19th century the Russian government deported around 1.2 million prisoners
to Siberia. Most of the revolutionary
leaders in Russia spent time in Siberia.
This included Lenin , Leon
Trotsky and Joseph Stalin.
Russian Revolution the labour
camps in Siberia were closed down. These were later reopened by Joseph
Stalin and opponents of his regime were sent to what became known
as Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagere (Gulag).
the worst of the labour camps was at Kolyma. Located in north-eastern
Siberia, temperatures drop to -90 degrees during the winter. About
30 per cent of the prisoners in Kolyma died each year.
sent to the Gulags included peasants who were accused of "individualistic
tendencies" and opposed the establishment of collective farms.
Large numbers of Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kirghiz, Mordovians
and Caucasians fell into this category.
of Socialist Realism was adopted by the
Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934. Approved by Joseph
Stalin, Nickolai Bukharin, Maxim
Gorky and Andrey Zhdanov, Socialist
Realism demanded that all art must depict some aspect of man's struggle
toward socialist progress for a better life. It stressed the need
for the creative artist to serve the proletariat by being realistic,
optimistic and heroic. The doctrine considered all forms of experimentalism
as degenerate and pessimistic.
and non-conformist writers such as Yevgeni
Zamyatin, Isaac Babel, Boris
Pilnyak, Nickolai Tikhonov, Mikhail
Slonimski, Vsevolod Ivanov, Victor
Serge, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Sergei
Yesenin, Konstantin Fedin, Victor
Shklovsky, Mikhail Zoshchenko
and Alexander Solzhenitsyn suffered
under this policy. Zamyatin and Serge managed to leave the country,
whereas Mayakovsky and Yesenin committed suicide. Writers who refused
to change, such as Babel and Pilnyak, were executed or died in labour
was particularly suspicious of people who lived abroad or had relatives
abroad. This included foreign communists who had fled to the Soviet
Union to avoid persecution from their own governments. In 1937 Nikolai
Yezhov, head of the NKVD Secret Police,
arranged for large numbers of these communists to be arrested and
deported to Siberia. A high percentage
of these foreign communists were Jews from
Germany, Austria and Hungary.
of people living along the western frontier of the Soviet
Union and Chinese and Koreans who lived along the eastern border
were deported to Gulags in the interior just before the outbreak of
the Second World War.
were sent to labour camps because of their religious beliefs. This
included Catholics, Baptists and members of the Ukrainian Orthodox
the Second World War people sent to Soviet labour
camps included collaboration with the enemy under the occupation,
prisoners of war, and men and women taken from Nazi
It is estimated
that around 50 million perished in Soviet gulags between 1930 and
Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1973)
an operation, I am lying in the surgical ward of a camp hospital.
I cannot move. I am hot and feverish, but nonetheless my thoughts
do not dissolve into delirium, and I am grateful to Dr. Boris Nikolayevich
Kornfeld, who is sitting beside my cot and talking to me all evening.
The light has been turned out, so it will not hurt my eyes. There
is no one else in the ward.
he tells me the long story of his conversion from Judaism to Christianity.
I am astonished at the conviction of the new convert, at the ardor
of his words.
each other very slightly, and he was not the one responsible for my
treatment, but there was simply no one here with whom he could share
his feelings. He was a gentle and well-mannered person. I could see
nothing bad in him, nor did I know anything bad about him. However,
I was on guard because Kornfeld had now been living for two months
inside the hospital barracks, without going outside. He had shut himself
up in here, at his place of work, and avoided moving around camp at
that he was afraid of having his throat cut. In our camp it had recently
become fashionable to cut the throats of stool pigeons. This has an
effect. But who could guarantee that only stoolies were getting their
throats cut? One prisoner had had his throat cut in a clear case of
settling a sordid grudge. Therefore the self-imprisonment of Kornfeld
in the hospital did not necessarily prove that he was a stool pigeon.
It is already
late. The whole hospital is asleep. Kornfeld is finishing his story:
on the whole, do you know, I have become convinced that there is no
punishment that comes to us in this life on earth which is undeserved.
Superficially it can have nothing to do with what we are guilty of
in actual fact, but if you go over your life with a fine-tooth comb
and ponder it deeply, you will always be able to hunt down that transgression
of yours for which you have now received this blow."
see his face. Through the window come only the scattered reflections
of the lights of the perimeter outside. The door from the corridor
gleams in a yellow electrical glow. But there is such mystical knowledge
in his voice that I shudder.
the last words of Boris Kornfeld. Noiselessly he went into one of
the nearby wards and there lay down to sleep. Everyone slept. There
was no one with whom he could speak. I went off to sleep myself.
I was wakened
in the morning by running about and tramping in the corridor; the
orderlies were carrying Kornfeld's body to the operating room. He
had been dealt eight blows on the skull with a plasterer's mallet
while he slept. He died on the operating table, without regaining
In 1924 Boris
Pilnyak wrote an article explaining why, despite receiving government
funds, he could not write Communist Party
I am against a writer having to live "willingly not
seeing," or, simply, lying. And a lie results when some sort
of statistical proportion is not observed. I am not a communist, and
for that reason I do not agree that I should have to write in a communist
manner. To the degree that the communists are with Russia, I am with
them. I admit that the fate of the communist party is less interesting
to me than the fate of Russia. The Communist Party to me is only a
link in the history of Russia.
Yevgeni Zamyatin, letter
to Joseph Stalin (1931)
activity is possible in an atmosphere of systematic persecution that
increases in intensity from year to year. In each of my published
works these critics have inevitably discovered some diabolical intent.
Regardless of the content of a given work, the very fact of my signature
has become a sufficient reason for declaring the work criminal. Of
course, any falsification is permissible in fighting the devil. I
beg to be permitted to go abroad with my wife with the right to return
as soon as it becomes possible in our country to serve great ideas
in literature without cringing before little men, as soon as there
is at least partial change in the prevailing view concerning the role
of the literary artist.
When Osip Mandelstam was being
investigated by the Secret Police he went
to see the short-story writer, Isaac Babel,
who was still a member of the Union of Soviet
Writers. The meeting was later recorded by Mandelstam's wife,
person we consulted was Babel. We told him our troubles, and during
the whole of our long conversation he listened with remarkable intentness.
Everything about Babel gave an impression of all-consuming curiosity
- the way he held his head, his mouth and chin, and particularly his
eyes. It is not often that one sees such undisguised curiously in
the eyes of a grown-up. I had the feeling that Babel's main driving
force was the unbridled curiously with which he scrutinized life and
usual ability to size things up, he was quick to decide on the best
course for us. "Go out to Kalinin," he said, "Nikolai
Erdman is there - his old woman just love him." This was Babel's
cryptic way of saying that all Erdman's female admirers would never
have allowed him to settle in a bad place. He also thought we might
be able to get some help from them - in finding a room there, for
instance. Babel volunteered to get the money for our fare the next
The Gulag Archipelago (1973)
It was granted to me to carry away from my prison
years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential
experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication
of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was
therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor.
In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and
I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I
lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the
first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the
line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between
classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every
human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside
us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhlemed by
evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best
of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.
was critical of Stalin's cultural policies implemented by Andrey
Stalin's cultural policies, especially the cultural policies imposed
on Leningrad through Zhdanov, were cruel and senseless. You can't
regulate the development of literature, art, and culture with a stick,
or by barking orders. You can't lay down a furrow and then harness
all your artists to make sure they don't deviate from the straight
and narrow. If you try to control your artists too tightly, there
will be no clashing of opinions, consequently no criticism, and consequently
no truth. There will be just a gloomy stereotype, boring and useless.
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