THE VICTIMS RETURN
THE VICTIMS RETURN
Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin
By Stephen F. Cohen I.B. Tauris. 216 pp. Paperback, $14
“Many generalizations have been made about survivors of Stalin’s terror,” Stephen F. Cohen writes in “The Victims Return,” a lean study of the 15 million survivors of the Soviet Union’s gulag. “Few of them, if any, are valid.”
The West has been aware of Josef Stalin’s horrific prison system at least since Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1962 novel, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” but what happened to the prisoners who outlasted it is little known. Cohen, the author of many books about Russia and an editor at the Nation, parses the complicated history of “zeks,” or inmates. Some who survived were lauded as heroes, some faced further persecution, and some committed suicide or remained in exile rather than return to their estranged families. Cohen, who began his research more than three decades ago and was denied Soviet entry visas for part of the 1980s, notes that “writing [the zeks’] history, it seemed, had fallen to me.”
While some might object to Cohen’s frequent references to the Holocaust — “the zeks who soon began to return were survivors in almost the full sense of survivors of the Nazi extermination camps,” he writes — his treatment of Nikita Khrushchev is illuminating. Best known in America for the Cuban missile crisis, banging his shoe on a desk at the United Nations and uttering the catchphrase “We will bury you,” the Soviet leader rehabilitated and released many zeks. In doing so, he prefigured Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost, or openness, a policy that helped lead to the end of the U.S.S.R.
“No nation can flourish without at least a minimally consensual past to inspire it,” Cohen writes. As Russia swings to the right under Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent whom some compare to Stalin, Cohen does a good job of rattling the skeletons in its closet.
— Justin Moyer