I am not that woman. It must be someone else who is suffering. I could never withstand it. – Anna Akhmatova
Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag, by Monika Zgustova, a Czech author based in Spain, is made up of the collected stories of seven women who were sentenced to forced labour in the Russian gulag during the first half of the twentieth century, one woman who was born in a gulag, and one who was imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital. Zgustova’s introduction explains how she became interested in the subject and a little about her parents’ history, to give context to her later questions. Each section then takes a different woman and reports Zgustova’s interview with her. Zgustova interviews the women at their homes and describes these briefly, which helps to give you a sense of what has become most important to them over the years – some are surrounded by books, or cats, or photographs of friends and family. And then, for the most part, women tell their stories in their own words.
The stories are very different, but they have many things in common. Perhaps the most obvious is the humanity at the heart of these inhumane stories – every woman’s account is touched by flashes of poeople who were kind to her, or who were brave. Seemingly little things, like a physics teacher who risks his life to teach his teenage students that the steam engine was invented by James Watts rather than a Russian, or the free man who manages to smuggle a needle and thread to a woman so she can mend her clothes. It’s heartbreaking that such small things were remarkable enough to stay with the women for the rest of their lives – but they did. There is such kindness and bravery in this book. One of the things that struck me most profoundly was the bravery of the dissidents who protested the invasion of Czechoslovakia in Red Square in 1968. The fact that this small group of people, already living under a brutal dictatorial regime, were willing to risk their lives to demand freedom for people in another country – this is extraordinary.
Many of the women’s accounts feature healthcare professionals, generally also imprisoned but still providing care, and perhaps unsurprisingly these stories were particularly upsetting to me. In one instance, an eighty-two year old man is imprisoned in the gulag. He was once a renowned doctor, so he does what he can to keep the people in his care alive: he organises a rota for people to lie beside those who are very unwell, breathing on them, to keep them from freezing to death in the Siberian winter. In another story, a nurse is charged with caring for a huge number of patients – they all need food, there isn’t enough food, and so they starve. Yet another nurse is sentenced to ten years’ hard labour for telling a patient to try and get hold of some American penicillin. Even though far worse physical ordeals are described in the book, nothing sounded as bad to me as being a trained healthcare professional in a room full of people who you could easily help, but being denied the resources you need and having to watch them die, unable to even alleviate their pain.
Despite this, the collection is shot through with more hope than anyone would expect. Many of the women talk about coming to love the beauty of the tundra as much as they hated it, cherishing the friendships they formed that were unlike any others, or coming to respect their own endurance and resilience. Some of the participants go so far as to say they are grateful for the time they spent in the gulag, or at least that they wouldn’t wish it away. Others are more skeptical, pointing out that plenty of people develop very close friendships without having to live through such a traumatic experience. The emphasis on enjoying beauty, though, is common to almost all of the stories. One woman says, about Prokofiev’s wife Lina:
But she still saw beauty all around her, something that most of us could not manage. During winter in the Arctic Circle, when the sun doesn’t come out for six months, Lina would suddenly stop and look at the sky: if it was clear, the aurora borealis would unfirl like a big, lazy animal, and the stars paled beside it. When spring was close and a dark red sky illuminated us for a couple of hours each day, Lina drank it in like a wanderer in the desert who has finally found water. In the autumn, when she went to the woods to throw away the garbage, she never tired of admiring the little yellow larches, the only trees that grew there.
One of the most difficult elements of the book is reading how many prisoners were convinced that, if Stalin knew what was happening, he would march in and rescue them – when of course he masterminded the huge extension of the gulags after they were initially set up by Lenin. It’s a very telling indicator of the extent to which a personality cult had been set up around around him. Indeed, many of the women were released as a direct or indirect result of Stalin’s death, and the brief period where rules were being somewhat relaxed in the USSR. Of course, some of the women were more clear-eyed from the start (one was arrested for being a dissident, and one for participating in an anti-Stalinist terrorist cell). Certainly all of the women interviewed for the book had recognised the extent of the Stalinist purges by the point of interview. But even the fact that they had ever believed in him is a chilling reminder of how powerful that kind of propaganda can be.
Even at the bleakest points in the book, though, that hope is still there. Because of Zgustova’s introduction, you know that all these women survived. You get to learn about the rest of their lives – living with trauma, but not defined by it. Many were released as relatively young women, and went on to have lives full of love and purpose. One of the women, Janina, was moved between many camps with her parents, who had been deported because they were Polish. The family ran into additional difficulties because her father was a Christian who set up Bible studies in the camps, which was illegal. Despite all the challenges Janina faced, over and over again she emphasises the generosity that people showed in every country they were moved to: the Pakistani hospital that helped a friend finally recover his ability to walk; the local Uzbek families who used to share their meagre food with the Polish prisoners; the Persians who realised Janina and her family had been starving for years, and fed them until they were almost ready to burst. Janina subsequently became a cultural organizer and seemingly a pillar of the Polish community in London, and lived in a way that was characterised by that same generosity. This is what Janina said at the end of her interview, aged 82:
Before my death, I want to do more good things. When I die, I don’t want to stand before God with empty hands, do you see? I want to give other people what politics and history deprived me of in my childhood.
This book is extremely worth reading. Admittedly, some of the stories are much better told than others. This suggests to me that Zgustova reported the accounts with a high degree of faithfulness, and that some of her interviewees were simply more natural storytellers. How well the stories are told, though, is almost irrelevant. These stories are worth hearing because they are true, and because over a million other people did not survive. It’s also worth reading because it was so recent. I am always freshly struck by this when I read books of this kind. When I read Wild Swans, I couldn’t get over the fact that the author was at university at the same time as my mum, and this time it was when one of the women gave her date of birth – 1924 – and I realised she was only two years older than my paternal grandmother. I was born in March 1990, so just as Communist regimes were falling all over Europe, and it’s easy to feel like things like this are part of a distant and faraway history – when in fact they are recent, and they were nearby.
This was a great book to kick off my In Lieu of Travel challenge, since it definitely taught me a lot about Russian history that I was not previously aware of. It also serves for Women in Translation month, since it was originally published in Spanish, and since my copy of In the Maharaja’s Household has yet to arrive, it’s taking that slot on my 20 Books of Summer list. I cannot recommend this book highly enough – if you still aren’t convinced, go and read Rennie’s review at What’s Nonfiction, which is where I first heard of it. (I now realise we picked the same quote to lead off. It is a very powerful one though!) If you have read it, I would love to know what you think!