The Gulag: Life Inside

Sunday, January 30, 2005
One of the most fascinating aspects of working with archival material is learning about the lives of the widely disparate personalities who have left behind their stories on scraps of paper, typed memoranda, diary entries, faded photographs, and other fragile documents from the past. Although sifting through statistics found in prison camp records paints a picture of the magnitude of the forced labor camp network known as the Gulag, the personal stories of the prisoners themselves provide the most vivid portrayal of the immense cruelty of this system.
Ever since the founding of the Hoover Institution Archives in 1919, the history of Russia and the Soviet Union has been an important focus of collecting activities. Included in the archival collections are numerous documents connected to the history of the Gulag. The massive Boris Nicolaevsky collection contains handwritten and typed memoirs of individuals imprisoned in the Gulag who set down their reminiscences when they reached refugee camps in Western Europe in the 1940s and 1950s. Other collections contain testimonies from those held captive in the 1920s, as well as clippings from Russian newspapers (both inside and outside the Soviet Union) documenting the origins of this massive system of forced labor. The microfilm collection of the Archives of the Soviet Communist Party and Soviet State—a rich source of documentation about the creation and administration of the Gulag—has been used extensively by scholars in the past several years.
The archival collections discussed below document the experiences of just a few of the estimated 28 million individuals who passed through the gates of the Gulag. Their stories are emblematic of the many kinds of prisoners in the Gulag during those years, such as victims of Stalinist purges, foreign prisoners of war, and political dissidents of the 1960s and 1970s.
The Revolution Eats Its Own: The Fate of Sergei Sedov
As Stalin consolidated his hold on power in the late 1920s—and forced erstwhile colleagues like Leon Trotsky into exile—the camps of the Gulag began to expand greatly, filling not only with Party members that Stalin viewed as direct threats to his power but also with their relatives, friends, and others tarred with the brush of guilt by association.
One such individual was Sergei Sedov, the son of Trotsky by his second wife. Sedov was arrested in 1935 and banished to Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. From there, his trail becomes harder to follow. Some accounts maintain that he was killed during a prison uprising in 1937; others, that he was shot after being accused of a plot to poison factory workers. The letters of Sedov in the Hoover Archives, however, depict a relatively apolitical engineer who deeply missed his newlywed wife.
The correspondence begins in August 1935, on the morning following his forced departure from Moscow. In a shaky hand guided by the swaying of his railway car, he plaintively describes his hope of finding a letter from his wife on arrival in Krasnoyarsk. As the journey stretches on, he notes the names of the train stations that he passes, all the while lamenting the length of the journey.
Knowing the ultimate fate that befell Sedov two years later, these letters are the heartbreaking testimony of an individual struggling to live an ordinary life during the most terrifying times. In many of the letters, Sedov addresses his wife as “my sweet eyelash.” In some letters, Sedov is decidedly upbeat, but in other letters the loneliness and pain of separation are all too evident, such as the one of August 17, 1935:
On the way to Krasnoyarsk, I kept wondering how to present you with a bouquet of flowers on the 14th or 15th [his wife’s birthday], and I also reflected sadly that there is no one in Moscow I can ask to do this favor. . . . I’ve sent you four letters, three en route and one from here, Krasnoyarsk Deportation Jail. My situation is still the same and I know nothing about my future. Why are there no letters from you?
Before his confinement in a labor camp, Sedov tried to find a job in Krasnoyarsk. His letters describe a frustrating search and a bleak existence: “My feet are wet and covered with blisters; the rain outside is absolutely dreadful. Last night I slept in the entrance hall of a local alcoholic. . . . In general, I’ve forgotten what comfort is all about. You know, roses don’t grow on prison latrines. Please forgive my vulgarity.”
Interspersed with his varying feelings of optimism and despair, Sedov provides details about life in Krasnoyarsk with the eye of a novelist—descriptions of public parks with stately cedar trees, nearly impassable streets filled with mud, and the majesty of the Yenisei River, with ice making it nearly unnavigable in early September. Sedov also chronicles his alcoholic landlord’s arguments with his long-suffering wife, which he heard through the thin walls of his room while spending solitary hours reading books about engineering and smelter furnace techniques. In one humorous letter he provides elaborate mathematical equations to determine the best way to keep his galoshes from being pulled off his feet by the suction force of the thick mud in the streets.
Just as abruptly as Sedov’s letters began, they end. Only sketchy details are available from other sources about his ultimate fate.
Foreign Prisoners: The Story of Adam Galinski
The camps of the Gulag also housed many foreign-born prisoners. Some were prisoners of war captured by the Red Army during World War II; others were foreign Communists who arrived in the Soviet Union with dreams of building a better society, only to find themselves behind barbed wire once the suspicions of Stalin fell on them. Others, however, lived in countries occupied by Soviet forces following World War II and, because of their support for the independence of their homeland, were arrested and sent to the Soviet Union to serve prison sentences in the Gulag. Among this latter group was Adam Galinski.
On July 14, 1945, agents of the NKVD—the predecessor agency to the KGB—arrested Galinski as he walked down a street in his hometown, Vilnius, Lithuania, which had been reoccupied by Soviet forces for the past year. During the previous six years of war, Galinski had seen the invasion of Vilnius by Soviet forces in September 1939 and then occupation by Nazi forces after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. During this period, Galinski fought bravely for the cause of Polish independence as a partisan in the underground, first against the Soviet occupation, during which his wife, Jadwiga, was arrested and deported to a prison camp in Central Asia. Later, during the Nazi occupation, Galinski was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, then sent to a prison camp from which he narrowly escaped execution before the camp’s liberation in 1944.
After fighting alongside Red Army troops to liberate Lithuania and eastern Poland from the Germans, Galinski and other Polish partisans were disarmed by the NKVD and subsequently arrested and deported to camps throughout the Soviet Union. Galinski was tried as a Soviet citizen—which he was not—and charged with treason, which carried the death penalty. His sentence was commuted and he spent the next 10 years in forced labor camps in the northern region of Vorkuta. While imprisoned at Vorkuta, he sought to keep up the spirits of fellow Polish partisans who were imprisoned with him in the most appalling conditions. In 1953 he took part in the famous prisoner revolt in the coal mines of Vorkuta. When Soviet authorities reviewed his case before a special tribunal in 1956, they shortened his sentence to time already served. Galinski refused to leave the camp, however, until his Polish citizenship was recognized and he was permitted to return to Poland.
The Galinski papers in the Hoover Archives contain fragmentary evidence of his life in prison: three postcards and one letter to his wife (who by 1948 had been released from prison herself), his release papers from 1956, and his unpublished reminiscences of those bitter years (including transcripts of interviews on Radio Free Europe, testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives, and many speeches detailing his experiences).
His wife, who had settled in the United States in the 1950s, tried every diplomatic channel she could find to obtain her husband’s freedom. Letters to international authorities and Polish diplomats, as well as her own diary, document this lengthy fight. In 1959, Galinski was permitted to leave Poland, and he joined his wife in Washington, D.C.—the first time they had seen each other in 18 years.
The Era of High-Profile Dissidents: Andrei Sinyavsky and Alexander Ginzburg
With the death of Stalin in 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956, a shift occurred in many aspects of life in the Soviet Union, including the Gulag. Prison camps were dismantled and thousands of prisoners were released. A novel that accurately depicted the stark reality of life in the camps, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, was published with official sanction and worldwide acclaim. But the Gulag was by no means a thing of the past, even if greatly reduced in scale.
With the highly publicized trial of the poet Joseph Brodsky in 1964, it became apparent that the authorities were ready to crack down on artists, intellectuals, and anyone else who dared criticize the Soviet regime too loudly. The trial of writers Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky in 1966 made unmistakably clear the course the Brezhnev regime would take in attempting to silence such dissident voices.
By 1965, Sinyavsky had already published several works in the West, when he and his close friend and colleague Daniel were arrested and charged with smuggling their work out of the Soviet Union for publication in the West. Sinyavsky later recounted being taken into custody by the KGB on a Moscow street while waiting for a streetcar: “Could I have started shouting, shown some fight at that moment? Made a scene? Appealed to my fellow citizens? Torn free and tried to escape . . . thieves always do.” However, as “a ridiculous intellectual, my only thought was how to behave with as much decency and dignity as possible.”
Following a high-profile trial—in which Sinyavsky and Daniel vigorously defended their actions instead of signing a forced confession—both men were sentenced to labor camps. Sinyavsky was sent to the Dubrovlag camp, 300 miles south of Moscow. In this swampy wilderness with its barren barracks, it would have been easy for a prisoner to give up hope and succumb to despair. Sinyavsky, however, responded by doing what he did best: write.
Although prisoners were forbidden to keep manuscripts or diaries, they were permitted to write limited numbers of letters. Sinyavsky’s written expression poured out in lengthy letters to his wife. Rather than dwelling on the many hardships of camp life, he instead wrote meditations on the relationship between Russian and Western culture, on the nature of creativity, about Russian folk traditions in song, language, and poetry—of which life within the camps provided abundant examples—and he also wrote extensively about such towering figures of the Russian literary tradition as Gogol and Pushkin.
The censors did not limit the length of Sinyavsky’s letters, nor did they redact any of the letters once they learned that the topics discussed were religion, poetry, and culture (which did not interest the censors in the least!). By the time of his release in 1971, Sinyavsky had penned more than 1,500 pages of letters to his wife—material that formed the basis for at least three subsequent books.
The papers of Andrei Sinyavsky in the Hoover Archives provide the bulk of the source material that documents this phase of his life: notebooks written in pencil during his stay in Lefortovo Prison and during his trial in Moscow, as well as a complete set of copies of his correspondence to his wife during his years at Dubrovlag. During Sinyavsky’s imprisonment the outside world did not remain silent, and a number of files testify to the activity of Western human rights organizations in seeking his release. The view from the prosecutor’s bench during his trial is also documented within his papers, through copies of the trial transcripts that the KGB compiled. Sinyavsky, who in his later years visited Stanford University and lectured there, died in 1997. However, through his impressive body of literary work—much of it either composed in the camps or generated by his experiences there—his voice lives on.
Another contemporary of Sinyavsky, and the one who did the most to publicize his Moscow trial, was the journalist and human rights activist Alexander Ginzburg. Determined to document the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial, Ginzburg and fellow dissident Yuri Galanskov compiled and published the White Book, a detailed account of the trial. Although the book was published in the West, Ginzburg sent copies to the KGB, the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and other arms of the government, which led to a five-year prison sentence (Ginzburg’s second).
After his release in 1972, Ginzburg resumed his dissident work. His activities included working with Alexander Solzhenitsyn to administer a fund that provided aid (derived from royalties on Solzhenitsyn’s books) to political prisoners and their families, smuggling and distributing miniature copies of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago into the Soviet Union, and cofounding the Moscow Helsinki Group (a coalition of dissidents who sought to ensure that the Soviet Union observed the international human rights accords it had signed in 1975). For his efforts, Ginzburg was arrested a third time, in 1977, and given an eight-year sentence. During his trial he stated that he was “born in the Gulag Archipelago,” and when asked his nationality, he responded zek (the slang term for a prisoner of the Gulag). As a result of international pressure, including from the administration of President Jimmy Carter, Ginzburg was freed from prison and sent to the United States in 1979, where his family subsequently joined him. A year later they settled in France, where Ginzburg continued to work as a journalist and human rights activist until his death in 2002.
The Alexander Ginzburg papers, recently acquired by the Hoover Archives, provide fascinating glimpses of life among Soviet dissidents during the 1960s and 1970s. Items that appear fairly mundane on first glance, such as a page of grocery receipts, represent a small part of the records maintained by the Ginzburgs as they administered what came to be called the “Solzhenitsyn Fund.” Worn identification documents with photos of a young Ginzburg document his release from prison in 1962 and 1972. Ink-smudged letters in minute handwriting are from fellow dissidents, many of whom wrote Ginzburg while he was imprisoned at the notorious Vladimir Prison in the early 1970s. A list of these correspondents reads like a veritable Who’s Who of the Soviet dissident movement. Later in the 1970s, after being released from prison, Ginzburg was unable to find a job owing to his dissident activities; at the same time he was accused by the government of being a “parasite” because of his unemployment. It was then that Andrei Sakharov came to his aid, writing several letters stating that Ginzburg had worked for him as a secretary; one even came with a business card—in English—from a New York–based human rights organization, listing Sakharov as their “representative in the USSR.”

The staff of the Hoover Archives continues to build such collections, hoping to shed light on a brutal episode in human history and to memorialize those who suffered in these prison camps. Reading such vivid documents from these tragic times, the prisoners emerge from the shadows of anonymity—where they languished as zeks, identified merely by numbers—to take their places as human beings displaying a remarkable degree of strength, courage, and perseverance.

About the Author

Default Fellow

Bradley Bauer

e: bauer [at] hoover.stanford.edu
p: 650-723-3428