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.