In the year or so that I have been working on a history of Stalin’s concentration camps, I have cried three times. Once when I read Eugenia Ginsberg’s account of the months she spent working in the children’s section of a camp, where the barbed wire, gates and guards formed a terrible contrast with the smell of ‘milk soup and wet diapers’. Another time I was so upset by the tale of a woman who was sent to Siberia in the tsarist era that I couldn’t work any more that day.
The third time was on reading Janusz Bardach’s account of his experience as an unwilling ponyatoy, a civilian witness who accompanied the NKVD – predecessors of the KGB – on their midnight rampage through his town in what had been Poland but had become, after the Soviet invasion of 1939, Western Ukraine. Bardach’s experience occurred in December, a few months after the Red Army had occupied the town, on one of the many nights when the NKVD were carrying out mass deportations. Picked up by a group of officers while opening the door to his flat, he was forced to witness a raid which included rape, murder, and the arrest of his friends and acquaintances.
At the home of some friends of Bardach’s parents, the chief officer ‘stormed through the house, swinging randomly at the furniture, paintings and candelabras, destroying the home where I had spent a great part of my childhood’. At another home, he watches as one of the officers picks up a crying child and throws him against a wall, dislocating his shoulder. ‘Between arrests,’ Bardach writes, the officers ‘talked about hunting for refugees as if they were speaking of wild ducks or jackrabbits’, while getting drunker and drunker on the vodka they had stolen. And they were not exceptions: during many similar evenings across what had been Poland and the Baltic states, hundreds of thousands of people were picked up by the NKVD, put on trains and sent east, to Siberia, Kazakhstan, the far north. While there are many accounts of what it was like to be arrested in one of these massive sweeps, I had never read about what it was like to spend a night with the NKVD guards responsible: one hadn’t quite imagined them laughing all the way through it.
The vividness with which this horrible evening is evoked is also unique. Not all survivors of terrible events which happened long ago are able to convey them in a way that forces modern readers to empathise. On the one hand, the memoirist must succeed in capturing the emotions he felt at the time, with convincing freshness and originality. On the other hand, he must have enough distance to portray tragedy without constantly evoking his hatred of the perpetrators, or denouncing them repeatedly as does Solzhenitsyn. Bardach, perhaps thanks to the help of his collaborator Kathleen Gleeson, manages to walk the narrow line between emotion and objectivity, which is very rare indeed.
Gulag memoirs, in general, tend to fall into two categories. There are those writers who find in the tale of the deportations, camps and deaths some kind of lesson. Again, Solzhenitsyn is typical: at one point he ‘thanks’ his prison for having taught him the falseness and hypocrisy of the Soviet system, a lesson he goes on to repeat, over and over again, for the benefit of his readers. Then there are those, of whom the most famous is the Russian writer Varlam Shalamov, who see the camps as pointless, a waste of human energy, from which there is nothing in particular to be learned. Bardach falls into the latter category, which helps him to write about his experiences. He doesn’t try to analyse the system, or drive home any particular theory: he simply states what happened to him, and lets his readers draw their conclusions.
From his account of the deportations, Bardach goes on to describe the rest of his ‘visit’ to Soviet Russia in equally vivid language. At one point, during the Russian invasion of his region, he was forced by an NKVD officer to dig his own grave; then the man forgot about him, and he was saved. Later, when he was already on a train bound for Kolyma, the harshest of all the camps in the Gulag system, he attempted a foolhardy escape and was beaten within an inch of his life. Once he arrived, he was classed as a ‘general worker’, at the lowest level of the Gulag hierarchy, contracted scurvy and watched as men around him began eating rubbish and vermin. He then managed to survive Kolyma in the way that many others did – by lying about his medical qualifications (his father had been a dentist, and many of his family were doctors, which helped him to bluff his way through), and ended up as a feldsher, a doctor ‘s assistant.
After six years Bardach was extricated from the camps with the help of his brother, who had become a high-ranking diplomat in the Polish embassy in Moscow (and presumably, although this is not stated, a high-ranking Communist as well), only to discover that the rest of his family, his mother, his sister, and his wife, together with most of his friends and acquaintances, had all died during the Nazi occupation of Western Ukraine. They had all been forced into their town’s Jewish ghetto, and died when that ghetto was liquidated.
Perhaps the most extraordinary part of this story, however, is the part that Bardach leaves out: namely, the fact that he went on to become a famous and successful plastic surgeon (of the sort who cure facial deformities, not the sort who polish up Hollywood actresses) and lived the rest of his life in Iowa, where he married and had children. Few people emerged from the Gulag physically and mentally intact. Even fewer emerged able to live the rest of their lives in a place as bland and happy as the American Midwest: the number of people who have heard of Kolyma in Iowa City must be few indeed. But then, whatever it was that helped him survive, whatever impelled him to emigrate, whatever qualities enabled him to marry and live normally, must be what made him able, in his seventies, to write a book as clear and forceful as this one.