Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin by Stephen F. Cohen

Cohen's new book concentrates on a project he began decades ago when the Soviet Union was still around. In part such an undertaking was facilitated by Cohen's connections through Anna Larina, Bukharin's widow, whose biography Cohen wrote. This is a small book, less than two hundred pages of text, but I believe it should be looked at as something of an introduction to a field that has become eclipsed by other aspects of Soviet history (similar to Holocaust studies where much of the attention is focused on those who died, so studies of the Gulag often focus on those who did not survive, and if they do focus on those that survived we hear little about what happened once they were released). Cohen is limited by the circle Gulag returnees he meets in that many of them were intellectuals - writers, part of the Soviet nomenklatura/bureaucracy, sons and daughters of generals and old Bolsheviks, etc. While Cohen managed to interview dozens of these survivors, their stories are still a microcosm of what millions of others went through. Nevertheless, these men and women are still part of Soviet and today's Russian society and make up a voice that regularly breaks through the censorship that was reinstated during Brezhnev's tenure and some wish was still in place today.

While the book begins with the author recounting how he was able to stumble into this topic and how he eventually meets personalities like Roy Medvedev, Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, among many others, soon enough we're introduced to Cohen's observations of the role these survivors played in Khrushchev's Thaw and, eventually, Gorbachev's total renunciation of Stalin's crimes. An interesting comparison comes to light in the rule of Khrushchev with that of Putin (although Cohen himself does not make such a comparison). While Khrushchev did much to help anti-Stalinist sentiment become the norm, not to mention the rehabilitation of many of Stalin's victims and their release from the Gulag, his tenure also witnessed the rejection of publications like Grossman's "Life and Fate", and the omitting of many of his own crimes. Similarly, Putin's reign has been a contradictory view of Russia's Stalinist past. While some history school books are reevaluating Stalin's rule to show how important it was for the Soviet state, Putin also made it mandatory to read Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago" and invited Poland's prime minister to join him in a memorial service at Katyn. As Cohen points out, " nation can flourish without at least a minimally consensual past to inspire it" (pg. 174). Thus, the ambiguous nature of Putin's presidency can be viewed as a microcosm of Russia attempting to deal with a past in perpetual flux, regularly debated about by those who see Stalin as in need of rehabilitation himself and those who want to place the entirety of the disasters the Soviet Union witnessed in the 1930s and 1940s squarely on his shoulders (although these are obviously representative of the extreme views, there are a wide variety of others).

One of the author's strengths is to keep an open mind about the materials he is working with and often attempt to be objective and not judge, either the victims or the perpetrators. As becomes apparent, while many of us would like to see the interrogators, prosecutors, judges, and anyone else who was implicit in the denunciation, arrest, torture, sentencing, and even death of millions of innocent Soviet citizens put on trial, few take into consideration what the families of these men and women have been through or will go through once their names are released for the judgment of the world. As a case in point, when Anna Larina meets the daughter of Bukharin's interrogator, she claims that both men were victims of the Stalinist system. Eventually, we learn that this interrogator was himself shot soon after his interrogation of Bukharin and his daughter was placed in an orphanage. It is a fact that many of the perpetrators were themselves eventual victims of a system they helped create and sustain. In the end, while this book is far from perfect, it is an interesting starting point for a discussing on policies of the Soviet Union during the Cold War as well as contemporary Russia, especially seen through the eyes of Gulag returnees.

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