The greatest testament to the horrors and prolonged suffering of Stalin’s Gulag will always be the 1,500 pages of Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories, where the fictional elements are so finely mixed with historical and autobiographical facts that the stories serve history and literature equally well. Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago is almost as great, a systematic compilation of material from all over the USSR and from a wide selection of witnesses.
Julius Margolin’s memoir, which has taken seventy years to reach the English-speaking world, lies between Shalamov’s and Solzhenitsyn’s works. Like Shalamov’s, it is one prisoner’s testimony: an educated man is rendered moribund in two years by freezing temperatures, malnutrition and exhausting physical labour, then saved from death by his own charm, by compassionate doctors and by good luck, surviving a few more years until his release. Just as Shalamov teaches us how to handle a wheelbarrow, Margolin tells us how to fell a birch suitable for making aeroplane propellers. Yet this book, like Solzhenitsyn’s, is also a reflection on the extent and the madness of Stalin’s reduction of millions of men (and hundreds of thousands of women) to expendable beasts of burden. Like Solzhenitsyn, Margolin was sent to European Russia rather than Kolyma in the far east. His work there, felling and sawing birch trees and hauling them through swamps, was slightly less arduous than mining gold from Kolyma’s frozen rocks: work at Margolin’s camp stopped when the temperature dropped below –40º, as opposed to –60º in Kolyma.
Margolin’s experience was, however, uniquely absurd: he was a Polish citizen of Jewish heritage and a legal resident of Tel Aviv (at the time of his imprisonment, a British protectorate), not a Soviet citizen. But when, in September 1939, the USSR and Germany divided and abolished the state of Poland,