Thursday, September 9, 2021

Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women's Voices from the Gulag - Monika Zgustova

Summary:
  The pain inflicted by the gulags has cast a long shadow over Soviet-era history.  Zgustova's collection of interviews with former female prisoners not only chronicles the hardships of the camps, but also serves as testament to the power of beauty in the face of adversity.

Where one would expect to find only hopelessness and despair, Zgustova has unearthed tales of love, art, and friendship that endured and even flourished in times of tragedy.  These stories, collected in the vein of Svetlana Alexievich's Nobel Prize-winning oral histories, turn one of the darkest periods of the Soviet era into a song of human perseverance, in a way that reads as an intimate family history.

(Summary from book - Image from amazon.com - This book was given to me for free in exchange for an honest review)

My Review:  In Dressed for a Dance in the Snow, author Monika Zgustova, shares the accounts of several women who managed to survive the brutality of Stalin's forced labor camps, known as gulags, in the early to mid-1900s.  As defined by the regime, the gulags were "forced labor camps with a particularly harsh regimen for traitors to their country.'  Under Stalin's regime, men, women, and children were ripped from their homes, forced into prison, and sentenced to decades of hard labor where they endured brutal abuse, starvation, intemperate climate and squalid living conditions that often resulted in death.  Women often arrived at these labor camps in whatever finery they had been wearing when they were taken; shivering in the bitter cold, they seemed dressed for a dance in the snow (hence the title). 

Each woman's experience is slightly different -- the details of their previous life, the reason they were taken, the length their sentence, their assigned tasks in the gulag -- but each endured significant trauma and loss.  Prisoners were often shifted from place to place, shoved into crowded train cars with only a bucket for the sometimes months-long journey to another camp, another hardship. Many were assigned grueling and/or meaningless tasks, ordered to build a wall one day only to tear it down the next, again and again.  Perhaps the worst cruelty was the constant threat of violence and death.  As one woman recounted (trigger warning, violence):   

Many of the prisoners were killed by extrajudicial executions.  The most common pretext was attempted escape.  When we went to or from work, we always had an escort.  The order was clear: 'Left, right left...Anything else will look like and attempt to escape, and the escort will shoot without warning.' Exhausted people, incapable of walking in a straight line, might stumble or wobble or get left behind.  They were shot immediately, in front of everybody.  The same thing happened to those who got to close to the 'forbidden zone': a border of loose earth between the high outer wall and the inner barbed-wire fence.  An 'attempt to escape' served as an excuse for anything.  In the forced labor camps, there was no end to the abuse.  In the summer, if a prisoner committed a small offense, he was left naked to the waist and forced to stand next to the watchtower.  The mosquitos ate him alive.  It was impossible to stay still.  With the first movement, a shot rang out...

"Mass executions were frequent.  In the late 1940s, in the Mulda, the entire population of a men's Gulag was massacred on the pretext of a 'protest.' The floors and walls of the barracks in that razed camp were still spotted with blood and fragments of human brains when our group of prisoners was sent there to replace the victims. "

To put it plainly, the gulags were hell on earth.  And yet, many of the women Zgustova interviewed found a silver lining buried in all the muck, decrying the callous behavior of their captors while praising the kindness of their fellow prisoners.   Speaking of her experience in the camps, one woman said, 

After a long time, I came to value at least part of my experience.  I realized that it was in the camps where I had learned to recognize the profound evil my country had engendered.  The work camp was my most important lesson.  Those bitter, hard years were my best school, a school that would help me throughout the rest of my life.  I can't imagine life without the camps.  More than that: if I had to live my life over, I would not want to avoid that experience.  Why?  Because the most horrible struggles led to the strongest of friendships.  There's no place for that kind of bond in life.  It takes the most extreme situations to create that kind of love and solidarity."

Not all the prisoners agree on this point.  Another stated, "I believe that the positive effects of life in the Gulag do not compensate for everything that is negative about it.  In my experience, nothing made the Gulag worthwhile."

Dressed for a Dance in the Snow delves into a shameful era in Soviet history and highlights the female experience rather than the more-studied experiences of male prisoners.  These prisoners were normal women from every walk of life, mothers and daughters, students and dissidents, entertainers and medical professionals.  Each story taught me a little bit more about the troubling history of a nation and the enduring spirit of an oppressed people.  It was interesting to learn about the Soviet campaign against the intelligentsia (the educated elite) and the false history taught in schools at the time, as well as the regime's tendency to torture political prisoners, coerce confessions, and condemn entire families and friend groups to the Gulag for the often-fabricated actions of a single person.

One of the most compelling aspects of this book, outside of the individual stories, is the role of literature, art, and music in sustaining political prisoners both during and after their time in the Gulag.  Nearly every account speaks of forbidden literature, handmade children's books reconstructed from memory, hidden diaries, scraps of shared poetry, clandestine literary circles and musical performances that brought light to an otherwise gloomy existence.  According to the author, a book meant 'salvation! Beauty, liberty, and civilization in the midst of total barbarity.'  Even after the Gulag, this sentiment persisted.  In regards to her post-gulag interests, one woman said:

...my apartment filled up with hundreds, then thousands of books that began to take up almost all the space; they were the real inhabitants.  I couldn't stop reading.  It was my pastime, my passion, and my intellectual sustenance.  Reading, I forgot about my wasted life, my complex identity, the reactions of people, who treated me as if I had the plague.  By reading, I could enjoy a new life, start over again, live many lives.  

It was incredibly touching to read that something so near and dear to my heart was such an important lifeline to these women in times of crisis and a comfort during their recovery. 

From a structural standpoint, there were a few aspects of the book that didn't sit well with me.  First, the titles felt slightly crowded (e.g. Eurydice in the Underworld: Irinia Emelyanova).  While there were some similarities between the women in each title, I felt the references were often obscure and unnecessary.  The women of the Gulag can certainly carry a title on their own.  On a slightly more confusing note, several of the women's stories held multiple other stories and historical tangents.  I am certainly not complaining about hearing from more women, but sometimes it was hard to keep everyone straight.  Personally, I would have preferred chapter introductions that offered historical context so that the sole focus could be on each woman's unique story.

Dressed for a Dance in the Snow gives a voice to women whose experiences deserve recognition. While I can't say that I 'enjoyed' the subject matter -- it would be weird if I did -- I can say that I appreciated the opportunity to learn from it.  I would recommend this book to anyone who interested in learning more about the history of the Gulag from a female perspective.  

My Rating:  3.75 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Discussion of violence, suicide, and murder as well as extreme deprivation.  

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