Tags: Gregory | Soviet | Stalin | Gulag

Hoover Institution Remembers Women of the Gulag

By    |   Tuesday, 10 September 2013 02:12 PM EDT

The Hoover Institution's Workshop on Totalitarian Regimes hosted a presentation by Hoover economist Paul Gregory of his new book, "Women of the Gulag: Portraits of Five Remarkable Lives." In his introductory remarks, Gregory explained that the book, based on millions of pages of memoirs compiled by Hoover and the Sakharov Foundation, was inspired by both a need and an opportunity.

The opportunity grew out of the availability of a trove of documentary evidence, including minutes of meetings of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union about the Gulag, which was Stalin's vast network of forced labor camps and settlements for families, while the need grew from the urgency of documenting the testimony of surviving women while they are still alive.

The witnesses are women because they tended to live into their late 70s or longer, whereas the life expectancy of men was only to their early 60s and many more of them were executed. He also observed that women tended to recall the details of their family lives, whereas men usually ignored these details.

Gregory repeated a famous quote from Stalin: "When one person dies, it is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic," and the author lamented that today Stalin is still among the most admired personalities in Russia. (Wikiquote holds that historians question whether Stalin actually said this. Another story, from my experience as a Russian history student, is that when Stalin was asked how it feels to know that he was responsible for the death of a given number of millions of people, Stalin responded by increasing the number.)

Gregory proceeded to tell four of the stories of what he called "remarkable lives of ordinary people." The presentation was illustrated with slides and excerpts from interview clips for a documentary movie.

Agnessa, 1903-1981, from Maikop. In a complicated romantic life, she married a Chekist named Ivan and moved to Rostov-on-Don, then got involved with Sergei Mironov, a rising star in the NKVD, the Soviet secret police force that carried out Stalin's purges in the 1930s, who was a "true believer" and told her he wouldn't hesitate to shoot both of them if he had doubts about her loyalty. He rose to #2 in Kazakhstan and then to #1 in Novosibirsk, then was made ambassador to Mongolia. The family was ensconced in Government House in Moscow where he was arrested in 1937. Agnessa was arrested in 1942 for "anti-Soviet thoughts" and sent to the Gulag.

Maria, born 1904, from Martyush, Eastern Siberia. Maria married a railroad engineer named Alexander Ignatkin, who was promoted to ever more responsible posts until he ran afoul of the NKVD and was arrested after a train wrest for "wrecking" and sentenced to nine years, but was ultimately executed. Maria herself was arrested in 1937 and sent to a camp in Kazakhstan.

Adile, now 93, from Abkhazia. At 15, she was arranged to be kidnapped and married, as was the local custom, into the Lakoba clan, the leading political family in the region. Her brother-in-law, Nestor Lakoba, was a friend of Stalin and was poisoned in Tbilisi by Stalin's fellow Georgian, the notorious, murderous NKVD boss Lavrenti Beria, who was ultimately executed by his colleagues in the Soviet leadership in the aftermath of Stalin's death. Everyone else in the family was arrested and sent to a camp in Kazakhstan.

Fiokla, born 1926, from the Ural Mountains. A believing Stalinist from a family of well-to-do peasants known as "kulaks," her family was deported and her father executed as an "enemy of the people." She survived and later achieved appointment as a professor.

During the brief Q&A, a questioner asked why the victims were arrested. Gregory ticked off that Agnessa's husband was high in the NKVD, and ultimately the police were executed along with the victims; Maria's husband was a prominent railroad engineer identified as a "wrecker"; Adile's husband was a friend of Stalin; and Fiokla's family were kulaks.

Another questioner asked whether under President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, dissidents are now being held in some of the same prisons that are familiar from Soviet times, and Gregory agreed.

The great historian Robert Conquest, a senior fellow at Hoover, documented the methods of Stalin's purges in "The Great Terrror" (1968). From time to time, Stalin would issue orders for a given number of people, such as 100,000, to be liquidated, and then he would depart for his dacha.

Stalin wiped out the generation of so-called "Old Bolsheviks" during the "Great Purge" of 1937-1938, and he killed both his enemies and his friends, people who were perceived as potential threats, as well as people he thought would not be missed if they were dead.

Many of the leaders of the Soviet Union, including some with blood on their hands from the Revolution, were opposed to the purges, but could not bring themselves to act until 1953, when they apparently became convinced Stalin was about to embark on yet another purge, and apparently they killed him, and Beria met the same fate as most of the leaders of the Soviet secret police in December 1953.

After that, deposed Kremlin leaders were allowed to live out their lives in retirement rather than being shot when they lost their places in the leadership.

For some unknown reason, Conquest's work, which I have recently read, was not mentioned, at least during the public portion of the program.

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The Hoover Institution's Workshop on Totalitarian Regimes hosted a presentation by Hoover economist Paul Gregory of his new book, "Women of the Gulag: Portraits of Five Remarkable Lives."
Tuesday, 10 September 2013 02:12 PM
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