Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women's Voices from the Gulag
“An estimated 30 million people died under Stalin’s regime of terror. These nine women show us how they avoided being among them. Their voices inspire us all . . .”
Monika Zgustova has given us a gift in her book based on in-depth personal interviews with nine women who miraculously survived Stalin’s horrific Siberian Gulag work camps. It’s a gift not only because it adds an important new dimension to the history of Russian Gulags, but because it reveals, as Holocaust literature does, the tenacity of survivors—in this case women—who maintain their humanity in unimaginable and cruelly punishing circumstances, usually for many years.
How did they do it in the face of slave labor, starvation, illness, sub-freezing temperatures, and daily acts of violence? They formed deep friendships, found beauty in nature even in Siberian winters, told stories, discussed art and literature, wrote poems, and kept believing in their innocence. Beyond that, they simply held on.
“What these women found in the Gulag was their hierarchy of values, at the top of which were books and invulnerable, selfless friendship,” Zgustova writes in her introduction. “Never completely rehabilitated, they remembered their years of captivity with horror, but many also told me their lives would have been incomplete without that experience.”
Ella Markman described it this way. “It toughened me up and the variety of experiences I had to endure enriched me as a person. . . . The extreme suffering teaches you about yourself, about the people around you, and about human beings in general. . . . I learned for example, that a person has to adapt to the situation no matter what. If you couldn’t get used to the camp you were lost. The others swam on the surface breathing easily and would end up in control.” Here she is on the subject of beauty: “The sunsets are beyond description. Instead of the feeling of fire, light, and heat that sunsets usually evoke, only a great creator could use so much gold and purple and at the same time transmit such an intense sensation of cold.”
Susanna Pechuro, knew Sergei Prokofiev’s wife in her camp. “Thanks to her I became part of a literary circle. Even after our 12-hour work shifts we would get together to read. It was more satisfying than sleep.” Susanna met Lina, a soloist in operas and concerts, when she was peeling potatoes. “She did that for four years . . . but she still saw beauty around her. . . . Lina would look at the sky and if it was clear, aurora borealis would unfurl like a big, lazy animal, and the stars paled beside it. . . . Lina drank it in like a wanderer in the desert who has finally found water.”
Words like these are incredibly moving when interspersed with memories of shivering with cold, being unbearably hungry, sleeping with lice and bedbugs, being bitten by hordes of mosquitoes that swelled faces beyond recognition in summer, and most difficult of all to bear, missing one’s children or lovers.
One of the most chilling stories is that of Natalyia Gorbanevskaya, a well-known dissident who was sent to a psychiatric hospital for two years, where she, like others, was subjected to psychotropic drugs that robbed her of her memory and nearly her sanity. “What saved me was my conscience,” she told Zgustova. “I told myself over and over again that I had done what had to be done. Knowing that you’ve done the right thing is critical.”
A deeply moving story is that of Irina Emelyanova, whose mother Olga was Boris Pasternak’s great love, and his model for Lara in his most famous work, Doctor Zhivago. She and her mother were punished repeatedly because of their affiliation with Pasternak, who remained a central figure in their lives until his death.
Perhaps Valentina Iyevleva sums up the stories of these nine women best. “I have known great goodness, great kindness, but also an evil that destroys everything. I experienced both in the camps and that has helped me understand other people and myself. . . . I decided that it’s possible to survive the Gulag, but not for most of the people in it. In liberty everything is understated, easy, but you only learn to know yourself in extreme situations. . . . I learned to recognize evil. Animals don’t do this, only humans.”
An estimated 30 million people died under Stalin’s regime of terror. These nine women show us how they avoided being among them. Their voices inspire us all, and in bringing them to us, Monika Zgustova has given us the gift of their strength.