Women of the Gulag
Joseph Stalin was responsible for the deaths of over 20 million people. Yet today in America, teaching on the crimes of communism is so bad that almost one third of Millennials think President George W. Bush killed more people than this Marxist mass-murderer. Those who are familiar with the history of Stalin’s Soviet Union might recall the name of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and his iconic Gulag Archipelago. Fewer still know that the majority of those who experienced—and survived—the Gulag were women, and it is their experiences, their memories, that must be preserved and shared to ensure the next generation understands the consequences of Stalin’s failed collectivist policies and his horrific disregard for human life.
In his book Women of the Gulag, soon to be released as a documentary film, Hoover Institution scholar Paul Gregory gives the bulk of Stalin’s survivors their due by preserving the stories of five Soviet women—Fekla, Maria, Adile, Agnessa, and Evgenia—whose memories span dekulakization, the Great Terror, and post-Stalin rehabilitation. Each of these women came from different social classes and regions, but none of them escaped persecution under the Stalin regime.
Fekla was uprooted from her idyllic childhood in the Ural Mountains when villagers with red stars on their caps came to collectivize her family’s farm. Condemned as first category kulaks, her father and grandfather were considered “socially dangerous,” and the entire family was deported to Martyush Special Settlement—at the time, a cluster of dirt-hole homes in the middle of a birch forest. Only a child, she labored alongside adults, suffered hunger and disease, all the while being taught in the camp school to love Stalin and hate his enemies.
Maria, the wife of a Trans-Baikal railroad engineer, embodied the ideal Soviet woman: a community activist and housewife who raised obedient, hardworking children. She and her husband Alexander were the “New Soviet People” that Russia needed. While Maria and Fekla worked, Adile—the child bride of a powerful Bolshevik family in Stalin’s native Georgia—and Agnessa and Evgenia—the social-climbing wives of top officers in the NKVD, the secret police—enjoyed the social privileges and immense wealth of Soviet power.
Then came 1937. The Great Terror leveled the lives of these five women as Stalin embarked on a campaign to liquidate his enemies. Operational Order of the NKVD No. 00486, issued in July 1937, mandated: “Women married to husbands at the time of their arrest are to be arrested with the exception of pregnant, breast-feeding, or elderly women and wives who provide information that leads to their husbands’ arrest… All property with the exception of clothes and utensils the prisoner can carry with her is to be confiscated, and the apartment is to be registered. The wives of traitors are to be imprisoned, depending on their social danger, no less than five to eight years. Children from ages three to fifteen are to be placed in orphanages of the ministry of health in other locations.”
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