Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag
Other Press, 2020, 320 pp., $25.99
In November 1962, nine years after Stalin’s death, the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s first novel sent shock waves through the Soviet Union. Here, finally, was a candid takedown of Stalinist tyranny—one that was not samizdat but, remarkably, state-sanctioned thanks to the limited easing of restrictions afforded by Khrushchev’s thaw. A fictional account of the trials and horrors of the Siberian forced labor camps, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich drew on the author’s experience of the Gulag, first among common criminals in general camps and later among long-term prisoners in so-called “special” camps.
Readers at home and around the world were stunned by the book’s depictions of the merciless Gulag system and its rigorous, systematic efforts to grind down an innocent man. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov does work that is both arduous and monotonous, and is only excused from it when temperatures plummet to –41° C. Apart from sleep, the only time he “lives for himself” is ten minutes in the morning at breakfast, five over dinner, and five at supper. Not that he and his fellow zeks are able to keep track of time: No clocks tick in the camps and convicts are not allowed to carry watches. Food is scant, barely edible, and hardly nourishing. Team leaders determine a person’s fate: “a good one will give you a second life, a bad one will put you in your coffin.” Resistance is futile. Complaining proves fatal. “Better to growl and submit,” Shukhov tells us. “If you were stubborn they broke you.”
Solzhenitsyn paved the way for more former prisoners to open up and recount their stories. To date, however, the majority of those stories have come from male prisoners; the women who were deported to the camps have largely been overlooked. Czech-born author and translator Monika Zgustova has taken a vital step to rectify that gap. Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag comprises nine valuable eyewitness testimonies from nine women. All endured monstrous suffering. All lived to tell their tale. The book—both a necessary corrective and a compelling read—was originally published in Spanish in 2017. Now, thanks to Julie Jones’ expert translation, it appears in English.
The book’s origins date back to September 2008, when Zgustova traveled to Moscow and was invited to a meeting of Gulag survivors. She harbored a preconception that they would all resemble “lifeless shadows.” Although many were old and poor, most turned out to be sprightly. Zgustova was also surprised to see so many women in attendance. Aware that their stories were less well documented than those of male ex-prisoners, she decided there and then to collect them. So began a long yet rewarding fact-finding mission which took her around the Russian capital and then further afield. “Talking to ‘my’ women,” she notes in her introduction, “I realized that human beings are capable of great fortitude.”
Her first interviewee bears this out. Zayara was the daughter of parents who were lost in the great purges: Her father, a writer, was declared an enemy of the people and shot; a few years later, her mother was decreed an “anti-Soviet agitator” and condemned to ten years in the labor camps. One night in 1949, history repeated itself. At the end of a party Zayara threw to celebrate passing her exams, she answered the door to five uninvited guests: armed policemen with a warrant for her arrest. Unable to locate warm garments, she made do with her party clothes—a straight black skirt, elegant red blouse and high heels. “I left home dressed as if I were going to a dance,” she reveals.
After a spell in the dreaded Lubyanka penitentiary, Zayara was found guilty by association. She was taken by train, then cargo ship, to a work camp in a Siberian village. Other deportees, each a repeat offender, relay the kinds of punishments meted out. In one camp, those who didn’t adhere to the rules were stripped, tied to a tree, and left all night in the taiga to be eaten alive by clouds of flies and mosquitoes; in another, guilty parties were left naked in the snow “and with the temperature at fifty below, they hosed them down. Nobody survived.” Bracing herself, Zayara did as she was instructed and spent her first day digging until her hands bled. At the end of the day, she learned the hard way that she hadn’t filled half her quota. “The way you’re going,” said a supervisor, “you won’t earn enough to eat.”
Susanna, another Muscovite, was deported for standing up and rebelling against Stalin’s misrule. She explains how in 1950 she and two friends grew disenchanted, both with the government’s persecution of Jews and the intelligentsia and their school’s dogged attempts to rewrite history in Russia’s favor. They reacted by forming a secret dissident organization. But it didn’t stay secret for long, and following a swift round-up and clampdown Susanna received one of the severest sentences: 25 years in forced labor camps. Over that period she was shuttled around the Gulag archipelago, spending prolonged stretches in 11 prisons and seven work or penitentiary camps.
She maintained her sanity in one camp by becoming part of a literary circle. At the end of a back-breaking shift she met likeminded inmates in their “improvised book club” to read their own poems or the poetry and prose of their great writers, with an emphasis on those blacklisted by the state. She also preserved her peace of mind—and safeguarded her pride—by taking care of her appearance. “At night,” she remembers, “after 12- and even 15-hour work days, many women addressed their hair and helped each other comb out the lice; they used their hands to ‘iron’ their pants, the only pair they had for work and for sleep; and they cleaned the mud off boots that would be covered with mud again the next day (the mud was part of summer; in the winter there was nothing but ice and snowbanks as tall as two people).”
Ella, a more militant dissident, was also given 25 years of forced labor, in her case far beyond the Arctic Circle. Her testimony underscores the plight of the political prisoner. A member of her terrorist group turned informer and denounced her, but instead of immunity he received the same lengthy sentence. Thieves and murderers—“the political prisoners’ worst enemies”—lived by their own code in the camps, and when they robbed or killed, the authorities looked the other way.
In some camps, women tried, often in vain, to defend their honor. Galya, Zgustova’s youngest interviewee, was not arrested and sent to a camp but rather born and raised in one. Elsewhere we hear of botched abortions in filthy conditions and babies being separated from their mothers. To escape the predatory advances of her superior, Elena took the drastic measure of asking for a transfer, swapping her relatively comfortable job in a camp clinic for the daily danger and hardship of the mines. Valentina paints a grim day-in-the-life picture of a camp filled mainly with female prisoners: women, many of them pregnant, sinking thigh-deep in snow while trying to cut wood, and rewarded with 200 grams of bread and not soup but reheated water. “It was a world of pain and suffering,” she says, “and yet all around us was the overwhelming beauty of the forest!”
A number of Zgustova’s women talk like this, comparing and contrasting the good and the bad. Amazingly, most are glad to have been dealt the rough and the smooth. Susanna describes her struggle of trying to adjust to normal life after her return. She allowed herself to lose touch with old friends and gradually sought the company of women who had also been detainees. She attempted to resume her studies, but despite passing the entrance exams to the University of Moscow she was turned down by the dean, who told her they do not educate “prison fodder.” And yet for her, those agonizing years were formative ones, crucial for building her character but also strengthening it. “I can’t imagine my life without the camps,” she confesses. “More than that: If I had to live my life over, I would not want to avoid that experience.” Ella is of a similar opinion, going as far as to say she is “grateful” to the fate that sent her to the Gulag: “I cannot imagine my life without this experience that made me strong and taught me what really matters.” Zayara even claims that her imprisonment in Siberia was “inspiring.”
Only Elena offers a voice of dissent. “The Gulag,” she insists, “was a waste of time, of health, of energy. Human beings are made to search for happiness and beauty, to do something that is fulfilling.” Indeed, it is hard to find any sense of fulfillment in the accounts of appalling abuse, which make for sobering reading. Natalia is shut up in a psychiatric prison and given psychotropic drugs, which in the long term induce Parkinson’s disease and bring on memory loss. Valentina is sent to solitary confinement, where she becomes a dokhodiaga, a half-dead nag, Gulag argot for prisoners at death’s door. Elena and other luckless prisoners undergo Sisyphean toil when they are ordered one day to build a wall with stones they can barely lift, and then, the next day, to tear it down. “The worst torture of all,” she explains, “was the futility of a superhuman effort.” Every woman describes being plagued by ever-present, all-pervading cold, hunger, exhaustion, fear, and despair.
With this in mind, Zgustova’s book should, by rights, be something of an ordeal: if not off-putting then tough going. But it is no mere catalogue of cruelty. Each story is one of suffering but also survival. It is heartwarming to learn that the women found solace in culture. They discuss the forbidden books they read and the poetry they wrote and recited after hours. “We preferred to sleep less and to try to develop our minds through literature,” says Zayara. Irina, the daughter of Boris Pasternak’s last flame and the inspiration for the character of Lara in Doctor Zhivago, tells how she fell in love with a prisoner and communicated with him by hiding poems in the bricks of the wall that divided the women’s camp from the men’s. Galya, that child of the Gulag, reveals that female prisoners made books for her by stitching together scraps of paper.
The other coping mechanism for these exiled women was friendship. Despite the authorities’ best efforts to split up inmates and send them off to different camps just as they were getting to know each other, many deep and lasting friendships were forged. Brutality engendered the tightest of bonds. “I had real friends there,” says Zayara. “Since then, I haven’t confided in anyone.”
The women’s positive outlooks, extraordinary resilience, and random acts of kindness also help offset the gloom. Additional color and light relief comes from the assortment of tenacious and compassionate secondary characters, from Zayara’s guardian angel Nikolai, a camp veteran who opted to take a violin to Siberia instead of a winter coat, to Sergei Prokofiev’s wife Lina, who peeled potatoes from six in the morning until nightfall yet still found time to look out for Susanna.
On occasion, Zgustova sells her reader short. Elena shows her a huge archive of books, letters, documents, photographs, and drawings, and promises to tell her everything she wants to know. “I’m a compendium, an encyclopedia of the Gulag,” she gushes. However, what should have been one of the longest chapters in the book turns out to be one of the shortest.
And yet for the most part, Zgustova delivers, and triumphantly. Dressed for a Dance in the Snow helps illuminate further one of the darkest chapters of Soviet history. To this end, it can sit comfortably alongside the work of Svetlana Alexievich. Like the Nobel laureate’s oral histories, Zgustova’s interviews demonstrate how ordinary people responded to overwhelming pressure. Her women lived through a frozen hell but clung to hope and refused to be broken. Their voices, previously subdued or silent, now speak out and demand to be heard.