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Période soviétique et postsoviétique

Ludmila MIKLASHEVSKAYA, Gender and Survival in Soviet Russia. A Life in the Shadow of Stalin’s Terror

Cynthia V. Hooper
p. 838-843
Référence(s) :

Ludmila MIKLASHEVSKAYA, Gender and Survival in Soviet Russia. A Life in the Shadow of Stalin’s Terror, (Edited and translated by Elaine MacKinnon), London – New York : Bloomsbury Academia, 2020

Texte intégral

1All memoirs are written with a purpose. In Gender and Survival in Soviet Russia: A Life in the Shadow of Stalin’s Terror, the author is driven by a desire to make meaning of her life in the face of her own death: she wrote the account largely from various hospital beds over the course of 1976, while suffering from a painful neuromuscular disease. She died just days after its completion.

2In her excellent introduction, editor Elaine MacKinnon presents the author, Ludmila Miklashevskaya, as someone who suffered greatly during the Stalin era and whose life was disfigured by the brutality of the Soviet regime, above all during the time of the Great Terror. Miklashevskaya’s second husband was arrested in 1936 and later shot. Shortly after he was taken into custody, she, too, was tried and condemned as a traitor of the Bolshevik state. Imprisoned from 1937-1948, Miklashevskaya was allowed, at the end of her term, to relocate to a village just over 100 miles from her hometown of Leningrad, only to be re-arrested some 18 months later and jailed again from 1949-1953.

3MacKinnon’s introduction, which includes broad-ranging summaries of Soviet political, women’s, and Jewish history (overviews that could be very helpful for non-specialist readers, and in particular for undergraduate students), categorizes this work as, above all, a Terror memoir, and Miklashevskaya’s account certainly contains details typical of that genre: she describes the sudden arrests, the ability of police to incentivize citizens to bear false witness, the struggle of prisoners to keep contact with the world outside the camps, and the scramble for Gulag survival that involved, particularly for women, efforts to secure a job that would allow them to avoid outdoor manual labor. Throughout, we see victims of the system continuing to work diligently within it, even while daily searching for ways to secretly circumvent the rules or bend them to their own personal advantage.

4A commanding mistress of the color detail, Miklashevskaya includes several vignettes that stand out, even for readers well-versed in Gulag literature. Perhaps one of the most vivid is her description of her own inability to even remotely complete the standard labor norms in a lumber-producing northern camp. Assigned one of the easier outdoor jobs – to remove bark from the uprooted stumps of felled trees – she could not manage to fully strip even one, as she did not have enough strength to roll any over, despite her daily quota being set at 16. Noting how food rations were tied to productivity, Miklashevskaya acknowledges that she would have quickly starved, had she not managed to wrangle a position in the camp infirmary.

5Other of her details challenge comforting assumptions of prisoner solidarity in the face of injustice. Instead, they reveal jealousy towards those who had more and often contempt for those less fortunate. For example, Miklashevskaya describes one incident where an elderly former aristocrat was thrown into a holding cell already crowded with women, wearing a dress that turned out to be crawling with lice. Other prisoners, anxious to keep the lice from spreading, called for the guards and watched as the one-time princess was stripped and left naked in the cell. She was studiously ignored until a giant tapeworm began to crawl out of her body, prompting the prisoners to scream for the guards once more. Such a tale has an unexpected hardness to it that complicates this memoir, for a reader is left unsure of how to respond to the author and what to think of her point of view.

6On the one hand, Miklashevskaya does not (or at least not successfully) portray herself as a fully sympathetic narrator, along the lines of Eugenia Ginzburg in Journey Into the Whirlwind. On the other hand, neither does she color herself in a deliberately negative way, in order to illustrate the selfishness and inhumanity that survival within such a debased system entails – as does Varlam Shalamov in Kolyma Tales or Tadeusz Borowski in his self-condemnatory account of captivity in Auschwitz, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. Instead, readers encounter a flawed, proud, obviously resourceful but often extremely self-absorbed narrator who, at the end of the day, does not seem fundamentally interested in the system that surrounds her and what it reveals about power or human nature or morality. There is little reflection or desire to analyze, and no feeling that the author sees things differently in 1976 than she did forty years earlier.

7What makes this memoir unique is not what one might expect, particularly at this moment of my own writing, during another period of grand political injustice as Russia wages war against Ukraine. This is a time when many readers are looking for insights into the workings of dictatorial power, the crafting of consent, and the ethics of collaboration and resistance. Today, as in the late 1930s, we see how people often choose to comply with repressive policies they disagree with, if only to preserve their own well-being, and we see the consequences that such compliance has for those designated as enemies of the state. But this memoir is largely absent of such insights – and this absence does not appear to be due to censorship or fears thereof on the part of the author, but instead to her own indifference.

8Miklashevskaya’s account of her years in the Gulag takes up less than a tenth of her total manuscript, even less in the unabridged version, which includes a chapter about time she spent in France from 1924-1927 that is only available as a supplement from the publisher’s website in .pdf form. In part, this is due to the author’s worsening illness at the time of her writing: she mentions, as her narrative continues, that her strength is running out, such that she pays far less attention to her later years than to her earlier ones. But what Miklashevskaya most wants to recount is her personal life, above all the story of her two greatest relationships – to her first husband and to her daughter. With the exception of a final paragraph, Miklashevskaya’s story ends with her daughter’s death in 1958, and there is great poignancy in the fact that her narration of her daughter’s death comes to so closely coincide with her own passing. Narrative and narrator merge in a moment that marks an ending to 18 years of separation and grief. At least in an imagined way, the two are reunited in death, even as their connection is cemented in memory.

9The relationship of personal to political is a compelling philosophical and analytical theme, and Miklashevskaya’s memoirs offer fascinating, if unsystematic, insight to anyone who wishes to explore this topic outside of easy or obvious moral frameworks. The most vivid scenes come at the beginning of her tale, in descriptions of the author’s childhood in tsarist Odessa. At one point, she briefly mentions a spate of pogroms that followed Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, but her focus is always her family and its interpersonal tensions. Her account includes portraits of her traditional Jewish grandparents who refused to do more than sip tea in her own parents’ home, where everyone put butter and sausage on their matzoh; a mother who grew up rich and cried at the table when her less-refined husband slurped his soup; a father who lost jobs regularly, pawned the family piano, and surreptitiously took his children to the city bicycle races; a brilliant but delinquent brother, who once defended himself in juvenile court in verse, then went to the newspaper that had published his couplets and demanded royalties. World War One is described in terms of her younger brother’s decision to volunteer, but also as a time when taffeta became fashionable, boys began to admire the author’s long hair, and she fell in love with cinema.

10Sometimes the absence of the author’s political interest is jarring. In describing the years of Civil War and early Soviet rule in St. Petersburg (then Petrograd), Miklashevskaya begins a chapter with the statement that her life at the time was both “joyful and difficult” (99). Readers can be forgiven if they are surprised by the fact that when she writes “difficult,” she turns out to be referring not to the political or economic upheaval of the era, but rather to her private struggle to win her first husband’s approval and cope with his roving eye (104). She leaves for Paris with him the same year Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin dies, but rather than discussing Lenin’s death, she instead goes into great detail about an affair her husband was having before they went abroad, and her determination to separate from him, as a result. Similarly, her decision to return to the Soviet Union in 1927 seems to have been an emotional rather than a political one, driven by her conviction that she needed to escape another unhealthy love affair and a general state of economic dependency on men. Her later doubts about the wisdom of that return likewise focus on personal considerations. “Questions plagued me,” she recalls. “Instead of dining at the noisy, nasty-smelling Belorussian station, I could be sitting at Rouge’s restaurant with the chef peeking out from the kitchen…I could have hung out at the café Rotunde, strolled all over Paris, traveled out to Versailles, and gone racing along the roads with [my ex-husband] on his motorcycle to the banks of the Loire River…to anywhere I wanted to go.” Instead, she writes, while she had interesting work, she “was also living amid filth, a putrid stench, savage brawls, and… at the mercy of my hysterical witch of a landlady” (127).

11Even her encounter with state repression prompts little reflection on the machinations of politics or society. As she says in regard to her conviction for conspiring against then-NKVD Chief Nikolai Ezhov: “What was Yezhov to me? I never even thought about him. It would have made more sense to have put me on trial for being totally disinterested in Yezhov, rather than for seeking to kill him” (184). Commenting on Gulag life, she writes that she and her fellow prisoners had no interest in politics, but, rather, “coming from countless villages, towns and hamlets across the country, we knew only our own private sorrows” (199). Her observations about her captivity are descriptive rather than analytical, vivid in their material disgust for the “stuffy, poisonous air, constant clatter and screaming, foul language, and smelly foot bindings hung out to dry on ropes” (198). Even World War Two is only briefly mentioned, and then as a time of even greater physical hardship marked, above all, by her inability to communicate with her daughter for a number of years. Amid the experience of mass death, working in an infirmary with no food or medicine or means to help the dying, she writes “everything I experienced was subsumed in my own personal grief” (204).

12What makes this account truly unusual, however, is that even as Miklashevskaya privileges personal ties in her account, she nevertheless portrays a world of unhappy and imperfect relationships. Her parents are miserable in their marriage but remain together until their deaths, sinking into ever-deepening states of illness and penury. Her first husband, whom she divorces due to an affair, nevertheless commits suicide in France on the day he hears, from mutual friends, the mistaken rumor that she has died in the camps. Although Miklashevskaya does all she can to help her second husband after his arrest, she makes no secret of her disdain for him throughout most of their marriage, characterizing him as the kind of person who would fly into a rage when, after her daughter’s birth, she asked him to “put out his cigarette before we entered the nursery” (152). She reunites with her elder brother, also a former prisoner, after her 1956 rehabilitation – and yet despite a decades-long absence, their meeting is joyless. She unsparingly describes her brother’s wife as “an uncultured, malicious peasant woman and an alcoholic,” says the woman made her feel as if she were “back in the camps again,” and leaves early (221).

13Motherhood, which Miklashevskaya celebrates as the most meaningful calling in life, is nevertheless portrayed as endlessly sad across three generations. The author’s mother dotes on a renegade son, only to see him turn into a petty criminal who, duringWorld War One, repeatedly steals the uniforms of dead officers and assumes their identities, until he is caught and executed shortly after the Bolshevik takeover. The author’s sister-in-law, unable to have children of her own, is so jealous of Miklashevskaya when her daughter is born that she refuses to ever see the child, until adopting her after Miklashevskaya’s arrest in 1937. When Miklashevskaya returns from the camps in 1953, her sister-in-law refuses to publicly acknowledge her as the child’s biological mother. Ironically, the child in question dies as a result of her own quest to become a mother, from a long-standing infection caused by an earlier miscarriage.

14Well-known Gulag memoirists like Ginzburg do not usually spend much time describing the challenges involved in rekindling family relationships rafter years of Gulag captivity. In Ginzburg’s case, she was separated from her son, author Vasily Aksyonov, for 12 years: he finally came, as a teenager, to live with her in Magadan from 1947-1949, until she, like Miklashevskaya, was re-arrested. In contrast to Ginzburg, who portrays the reunion as unambiguously positive, Miklashevskaya’s narrative is filled with disappointment. She mentions receiving very few letters from her daughter during her second period of imprisonment, and she recounts how her daughter sneered at Miklashevskaya’s proffered medical advice after suffering a miscarriage, dismissing her mother’s concerns by remarking that “the doctors in Leningrad certainly [know] as much as the doctors in a remote Siberian village” (215). When she met her daughter’s husband for the first time, upon her release and return to Leningrad in 1953, Miklashevskaya records only a memory of disapproval, noting, “He was not the man I would have chosen for my daughter.”

15In writing about her post-Gulag life, Miklashevskaya sounds bitter as she describes how lavishly and thoughtlessly her daughter and husband lived, remarking that her sister-in-law “loaded this young family with unending gifts,” including 1000 rubles a month, while “there I was without a penny to my name, a person who by some miracle had survived my arrest. . . I often thought that I had been happier in the camps” (216). When, one summer, she managed to rent a room in the same town where her in-laws were vacationing, she recalls how her daughter did not meet her at the station when she arrived but instead stood “at the other end of the train greeting their dentist’s family” (222).

16One is left to wonder what, then, should readers take away from this account? One lesson is, perhaps, that at the end of the day politics matters very little to many people. (Whether it matters less to people living in dictatorship than in democracy is a related question that bears further investigation.) What most people most care about seems to be personal relationships and, to some degree, material comfort within a particular system, rather than the structure of that system, itself.

17And what, then, is the meaning of a life that ends in loneliness? Ultimately, Miklashevskaya is documenting a state of having loved and lost. She dies without a lasting marriage, without any surviving children, with only the same, unhappy sister-in-law who adopted her daughter left to mourn her. Her story is dotted with moments of glamor, flickers of passion, and snippets of happiness. But the parties where she won the attention of artistic luminaries ranging from Ilya Ehrenburg to Mikhail Zoshchenko to Samuil Marshak brought nothing enduring into her life. Perhaps the most powerful message of this book is that happiness is a fickle and fleeting condition, no matter where and when one lives. This is not what most readers likely want to hear, especially if hungering for a sense of moral triumph in the face of systemic injustice. Instead, we are left with a strong sense of the ruthlessness of death, and perhaps a faint hope shared between reader and author that flawed loves and faded experiences may carry some unknown worth, even after all traces of them have disappeared from this world.

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Cynthia V. Hooper, « Ludmila MIKLASHEVSKAYA, Gender and Survival in Soviet Russia. A Life in the Shadow of Stalin’s Terror »Cahiers du monde russe, 63/3-4 | 2022, 838-843.

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Cynthia V. Hooper, « Ludmila MIKLASHEVSKAYA, Gender and Survival in Soviet Russia. A Life in the Shadow of Stalin’s Terror »Cahiers du monde russe [En ligne], 63/3-4 | 2022, mis en ligne le 02 décembre 2022, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Cynthia V. Hooper

College of the Holy Cross

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