"We were living witnesses of the Gulag." Book night at the Sakharov Centre

posted 8 May 2017, 02:16 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 8 May 2017, 02:48 ]
24 April 2017

Source: HRO.org 

By Vera Vasilieva

On 20 April 2017, a book night was held at the Sakharov Centre in Moscow. It included a meeting with a unique individual – Elena Vladimirovna Markova (née Ivanova) – once a prisoner in the Vorkuta labour camp, later a Doctor of Technical Sciences and a witness, custodian and researcher into resistance in the Gulag. Elena Markova spoke on the topic of “Spiritual Resistance by Young People in the Gulag.”

Three other Stalin-era political prisoners, all of whom have now passed away, were remembered at the event. They were Semyon Samuilovich Vilensky, Izrail’ Arkadyevich Mazus and Vadim Kononovich Yasny. All three were arrested when they were students.

Semyon Samuilovich Vilensky
was a student in the philological faculty of Moscow State University when he was arrested in 1948 for writing poems condemning the punitive policies followed by the Soviet authorities. Found guilty of "terrorist intentions," he spent three months in Sukhanovo special-regime prison, one of the most terrible Soviet prisons, considered a death camp. Vilensky came out of Sukhanovo alive because, throughout the time he was there, and in an effort to stay sane, he muttered poetry to himself. As a result, he was assessed as insane and sentenced to ten years in prison. He was sent to Kolyma where he remained until 1956. He was released in 1955, but denied the right to return to central Russia.

In 1963, Vilensky returned to Moscow where he set up the Kolyma Fellowship, later registered as the Moscow Historical and Literary Society, and the publishing house "Return," which was awarded the Golden Pushkin Medal for its contribution to the preservation of historical memory.

Vilensky’s goal in life was enlightenment. He edited and published many books by people who had suffered political repression. He compiled an anthology entitled There is Light Everywhere. The Individual in Totalitarian Society. He often met with schoolchildren and students at the Sakharov Centre. He organised international conferences on resistance in the Gulag, and the stage-show The Roads We Did Not Choose was based on his memoirs.

Izrail’ Arkadyevich Mazus
was an engineer, builder, writer and member of an anti-Stalinist youth group set up in 1948. He spent six years in the Vyatsky forced-labour camp and wrote a short novel Where Were You? about his experiences there. In the camp he worked as a digger, carpenter and planning-department dispatcher and, after training, for three years as a machinist in the camp power-station.

Mazus was released in October 1954 and returned to Moscow. He was soon amnestied. He graduated from the All-Union Correspondence Polytechnic and went on to work as a civil engineer on several major industrial and military projects. He also worked on the development of automated control-systems for construction.

In 1994 Mazus became co-chair of the Society of Repressed People of Moscow. He compiled and published the book Muscovites in the Gulag. This contained the first lists of victims of political repression published in our country. He was also the author of The History of an Underground, Prospects, Berezina and many other books.

Mazus devoted his final years to researching and publishing documents about the resistance of young people to Bolshevism. He began with a book entitled Democratic Union. An Investigation. 1928-1929, followed by a short reference book, Underground Youth Organisations, Groups and Circles (1926-1953), which drew on investigative files in the Central Archive of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and provided biographical data relating to some 50 prisoners.

Mazus died at the age of 87. But the staff at the Sakharov Centre remember that, up until his last days, he remained young in soul and strong in spirit. He recalled in an interview that “I spent six years in the camps. I have to say, it was a very interesting time.”

In memory of his years in prison, Mazus kept an accordion that had been sent to him there by his parents. Playing the accordion and being able to be creative saved his life. During one of his meetings with schoolchildren at the Sakharov Centre, he donated his accordion to the museum. His student card is also kept there.

“When Elena Vladimirovna Markova was arrested she was twenty years old. She had managed to complete high school, but not to enroll in university, where she dreamed of studying mathematics. Instead she ended up not only in the Gulag, but in a hard labour camp. It was the harshest and most shameful article that at that time existed in the Criminal Code in our country. This was connected to the fact that Elena Vladimirovna was condemned as a fascist collaborator because she worked for [Nazi] occupants at the public employment service.

“With her own hands, she hid wounded Soviet soldiers in her neighbours’ homes. In order for these people to be able to survive, for the families who hid them to survive, it was necessary to make German documents for the Red Army soldiers. Elena Vladimirovna knew German perfectly, found a job at the public employment service, and stole identification forms. She made false documents and, in doing so, saved human lives.

“All of these soldiers survived. Later, in accordance with the request of Elena Vladimirovna’s mother, they gave testimony and asserted that events were exactly thus. After that, Elena Vladimirovna’s sentence was shortened from 15 years to ten.

“Elena Vladimirovna was first introduced to higher mathematics in the camp barracks. An old man, a professor, made this possible. In the same barrack as this old man lived a young mathematician, who was dying of depression. He’d come back from work and lie down with his back to the room. And past him would run this girl, who deeply wanted to study mathematics. The wise old man made the young mathematician work with the girl,” said Natalya Samover, coordinator of exhibition projects at the Sakharov Center.

After liberation, Elena Markova lived in exile in Vorkuta [in the Komi region of Russia]. She described her life’s story in the book Vorkutian Notes of Forced Labourer E-105.

Having been rehabilitated, Elena Vladimirovna returned to Moscow and became an academic, a doctor of technical sciences and a cyberneticist.

“In 1960, a cyberneticist was a scholar taking a step into the future in which we now live,” Natalya Samover commented.

Elena Markova: 

I feel like a dinosaur from the Stalin era who’s still alive and wants to tell some story. Today there are hardly any of the immediate participants in our country’s drama to do with the Gulag still alive. It’s probably a rare thing when someone who actually experienced the Gulag tells their story. Living witnesses are becoming fewer and fewer, and their witness, of course, is highly valuable, because each one speaks of their personal experience.

The topic is boundless because the gulag was boundless in its extent. There were different facets to the tragedy and different aspects. I can’t speak even of all the facets of the tragic repression of young people. The Gulag was diverse in terms of the professions of those who ended up there, as well as in terms of age and social origins. It’s important to somehow cut up this multi-dimensional structure to make something in particular clear, to put an accent on one facet of the Gulag.

This is difficult as well as poorly understood, for in modern society there’s a kind of unidimensional understanding of the Gulag. There is talk of a ‘typical Gulag.’ I’ve heard such words even from those who are engaged in this topic: ‘Here we present a typical barrack, a typical camp zone.’ And probably about a ‘typical’ prisoner? That will already be far from life.

We decided to limit ourselves to the topic of “Spiritual resistance by young people in the camps.” Why spiritual? Because there were other ways of resistance in the Gulag. There were strikes. There were mass escapes. There were uprisings.

Maybe there will be a notion that it’s connected to religion. But we understand spiritual resistance in the broader sense of the word. This resistance might come from those who were involved in science, literature, the theatre.

For prisoners of the Gulag did not live by bread alone. They needed some kind of spiritual life too. But creating any kind of spiritual life, in the broad sense, was excluded by the Stalinist Gulag system. The person as a human being had to be destroyed.

The Gulag destroyed your mental capabilities, and your psyche, and you were already stripped of the title of human being. Such is the root of the matter why even spiritual resistance was a significant kind of resistance to the Gulag.

To stand up in the Gulag. To be a human. And moreover to still be capable of some kind of creative work. This is what is important to me. It’s human material resistance.

Eyewitnesses of this tragedy may be asked: and what allowed the spiritual to survive? Chess helped. People survived, remained human, because they had the ability at least to play chess. It wasn’t the only islet of salvation, but it’s important to understand what exactly allowed people to survive. 

Poems. Camp poetry. I am a witness of this.

Vadim Kononovich Yasny
also wrote poetry. He was born on 7 March 1917, in the same year that our country underwent a revolution. There are many highly distinctive aspects of his fate which make it typical for our country. I dislike the word “typical”, but in this case it fits perfectly.

His father died in a concentration camp in 1940. Vadim Kononovich Yasny was among the children of the repressed, which naturally meant that he himself was also doomed to imprisonment.

In 1935, motivated by a passion for Spanish literature, he became a student at the Faculty of Western Philology of the Institute of Philosophy and Literature, which closed down during in the war.

Vadim Kononovich’s studies came to an end in his third year, when he was among the victims of a mass repression of students at the Institute of Philosophy and Literature. All the victims of this repression had parents who themselves had been repressed, and naturally paid the price for not having denounced their parents as “enemies of the people”. Pavlik Morozov was the moral hero of the entire country at that time.

Vadim Kononovich was first sent to Monchegorlag, a camp on the Kola Peninsula whose inmates undertook forced labour in a copper and nickel processing complex which was of a significant size for the time. Luckily for us, Vadim Kononovich wrote a memoir entitled called “Born in Nineteen Seventeen”; he always attached great importance to the date of his birth.

As far as I know, this is the only memoir of its kind which describes the Kola Peninsula and Monchegorlag, since the camp was destroyed upon the outbreak of war in 1941 due to its proximity to the border. The industrial complex was blown up, and the camp was evacuated.

Vadim Kononovich then joined the gangs of prisoners building the railway line between Kotlas and Vorkuta.

It’s important to remember that all camps were not created equal. Fixed-location camps provided inmates with at least a certain degree of safety. The prisoners working on the railways were at much greater risk, and mortality rates were much higher for this group.

The safest camps of all were the “sharashkas” [secret research laboratories within the Gulag system], and the prisoners working in these sharashkas regarded themselves as very fortunate. Their camp experience – their food, their living conditions – was very different, not to mention the fact that they were engaged in intellectual endeavours which allowed them to remain creative human beings; the latter played a vital role in their survival.

In the penal camps I myself experienced, a mere prison camp held practically the same status as a sanatorium.

Luckily Vadim Kononovich’s camp record included a reference to the fact that he had completed training within the ZIS factory’s training centre before becoming a student at the Institute of Philosophy and Literature. This saved Vadim Kononovich’s life because it meant that he qualified as a skilled labourer, which was a fortunate position to hold in the Gulag.

Vadim Kononovich was sent to Pechzheldorlag, in the village of Abez, to work on a power plant. This power plant happened to be located next to a theatre, where Vadim Kononovich’s services as an electrician were often in demand.

The theatre was a remarkable and intriguing institution – a civic theatre for the local population, but staffed by prisoners. Vadim Kononovich started working at the theatre as an electrician whenever they needed him, and finally ended up there on a full-time basis, helping to put on literary plays. In a certain sense, he had resumed the studies he had begun at the Institute of Philosophy and Literature, and it was a great fortune and success for him to become involved with literature again.

Spiritual resistance depends on a prisoner’s spiritual life. Vadim Kononovich was saved by amateur dramatics, theatre and camp poetry.

He was in an environment in which he was surrounded by other clever, intelligent and interesting people. When I moved from Vorkuta to Moscow after 17 years, after my Moscow-born husband was given an apartment there, I was astonished by the people I met. Without meaning any offence to Muscovites, I could not help but think, “What dull and superficial people! In Vorkuta….” The people in Vorkuta really were different.

I have always carried Vorkuta with me in my soul. I am nearing the end of my life, and this was the period which shaped it. It is paradoxical that I met such incredible people with such astonishing fates in prison camps. Yet the people I talked with there gave me strength and saved my soul.

Vadim Kononovich was a living witness to the GULAG, just as I am. Our memories of Vorkuta stayed with us all our lives, and they will stay in my heart until I die. I do not need any notes to talk about Vorkuta; I will always remember everything.”

Translators include: Joanne Reynolds and Elizabeth Teague