Friday, December 21, 2012

Gulag Survivors

I spent the week reading Jehanne M. Geith and Katherine R. Jolluck's Gulag Voices: Oral Histories of Soviet Incarceration and Exile (2011).

I know to some people, this sounds... terribly depressing.  But really, it's no more depressing than seeing the news out of Newtown, CT over the past week.  Or listening to Wayne LaPierre insist that the only reasonable response to senseless violence is to return fire.

Geith and Jolluck's volume attempts to capture narratives about inmates' experiences in the Soviet Gulag that might otherwise go unrecorded.  As Geith and Jolluck note,

Dokhodiaga (Goner)
Drawing by Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia, former Gulag prisoner.

Courtesy of Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia Foundation, Moscow.

"Estimates of how many people died in the Gulag range from several million to 15 million.  Lower estimates tend to be based on archival sources and limit their consideration of the Gulag to the years of Stalin's rule, while higher estimates use a combination of oral and documentary sources, with a heavy emphasis on eyewitness accounts, and consider the Gulag to last from the 1920s to the 1980s." (5)
As Geith and Jolluck point out, a volume devoted to recording the oral histories of  Gulag survivors faces particular challenges.

On the one hand, there is always the issue of memory and its distortions.  Stories are being told years after the fact, by individuals who suffered extreme emotional trauma and physical abuse.  In several cases, the narrators are quite elderly--they often openly admit that they simply can't remember details from 30 or 40 years previously.

On the other hand, as Geith and Jolluck point out, when it comes to stories of the Gulag, "remembering and telling were dangerous for at least two generations" (7).  To speak of the Gulag or of one's arrest and incarceration in the Gulag was to risk additional punishment, or even death.  People learned not to talk about it; children learned that, for whatever reason, it was not to be spoken of.

Such habits are difficult--if not impossible--to break.  They permanently shape both an individual's voice and the voice of the culture at large.  One (surprisingly outspoken) survivor,  Larisa Mikhailovna Lappo-Danilevskaia, observes about her time in the Gulag, "at that time, I couldn't even think what I wanted to think; it was bad enough not to be able to to talk, but to think!  I couldn't think, you see!" (85).

Reacting to Gorbachev's policy of perestroika in the 1980's, Lappo-Danilevskaia remarks,
"Under Gorbachev I was already thinking differently, I could already think, you see?  I didn't just keep quiet, I could think as well!  You understand, it's more frightening when you mustn't think.  It's one thing not to talk, but--when it's forbidden to think!  (85)
How different would each of us be today if we spent years of our lives unable to simply think what we wanted to think?  Not simply not speaking about those things, but deliberately training ourselves--or being trained by others--not to even think of them.  

Giuzel Gumerovna Ibragimova, whose parents were incarcerated when Imbragimova was only two years old, describes her mother's reaction to the experience of the Gulag:
And she buried him [her husband] and brought us everything in order, the letters everything, everything, everything there was.  She took his manuscripts.  You understand ... deep terror.  The terror of repetition.  The deepest terror.  It was subconscious.  All the time, she'd say, "Don't keep letters.  No material evidence.  Don't talk in public places.  If there are more than two of you, don't discuss any political themes."  It was simply terror.  And this terror, by the way, didn't leave her even at the end.  So much time had gone by, right?  She basically didn't tell us a lot about her life so that we would know less and discuss less.  [Gulag survivors] had a very immediate sense of terror and panic.  A panicked terror that this might happen again.  And cripple our fate. (137)
What is left behind, in the wake of such experiences, are official documents that constitute their own kind of code regarding events and their significance.  As Geith and Jolluck argue, "In Western contexts, documents are generally considered to be the more reliable, objective source, but in Russia, oral testimony has long been regarded as truer than official history, which was consistently distorted in the Soviet period for ideological and propaganda purposes" (7).

Children of Gulag survivors face a complicated bureaucracy of lost, mis-filed or simply mistaken paperwork, of things unspoken, of memories too terrible to relate.  Generations were changed by the Gulag in ways that, in many cases, we can't even begin to know, much less comprehend.

The publication of Gulag-memoirs and literature in the 1980s and 1990s has changed the landscape of this history as well, merging the strands of oral history with documented accounts.  In many cases, survivors whose oral histories are recorded by Geith and Jolluck are aware of the existence of Gulag-memoirs.

As a result, "many people now tell the stories of other's memories as if they are their own" (8).  Terrible individual memories are repressed or recast as a collective story of suffering.  In such instances, what constitutes "the truth"?

What is particularly interesting in Geith and Jolluck's volume, I think, is the way in which oral narratives unfold very differently from written narratives.  In writing, the author has time to revise, rethink, select the right word, tailor the narration of the experience to an envisioned audience.

In oral histories, words are repeated, verb tenses shift, anger and sadness erupt unexpectedly, things that might need to be said simply can't be said after all.

And, of course, the presence of the interviewer him- or herself shapes the encounter as well.  Speaking to someone--particularly someone from another place and time--and attempting to explain traumatic and essentially incomprehensible life experiences is very different from writing about them.

At times, Geith and Jolluck organize and abbreviate, in an attempt to maintain coherence and give the reader a sense of the tempo and significance of the interview as a whole.

And in the end, this too is a shaping of oral history, a process in which the erasures are often as telling as the words themselves.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."