Women of the Gulag
Joseph Stalin was responsible for the deaths of over 20 million people. Yet today in America, teaching on the crimes of communism is so bad that almost one third of Millennials think President George W. Bush killed more people than this Marxist mass-murderer. Those who are familiar with the history of Stalin’s Soviet Union might recall the name of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and his iconic Gulag Archipelago. Fewer still know that the majority of those who experienced—and survived—the Gulag were women, and it is their experiences, their memories, that must be preserved and shared to ensure the next generation understands the consequences of Stalin’s failed collectivist policies and his horrific disregard for human life.
In his book Women of the Gulag, soon to be released as a documentary film, Hoover Institution scholar Paul Gregory gives the bulk of Stalin’s survivors their due by preserving the stories of five Soviet women—Fekla, Maria, Adile, Agnessa, and Evgenia—whose memories span dekulakization, the Great Terror, and post-Stalin rehabilitation. Each of these women came from different social classes and regions, but none of them escaped persecution under the Stalin regime.
Fekla was uprooted from her idyllic childhood in the Ural Mountains when villagers with red stars on their caps came to collectivize her family’s farm. Condemned as first category kulaks, her father and grandfather were considered “socially dangerous,” and the entire family was deported to Martyush Special Settlement—at the time, a cluster of dirt-hole homes in the middle of a birch forest. Only a child, she labored alongside adults, suffered hunger and disease, all the while being taught in the camp school to love Stalin and hate his enemies.
Maria, the wife of a Transbaikal railroad engineer, embodied the ideal Soviet woman: a community activist and housewife who raised obedient, hardworking children. She and her husband Alexander were the “New Soviet People” that Russia needed. While Maria and Fekla worked, Adile, the child bride of a powerful Bolshevik family in Stalin’s native Georgia, as well as Agnessa and Evgenia—the social-climbing wives of top officers in the NKVD, the secret police—enjoyed the social privileges and immense wealth of Soviet power.
Then came 1937. The Great Terror leveled the lives of these five women as Stalin embarked on a campaign to liquidate his enemies. Operational Order of the NKVD No. 00486, issued in July 1937, mandated: “Women married to husbands at the time of their arrest are to be arrested with the exception of pregnant, breast-feeding, or elderly women and wives who provide information that leads to their husbands’ arrest... All property with the exception of clothes and utensils the prisoner can carry with her is to be confiscated, and the apartment is to be registered. The wives of traitors are to be imprisoned, depending on their social danger, no less than five to eight years. Children from ages three to fifteen are to be placed in orphanages of the ministry of health in other locations.”
Soviet women were subject to the fates of their men, regardless of whether one was the daughter of a kulak, an engineer’s wife, or a privileged party member’s wife. Fekla, already imprisoned in Martyush, became the breadwinner for her younger siblings and elderly grandfather when camp officers rounded up hundreds of kulak men, including her father, and shot them to fill NKVD quotas.
Maria and Adile soon joined Fekla in the Gulag system, as local rivals used the quotas to purge their husbands and grab power. They remember standing in line at the prison with hundreds of other women, waiting to deliver care packages. They remember learning that their husbands had been shot as traitors, and when they too were arrested, deported, and sentenced to hard labor as “Wives of Traitors of the Motherland.”
The executioners’ wives were the last to fall. Agnessa and Evgenia rose to the highest ranks of Soviet society as their husbands carried out the Great Terror, only to witness their worlds crumble when the purge turned inward. Evgenia went from celebrating New Year’s with Stalin and working in Soviet propaganda machine to committing suicide in a nerve clinic outside Moscow. Of the five women portrayed in Women of the Gulag, Evgenia was the only one who did not outlive her husband, who sent her chocolates concealing enough sleeping pills to overdose. Agnessa was the survivor. She dealt silks and vodka on the black market until finally being sent to a corrective labor camp in Kazakhstan.
Unlike their husbands and fathers, whose stories ended with a bullet, Agnessa, Maria, Adile, and Fekla, as well as hundreds of other women, survived the Gulag and lived long lives in the post-Stalin Soviet Union. They lived to be reunited with their children, to demand their husbands’ death certificates and legal rehabilitation, to pursue university degrees, to record and publish their experiences.
Some even lived long enough to team up with Russian filmmaker Marianna Yarovskaya to tell their stories on film. In the preface to his book, published in 2013, Paul Gregory noted, “As I write these words, Marianna is in Russia filming what will become a feature-length documentary. We are working with a sense of urgency. The story must be told before it is too late.”
This November 7, on the one-hundred-year anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation will host the film premiere of the Women of the Gulag documentary in Washington, DC. Men dominate the history of the Soviet Union, but it was the wives and daughters of “traitors” and “kulaks” who, overwhelmingly, survived to tell their stories after their husbands, fathers, and brothers perished. Theirs are the stories of the majority of the survivors—and it is long time the world hears them and remembers what Stalin did to the Soviet people.