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Women of the Gulag: The Last Survivors

The Stories of Six Women

as last survivors of the Gulag
The documentary film Women of the Gulag tells the compelling and tragic stories of six women as last survivors of the Gulag. Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago largely tells of the men caught in Stalin’s camps and special settlements for “crimes against the state.” Women of the Gulag, features six women in their eighties and nineties as they tell their stories while going about their daily lives in remote Urals villages, in break-away Sukhumi, or in Moscow suburbs. Their only hesitancy to speak out relates to sexual violence, about which they would only hint. Sadly, three died shortly after their interviews.

Our “last witness’s” stories range from the horrific to the uplifting: Fiokla tells of being named head of family at age eleven by her condemned father. Conservatory student, Vera, is arrested for playing “German hymns.” Elena totes uranium ore in a crude backpack, Ksenia lives in a pit covered by branches, Natalia tends the empty grave of her martyred parents, and Adile spends a week in a cell for condemned prisoners. For most, the telling of their stories was cathartic. Adile, in her 90s, put it this way: “I lived so long to be able to finally tell the truth.”

How the Film Was Made

The idea was born when film maker Marianna Yarovskaya was taking part in founding the Museum of Holocaust in Moscow. As a Russian, she realized that, unlike the Holocaust, the Gulag lacks, as Anne Applebaum declares, a “big moment,” Women of the Gulag, shot entirely in Russia, is our attempt to create a “moment.” We focus not on the horrendous statistics of the Gulag. Instead, we allow six actual witnesses to recount their stories in their own words. Yarovskaya began filming with three last witnesses from Hoover’s Paul Gregory’s book of the same title. The cast of characters expanded as Yarovskaya filmed in remote locations near former camps. Our women were eager to tell their stories. In the course of filming, two of our six women died, so our film indeed is immortalizing the last witnesses to the crimes that were committed.

In keeping with the Kremlin’s strategy of not openly blocking Gulag narratives, no authority interfered with our shooting of Women of the Gulag. No one stood in the way of cooperating with Memorial and the Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov Foundations. The Kremlin perversely benefits from appearing open to Gulag discussion, especially to foreign audiences. Russian media even paid for a positive article on Women of the Gulag in their Russia Beyond the Headlines insert in the New York Times. Nevertheless, we understood that Russian authorities are conducting a subtle campaign to make the Gulag disappear. They issue secret orders for the shredding of Gulag documents. Local historians are threatened with jail for unearthing killing fields. Memorial and other victims’ organizations are threatened with being labelled “foreign agents.” This term has great symbolism. Great Terror victims were shot under this label.

This film is personal for Yarovskaya, since her own family history was affected by the gulag.

Historical Background and Relevance to the Present

Eighty years ago (November 17, 1938) Stalin ended the Great Terror, citing “local excesses” that had come to his attention. It wasn’t until two decades later that the KGB tallied the victims of the sixteen-month reign of terror at 1,334,360. Half were shot, and the rest sentenced to the Gulag. The Gulag itself continued to grow during and after the Second World War. It reached its peak of 2.5 million prisoners shortly before Stalin’s death. Of these, one out of five were women.

The Kremlin cannot deny that the Gulag happened, but the Putin regime wants to focus on Russia’s past glories – the defeat of Napoleon and Hitler, the USSR’s breakneck industrialization and modernization, and Russia’s reverence to the orthodox faith. The Kremlin’s narrative is of Russia as a “besieged fortress” that will rise to the occasion when the decadent West seeks its dismemberment. Stalin’s murder of millions does not fit nicely into this narrative.

The Kremlin is conducting an insidious and relentless PR campaign to preserve and protect Stalin’s image in the public mind. True, Stalin killed, but it was all for modernization and industrialization. The USSR could not have beaten Hitler without the labor camps that mined the resources in the godforsaken East and North, they say.

Imagine a German classroom in which the state curriculum calls for debates on whether Hitler was a positive or negative figure in German history. In Russia, school children are encouraged to organize mock trials, arguing whether Stalin was the “father of Russia” or Russia’s “enemy.” Such pedagogical twists appear not to be necessary anyway. Half of Russia’s youth are not even aware of the repressions under Stalin.

The Kremlin strategy is working. Polls show that the Russian people rate Stalin as the most outstanding figure in Russian history, ahead of Putin himself. The voices of Women of the Gulag are scarcely audible, but they must be heard.

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