Thursday, February 28, 2013


Every once in a while I like to see what version of Russian history appeals most to ordinary Americans.  Neither Barnes and Nobles stores nor local public libraries maintain large Russian history collections, but what they do carry is instructive.  Whether it tells us more about Russia or more about American is hard to say.  By and large, Americans seem to thirst for information about Putin, the Russian mafia, the Romanovs (especially Nicholas and Alexandra), Stalin, and the gulag.  I understand the appeal of gulag history:  this particular tragedy is at once a quintessentially Russian experience of Arctic suffering and reflective of humankind's overall misery in the twentieth century.  I often wonder how it is that we can ever understand the richness and diversity of Russian history when it seems to be so deeply buried underneath the burdensome weight of camp literature.  There's an irony here:  Russians seem to go out of their way to avoid any reference to the gulag system, while Americans seem to go out of their to avoid reading anything other than gulag history.

At any rate, I read a lot of books about the gulag, and recently picked up both Slavomir Rawiz's The Long Walk:  The True Story of a Trek To Freedom and Karl Tobien's Dancing Under the Red Star.  In both books, the story of the Soviet gulag system is told from the point of view of an eye witness, although of course The Long Walk centers on an epic (if not well documented) journey across Central Asia to freedom, Karl Tobien's story about his mother is more firmly grounded in the labor camps.  I haven't researched The Long Walk, but a cursory glance online reveals some discussion of the historical authenticity of the actual events it purports to describe.  I have nothing to contribute to this discussion, other than the comments that if the events of the passage to India aren't strictly accurate, one is still left to wonder whether this dream of flight doesn't say something important about prisoner escape fantasies qua survival strategies, or indeed about how the families of gulag survivals might themselves have fantasizes about the escape of loved ones who had long ago disappeared into the silence of the Soviet penal system.  In fact, Karl Tobien's tale about his mother's life, helps to explain just this phenomenon of longing.  As American living in Stalin's Russia, Margaret Weiner was still a teenager when her father was spirited away by the secret police and never heard from again.  Without the benefit of even a proper farewell, it's evidence that Werner never got over the loss, and lived in a state of shock bordering on denial for years to come.

 Karl Tobien's story is useful insofar as it helps Americans to understand the arbitrary and sinister nature of Stalin's Russia.  Tobien's story also gives us clues about gulag survival strategies, which included callousness to potential enemies, friendship, and religious belief.  Of course, this atheist blogger isn't really in a position to analyze Tobien's theme of religion as a tool of resistance.  It seems to have served Margaret Werner well, giving her the fortitude to hope for something better in the midst of terror and hunger.  On the other hand, this writer is saddened to think of a god who is actively helping one Gulag innocent to survive while presumably ignoring the plight of countless others.  If any god had been active in the Gulags on any level, this fact doesn't speak well of him or her. As Kurt Vonnegut famously asserted, sooner or later people have got to start holding gods accountable for the actions of their followers.

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