Review of Paul R. Gregory's "Women of the Gulag"

tags: Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, GULAG



Murray Polner is a book review editor for the History News Network.

Why, then, another book on Stalinist Russia?  After all, despite the suicide of his wife and death of two sons Stalin left no diaries or letters. But what makes Paul R. Gregory’s Women of the Gulag rather unique is that it deals with how the dictator’s dark and irrational  behavior traumatized five Soviet women and their families, all victims, and  based on released Soviet documents and a trove of other material, mainly in the Russian language.  What also makes this book unlike others is that it reveals that, other than the elites he had tried and executed in kangaroo courts, Stalin’s reign terror primarily involved regular, commonplace citizens, victims of what Gregory, who wrote the admirable Terror by Quota: State Security from Lenin to Stalin, describes as “mass insanity and hysteria” (viii). In a flat but not uninteresting writing style, Gregory is less concerned with historical and political developments than the tragedies experienced by women.

Arrested women were shipped off to Gulags, punished, sometimes executed, because of what husbands and fathers were accused of doing. “Once in the Gulag, they were subjected to particular kinds of sexual enslavement and violence that male prisoners did not have to endure.”

In August 1937, the Politburo ordered “Wives of traitors are to be imprisoned…no less than five to eight years. Children from ages three to fifteen are to be placed in orphanages of the ministry of health in other locations.” Adds Gregory: If family members did not denounce their allegedly seditious husbands, “they were to be arrested themselves and their children taken away.”

It wasn’t Stalin alone.  After all, he needed tens of thousands of secret police, camp guards, mendacious judges and prosecutors, and a terrified populace. In all of Russian history, but for very brief periods after the Tsar’s abdication and following the collapse of communism, democratic rule is an unknown factor.  During Stalin’s reign, even given all the horrors he inflicted, there were no uprisings, violent or nonviolent. No secret underground press denouncing the savagery and incarceration of millions. In one scene in “Women in the Gulag” an NKVD officer fears that conversation with his wife in their apartment may be bugged. So much for the surveillance state.

Stalin’s closest flatterers and sycophants were his inner circle: Lazar Kaganovich, the Jewish sycophant who never objected to Stalin’s loathing and persecution of Jews;  Vyacheslav Molotov -- who once  declared after the signing of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact that fascism was a matter of taste and  kept his mouth shut when his Jewish wife annoyed The Master -- the hush hush named given him by insiders -- who then dispatched her to some distant camp; Anastas Mikoyan, the Armenian toady who dressed like The Master and at an inner circle party so praised Stalin that “the members of the audience sprang to their feet in an ecstasy of applause and ovation, as if overcome by insanity.” Stalin trusted;  Kliment (“Klim”) Voroshilov, the dim-witted best friend of the dictator; and Sergio Ordzhonikidze, who killed himself, perhaps because he was troubled by the prevailing madness,  his suicide hidden from the Soviet public.

Gregory centers the book on five women:  Agnessa, Maria, Evgenia, Adile and Fekla.

Agnessa's Jewish  husband Sergei Mironov was an NKVD officer who meted out ultimate  punishments to others  but panicked when his superiors tired of him and his end drew near. Eugenia, a Jewish women,  was married to Nikolai Ezhov, who replaced Genrikh Yagoda as head of the NKVD and served the Master very well. He was a peculiar man, savage, brutal, bisexual, a womanizer, often drunk, and  his shirt often covered with the blood of prisoners, high and low. One Communist official once warned his colleagues about him: “If you give him an assignment, there is no need to check, but you must watch him.” He killed a woman, Gregory tells us, “who had treated him as a son in Moscow.”

Stalin would eventually need a scapegoat and tired of Ezhov, who grew terrified that his life was approaching a violent end. He sullenly withdrew into an alcoholic fog, had sex with anyone and everyone, and became severely depressed. He and Evgenia, his wife, had an “open marriage” and one of her partners was the writer Isaac Babel, who offended the ruling elite in remarking that arresting and executing people had become as regular as weather reports. He would soon be dead.  As Ezhov’s wife, Evgenia fell under suspicion, Desperate, she pleaded for her life in a letter to The Master, which naturally went unanswered, He then named Lavrenti Beria to succeed Ezhov, a move which petrified loyal party members and others even more. Before his execution in February 1940, Ezhov told a military court, “I purged 14,000 Chekists. But my huge mistake is that I purged so few. My life cannot be spared. I plea for one thing: shoot me quietly without torture," asked the former ultra-torturer," and, incredibly, “Tell Stalin that I will die with his name on my lips.”

Maria‘s husband, a railway engineer named Alexander Ignatkin, was arrested by the Chita NKVD, which, says Gregory, “had to find enemies among the rail engineers and workers to show its value to Moscow.” Ignatkin was executed, and Maria his wife served eight years imprisonment while separated from her children. Stalin died in 1953 and four years later Maria was notified that her husband had been tortured and executed.  In October 1957 she and her husband were officially rehabilitated.

Fekla, was from Abkhazia and who also suffered along with her family for fictional crimes against the government. where she ands her “dekulakized ” family were stripped of everything and shipped to a gulag. To her credit, she neither forgot nor forgave. In 1956, her father, who died in a Gulag, was “rehabilitated posthumously.” After she and her mother were freed in 1957 they returned to a home and world they barely knew, and to her credit she became a founding member of the Kamensk Memorial Society and several memorial group dedicated to remembering Stalin’s terror and his victims. [211] She also wrote a book about those years.

Finally, Adile, came from Abkhazia,  married into a prominent Communist family, some of whom would be arrested and murdered. At 19 she was deported to Kazakhstan for supposedly being part of the family. Her brother-in-law, Nestor Lakoba, once close to Stalin, had the misfortune of crossing Beria, who poisoned him while Sariya, his wife, was jailed.

We have to wonder why so many millions of Russians allowed themselves to be enslaved, tortured and killed and their women and children brutalized. Why did so many passively cooperate with their murderers? Obviously, it wasn’t easy to rebel but not until Khrushchev’s secret revelations in 1956 about Stalin did few in the Gulags or at home dare protest or rebel. Gregory cites one minor instance when a huge numbers of women gathered to object to the detention of family members and prisoners in an NKVD prison, an event reminiscent of the Rosenstrasse German non- Jewish wives of Jewish husbands who non-violently and successfully demanded the release of their Jewish husbands from a Gestapo prison in Berlin during WWII and saved them from a trip to a death camp. In Stalin’s Russia, even so minor a “victory” was not permitted. Adile and Sariya were among the demonstrators but paid the price. Sariya was arrested and eventually Adile as well.  Paul Gregory’s priceless and pertinent account reminds us that neither victims nor executioners in any regime should be forgotten or forgiven.


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