I am not that woman. It must be someone else who is suffering. I could never withstand it.
Monika Zgustova, a Czech author based in Spain, gives voices to female former Gulag prisoners (and in one case, a woman imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital) in the surprisingly uplifting Dressed for a Dance in the Snow. The topic of women Gulag prisoners hasn’t historically gotten the same attention as that of their male counterparts, although there have been some extraordinarily powerful accounts to emerge, like Eugenia Ginzburg‘s remarkable two-part memoirs.
In another rare twist, this is translated nonfiction by a woman — and interestingly, Zguostova originally wrote it in Spanish, although I assume the interviews were conducted in Russian. I don’t know why I find this so fascinating, and I did wonder a bit about how so many linguistic leaps would come across but it reads beautifully.
Zgustova uses an oral history format to tell the stories of “nine intelligent, sensitive, and strong women… women who, in these interviews, relived their own lives and the lives of their friends, all rich in incident and experience.” Yes, fascinatingly, the women are incredibly keen to tell the stories of friends they made in and remember from the camps, sometimes even more than they want to tell their own often unlikely stories of survival. This might be because there was an unusual intensity to friendships forged in the Gulag:
Because the most horrible struggles led to the strongest of friendships. There’s no place for that kind of bond in normal life. It takes the most extreme situations to create that kind of love and solidarity.
These are the two themes that every story touches on in some way: survival, and the friendships that often saved them. It’s emotional, but resoundingly meaningful. Their lives and lived experiences are obviously different but hold many similarities thanks to these elements, and in the best of ways they blend together to give an overarching impression of how they’ve parsed meaning from their lives’ most terrible moments.
There’s more from the author herself here than in most oral histories, like what we see in Svetlana Alexievich‘s on Soviet topics, where the author’s presence is only felt through the questions she’s asked. Zgustova tells stories peripheral to the women’s narratives, and her observational writing opens their oral histories, providing context beginning with where she meets them. Her descriptions of their apartments, the food they serve her, the books in their living rooms and their partners in other rooms enhance their stories and underscore the aspect that each woman is subtly or overtly stressing: this is always about the life you build after you somehow survive unthinkable horrors. It’s about proving that that’s even possible.
Many reflect on Communism and what it was supposed to do versus how it played out in reality; not the promised “sea of goodness” spreading over the land but something much darker, sinister, secretive. Their individual stories highlight the insanity of some of the regime’s assumptions, like accusing one woman of having an affinity for the West before her birth because her grandmother hailed from abroad. Another had a relationship with an American marine stationed in the Soviet Union in the final year of the Second World War. She landed in the Gulag, pregnant, as punishment for the relationship after he was gone. He never knew although he’d tried to find her.
But despite this kind of senseless treatment, they see nuance in everything, even in their jailers. “In extreme conditions like that, one man can annihilate another with a single gesture or save his life just by giving him a kind look. I know, because I witnessed it.”
The book saves the most well-known prisoner for last, closing with Irina Emelyanova, “daughter of Olga Ivinskaya, Boris Pasternak’s last love and the inspiration for Lara” in Doctor Zhivago. Ivinskaya’s was a terrifying but not exactly uncommon ordeal in which the authorities wouldn’t persecute someone like Pasternak directly, per se, instead targeting his loved ones, specifically his mistress. It’s a moving, often surprising story.
This isn’t a light topic by any stretch, but there’s a worthwhile lesson here about lights in dark times, one that it’s always helpful to be reminded of. All of these stories deliver strong messages and don’t shy from emphasizing harsh conditions and details but neither do they wallow in them. Incredible, beautifully told stories about human nature in the darkest of circumstances.
Make an effort to ignore the filth. When spring comes, look at the shining snow, the blue sky, the contrast between light and darkness, which is enormous here. Now that it’s winter and the sun doesn’t come out, concentrate on the different shades of gray: some are blue gray; others are almost rose-colored. Don’t forget to look at the barbed wire and our pathetic huts as if you were taking a photograph, looking for the right shot. You’ll see that even in the midst of ugliness, it’s possible to find beauty.
Dressed for a Dance in the Snow:
Women’s Voices from the Gulag
by Monika Zgustova, translated from Spanish by Julie Jones
published February 4, 2020 by Other Press
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.