A charged indictment of Soviet terror and historical amnesia alike.
If one were needed, a sure sign of the increasingly totalitarian drift of Putin’s Russia is the steady rehabilitation of Stalin, long hidden away but now safe enough to be commemorated at a Moscow subway stop. Moscow-born journalist Gessen (The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, 2017, etc.), the indefatigable chronicler of the low-grade fever of tyranny, provides a searching text on the prison state that was Stalin’s Russia, accompanied by photographs by Moldovan native Friedman. His work is much reminiscent of Cartier-Bresson’s, though with a darkness and graininess that suggest that a permanent pall lies atop the Siberian landscape, a place of endless uranium mines and cemeteries. The text opens with Gessen’s meditation on what might have happened to the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, spirited into the gulag at the end of World War II and one of its best-known occupants. As the author notes, were he alive, he would be 104, which makes his death “finally, a fact,” if one with “no known circumstance of specific cause.” So it is with the whole gulag enterprise: if it were meant to terrorize the populace on the part of the apparatchiks and secret police, “then shouldn’t they want to carry out the executions in the public square?” No, and for some reason, most of the extrajudicial activity of the Soviet state took place in darkness. As they travel the land, Gessen and Friedman document some of the efforts of Russians to commemorate the fallen, such as a reconstructed labor camp so chillingly accurate in its detail that, a former political prisoner averred, it “felt exactly like a real Soviet-era prison camp,” a comment its restorer and curator accepted as a compliment. But those efforts may be vain, Gessen suggests, in the face of widespread public indifference in the Putin era, as if to say that the Soviet terror “just happened, whatever.”
A book that belongs on the shelf alongside The Gulag Archipelago.