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The Ice Forge | The Nation

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The Ice Forge

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As I read the interview transcripts on Figes's website, I was struck by how, in at least a few cases, the subjects appear to have been treated to a rather aggressive form of questioning about their thoughts and feelings in Stalin's time. Yet one interviewee, Dmitry Streletsky, would not yield to these pressures and insisted on his own, decidedly moral, reading of his life under Stalin. Streletsky could have leapt from the pages of Lynne Viola's book. He was born into a family of peasants who were persecuted as kulaks and exiled to a special settlement in the Urals. The death rate in the settlement was staggering. Streletsky relates how his single most important desire, to prove he was a Soviet citizen like everyone else, was constantly impeded. The Memorial worker interviewing Streletsky understands this to mean that he was driven by a fear of punishment:

Jochen Hellbeck has visited the city of Norilsk twice: in November 2005 and October 2007.

About the Author

Jochen Hellbeck
Jochen Hellbeck, a professor of history at Rutgers University, is the author of Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary...

Also by the Author

Vasily Grossman's Everything Flows is a searching and humane investigation of the totalitarian condition.

Stephen F. Cohen's Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives surveys a political landscape of reform, struggle and reconciliation.

Q: Did you fear that they would punish you [for your kulak origins]?
A: There was shame, and there was my conscience, it wasn't just about the punishment, but about these things.
Q: But you also feared that they might punish you?
A: Who knows? I had doubts, yes doubts. I didn't feel fear,
Q: And that they would punish you, right?
A: That they would punish me and all the rest. Fire me from work....

A few sentences later Streletsky's interview partner returns to the same subject: "Tell me, please, what or whom did you fear more, the NKVD or the commander [of the settlement]? Were you afraid?" Streletsky's response: "Listen, I didn't feel any fear."

Streletsky then talks about how he dreamed of joining the Communist Party throughout the years of his exile. When he describes his disappointment about being turned down for party membership in 1952, his voice shakes with emotion, the transcript notes. The exchange between Streletsky and his incredulous interrogator is revealing, for it discloses not only Streletsky's moral reading of his Soviet experience but also the gap that lies between him and the interviewer, who adheres to a cynical view of Communism more characteristic of younger generations of Russians.

Streletsky finally joined the Communist Party after 1956, and he even became the party secretary of the factory in which he worked. Many others of "impure" background were driven by a similar lifelong quest for integration. One could even include the last general secretary of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, who because he is younger (he was born in 1931) does not appear in Figes's book. Gorbachev's paternal grandfather was arrested as a kulak and exiled under Stalin. Young Mikhail excelled as a student and laborer; when he was 15 he was awarded the Order of Red Banner of Labor for his exemplary work on a machine-tractor station. Gorbachev's biographer Archie Brown suggests that this labor represented a conscious effort to erase his kulak origins. What transpires, then, from both Gorbachev's life story and from many of the biographies presented by Figes, is the sense of ordinary Russians' deep and prolonged moral commitment to the Communist project.

Figes doesn't reflect on the meaning of this commitment, since he believes that the values propounded by the Soviet regime were ethically bankrupt and could not have been embraced by people by their own will. His sympathies lie plainly with prerevolutionary Russian culture, with Konstantin Simonov's mother and her aristocratic code of behavior and with the Vittenburg family before it entered the maelstrom of the Stalin age. He lovingly relates the testimony of Pavel Vittenburg's surviving daughter, Yevgeniia, who recalls the happy summers the family spent at their dacha in the 1920s, the "long summer walks, and lazy meals that were beautifully prepared by the nanny Annushka." This glorification of prerevolutionary culture and morality is in tune with how many Russians today look back on their past, and it predictably surfaces in the oral historical record. Yet unless this record is critically assessed and read against testimony dating from the Stalin period itself, it remains a warren of nostalgia. Many, if not most, of the subjects discussed in Figes's book appear to have lived through the Stalin period with an ethos of hard struggle and self-abnegation, and they found meaning in their role as makers of history and as creators of a better future who absolved Russia from its backwardness and themselves from their own imputed impurities.

The intense personal commitments generated by Soviet Communism live on in unlikely places, such as the mining town of Norilsk in Arctic Siberia. Figes's collaborators conducted interviews with several dozen survivors of the Stalinist camp system who chose to remain in this city even after the ban on them was lifted. Their interviews resonate with intense pride about several things: the industrial city that they helped build; the fact that they excavated the precious nickel that fortified Soviet tanks against the Germans (or, as they understood them at the time, against the Fascists) in World War II; and overall, their active role as Arctic colonizers. Figes notes that this form of self-identification with the city and the Soviet system is strongest among the older segments of the city's population--the generation of 1917, in other words. Ruthlessly exploited as a cheap labor force by a regime that had little to no regard for their humanity, those prisoners faced huge odds, but they kept going, fueled by the promise of integration that was as characteristic of Soviet Communism as was state terror.

Some of the former Norilsk exiles have lobbied for a memorial to honor the special settlers, camp inmates and exiles brought here by force. The scattered memorial sites at Golgotha certainly offers sufficient space for one more monument, a different one--one that would honor them equally, regardless of their national or religious backgrounds, and that would express their sense of not having spent their lives in vain.

The bus ride from Norilsk to the airport leads through the industrial zone, past rows of grim workshops and chimneys belching sulphuric clouds. Then the factory town recedes. The road cuts across an empty, sloping, icy steppe that looks enchanted on this sunny day. The few shrubs and stalks of grass that grow on the permafrost soil are covered with ice and shine brilliantly in the low-lying sunlight. Rows of telegraph poles, bent down by Arctic winds, crisscross the scenery. Through the frosted window panes they appear like dancing crosses, furtively bowing to the countless laborers who lived and died in this ice desert. Near the highway a knotty string of pipelines runs alongside the bus. The pipes are covered with cracked layers of thick insulation. The coating has the look of worn padded jackets hugging the freezing metal.

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