mother and his stepfather, who had remained in Soviet Russia and worked for the Bolsheviks, not out of political choice, but because they were Russian patriots first and foremost.78

As the thaw developed and Khrushchev’s reformers gained the upper hand in the Soviet leadership, Simonov became an increasingly isolated figure in the Moscow literary world. The liberal spirit of reform was not tolerant of Stalinist believers who refused to change their views. As Simonov put it in 1956:

The editor can ask to cut away

The name of Stalin from my verse,

But he cannot help me

With the Stalin who is left within my soul.

It was only very gradually, after Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, that Simonov began to purge that inner Stalin from himself.79

Khrushchev’s speech was a crucial watershed, more important than the death of Stalin, in the slow demise of the terror system that had ruled the Soviet people since 1917. With Khrushchev’s speech, it became clear that the Soviet government was finally distancing itself from Stalin’s reign of terror, and the people’s fear and uncertainty about the future gradually began to lift.

The Twentieth Party Congress, the first since Stalin’s death, convened in the Great Kremlin Palace on 14 February 1956. The 1,355 voting delegates assembled in the expectation that the leadership would at last explain its post-Stalin line and clarify the status of the dead leader. The decision to expose and denounce Stalin’s crimes was made by the collective leadership – though there were bitter arguments about how far they should go – following the report by a special commission on the repression of Party members between 1935 and 1940 presented to the Central Committee on 9 February. The leadership was surprised by the commission’s findings – both by the huge scale of the mass arrests and executions and by the fabrication of the evidence on which this wave of terror had been based – and on the eve of the Party Congress it resolved to tell the truth to a closed and secret session of its delegates. The text of the speech was prepared collectively and Khrushchev, who had been the main driving force behind disclosure, took responsibility for its delivery on 25 February.

Khrushchev’s motives were complex. It was certainly courageous to argue for disclosure when other Party leaders, such as Kaganovich, Molotov and Voroshilov, were clearly uncomfortable with the idea of exposing the crimes of a regime in which they had played such important roles. During the discussions on 9 February, Khrushchev called for bold action:

What sort of leader destroys everyone? We have to be courageous and tell the truth… We all worked with Stalin, but that does not implicate us. As the facts emerge, we have to speak of them, otherwise we are justifying his actions… We can speak with a clear voice. We are not ashamed. We have nothing to fear, and no reason to be satisfied by small-minded arguments.

Disclosure also suited Khrushchev’s bid for power. He used the exposure of Stalin’s crimes to undermine or threaten his main rivals for the leadership, and to build a base of support in those sectors of society that embraced the thaw and political reform. But above all, perhaps, like the rest of the Party leaders, Khrushchev feared that, if they did not speak of Stalin’s crimes, the public would speak in their place, and that in the climate of the thaw critics of the Party would hold the entire leadership responsible. ‘Either you tell them at the upcoming congress, or you will find yourself under investigation,’ Khrushchev was warned by an old Party comrade, recently returned from the labour camps, whose testimony featured in his speech. By giving the impression that the Party leaders had discovered the truth about the Terror only recently, as a result of the commission which reported on 9 February, Khrushchev was able to shift the blame on to Stalin and clear the other leaders from suspicion, on the grounds that they ‘did not know’. To the same end Khrushchev offered a rather exculpatory explanation of the injustices committed by the Party since 1935: Stalin was held personally responsible for all of them, but other Party leaders were portrayed as victims of his ‘monstrous’ crimes (even the followers of Trotsky and Bukharin had not deserved to die). There was no question of blaming the Soviet system – only of struggling to ‘overcome the cult of personality’. The whole purpose of the speech was to restore Leninism to power.80

Khrushchev ended his speech with a plea for secrecy:

This subject must not go beyond the borders of the Party, let alone reach the press. That is why we are talking about this at a closed session… We must not provide ammunition for our enemies, we must not bare our injuries to them. I assume congress delegates will understand this and act accordingly.

After he had finished speaking there was a ‘deathly silence’ in the conference hall. Aleksandr Iakovlev, later to become a leading figure in Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost, was one of the congress delegates. He recalls the scene:

I sat in the balcony. I remember well the sense of profound disturbance, if not desperation, which took hold of me after Khrushchev spoke. The silence in the hall was profound. There was no sound of squeaking chairs, no coughing, no whispering. No one looked at anyone – whether from the unexpectedness of what had just occurred or from nervousness and fear… We left the conference hall with our heads bowed.

Among the delegates who spilled out into the entranceway was Simonov, who stood there for a long time in a state of shock and confusion, smoking and talking with Igor Chernoutsan, the Central Committee’s cultural adviser. ‘We already knew a lot,’ recalls Chernoutsan, ‘but we were stunned by the way the truth caved in on us. But was it the whole truth?’81

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