At Large

Wrestling the Gulag Story to the Ground

Peter Weir's new film, The Way Back, will be cause for many a reflection on the most extensive prison network in history.

By 1.11.11

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The old Soviet gulag system, the most extensive prison network in history, killed some 2.7 million people, most of them innocent of any charge other than loose talk. And yet this staggering human tragedy has rarely been tackled by commercial film makers. History has moved on, eyewitnesses have died off, and survivors are not inclined to talk about their memories. The wounds seem too fresh for inspection by strangers.

But now a director of stature has found a way into the story by way of a daring escape yarn, drawing on a book called The Long Walk by the late Polish Army officer Slawomir Rawicz. When the film opens in U.S. cinemas at the end of January it is likely to stun audiences. The Way Back, directed by Australian Peter Weir, convincingly re-creates the pain of cold, hunger and despair in the Siberian wasteland where the Soviets dumped most of their hapless prisoners.

Weir's story takes place in 1940 and 1941. Arbitrary arrests had been part of Soviet life since the gulag system was created in 1930 but now, as the story evolves, the 1941 invasion by German forces produces a double sense of terror among the Soviet population. The camp system eventually swept up an estimated 27 million people, continuing to expand until Josef Stalin died in 1953.

The camps operated a smaller scale under Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, crippling millions more until Mikhail Gorbachev finally ordered the system shut down in 1987.

The Russian gulag never quite caught the Western eye the way the Nazi death camps did, for reasons historians still debate. The most obvious explanation is that the Russian tragedy was largely self-contained and in a distant country -- pitting Russians against Russians. Moreover, the Soviets did not set out to liquidate their prisoners. They only worked them to death.

The most complete account of the gulag system is the 2003 book Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps by Anne Applebaum. She finds similarities in the German and Soviet systems, which were built on the same continent at roughly the same time. "Hitler knew of the Soviet camps and Stalin knew of the Holocaust. There were prisoners who experienced and described both systems. At a very deep level, the two systems are related."

Harrowing stories of the Soviet camps surfaced periodically when I was a correspondent for Associated Press in Moscow from 1967 to 1971.  Elderly survivors were in evidence in the large cities. They could sometimes be spotted by their vacant look and their poor physical state. Although foreign journalists had only minimal contact with the local population, those of us who spoke the language did manage clandestine contact.

I recall heart-rending conversations with broken men and women who had lost five, ten or more years of their lives on the tundra, living on gruel and stale black bread. Many never recovered their health. One prisoner told me of Siberian work details in temperatures of minus 70 degrees centigrade. I asked him what work he was carrying out. "We felled frozen trees from dawn to dusk," he said, looking away as if this conversation were just too much for him.

Others insisted that after the exhausting workday, they enjoyed a strange kind of intellectual freedom that they had lacked before their arrest. Although life was dangerous, with "politicals" bunking alongside hardened criminals, lively debate among the camp intelligentsia helped keep their spirits up.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's short 1962 novel of the camps, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, opened the floodgates for memoirs and signaled a brief political thaw under Khrushchev. But the freeze quickly returned, and all his writings were banned while I was living there. Many other survivors wrote in private and awaited a better day.

The first prominent camp survivor I met was Lev Kopelev, a writer who was at a friendly stage in his relationship with Solzhenitsyn. They had been fellow zeks (colloquial of "ZK," short for zaklyuchonniy, or "locked-up prisoner") in a camp in the 1940s and 1950s. They argued ideology with such fervor that Solzhenitsyn portrayed Kopelev as Lev Rubin in his novel The First Circle. Later in life, both living abroad, they sadly had a final falling out. Kopelev died in 1997 without making peace. Solzhenitsyn died in 2008.

Lev was a burly, bearded, bear of a man but my visit, with my Volkswagen and foreign license plates visible to all outside his flat, clearly made him nervous. At my request, however, he finally agreed to be the messenger if Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he did a few weeks later. From the AP office I rang Lev before the bulletin cleared the teleprinter and he flashed the news to the reclusive Solzhenitsyn.

A few days later, when Solzhenitsyn was secretly at work on his Gulag Archipelago, I met him in a secluded hideaway. I had tracked him down with the help of a few Russian friends. We had a brief chat before he decided I was a danger to his safety and invited me to leave.

Many other camp survivors have since produced memoirs of the Stalin camps, and more voluminously from the Brezhnev period. I found Edouard Kuznetsov's book, Prison Diaries, for sheer atmosphere, to be among the most interesting accounts of 1970s camps. Kuznetsov had been arrested for leading a failed skyjack attempt in Leningrad to flee to Sweden. He now lives in Israel.

As he wrote in his book:

Prisoners were indeed shot frequently for many reasons, but most of all for cutting off their ears (particularly if they had tattooed on them "A gift to People's Congress!") and for facial tattoos such as "Slave," "Bolsheviks give me bread" and "Down with dictator and murderer" (meaning Khrushchev or Brezhnev).

Kuznetsov told me in a telephone interview from a few years ago that he secretly wrote his diary in tiny letters in pencil on toilet paper and kept it tightly rolled up in plastic film "stuck in the ceiling of my cell, buried in the dirt, or hidden in the anal cavity." He managed to pass it to Elena Bonner, wife of Andrei Sakharov, during a visit in his Mordovia camp. She had the script deciphered, translated, and published in the U.S. in 1975 by Stein and Day.

Kuznetsov hinted at collusion with the camp guards. "They could be bribed," he told me. "For a hundred rubles they would shoot their mother." Kuznetsov's papers are now archived at the University of Bremen, Germany.

I asked him if he was happy now. "I am not so stupid as to be happy," he said. "Life is a choice -- not between good and bad but between bad and horrible. Life now is bad-normal."

Back in Russia, the Medvedev-Putin government continues the oppression of the population but to a far lesser degree and with indirect means. Human rights activists are allowed to function but more than a hundred journalists have been murdered for their courageous writings in the past 20 years. It is the usual "land of contrasts" story that Russia has been for the past 300 years.

And yet Kuznetsov, with his memories of the Brezhnev years, was philosophical about the development of democracy in Russia today.

"For now," he said, "Russia is doomed to be half-open. Russia is moving toward a very specific partial democracy, far from classic democracy. But I believe this is okay. Russia is not ready for full democracy. What's important is to make sure there are limits to the authoritarianism so that it does not take over entirely. Today anyone can emigrate. Real tyranny must have closed doors, and those days are over."

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.