A former prisoner recounts his years in the Soviet gulag in this memoir.
In this English translation of reminiscences originally recorded in 1970, Sokolenko shares stories from his years of imprisonment for political offenses during the Stalin regime. (A biographical note explains that Sokolenko was exonerated in 1956, when it was concluded that there was no basis for his original conviction.) The narrative does not follow Sokolenko’s imprisonment chronologically but is made up of a series of vignettes, with Sokolenko blending his own experiences into the stories of his fellow prisoners and their guards. These true stories capture both the horrific experience and bitter humor of Russia under Stalin, as committed socialists, black-market businessmen and ordinary people struggled with the changing definition of “enemy of the state.” Sokolenko’s narrative clearly demonstrates that the corruption and absurdity of the Soviet system confronted prisoners inside the gulag as well as outside—Sokolenko was often forbidden to use his agricultural experience, even though the camp was expected to grow its own food; medicinal stores of vodka were used for a prison guards’ party; a corrupt and incompetent gulag administrator was finally removed from his position, only to be reinstated because it was a crime for anyone to challenge his commitment to the socialist cause. Throughout the book, the tone is matter-of-fact, allowing the events described, rather than any elegant prose, to work on readers’ emotions. This was a wise decision by the author, who does not overwhelm the prisoners’ anecdotes with unnecessary commentary. (In contrast, the book’s footnotes, which decipher for the contemporary reader many of the names and policies Sokolenko mentions, are a useful addition, and the text could easily have accommodated more.) The result is a clear, bracing depiction, but not a maudlin one, of one of the darker chapters of modern history.
Skillfully portrays the bleakness of the prison system with an appreciation for the dark humor that allowed the author to survive it.