Issue 65 (2019)

Marianna Yarovskaya: Women of the Gulag (2018)

reviewed by Judith Pallot© 2019

The Stories of Six Women as Last Survivors of the Gulag

I must confess that I approached the invitation to review this film with reservations. This was despite the universal plaudits it has received, including reaching the shortlist for an Oscar nomination for documentary shorts in 2019. My own research on women prisoners in Russia (Pallot and Piacentini, 2012) had led me to expect that Women of the Gulag would use the familiar tropes and would fall into the same epistemic traps that for the past half century have relegated women to a subordinate position on the margins of Gulag history. When women’s presence in general histories of the Gulag has been noticed, the authors’ preoccupation invariably has been with the possibility of love in the Gulag (and this is not only true of male authors) or they have told a story of survival thanks to the intervention of a rescuer or, in that other manifestation of male power, of rape. Much of women’s history in the Gulag turns out to be the history of men who alternatively protected or tormented “the weaker sex.”

yarovskayaMarianna Yarovskaya’s extraordinarily powerful film is among the small number of exceptions to this general rule, for which we must be extremely grateful, but she deserves the plaudits for far more than just filling a gap. The film smashes some of those familiar tropes I was dreading and, particularly commendably, it allows us to listen to the witnesses’ voices without the interjection of expert commentary to contextualize, explain, and correct. The only interruptions of the women’s talk are clips from contemporary documentary films (there are, predictably, relatively few that show women in the camps) and recent footage—some from drones—of the decaying remnants of Gulag camps in the Far North. These shots help underline the urgency of continuing to record and document the history of the Gulag, as both its landscape and the people who inhabited it will all soon be gone.
Yarovskaya has chosen her subjects carefully in order to convey the diversity of the women whose lives were turned upside down by the experience of the Gulag, and this is undoubtedly one of the great strengths of the film. It would do the women who participated in the project an injustice not to mention each by name, as their individual characters shine so brightly through the film. All these women are strong and beautiful, and they have unforgettable stories to tell. There is Fekla Andreeva from a working-class family who was exiled to a special settlement in the taiga after the arrest of her building-laborer father together with 120 of his workmates, presumably all accused of wrecking. Vera Hecker and Nadezhda Levitskaya were, following the social classification of the day, born into the intelligentsia. Their professor-fathers were arrested and executed as traitors, and the two women just in their teens were dispatched to the Gulag, similarly accused. Vera, who made the mistake of loving Beethoven and Bach, was arrested on trumped-up charges of playing fascist hymns to celebrate the German invasion of the USSR in 1941, while Nadezhda, finding herself in occupied territory, made the mistake of continuing in employment instead of joining the partisan resistance. Elena Posnik, another intelligent, was a talented linguist and translator and was labeled a traitor for her knowledge of German; like the other two she was condemned to hard labor, followed by exile.

women of the gulagOne of the six women, Ksenia Chukhoreva, is of peasant stock. She and her five brothers were swept up and deposited in the forests in the northern Urals in the war against the kulaks that launched the collectivization campaign of 1929–33. The inclusion of Ksenia and Fekla in the documentary is particularly welcome, because the victims of mass deportations of the 1930s and the war years of exile, are typically separated off in Gulag historiography from the people condemned to the camps of the “Gulag proper.” But as this film shows, when it came to how you were treated or the crucial issue of whether you survived, it mattered little into which category of the euphemistically labeled spetskoningent you fell (that is, “special contingent”, the term still used to refer to prisoners in Russia). Another departure from classic Gulag texts is the equal weight accorded in the film to one of the USSR’s ethnic minority populations. Adile Abbas-Ogli, an Abkhazian, was married at fifteen to the regional party leader. Her husband paid the price, as did many Communist Party officials in 1937–38, of being too close to “the father of the nations.” Adile was arrested as the “wife of an enemy of the people.” I was struck by Adile’s childhood recollection of the excitement that Stalin’s hunting visits generated among children of her age, who would excitedly run out shouting “Stalin’s come. Stalin’s here”, while the adults all ran to hide in fear. The six women, all in their late 80s and 90s when the film was made, were still in their teens (though Fekla was only eleven), unworldly and naïve when their families were torn apart. Few were expecting what was about to descend on their heads. 

women of the gulagThe film uses the device of a journey to frame the women’s story-telling. This is a familiar trope of Gulag historiography, but the device works well here because of the skilful interweaving of episodes from the lives of the women with the successive stages in the journey from the innocence of childhood, to that first encounter with Stalinist repression when their parents are taken from them, their own arrest or deportation, the terrors of the transportation, hard labor in camp or special settlement, post-release exile, and rehabilitation. We do not follow any one individual’s journey from beginning to end, but put together, the episodes from the lives of the six women combined create a unified narrative of loss, extraordinary physical hardship, mental torment, fear and, finally after it is all over, reflection. And, here is the surprise: there is hardly a mention of men in the women’s stories. The men who do figure are fathers, revered and loved, who like other lost family members, are still desperately missed 70 years on.

The women tell their stories straight to camera or with voice-overs as they are shown going about their daily lives or visiting memorial sites to the victims of the Gulag. They are all articulate and most remarkably independent for their advanced years, but there is no escaping their frailty. The frailty makes particularly shocking the women’s descriptions of the banal torture, inhuman and degrading treatment they had to endure in the Gulag: a slap here, a beating there, a humiliating gynecological examination “not like the sort normal doctors do,” appalling racial stereotyping (“will you dance for us,” asked the NKVD officers who had come to arrest the exotic Abkhaz, Adile), gratuitous swearing, being forced to endure extreme cold and isolation in pre-trial or punishment cells, and the psychological and physical pressure to confess to the most outrageous and unlikely of crimes. Unlike today, when the victims of human rights abuses in the Russian prison system have some recourse to the courts, there was no justice for these women. Meanwhile, they have had to endure the spectacle of the state-sponsored “rehabilitation” of Stalin. What they do have, though, is their stories and a dogged determination to tell them. The 92-year old Adile speaks for all six women when she says: “I did not know that I would come back and live this long. I probably survived to tell the truth.”

women of the gulagFor most of the film, the women’s talk is measured and unemotional, but there is a heart-breaking immediacy to the pain of these 80-90-year olds as they recall their last encounter with a beloved father, or chance meeting in the cell of the investigatory isolator or behind a barrack with mother or sister, whom they thought they would never see again. There are some affecting moments, such as Elena Posnik’s reminder that these women were robbed of their youth as she sings a German song—“Youth is beautiful in happy times; Youth is beautiful, but it doesn’t return,” while picking fruit in her allotment; and Vera’s description of the naked youth shivering in the sub-zero temperatures she encountered who had sold all his clothes for a crust of bread. She has not been able to get his image out of her mind for seventy years and she shivers, herself, now.

But there is also an undercurrent of anger and rage in the women’s words. Nadezhda Levitskaya, whose father was executed at the hands of secret police shortly after his arrest and whose mother perished a few years into a 25-year sentence of hard labor, makes it clear a few minutes into the film that it is not going to be about redemption and forgiveness. She describes how she and other women were escorted out of the camp to harvest timber: “There is a whole row of camp guards with torches, utterly savage people, they are bringing us out, the dogs are lunging at us like mad, and those who remain are leaning on the gates. What a beautiful scene for movie!” She is not, of course, describing a movie shoot, but the lived experience of hundreds and thousands of women who, for the duration of their captivity or until they died, were remorselessly driven on foot out into the forests to fell timber, to shift and cart rocks, or to clear virgin land for cultivation. The women are determined to tell things as they were, and they pull no punches. One of the popular Gulag tropes they challenge is that the guards suffered as much as the captives. The women will have no truck with this attempt to neutralize the suffering the victims of the repression, endured at the hands of their own countrymen and women. The guards were “pure evil,” “rude” and “boorish,” and the system that produced them—brutal and “genocidal.”  Moreover, it turns out, it mattered not one iota whether the women’s interrogators, judges and guards were women or men. They were all morally debased.

women of the gulagThe central stage in the Gulag journey and the rationale behind the fate that these six women shared was manual work forced on prisoners and deportees alike, all for the sake of socialist construction. The cinematic challenge this poses is that there is little drama in the day-after-day, dawn-to-dusk toil that sapped the energy, and in some cases the life, of the Gulag’s victims. In the testimonies of Gulag survivors, labor often gets quite a cursory treatment, giving way to more eye-catching moments or to character sketches of fellow prisoners. The film places the women’s labor in its rightful place, the women somehow managing to convey the banality of the daily round without detracting from the sheer inhumanity of what they were being forced to do and how they were being forced to do it. Importantly, we learn that women’s labor was neither a mere adjunct to men’s, nor was it any less crucial to women’s survival than it was for other inmates. Fekla Andreeva, condemned to work in the forest, knew that if she failed to drag a tree trunk attached to the hook slung over her shoulder to the depot at the end of each exhausting day, she would get no dinner. The timber camps were among the deadliest of all in the Gulag, only outdone by the uranium mines in Kolyma. This was one of Elena Posnik’s destinations, and she assumed when she arrived that it would not be long until she would be “a goner.” Her daily task was to collect and shift uranium rocks in a wooden shoulder-barrow from the mountain mine shafts. For the special settlers like Ksenia, the narrow line between life and death associated with the imperative to work was no less fine than for camp inmates. Her life as an exile was dominated by the need to fulfill timber and land clearance targets, while also having to develop basic survival skills in the virgin forest that she and other deportees were supposed to turn into a new settlement.

The book that inspired the film and shares its title is sub-titled “Portraits of Five Remarkable Lives” (Gregory, 2013). The message that I took away from the film was that these women might themselves have been remarkable, but their lives in the camp or exile were not remarkable at all. The stories they tell could just as well have been told by any number of the women in Stalin’s Russia who ended up in the Gulag. Some fared better than the women here, others did considerably worse, and many died. None who survived, I suspect, will have been able to leave the experience behind them. We are fortunate that Fekla, Vera, Nadezhda, Elena, Ksenia and Adile subsequently dedicated their life to letting it be known what happened to them and recounting the atrocities they witnessed. Marianna Yarovskaya has now fashioned these women’s stories into a fifty-minute incontrovertible indictment of Russia’s failure to face up to its past.

Judith Pallot
Emeritus Professor, University of Oxford
Research Director, Aleksanteri Institute, Helsinki University

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Works Cited

Gregory, Paul. 2013. Women of the Gulag. Portraits of Five Remarkable Lives. Hoover Institution Press Publication

Pallot, Judith and Piacentini, Laura. 2012. Gender, Geography, and Punishment: The Experience of Women in Carceral Russia. Oxford University Press.

Women of the Gulag, Russia/US, 2018
Documentary. 40 minutes
Director: Marianna Yarovskaya
Script: Marianna Yarovskaya
DoP: Sergei Amirzhanov, Irina Shatalova
Music: Marc Adler
Producers: Marianna Yarovskaya, Paul Gregory
Production: Mayfilms

The editor would like to thank Marianna Yarovskaya.

Marianna Yarovskaya: Women of the Gulag (2018)

reviewed by Judith Pallot© 2019

Updated: 2019