I’ve been complaining a lot the last several posts. I really did have a nice weekend, just not one where I got a lot of sleep. Consequently, I’m tired and crabby. The kids are actually being pretty good, considering, so life isn’t really all that bad. I promised “zek pics” in a post a few days ago, so since I have my thumb drive, I’ll post some. And quit focusing on myself.
First, an explanation. My juniors are reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It’s a fictionalized story of the events of one day in the Soviet prison camps, the GULAG. Solzhenitsyn was in the camps for several years, so the events and people in the book are based on life. I was telling the students how, during Communism, artists, authors, and musicians were censored or limited in their topics. Solzhenitsyn got kicked out of Russia, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich were forced to change their music to suit the government or be harassed and have their music banned, and artists like Nikolai Getman were jailed or deported for portraying the true life of the Russian people in the gulags. I spent some time online looking for Getman’s paintings, because I had remembered seeing them in the past and was struck by the stark despair in the prisoners’ (or zeks’) eyes. I did find lots of them at the Jamestown Project and other sites, and I saved them to show to my students, who need to learn that they were not the only people oppressed in this world.
This first painting is of a new group of prisoners, just arrived to the camp.
Once they got there, they were divided into squads and assigned to a barracks. Soldiers with machine guns and guard dogs kept them from trying to escape.
Every day, they marched out to work at different building sites, constructing buildings for the Soviet government that they themselves would never use, or mining gold or other minerals.
Not all the prison camps were male; women had camps as well. All the camps, however, were quota-based, meaning that prisoners were given food according to how much their squad worked. Experienced prisoners knew that when they recieved their bread ration for the day, they should eat part of it and save the rest for later.
Sometimes prisoners would not report the death of a squad member so they could get his ration.
Sometimes food was short, especially vegetables, and prisoners got scurvy.
Prisoners were taken off to the guardhouse and put on short rations for small offenses, and sometimes they were shot for no reason, either singly or in groups.
Sometimes they weren’t shot, but hung up to be bitten by mosquitoes until they’d lost so much blood they died of weakness in their starved condition.
It was the job of one or two prisoners in the camp to make tags out of strips of metal that had the ID number and date of death to be fastened with barbed wire to the ankle of a dead prisoner. Some were respectful of the dead and filed the barbs off, but as the prisoners lay stacked up, just beyond the boundary of the camp, the metal tags clinked together like macabre wind chimes.
They hauled the bodies away in a sled in the winter, when many prisoners died of cold or starvation.
The ground was frozen so hard, however, that they could not bury them, but only put them under chunks of ice to keep scavengers away.
Many people never made it through their sentences, which were always an arbitrary number and could be increased at any moment.
People like Getman and Solzhenitsyn, however, who survived, made it their duty to publish to the world what was going on in the USSR. Solzhenitsyn said when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his Gulag Archipelago, “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.” Getman persisted in painting his memories of the camps, even when repeatedly threatened and persecuted, because he believed “it was my duty to leave behind a testimony to the fate of the millions of prisoners who died and who should not forgotten”.
The last of the gulag camps were closed in the 1980s by Gorbachev, so Solzhenitsyn (who died Aug. 2008) and Getman (who died Aug. 2004) were able to know that they were partly responsible for ending the torment of thousands of prisoners who had been lost to the world for years. If that’s not a good life’s work, I don’t know what is.
Was I cranky about something?