Women of the Gulag

I often thought that all contemporary witnesses I met during my trip should have their story recorded, in their own words and their own voice, and that these stories should be available in some kind of database (akin to the Shoah Foundation); both for scholars and as a memorial to what happened to men and women in camps, in war and peace and after their return. I was delighted to find out that Russian filmmaker Marianna Yarovskaya and American academic Dr. Paul Gregory are doing exactly this: conducting as many interviews as possible with women who survived the Gulag camps, before the voices of these witnesses vanish forever.

The two are currently seeking founding over on Indiegogo, and you should definitively contribute to this amazing project, with funding going towards both a feature documentary about the women and an upcoming book by Paul Gregory. Did I mention that you should pledge over on Indiegogo? Do it now!

Marianna kindly answered a few questions regarding the project.

Marcel: You successfully funded the first part of the project via Kickstarter a few weeks back. How has the project progressed so far, and what are the next steps, i. e. what are you hoping to achieve with the new Indiegogo-campaign?

Marianna: We are still continuing the campaign here. The first round of funding was to complete the two interviews with the heroines that are particularly old (one is 96), so we were afraid that time was running very short.

We are hoping to film more interviews. We got in touch with Yermolai Solzhenitsyn, who is very supportive of the project, he is one of the children of Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Gulag Archipelago, One Day of Ivan Denisovich). Yermolai suggested another amazing character we are going to film. Our goal is to follow at least 3-5 of these amazing women for the larger film, and to film all the characters that are featured in the forthcoming book of Paul Gregory which is coming out early next year. Our longer term goal is to document as many survivors as possible, possibly creating a digital catalogue of those who are still alive and a digital catalogue of the testimonies, kind of like Gulag/Shoah. We have applied for major funding (with the National Endowment for the Humanities), but it is a very competitive grant and we will know only early next year if our application was successful.

Marcel: Why the focus on women alone? Are there fewer male survivors?

Marianna: There are several reasons. First of all, of course women statistically live longer, especially in Russia (sometimes by 20 years). Therefore, there are more women survivors. But that is definitely not the main reason. The most common picture of life in the Gulag comes from the writing of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov. At Stanford, we had a long discussion with Katherine Jolluc, who has been dealing with the subject from the Academic standpoint. I will quote her here:

Such works tend to uphold the male camp experience as universal. But the experience of women, while it bears much in common with that of their male counterparts, often diverges from it. First, it is important to note that hundreds of thousands of women were also arrested by the Soviet NKVD, interrogated, tortured, and sent to the infamous labor camps. There they endured the arbitrary rule of the camp hierarchy, toiled at hard physical labor, and suffered from extremely low rations, horrible hygienic conditions, and dismal medical care.”

Women were exposed to ubiquitous sexual violence: hardened criminals often “played cards for women,” and rape and gang rape were common occurrences – forcing many women to find a “protector,” a man whose exclusive access to her would render her “off-limits” to others. Furthermore, female prisoners sometimes had to cope with pregnancy in abysmal conditions, and the inevitable separation from their infants, if they survived.

Women’s testimonies can especially illuminate the so-called “unknown Gulag,” the world of the “special settlements,” to which millions of individuals, of all Soviet (and some non-Soviet) nationalities and all social classes were deported. Women and children made up the majority of the these “special settlers.” Like their counterparts in the camps, they, too, lived under the supervision of the NKVD, toiled under extremely harsh conditions, and were forbidden to leave their settlements. The women who survived tell us about the treatment they received by the commandant and overseers; the difficulty in adapting to a new environment, far from their homes; the struggle to meet labor quotas in order to obtain the meager but necessary food rations; their efforts to feed their families, care for children and elderly relatives, and maintain some level of cleanliness. There was also a big problem with having to find and reunite with the families after – many women never found their children afterwards because the state used to change the names of the kids whose mothers were taken into the camps or prisons.

Male Gulag survivors tend to relate the facts of their existence in the camps and settlements–the measurements of their cells, the number of prisoners housed with them, the amount of work they could achieve, punishments they endured. Women, however, generally go beyond such details, describing the trauma of losing their children, strategies for keeping the family physically and emotionally alive, relations with their neighbors and (often hostile) locals, and the effect that their detention and branding as an “enemy of the people” had on their identity. Their connections to others, the relational aspects of their identities, often lie at the center of their experiences and their memories, and lead them to recount aspects of life in the Gulag not typically addressed in male accounts.

In one of our interviews we feature a priest who was working in a church near Butovo (a place where 20,000 people were executed in the 30s). He told us a story of an old woman who was taking care of a church nearby. That was the time when priests were executed, and they kept executing the priests but the church was still standing. Then they figured that they have to kill that babushka too, so the church would stop existing. Maybe I am not exact with my story, but that was the idea. Now this old lady is canonized as a martyr, her icon is in that church in Butovo. In that interview, the priest said that women are stronger at times – they bend but not break. I could go on and on…

Marcel: During your research and the interviews, did you discover similarities amongst the women?

Marianna: Yes of course. It was interesting that we interviewed two musicians – one woman was playing cello, and another was playing / teaching piano. Both in their nineties, and they both had the most lucid, clear mind – which made me think that music does something amazing to our psyche. The piano player had a German last name and was arrested and sent to the gulag for five years in 1941 for allegedly playing “German music” and “German marches”. She said in the interview she was playing Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart.

I discovered that they all find it very important to talk about this today, to the current generation. They don’t want the public or their grandchildren to forget it. Some of them have an amazingly clear perspective of today’s politics in Russia. And I already talked about the common experiences in prison for women – the trauma of losing children, the way they kept their families physically and emotionally alive, the physical work, relations with their neighbors, efforts to maintain cleanliness, connections to others (families especially).

Two of our heroines unexpectedly (but also quite predictably) told us the same joke about Stalin.

I also observed that a lot of them are at peace.

Marcel: With your and Paul Gregory’s background, do you consider this more of an academic project or do you aim to make the stories of the women accessible to a wider audience?

I think Paul and I make a good team: this is definitely not an academic project but it can have academic use. For instance, a few episodes from the film will be incorporated into Paul’s historical book, and we are partially funded by the University of Houston and by the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. Paul is an academic, but he is also an economist (he has a weekly blog in Forbes magazine where he also writes about Russia). He is a Hoover Fellow and also the chair of the economics department at the University of Houston in Texas.

I on the other hand am a filmmaker, or rather an filmmaker-enterpreneur, and aside from having worked at NASA as a video producer for several years, I have been working professionally in the industry for almost 20 years (National Geographic, Discovery Channel, History Channel, Theatrical films, Independent films). In short, we are planning for this film/ book/ shorter film/ possible catalogue of the survivors – to be accessible for wide audiences, as many as possible.

We do have several distinguished academics supporting our project (Pulitzer-winning Anne Appelbaum, Norman Naimark, Katherine Jolluc). At the same time we have an amazing Russian-American crew: Irina Shatalova, Sergey Amirdzhanov (DPs), Nastya Tarasova (field director), my colleague Olesya Bondareva, Tchavdar Georgiev (editor), Wendy Blackstone – an incredible composer (a total of five films Wendy has scored have either been nominated or won Academy Awards), researchers Tonya Ditsler and Natalia Reshetova, photographers. These are all very talented people.

Marcel: And what are your future plans for the (final) film?

I am planning for this film to be a festival/theatrical film, with possibilities of TV sales, and of course I want for this film to be for the international audiences.

Marcel: Vielen Dank and all the best for the project!


  1. I am doing my dissertation on the role of women in the gulag and the documentary excerpt was hugely insightful. I was wondering if this documentary was ever finished and if so is there any way I would be able to access it

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.