Modern history

Chapter 25


Let’s not beat around the bush,
No more nonsense.
We are the children of the cult.
We are its flesh and blood
We have been raised in the fog
Ambiguous indeed,
Inside gigantomania
And scarcity of mind . . .

—Andrei Voznesensky, “Children of the Cult,” 1967 1

ALTHOUGH THEY LOST their battle, the Kengir strikers won the war. In the aftermath of the Steplag rebellion, the leadership of the Soviet Union really did lose its appetite for forced-labor camps —and with striking speed.

By the summer of 1954, the unprofitability of the camps was widely recognized. Another survey of the Gulag’s finances, carried out in June 1954, had again shown that they were heavily subsidized, and that the costs of guards in particular made them unprofitable.2 At a meeting of camp commanders and top Gulag personnel held soon after Kengir, many administrators complained openly about the poor organization of food supplies for camps, about the out-of-control bureaucracy—by this time there were seventeen separate food norms—and about the poor organization of camps. Some camps were still open, but with very few prisoners. Strikes and unrest continued. In 1955, prisoners organized another general strike in Vorkuta.3 The incentive to change was now overwhelming—and change came.

On July 10, 1954, the Central Committee issued a resolution, bringing back the eight-hour workday, simplifying the camp regimes, and making it easier for prisoners to earn early release through hard work. The special camps were dissolved. Prisoners were allowed to write letters and receive packages, often without restriction. In some camps, prisoners were allowed to get married, even to live with their spouses. The barking dogs and convoy guards became things of the past. New items became available for the prisoners to purchase: clothing, which had been unavailable before, and oranges. 4 The inmates of Ozerlag were even allowed to plant flowers.5

By this time, the upper echelons of the Soviet elite had also begun to conduct a wider debate about Stalinist justice. In early 1954, Khrushchev had ordered, and received, a report detailing how many prisoners had been accused of counter-revolutionary crimes since 1921, as well as an account of how many were still imprisoned. The numbers were by definition incomplete, since they did not include the millions sent into exile, those unjustly accused of technically nonpolitical crimes, those tried in ordinary courts, and those never tried at all. Still, given that these figures represent numbers of people who had been killed or sent to prison for no reason at all, they are shockingly high. By the MVD’s own count, 3,777,380 people had been found “guilty” of fomenting counter-revolution by the OGPU collegiums, the NKVD troikas, the Special Commissions, and all of the military collegiums and tribunals that had mass-produced sentences throughout the previous three decades. Of these, 2,369,220 had been sent to camps, 765,180 had been sent into exile, and 642,980 had been executed.6

A few days later, the Central Committee undertook to re-examine all of these cases—as well as the cases of the “repeaters,” those prisoners who had been sentenced to a second term of exile in 1948. Khrushchev set up a national committee, led by the chief prosecutor of the Soviet Union, to oversee the task. He also set up local committees in every republic and region of the country to review prisoners’ sentences. Some politicals were released at this time, although their original sentences were not yet annulled: real rehabilitation—the state’s admission that a mistake had been made—would come later.7

Releases began, although for the next year and a half, they would proceed at an excruciatingly slow pace. Those who had completed two-thirds of their sentences were sometimes let go, without explanation or rehabilitation. Others were kept inside the camps, for no reason at all. Despite everything they knew about the camps’ unprofitability, Gulag officials were unwilling to close them. They needed, it seemed, an extra jolt from above.

Then, in February 1956, the jolt arrived, when Khrushchev gave what came to be known as his “secret speech,” delivering it to a closed session of the Twentieth Party Congress of the Communist Party. For the first time, Khrushchev openly attacked Stalin and the “cult of personality” that had surrounded him:

It is impermissible, and foreign to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism, to elevate one person, to transform him into a superman possessing supernatural characteristics, akin to those of a god. Such a man supposedly knows everything, sees everything, thinks for everyone, can do anything, is infallible in his behavior. Such a belief about a man, and specifically about Stalin, was cultivated among us for many years.8

Much of the rest of the speech was tendentious. Listing Stalin’s crimes, Khrushchev focused almost exclusively on the victims of 1937 and 1938, singling out the ninety-eight Central Committee members who were shot, as well as a handful of Old Bolsheviks. “The wave of mass arrests began to recede in 1939,” he declared—which was a patent falsehood, as in fact the numbers of prisoners increased in the 1940s. He did mention the Chechen and the Balkan deportations, perhaps because he had no hand in them. He did not mention collectivization, or the Ukrainian famine, or the mass repressions in western Ukraine and the Baltic States, perhaps because he had himself been involved in these operations. He spoke of 7,679 rehabilitations, and although those in the hall applauded him, this was in fact quite a small percentage of the millions whom Khrushchev knew had been falsely arrested. 9

Flawed though it might have been, the speech—soon transmitted, also in secrecy, to Party cells all over the country—shook the Soviet Union to its core. Never before had the Soviet leadership confessed to any crimes, let alone such a broad range of them. Even Khrushchev was uncertain what the reaction would be. “We were just coming out of a state of shock,” he wrote later. “People were still in prisons and in the camps, and we didn’t know how to explain what had happened to them or what to do with them once they were free.”10

The speech galvanized the MVD, the KGB, and the administrators of the camps. Within weeks, the atmosphere in the camps lightened further, and the process of release and rehabilitation finally began to speed up. If 7,000-odd people had been rehabilitated in the three years preceding the secret speech, 617,000 were rehabilitated in the ten months that followed it. New mechanisms were created to speed the process further. Ironically, many of the prisoners who had been sentenced by troikas were now released by troikas as well. Commissions composed of three people—a prosecutor, a Central Committee member, and a rehabilitated Party member, often an ex-prisoner—traveled to camps and places of exile all over the country. They were empowered to conduct fast investigations into individual cases, to conduct interviews with prisoners, and to release them on the spot.11

In the months that followed the secret speech, the MVD also prepared to make much deeper changes to the structure of the camps themselves. In April, the new Interior Minister, N. P. Dudorov, sent a proposal for the reorganization of the camps to the Central Committee. The situation in the camps and colonies, he wrote, “has been abysmal for many years now.” They should be closed, he argued, and instead the most dangerous criminals should be sent to special, isolated prisons, in distant regions of the country, specifically naming the building site of the unfinished Salekhard–Igarka Railway as one such possibility. Minor criminals, on the other hand, should remain in their native regions, serving out their sentences in prison “colonies,” doing light industrial labor and working on collective farms. None should be required to work as lumberjacks, miners, or builders, or indeed to carry out any other type of unskilled, hard labor.12

Dudorov’s choice of language was more important than his specific suggestions. He was not merely proposing the creation of a smaller camp system; he was proposing to create a qualitatively different one, to return to a “normal” prison system, or at least to a prison system which would be recognizable as such in other European countries. The new prison colonies would stop pretending to be financially self-sufficient. Prisoners would work in order to learn useful skills, not in order to enrich the state. The aim of prisoners’ work would be rehabilitation, not profit.13

There were surprisingly angry objections to these suggestions. Although the representatives of economic ministries signaled their support, I. A. Serov, the KGB boss, lashed out at the Interior Minister’s proposals, calling them “incorrect” and “unacceptable,” not to mention expensive. He opposed the construction of new prison colonies, on the grounds that such a policy would “create the impression of the presence in the USSR of a huge number of places of incarceration.” He opposed the liquidation of the camps, and could not understand why zeks should not work as foresters or miners. After all, hard labor would help “re-educate them in the spirit of honest working life of Soviet society.”14

The result of this clash between the two branches of the security services was a very mixed reform. On the one hand, the Gulag itself—the Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, the Main Camp Administration—was dissolved. In 1957, both Dalstroi and Norilsk, two of the biggest and most powerful camp complexes, were dismantled. Other camps followed suit. The appropriate ministries—of mining, machine-building, forestry, or road-building—took over large swathes of what had been the camp-industrial complex.15 Slave labor would never again be an important part of the economy in the Soviet Union.

Yet at the same time, the judicial system remained unreformed. The judges were just as politicized, just as biased, just as unfair. The prison system also remained virtually untouched. The same jailers continued to enforce the same regimes in the same unpainted, unaltered cells. When, with time, the prison system began to expand once again, even the rehabilitation and re-education programs, the focus of so much concern and interest, would remain just as flimsy and as fictitious as they had been in the past.

The surprisingly vitriolic debate between the MVD chief, Dudorov, and the KGB chief, Serov, also prefigured other, larger debates to come. Following what they took to be Khrushchev’s lead, liberals wanted to make fast changes to almost every sphere of Soviet life. At the same time, defenders of the old system wanted to stop, reverse, or alter these changes, particularly when they affected the livelihoods of powerful groups of people. The result of this clash was predictable: not only unchanged prison cells, but also half-baked reforms, new privileges which were quickly revoked, and public discussions which were immediately hushed up. The era which came to be called the “Thaw” was indeed an era of change, but change of a particular kind: reforms took two steps forward, and then one step—or sometimes three steps—back.

Release, whether it came in 1926 or 1956, had always left prisoners with mixed feelings. Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov, a prisoner released in the 1930s, was surprised by his own reaction:

I imagined that I would be dancing instead of walking, that when I finally got my freedom I’d be drunk with it. But when I was actually released, I felt none of this. I walked through the gates and past the last guard, experiencing no happiness or sense of uplift . . . There, along the sun-drenched platform ran two young girls in light dresses, merrily laughing about something. I looked at them in astonishment. How could they laugh? How could all these people walk around conversing and laughing as if nothing unusual was happening in the world, as if nothing nightmarish and unforgettable stood in their midst ...16

After Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s speech, the releases came more rapidly, and reactions became even more confused. Prisoners who had expected to spend another decade behind barbed wire were let go on a day’s notice. One group of exiles was summoned during working hours to the offices of their mine, and simply told to go home. As one remembered, Spetskomandant Lieutenant Isaev “opened a safe, pulled out our documents, and distributed them ...”17 Prisoners who had filed petition after petition, demanding a re-examination of their cases, suddenly found that further letters were unnecessary—they could simply walk away.

Prisoners who had thought of nothing else except freedom were strangely reluctant to experience it: “Although I could hardly believe it myself, I was weeping as I walked out to freedom . . . I felt as though I had torn my heart away from what was dearest and most precious to it, from my comrades in misfortune. The gates closed—and it was all finished.” 18

Many were simply not ready. Yuri Zorin, riding a crowded prisoners’ train south from Kotlas in 1954, made it past only two stations. “Why am I going to Moscow?” he asked himself—and then turned around and headed back to his old camp, where his ex-commander helped him get a job as a free worker. There he remained, for another sixteen years. 19 Evgeniya Ginzburg knew a woman who actually did not want to leave her barracks: “The thing is that I—I can’t face living outside. I want to stay in camp,” she told her friends. 20 Another wrote in his diary that “I really don’t want freedom. What is drawing me to freedom? It seems to me that out there . . . there are lies, hypocrisy, thoughtlessness. Out there, everything is fantastically unreal, and here, everything is real.”21Many did not trust Khrushchev, expected the situation to worsen again, and took jobs as free workers in Vorkuta or Norilsk. They preferred not to experience the emotions and undergo the hassle of return, if they were ultimately to be re-arrested anyway.

But even those who wanted to return home often found it nearly impossible to do so. They had no money, and very little food. Camps released prisoners with the equivalent of 500 grams of bread for every day they were expected to be on the road—a starvation ration.22 Even that was insufficient, since they were often on the road much longer than expected, as it proved almost impossible to obtain tickets on the few planes and trains leading south. Arriving at the station in Krasnoyarsk, Ariadna Efron found “such a crowd, that to leave was impossible, simply impossible. People from all of the camps were there, from all of Norilsk.” She was finally given a ticket out of the blue by an “angel,” a woman who by chance had two. Otherwise, she might have waited for months.23

Facing a similarly crowded train, Galina Usakova, like many others, solved the problem by riding home on a baggage rack.24 Still others did not make it at all: it was not uncommon for prisoners to die on the difficult journey home, or within weeks or months of arrival. Weakened by their years of hard labor, tired out by exhausting journeys, the emotions surrounding their return overwhelmed them, resulting in heart attacks and strokes. “How many people died from this freedom!” one prisoner marveled.25

Some wound up back in prison. The MVD itself produced a report revealing that freed prisoners coming out of Vorkuta, Pechora, and Inta camps could not buy clothes, shoes, or bedding, as “the towns above the Arctic Circle have no markets.” In desperation, some committed minor crimes in order to be re-arrested. At least in prison they were guaranteed a bread ration.26 Not that those in charge of the camps necessarily minded this: facing an employment crisis, the Vorkuta administration disobeyed orders from above and actually tried to prevent certain categories of prisoners from leaving the mines.27

If they did manage to return to Moscow, Leningrad, or whatever village they had originally come from, former camp inmates often found their lives no easier. Mere release, it turned out, was not sufficient to re-establish a “normal” life. Without the documents testifying to actual rehabilitation— documents which annulled the prisoners’ original sentence—former politicals were still suspect.

True, a few years earlier, they would have been handed the dreaded “wolves passports,” which forbade ex-political prisoners from living in or near any of the Soviet Union’s major cities. Others would have been sent directly into exile. Now the “wolves passports” had been abolished, but it was still difficult to find places to live, to find work, and, in Moscow, to get permission to remain in the capital. Prisoners returned to find their homes had long ago been requisitioned, their possessions disbursed. Many of their relatives, also “enemies” by association, were dead, or impoverished: long after they had been released, families of “enemies” remained stigmatized, subject to official forms of discrimination and forbidden from working in certain kinds of jobs. Local authorities were still suspicious of former prisoners. Thomas Sgovio spent a year “petitioning and hassling” before he was allowed to become a legal resident of his mother’s apartment. 28 Older prisoners found it impossible to get a proper pension. 29

These personal difficulties, coupled with their sense of injured justice, persuaded many to seek full rehabilitation—but this was not a simple or straightforward process either. For many, the option was not even available. The MVD categorically refused to review the case of anyone sentenced before 1935, for example.30 Those who had gained an extra sentence in a camp, whether for insubordination, dissidence, or theft, were never given the coveted rehabilitation certificates either.31 The cases of the highest-ranking Bolsheviks—Bukharin, Kamenev, Zinoviev—remained taboo, and those condemned in the same investigations as those leaders were not rehabilitated until the 1980s.

For those who could attempt it, the rehabilitation process was a long one. Appeals for rehabilitation had to come from prisoners or their families, who often had to write two, three, or many more letters before their appeals were granted. Even after they succeeded, the arduous process sometimes went backward: Anton Antonov-Ovseenko received a posthumous rehabilitation certificate for his father, which was then revoked in 1963.32 Many former prisoners also remained wary of applying. Those who received a summons to appear at a meeting of a rehabilitation commission, usually held within the offices of the MVD or the Justice Ministry, would often turn up in layers of clothes, gripping food parcels, accompanied by weeping relatives, certain they were about to be sent away again.33

At the highest levels, many feared the rehabilitation process could go too fast and too far. “We were scared, really scared,” wrote Khrushchev later. “We were afraid the thaw might unleash a flood, which we wouldn’t be able to control and which could drown us.”34 One former senior KGB investigator, Anatoly Spragovsky, later recalled that between 1955 and 1960 he had traveled throughout the Tomsk region, interviewing witnesses and visiting the scenes of alleged crimes. He learned, among other things, that ex-prisoners had been accused of plotting to blow up factories or bridges that never existed. Yet when Spragovsky wrote to Khrushchev, proposing to streamline the rehabilitation process and speed it up, he was rebuffed: in Moscow, it seemed, officials did not want the errors of the Stalin years to seem too broad, or too absurd, and they did not want the investigation of old cases to proceed too quickly. Anastas Mikoyan, a Stalinist Politburo member who survived into the Khrushchev era, at one point explained why it was impossible to rehabilitate people too quickly. If they were all declared innocent at once, “it would be clear that the country was not being run by a legal government, but by a group of gangsters.” 35

The Communist Party was also wary of admitting too much error. Although it reviewed more than 70,000 petitions from ex-members, demanding to have their Party membership reinstated, less than half the petitions were granted.36 As a result, full social rehabilitation—with the complete reinstatement of job, apartment, and pension—remained very rare.

Far more common than full rehabilitation was the mixed experience, and the mixed feelings, of Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, who filed for her rehabilitation and that of her husband in 1954. She waited for two years. Then, after Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956, she received her certificate. It declared that her case had been reviewed, and closed for lack of evidence. “I had been arrested on April 27, 1936. So I had paid for this mistake with twenty years and forty-one days of my life.” In compensation, the certificate stated, Adamova-Sliozberg was entitled to two months’ pay for herself and her dead husband, and a further 11 rubles and 50 kopeks to compensate for the money that had been in her husband’s possession at the time of his death. That was all.

As she stood in the waiting room outside an office of the Supreme Court building in Moscow, absorbing this news, she became aware of someone shouting. It was an elderly Ukrainian woman, who had just been handed a similar piece of news:

The old Ukrainian woman started yelling: “I don’t need your money for my son’s blood; keep it yourself!” She tore up the certificates and threw them on the floor.

The soldier who had been handing out the certificates came up to her: “Calm down, citizen,” he began.

But the old woman started shouting again and choked in a paroxysm of rage.

Everyone was silent, overwhelmed. Here and there I heard stifled sobs and tears.

I went back to my apartment, from which no policeman could evict me now. There was no one home, and finally I was able to weep freely.

To weep for my husband, who perished in the cellars of the Lubyanka, when he was thirty-seven years old, at the height of his powers and talent; for my children, who grew up orphans, stigmatized as the children of enemies of the people; for my parents, who died of grief; for Nikolai who was tortured in the camps; and for all of my friends who never lived to be rehabilitated but lie beneath the frozen earth of Kolyma.37

Although often ignored in standard histories of the Soviet Union, the return home of millions of people from camps and exile must have stunned the millions of other Soviet citizens they encountered upon their arrival. Khrushchev’s secret speech had been a shock, but it was a remote event, directed at the Party hierarchy. By contrast, the reappearance of people long considered dead brought home the message of the speech in a far more direct way, to a far wider range of people. Stalin’s era had been one of secret torture and hidden violence. Suddenly, the camp veterans were on hand to provide living evidence of what had happened.

They were also on hand to bring news, both good and bad, of the vanished. By the 1950s, it had become customary for released prisoners to pay visits to the homes of both their dead and living comrades, to transmit oral messages or to repeat last words. M. S. Rotfort went back to Kharkov via Chita and Irkutsk, in order to see the families of his friends. 38 Gustav Herling paid an awkward visit to the family of his camp mate General Kruglov, whose wife pleaded with him not to tell their daughter about her father’s new camp sentence, checked her watch repeatedly, and begged him to leave quickly.39

The returning prisoners were also a source of terror—to the bosses, the colleagues, the people who had sent them to prison in the first place. Anna Andreeva remembered that all of the trains to Moscow from Karaganda and Potma were filled with former prisoners in the summer of 1956. “Everything was full of joy and its opposite, because people were meeting the people who had condemned them, who had condemned others. It was happy, and tragic, and all of Moscow would soon be filled with this.”40 In his novel Cancer Ward, Solzhenitsyn imagines the reaction of a Party boss, ill with cancer, after his wife had told him that a former friend—a man he had personally denounced in order to take possession of his apartment—was due to be rehabilitated:

A weakness gripped his whole body—his hips, his shoulders; his arms had grown weak too, and the tumor seemed to wrench his head sideways. “Why did you tell me that?” he moaned in a miserable, feeble voice. “Haven’t I had enough misfortune?” And twice his head and chest shuddered with tearless sobs . . .

“What right have they to let these people out now? Have they no pity? How dare they cause such traumas!”41

Feelings of guilt could be unbearable. After Khrushchev’s secret speech, Aleksandr Fadeev, a committed Stalinist and much-feared literary bureaucrat, went on an alcoholic binge. While drunk, he confessed to a friend that as head of the Writers’ Union, he had sanctioned the arrests of many writers he knew to be innocent. Fadeev killed himself the following day. He allegedly left a one-sentence suicide letter, addressed to the Central Committee: “The bullet fired was meant for Stalin’s policies, for Zhdanov’s aesthetics, for Lysenko’s genetics.”42

Others went mad. Olga Mishakova, an employee of the Komsomol, had denounced the youth organization’s leader, Kosarev. After 1956, Kosarev was rehabilitated, and the Komsomol Central Committee expelled Mishakova. Nevertheless, for a year afterward, she continued to come to the Komsomol building, to sit all day in her empty office, even to take a break for lunch. After the Komsomol confiscated her pass, she kept coming, standing by the entrance during her old office hours. When her husband was transferred to a job in Ryazan, she still got on the Moscow train every morning at four o’clock, and spent the day in front of her former office, returning in the evening. She was eventually placed in a mental institution.43

Even when the result was not insanity or suicide, the awkward encounters which plagued Moscow social life, post-1956, could be excruciating. “Two Russias are eyeball to eyeball,” wrote Anna Akhmatova, “those who were in prison, and those who put them there.”44 Many of the country’s leaders, including Khrushchev, personally knew many returnees. According to Antonov-Ovseenko, one such “old friend” turned up on Khrushchev’s doorstep in 1956, and persuaded him to speed up the rehabilitation process.45Worse were the encounters between former prisoners and the men who had actually been their jailers or interrogators. A pseudonymous memoir published in Roy Medvedev’s underground political journal in 1964 described a man’s encounter with his former interrogator, who begged him for money for a drink: “I gave him everything I had left from my trip, and it was a lot. I gave it to him so that he would leave quickly. I was afraid I wouldn’t hold out. I felt an overpowering desire to let loose my hatred, pent up for so long, against him and his kind.”46

It could also be extremely uncomfortable to meet one’s former friends, now thriving Soviet citizens. Lev Razgon encountered a close friend in 1968, more than a decade after his return: “He met me . . . as though we had only parted the evening before. He expressed his condolences, of course, about Oksana’s death, and asked after Yelena. But all of this was conveyed in a rapid, business-like way . . . and that was that.”47 Yuri Dombrovsky put his feelings about a friend who offered his condolences too late into verse, in a poem entitled “To a Famous Poet”:

Even our children didn’t feel sorry for us Even our wives didn’t want us Only a sentry shot at us, skillfully Using our numbers as targets . . .

You were just drifting in restaurants And scattering jokes over glasses, You understood everything and welcomed everybody But didn’t notice that we had died.

So please explain to me now, why As they are reviewing the order of battle And I appear from a Northern grave You approach me as if I were a hero? Women were licking your hands— Was that for your courage? For the tortures you suffered?48

Lev Kopelev has written that after returning, he could no longer bear to be in the company of successful people at all, preferring the company of failures.49

How to talk about the camps—and how much to talk about the camps—with one’s friends and family was another source of torment for former prisoners. Many tried to protect their children from the truth. The daughter of the rocket designer Sergei Korolev was not told her father had been in prison until her late teens, when she had to fill out a form which asked whether any of her relatives had ever been arrested.50 Many prisoners were asked, upon leaving their camps, to sign documents forbidding them to say anything about them. This frightened some into speechlessness, although others were not cowed. Susanna Pechora refused outright to sign these papers upon leaving her camp and has, in her own words, “been talking about it ever since.”51

Others found that their friends and family, if not exactly uninterested, did not want to know in any great detail where they had been or what had happened to them. They were too afraid—not just of the ever-present secret police, but of what they might learn about the people they loved. The novelist Vasily Aksyonov—Evgeniya Ginzburg’s son—penned a tragic but horribly plausible scene in his trilogy, The Generations of Winter, describing what happened when a man and his wife encounter one another after both have spent years in concentration camps. He immediately notices that she looks too healthy: “First tell me how you managed not to become ugly . . . you haven’t even lost weight!” he says, knowing too well all of the ways in which it was possible for women to survive in the Gulag. That night, they lie in bed far apart, unable to speak: “Melancholy and grief had burned them to the ground.”52

The writer and folk poet Bulat Okudzhava has also written a story describing a man’s encounter with his mother who has spent ten years in camps. The man anticipated his mother’s return with pleasure, believing he would pick her up at the train station, take her home for dinner after a tearful but joyful reunion, tell her of his life, maybe even go and see a film. Instead, he found a woman with dry eyes and a detached expression: “She looked at me but didn’t see me, her face was hardened, frozen.” He had expected her to be physically frail, but was totally unprepared for emotional damage—an experience that millions must have shared. 53

True stories were often as bleak. Nadezhda Kapralova wrote of meeting her mother after thirteen years, having been separated from her at the age of eight: “We were the closest of possible people, mother and daughter, and yet we were strangers, we spoke of irrelevancies, mostly crying and remaining silent.”54 Another prisoner, Evgeny Gnedin, was reunited with his wife after fourteen years, but found they had nothing in common. He had, he felt, “grown” in those years, whereas she had remained the same.55 Olga Adamova-Sliozberg had to tread carefully when she was reunited with her son in 1948: “I was afraid to tell him anything of what I had learned ‘on the other side.’ No doubt I could have convinced him that there was a great deal wrong with our country, that Stalin, his idol, was actually far from perfect, but my son was only seventeen. I was afraid to be completely frank with him.”56

Yet not everyone felt at odds with Soviet society either. Perhaps surprisingly, many of the returnees came back eager to rejoin the Communist Party, not merely for the sake of privileges and status but in order to feel, once again, full members of the Communist project, as it were. “Allegiance to a belief system can have deep, non-rational roots,” is how the historian Nanci Adler tries to explain the feelings of one prisoner when he was reinstated in the Party:

The most important factor that secured my survival in those harsh conditions was my unflinching, ineradicable belief in our Leninist Party, in its humanist principles. It was the Party that imparted the physical strength to withstand their trials . . . Reinstatement in the ranks of my native Communist Party was the greatest happiness of my entire life.57

The historian Catherine Merridale goes a step further, arguing that the Party, and the collective ideology of the Soviet Union, actually helped people to recover from whatever trauma they had suffered: “Russians really do seem to have lived with their histories of unspeakable loss by working, singing, waving the red flag. Some laugh about it now, but almost everyone is nostalgic for a collectivism and a common purpose that have been lost. Up to a point, totalitarianism worked.”58

Even though at some level they knew this struggle to be a false one; even though they knew the nation was not as glorious as its leaders claimed; even though they knew that whole Soviet cities had been built on the bones of people unjustly condemned to forced labor—even then, some camp victims still felt better when they were part of the collective effort, and no longer excluded from it.

Either way, the enormous tension between those who had been “there” and those who had stayed home could not remain confined in bedrooms and locked behind doors forever. Those responsible for what had happened were still alive. Finally, at the Twenty-second Party Congress in October 1961, Khrushchev, now fighting for influence within the Party, began naming them. He announced that Molotov, Kaganovich, Voroshilov, and Malenkov were all “guilty of illegal mass repressions against many Party, Soviet, military and Komsomol officials and bear direct responsibility for their physical destruction.” More ominously, he also hinted darkly at the “documents in our possession” which would prove this guilt.59

Yet Khrushchev did not, in the end, publish any such documents in the course of his struggle against the Stalinists who opposed his reforms. Perhaps he was not really powerful enough to do so—or perhaps such documents would have revealed his own role in Stalinist repressions as well. Instead, Khrushchev deployed a new tactic: he widened the public discussion of Stalinism even further, broadening it beyond internal Party debates—spreading it to the literary world. Although Khrushchev probably was not much interested in Soviet poets and novelists for their own sake, he had seen, by the early 1960s, that they could play a role in his bid for power. Slowly, vanished names began to reappear in official publications, without explanation of why they had gone and why they were being allowed back. Characters hitherto unacceptable in Soviet fiction—greedy bureaucrats, returning camp inmates—began to appear in published novels.60

Khrushchev saw that such publications could conduct his propaganda for him: literary writers could discredit his enemies by tarring them with the crimes of the past. That, at any rate, appears to have been the reasoning behind his decision to allow the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’sOne Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the most famous of all Gulag novels.

For his literary significance, as well as for the role he played in publicizing the existence of the Gulag in the West, Alexander Solzhenitsyn would certainly deserve special mention in any history of the Soviet camp system. But his brief career as a famous, widely published, “official” Soviet author is also worth telling because it marks an important moment of transition. When Ivan Denisovich first appeared in print, in 1962, the Thaw was at its height, political prisoners were few, and the Gulag seemed a thing of the past. By the summer of 1965, when a Party journal described Ivan Denisovich as “an undoubtedly controversial work, both ideologically and artistically,” Khrushchev had been ousted, the backlash had begun, and the number of political prisoners was rising with ominous speed. By 1974, when The Gulag Archipelago—Solzhenitsyn’s massive, three-volume history of the camp system—had appeared in English, Solzhenitsyn had been expelled from the country, and his books could only be published abroad. The institution of the Soviet prison camp had been firmly reestablished, and the dissident movement was in full swing.61

Solzhenitsyn’s prison career had begun in a manner typical for zeks of his generation. After entering officers’ training school in 1941, he fought across the western front throughout the autumn and winter of 1943, penned some poorly disguised criticism of Stalin in a letter to a friend in 1945—and was arrested soon after. Hitherto a more or less true communist believer, the young officer was stunned by the brutality and crudity with which he was treated. Later, he would be even more shocked by the harsh treatment meted out to Red Army soldiers who had fallen into Nazi captivity. These, he felt, were men who should have returned home as heroes.

His subsequent camp career was perhaps slightly less than typical, only because—thanks to some undergraduate math and physics—he served some of his time in a sharashka, an experience he later recorded in his novel The First Circle. Other than that, it is fair to say that he served in a series of unremarkable lagpunkts, including one in Moscow, and one in a special camp complex in Karaganda. He was also an unremarkable prisoner. He flirted with the authorities, served as an informer before seeing the light, and wound up working as a bricklayer. Bricklaying was the career he later gave to Ivan Denisovich, the zek “Everyman” who was the hero of his first novel. After his release, he went to teach at a school in Ryazan, and began to write about his experiences. That too was not unusual: the many hundreds of Gulag memoirs that have been published since the 1980s are ample testimony to the eloquence and talent of Soviet ex-prisoners, many of whom wrote in secret for years. What made Solzhenitsyn truly unique, in the end, was the simple fact that his work appeared in print, in the Soviet Union, while Khrushchev was still in power.

Many legends surround the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, so many that Michael Scammell, Solzhenitsyn’s biographer, has written that the tale “has acquired such embellishments along the way that it is sometimes hard to disentangle fact from fiction.” The book’s route to literary fame was a slow one. Before it became famous, the manuscript of Ivan Denisovich passed through the hands of Lev Kopelev—a Moscow literary figure, and one of Solzhenitsyn’s camp comrades—and a copy editor atNovyi Mir. Excited by her find, the copy editor passed it to Alexander Tvardovsky, the editor-in-chief of Novyi Mir.

Tvardovsky, so the story goes, began reading Ivan Denisovich while lying in bed. After a few pages, however, he was so impressed by the manuscript that he felt he had to get up, get dressed, and read the story sitting upright. He spent an entire night reading it, and then rushed into his office as soon as dawn broke, howling for the typists to make up extra copies so that he could distribute the book to his friends, all the while hailing the birth of a new literary genius. Whether or not all of this really happened, Tvardovsky certainly told people it had. Later, Solzhenitsyn wrote to him of how happy he had felt when he learned that Tvardovsky found Ivan Denisovich “worth a sleepless night.”62

The novel itself was straightforward enough: it recorded a single day in the life of an ordinary prisoner. Reading it now, it can, in fact, be hard for contemporary readers, even contemporary readers in Russia, to understand why it created such a furor in the Soviet literary world. But to those who read it in 1962, the novel came as a revelation. Instead of speaking vaguely about “returnees” and “repressions,” as some other books did at the time, Ivan Denisovich directly described life in the camps, a subject which had not, until then, been discussed in public.

At the same time, Solzhenitsyn’s style—particularly his use of camp slang—and his descriptions of the dullness and unpleasantness of prison life, made a stunning contrast to the usual empty, phoney fiction then being published. The official Soviet literary creed of that time, “socialist realism,” was not realism at all, but rather the literary version of Stalinist political doctrine. Prison literature, such as it was, had not changed since Gorky’s day. If there was a thief in a Soviet novel, he saw the light and converted to the true Soviet faith. The hero might suffer, but in the end the Party showed him the light. The heroine might shed tears, but once she had learned the value of Work, she would find her proper role in society.

Ivan Denisovich, by contrast, was genuinely realistic: it was not optimistic, and it was not a morality tale. The sufferings of its heroes were pointless. The work they did was exhausting and draining, and they tried to avoid it. The Party did not triumph in the end, and communism did not emerge the victor. This honesty, so unusual for a Soviet writer, was precisely what Tvardovsky admired: he told Solzhenitsyn’s friend Kopelev that the story had “not a drop of falsehood in it.” Which was precisely what would upset many readers, particularly those in the Soviet establishment. Even one of Novyi Mir’s editors found the story’s frankness disturbing. In his comments on the novel he wrote that “it shows life too one-sidedly, involuntarily twisting and upsetting the proportions.” For people used to simplistic conclusions, the novel seemed horrifyingly open-ended and amoral.

Tvardovsky wanted to publish it, but knew that if he simply had the story typeset and sent off to the censors, they would ban it immediately. Instead, he offered Ivan Denisovich to Khrushchev, to be used as a weapon against his enemies. According to Michael Scammell, Tvardovsky wrote a Preface that presented the story’s usefulness in precisely this light, and then began giving it to people whom he hoped would hand it to Khrushchev himself.63

After much back and forth, much debate, and a few changes to the manuscript—Solzhenitsyn was persuaded to add at least one “positive hero,” and to include a token condemnation of Ukrainian nationalism—the novel did finally reach Khrushchev. He approved. He even praised the book for having been written “in the spirit of the Twenty-second Party Congress,” which presumably meant that he thought it would annoy his enemies. Finally, in the November 1962 issue of Novyi Mir, it appeared in print. “The bird is free! The bird is free!” Tvardovsky is alleged to have shouted as he held the first proof copy in his hands.

At first, the critical praise was fulsome, not least because the story matched the official line of the moment. Pravda’s literary critic hoped that the “fight against the personality cult” would from now on “continue to facilitate the appearance of works of art outstanding for their ever-increasing artistic value.” Izvestiya’s literary critic said Solzhenitsyn had “shown himself a true helper of the Party in a sacred and vital cause—the struggle against the personality cult and its consequences.”64

Those were not quite the reactions of the ordinary readers, however, who flooded Solzhenitsyn with mail in the months that followed the Novyi Mir publication. The story’s close parallels to the new Party line did not impress the former camp inmates who wrote to him from all over the country. Instead, they were overjoyed to read something which actually reflected their own feelings and experience. People afraid to breathe a word of their experiences to their closest friends suddenly felt a sense of release. One woman wrote to describe her reaction: “My face was smothered in tears. I didn’t wipe them away because all this, packed into a small number of pages of the magazine, was mine, intimately mine, for every day of the fifteen years I spent in the camps.”

Another letter addressed Solzhenitsyn, “Dear friend, comrade and brother,” before continuing: “Reading your story I remembered Sivaya Maska and Vorkuta . . . the frosts and blizzards, the insults and humiliations . . . I wept as I read—they were all familiar characters, as if from my own brigade . . . Thank you once more! Please carry on in the same spirit— write, write ...”65

Most powerful of all were the reactions of people still in prison. Leonid Sitko, then serving his second sentence, heard of the publication in distant Dubravlag. When the camp library’s copy of Novyi Mir arrived, the camp commanders kept it for themselves for a whole two months. Finally, thezeks got hold of a copy and held a group reading. Sitko remembered that prisoners listened “without breathing”:

After they read the last word, there was a deathly silence. Then, after two, three minutes, the room detonated. Everyone had lived the story in his own, painful way . . . in the cloud of tobacco smoke, they discussed endlessly . . .

And frequently, more and more frequently, they asked: “Why did they publish it?”66

Why indeed? It seems the Party bosses themselves began to wonder. Perhaps Solzhentisyn’s honest portrayal of camp life was too much for them: it represented too momentous a change, its appearance came about too swiftly for the tastes of men who still feared their own heads might roll next. Or perhaps they were tired of Khrushchev already, feared he had gone too far, and used Solzhenitsyn’s novel as an excuse. Indeed, Khrushchev was deposed soon afterward, in October 1964. His replacement, Leonid Brezhnev, was the leader of the Party’s reactionary, anti-change, anti-Thaw, neo-Stalinists.

In either case, it is clear that in the aftermath of the novel’s publication, the conservatives rallied, and with amazing speed. Ivan Denisovich appeared in November. In December—a few days after Khrushchev met Solzhenitsyn and personally congratulated him—Leonid Ilyichev, the chairman of the Central Committee’s new Ideological Commission, lectured a group of 400 writers and artists gathered at the Writers’ Union. Soviet society, he told them, must not be “shaken and weakened under the pretext of the struggle against the cult of the individual ...” 67

The rapidity of the change reflected the Soviet Union’s ambivalent attitude toward its own history—an ambivalence which has never been resolved, even today. If the Soviet Union’s elite were to accept that the portrait of Ivan Denisovich was authentic, that meant admitting that innocent people had endured pointless suffering. If the camps had really been stupid and wasteful and tragic, that meant that the Soviet Union was stupid and wasteful and tragic too. It was difficult, and it would remain difficult, for any Soviet citizen, whether a member of the elite or a simple peasant, to accept that their lives had been governed by a set of lies.

After a period of wavering—a few arguments for, a few arguments against—the attacks on Solzhenitsyn started coming thick and fast. In earlier chapters, I have already described the angry reactions, of both prisoners and guards, to Ivan Denisovich’s many efforts to evade hard work. But there were more elevated criticisms too. Lydia Fomenko, the critic of Literaturnaya Rossiya, accused Solzhenitsyn of failing to “disclose the full dialectic of that time.” Solzhenitsyn had condemned the “cult of personality,” in other words, but had failed to point the way to the optimistc future, and had failed to include “good” communist characters who would triumph in the end. This kind of criticism was echoed by others, and some even tried to correct Solzhenitsyn’s mistakes in literary form. Boris Dyakov’s “A Story of Survival,” the “loyal” camp novel published in 1964, explicitly featured descriptions of hardworking, loyal Soviet prisoners.68

As Solzhenitsyn’s novel was being considered for the Lenin Prize, the Soviet Union’s highest literary award, the insults grew worse. In the end— using tactics that would be repeated in later years—the establishment resorted to personal insults. At the Lenin Prize Committee meeting, the head of the Komsomol, Sergei Pavlov, stood up and accused Solzhenitsyn of having surrendered to the Germans during the war, and of having been convicted on criminal charges after that. Tvardovsky got Solzhenitsyn to produce his rehabilitation certificate, but it was too late. The Lenin Prize went to The Sheep Bell, a book best described as well-forgotten, and Solzhenitsyn’s official literary career was at an end.

He kept writing, but none of his subsequent novels appeared in print in the Soviet Union—or at least not legally—until 1989. In 1974, he was expelled from the Soviet Union, and eventually took up residence in Vermont. Until the Gorbachev era, only a tiny group of Soviet citizens—those who had access to underground, illegal typescripts or smuggled foreign copies— had read The Gulag Archipelago, his history of the camp system.

Yet Solzhenitsyn was not the only victim of this conservative backlash. For just as the debate about Ivan Denisovich was growing angrier, another literary drama was also unfolding: on February 18, 1964, the young poet Joseph Brodsky was put on trial for “parasitism.” The era of the dissidents was about to begin.

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