Editors and readers know that photographs and other illustrations can be integral parts of non-fiction writing, though they sometimes forget the importance of the captions. "Paper Cuts," the blog for editors of the New York Times Book Review, recently featured an interesting example of this phenomenon: editor Steve Coates was following up on an October 3 review of Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen’s most recent book, The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin. The photograph cited by Coates—a portrait of Anna Larina, the imprisoned widow of purged Bolshevik leader Nikolai Bukharin, meeting with her son for the first time in almost 20 years—was one of many in the book meant to illustrate its main themes and people.
Such a complicated story can be hard to tell in words, and Cohen spent nearly three decades working on what he calls his "debt to the dead," a book for and about his friends and acquaintances who had survived decades of the gulag’s oppression and invisibility. In a recent conversation with WABC Radio’s John Batchelor, Cohen explained how the project evolved over many years of interviewing, research and friendship.