By conservative estimates, 12 to 14 million victims were cast into Stalin’s Gulag of forced labor camps during the years of his rule from 1929 to 1953. A great many of them died there—very few escaped. Peter Weir’s acclaimed film The Way Back, which recently opened in New York, purports to be the story of a small group of prisoners who fled a camp and walked 4,000 miles to freedom from Siberia to India. Weir himself has since acknowledged that his story is not factually true, adding, “There is such a thing as a moral truth.”
But there is also a large factual truth. Nearly 6 million inmates did survive the often murderous brutality of the Gulag to be released in the 1950s under Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev. Their all-but unknown story is told by Stephen F. Cohen, a New York University professor of Russian Studies and Nation contributing editor, in The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin (PublishingWorks), which has just appeared in a second printing.
Covering more than fifty years, The Victims Return is a dramatic and moving account of the inmates’ liberation, return to society, attempts to salvage what remained of their shattered lives and the fierce opposition they encountered on the part of the many people, in society and in the Soviet top leadership, who had participated in their victimization. The book focuses on events in the 1950s and 1960s, but as Cohen shows, the struggle over Stalin’s reputation and thus the status of his victims which came to the political fore again under Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s continues in Russia even today.
Though The Victims Return is based on a wide range of published and unpublished sources, Cohen knew personally many of the victims he writes about. In that respect, the book is also, as The New Yorker’s reviewer wrote, “a striking memoir.” For more on these survivors of Stalin’s Gulag, other reviews and television, radio and print interviews with the author, see the links below.
New York Times, "Living to Tell"
The New Yorker, "The Victims Return"
Independent (UK), "The Victims Return"
Morning Joe, "Stephen Cohen on Stalin’s Forgotten Victims"
Dissent, "Survivors’ History" [PDF]
Huffington Post, "The Other Holocaust: Stories From Victims Of Stalin’s Terror"
The Nation on Grit TV, "Stephen Cohen on the Survivors of Stalin’s Gulag"
Moscow Times, "The Victims Return Looks at Life After the Gulag"
Moscow News, "Russia’s Post-Traumatic Stress"
The National Interest, "The Archipelago of Gulag Survivors"
WWII and other Book Reviews blog, "The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin by Stephen F. Cohen"