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Vera Vasilieva: Resisting the Gulag [Radio Svoboda]

posted 29 May 2017, 09:59 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 29 May 2017, 10:06 ]
12 May 2017

By Vera Vasilieva, independent journalist

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Radio Svoboda

Photo of Elena Markova: Radio Svoboda

In what way can one protect oneself as a person in a repressive system that has made the annihilation of the person its own aim – not so much physical annihilation as moral? I have been reflecting on this question since becoming interested in the case of the political prisoner Aleksei Pichugin more than ten years ago. For a long time I sought a meeting with the psychologist Valery Mukhin who, more I think than anyone else in Russia, has been rendering psychological help to those sentenced to life in prison. A couple of years ago we became personally acquainted and one of the results of our conversations has been my article in a specialist psychological journal, ‘The Development of the Personality.’ about Pichugin as a person who tries to overcome the dreadful conditions of strict isolation and remain a human being.

However, it is possible to receive answers to these disturbing questions, turning not only to the expertise of today’s specialists, but also to the experience of those who endured the drama of our country during the Great Terror. Its 80th anniversary is marked in the current year. The majority of witnesses to this era are no longer with us. All the more valuable are living witnesses because each talks about their personal experience. A short while ago in the Sakharov Centre in Moscow, there was a lecture by Elena Markova, a former prisoner of the Gulag, subsequently a cyberneticist, a doctor of technical sciences, guardian and investigator of human resistance in the Gulag. Not only did she manage to survive hard labour in the mines of Vorkuta, but she preserved her individuality.

In her 94th year, Elena Vladimirovna astounds with her reason and intellect, and has kept an absolutely clear mind and a lively character.

Elena Markova was sent to the camps when she was 20 years old – essentially for the same reason as Raoul Wallenberg who disappeared without trace in the Gulag. Only Markova was not imprisoned with strangers, as Wallenberg was, but with fellow nationals. At the time of the Second World War during the Nazi occupation of Kiev, she hid wounded Soviet fighters on her own. In order for these people to survive, they needed German identity papers. Elena Markova, who had a good knowledge of the German language, managed to find work at the labour exchange, stole blank papers for these identity documents and thereby saved human lives. A national award for this should have followed. But afterwards, when the rescued Red Army soldiers had testified in her defence, Elena Vladimirova’s sentence was commuted from fifteen to ten years.

The Gulag was immense in scale. There were various facets to this tragedy and spiritual rebellion was just one of them, Elena Vladimirovna emphasises. By ‘spiritual’ she means not necessarily connected to religion, but is in the wider sense. The Gulag prisoners did not live by bread alone. They had to have some sort of spiritual life. And that creation of a spiritual life – in the wider sense – was not provided for by the Stalinist Gulag. The individual as a personality had to be annihilated. The Gulag crushed both intellectual abilities and the psyche of the person. “And here is the root of this problem, why even spiritual opposition represented great opposition to the Gulag. Resisting. Being a human being. And then still being able to carry out some sort of creative work,” Elena Markova explains.

When asked "But what helped you to survive, spiritually?" she replies: "Chess helped. People stayed alive, stayed human, because they were able at least to focus on chess. Poetry. Camp poetry. Spiritual resistance is bound up with one's spiritual life." Elena Markova recalls the life story of another political convict, Vadim Yasny. His father died in a concentration camp in 1940. That meant that Vadim was one of the children of those who had been sent to the camps, and for that he himself received a sentence. In 1935 he enrolled as a student at the Moscow Institute of Philosophy and Literature, which previously had been shut down during the years of the war. In his third year at University his life as a student was brought to an end; he was convicted along with a group of other students, all of whom were the children of parents who had been sent to the camps.

To begin with, Vadim was sent to Monchegorlag on the Kola Peninsula, after which he found himself working on the construction of the railway line between Kotlas and Vorkuta. He was subsequently sent to the Pechzheldorlag camp, near a village called Abez, where he was put to work at a power plant. This power plant was next door to the public theatre, and although the theatre was intended for the free inhabitants of the village, it was staffed by convicts, among them Vadim. "In a sense, he returned to his education. This was a stroke of good fortune for him and a blessing, that literature was a part of his life again..." stresses Elena. According to her, a former prisoner, it was no coincidence that it was the so-called "Sharashkas" that were considered among inmates to be the most comfortable (if that word can be at all applicable to the institutions of the Gulag) of the camps. It was not just that the living conditions there were different to the other camps - what was also very important for people's survival was that, in the "Sharashkas", people could engage in intellectual endeavour. It was possible to stay human.

Another thing that helped you to survive spiritually was the people around you - other political prisoners (as is well known, in the Gulag political prisoners were, as a rule, separated from those who had been convicted under criminal charges). Elena Markova testifies to the fact that you could survive when you were surrounded by smart, intelligent, interesting people: " Forgive me, Muscovites, but when I moved to Moscow after 17 years from Vorkuta (thanks to the fact that my husband was from Moscow and was given a flat) I thought: "my God, what dull and small-minded people! Now, the people we had in Vorkuta..."

Preserved in the Sakharov Centre archive are greetings cards from the camps, which have been presented to the museum by Elena. Written out and hand-painted on tiny little pages, sometimes consisting simply of lines of dark-blue ink on scraps of paper, they had enormous significance for the convicts. They were attempts to break out of the hideous world surrounding them, a world that disfigured you not only physically, but psychologically as well.

These "recipes" for spiritual survival which Elena prescribes are, in my view, wholly applicable also to today's prisons. It is a pity that, after eighty years, they are as contemporary as ever.

Translated by Frances Robson and Will Dudley