Resilience: Life Stories from the Soviet Era

Personal Narratives | Research Publications | Online Resources

The title of this exhibit comes from the 2018 book Resilience: Life stories of centenarians born in the year of revolution (2018), a work based on personal interviews with 22 centenarians of the former Soviet Union.

Likewise its motif. If the authors of the book travelled (they say, “over 20,000 kilometers”) around the vast land mass trying to put face and voice to the resilience and these centenarians personified, this exhibit finds it a compelling undertaking to showcase some of those publications that testify to the same – if not that of centenarians — resilience and survival.

How did ordinary citizens, millions of whom did not survive the catastrophic moments in the history of the Soviet Union, live their lives and navigate through the tumultuous times?

Where do we find such stories?

We have already heard a lot about the many tragic deaths that overtook the former Soviet Union, and no doubt, there will be a lot more such stories to be told and heard. But no less important would be to hear the stories of survival and resilience.  

Would those stories of resilience and survival provide us with new insights about the Soviet past? We do hope that they will enrich our understanding of it.

This exhibit features about 30 titles, most of them published in English. It has two segments, one for first-person stories, another for scholarly research on those stories.

At the end is attached a short list of online resources that we have found to be a good, useful supplement to this brief exhibition of Soviet citizens’ resilient survival stories.

Personal Narratives

“Olga Adamova-Sliozberg’s My Journey, not officially published in Russia until 2002 and here available in English for the first time, is one of the best known of all Gulag memoirs and was one of the first to become widely available in underground circulation. Alexander Solzhenitsyn relied heavily upon it when writing Gulag Archipelago, and it remains the best account of the daily life of women in the Soviet prison camps.”

“Vera Inber, a poet, kept this diary during the 900-day siege of Leningrad. Soon after the German invasion she accompanied her husband there following his appointment as director of an important medical institute. The diary is remarkable for its cool self-possession and lack of any “”poetical”” arabesques.” (source)

“Книга є першим історико-антропологічним дослідженням повсякденного життя українок-політв’язнів ГУЛАГу. Авторка застосовує феміністський підхід до вивчення жіночого минулого, аналізує особисті спогади колишніх невільниць та офіційні документи, докладно висвітлюючи різні сторони табірного повсякдення українських жінок. У книзі приділено увагу таким аспектам: національне питання, релігійні практики, жіноча творчість, прояви людяності і жіночності, жіноча взаємодопомога, жіноче тіло і сексуальність, проблема материнства за гратами. Книга розкриває малопомітні, проте ефективні жіночі способи пристосування, виживання та протидії руйнівному впливові режиму на в’язнів, що допомагали невільницям зберігати основні соціальні ідентичності, залишаючись людьми, жінками, українками.” (source)

Babushka’s Journey is an intriguing amalgamation of fictionalized biography, memoir, and travelogue. On the one hand, it tells about the author’s grandmother Cäcilie (Cilly), who passed away in 2009, about her homeland in East Prussia and her wartime labor camp experiences in the Soviet Union, the story which itself is a combination of historical references, eyewitness interviews, Cilly’s accounts as Krueger remembers them, his own memories of his grandmother, and figments of the author’s imagination. On the other hand, it is a book about Krueger’s own journey and experiences of the places where his grandmother lived during the war and the postwar years. The narrative is rich in visual triggers—maps, photos, historical documents—while the clack-clacking of the trains, both in the mid-twentieth and the early twenty-first century, is its persistent soundtrack, sometimes soothing, at other times disquieting.”

“Almost 60 years after that, as long-closed K.G.B. records were opened, Matthews traveled to Ukraine to investigate the mystery of who his grandfather was. Opening a file crammed with “flimsy official ­onion-skin forms” and a few sheets of plain stationery on which Bibikov, under coercion, had confessed to being an enemy of the people, Matthews began to reconstruct the evidence of a life.” (source)

“The terrified yell of my comrades makes me stop. I drop the potatoes into the grass and turn around. He has pulled out the pistol and is taking aim. Slowly I come back.”
Surviving the Gulag is the first-person account of a resourceful woman who survived five grueling years in Russian prison camps: starved, traumatized, and worked nearly to death. A story like Ilse Johansen’s is rarely told—of a woman caught in the web of fascism and communism at the end of the Second World War and beginning of the Cold War. The candid story of her time as a prisoner, written soon after her release, provides startling insight into the ordeal of a German female prisoner under Soviet rule. Readers of memoir and history, and students of feminism and war studies, will learn more about women’s experience of the Soviet gulag through the eyes of Ilse Johansen.”

“Исключенные из жизни Воспоминания людей, прошедших через сталинские лагеря, должны быть, без всякого сомнения, вписаны золотыми буквами в историю человечества, как назидание и предупреждение потомкам. Книга Ольги Адамовой-Слиозберг выделяется среди прочих воспоминаний, ведь написана она не женой видного партийного руководителя или военного генерала, не литератором или ученым, она написана абсолютно частным лицом, женщиной, просто мечтавшей прожить тихую счастливую жизнь с любящим мужем и двумя детьми.” (source)

“Through the dramatic true story of one boy—Eliott “Lonek” Jaroslawicz—Dorit Bader Whiteman coveys the stories of the dramatic escape of thousands of Polish Jews from the encroaching Nazi menace. Whiteman draws on hours of interviews with Jaroslawicz, as well as extensive archival and other research, to narrate this saga of the only Kindertransport to leave from Russia.” (source)

“In this sequel Bardach picks up the narrative in March 1946, when he was released. He traces his thousand-mile journey from the northeastern Siberian gold mines to Moscow in the period after the war, when the country was still in turmoil. He chronicles his reunion with his brother, a high-ranking diplomat in the Polish embassy in Moscow; his experiences as a medical student in the Stalinist Soviet Union; and his trip back to his hometown, where he confronts the shattering realization of the toll the war has taken, including the deaths of his wife, parents, and sister.” (source)

“Nachman Libeskind’s remarkable story is an odyssey through crucial events of the twentieth century. With an unshakable will and a few drops of luck, he survives a pre-war Polish prison; witnesses the 1939 Nazi invasion of Lodz and narrowly escapes; is imprisoned in a brutal Soviet gulag where he helps his fellow inmates survive, and upon regaining his freedom treks to the foothills of the Himalayas, where he finds and nearly loses the love of his life. Later, the crushing communist regime and a lingering postwar anti-Semitism in Poland drive Nachman and his young family to Israel, where he faces a new form of discrimination. Then, defiantly, Nachman turns a pocketful of change into a new life in New York City, where a heartbreaking promise leads to his unlikely success as a modernist painter that inspires others to pursue their dreams.” (source)

“Call it resilience, grit, or just perseverance – it takes a special sort of person to have survived the last 100 years of Russian and Soviet history. The 22 heroes in this volume were all born in 1917 – Russia’s year of revolution – somewhere within the bounds of the Russian empire as it then existed. They lived through Civil War, Collectivization, World War II, the Cold War, and the collapse of the USSR. Indeed, their lives are a living reflection of the past Russian century, and their stories show us a side of history not available in any other resource. The authors of this project sought out these centenarians for months, then traveled over 20,000 kilometers across Russia and Eastern Europe, from sprawling metropolises to tiny villages, capturing poignant images, moving life stories, and stunning video… The subjects’ stories are recounted largely in their own voices, from transcripted interviews, and accompanied by photos taken in 2017, as well as family photos and documents from throughout their lives.” (source)

“The only English-language memoir since the fall of communism to chronicle the atrocities committed during the Stalinist regime, Bardach’s gripping testimony explores the darkest corners of the human condition at the same time that it documents the tyranny of Stalin’s reign, equal only to that of Hitler. With breathtaking immediacy, a riveting eye for detail, and a humanity that permeates the events and landscapes he describes, Bardach recounts the extraordinary story of this nearly inconceivable world.” (source)

“Shelter from the Holocaust came to fruition as the result of the opening of formerly classified Soviet and Polish archives, determined efforts to interview the last remaining Holocaust survivors, and the growing interest in the histories of displaced persons and migration. This pioneering volume will interest scholars of eastern European history and Holocaust studies, as well as those with an interest in refugee and migration issues.” (source)

“During World War II, many Polish Jews were forcibly deported from Russian-occupied eastern Poland to Siberia, where they were subjected to appalling suffering and oppression under the Communist regime.
From Siberia to America is a memoir of one man who survived a childhood in those Siberian work camps. After the war he returned to Poland and found that his homeland, under Communist rule, had become a land of little opportunity.”

“In this “extraordinary family memoir,”* the National Book Award–winning author of The Future Is History reveals the story of her two grandmothers, who defied Fascism and Communism during a time when tyranny reigned… With grace, candor, and meticulous research, Masha Gessen, one of the most trenchant observers of Russia and its history today, peels back the layers of time to reveal her grandmothers’ lives—and to show that neither story is quite what it seems.” (source)

“A heroic love story and an unprecedented inside view of one of Stalin’s most notorious labor camps, based on a remarkable cache of letters smuggled in and out of the Gulag… Orlando Figes, “the great storyteller of modern Russian historians” (Financial Times), draws on Lev and Sveta’s letters as well as KGB archives and recent interviews to brilliantly reconstruct the broader world in which their story unfolded. With the powerful narrative drive of a novel, Just Send Me Word reveals a passion and endurance that triumphed over the tragic forces of history.”

Research Publications

“Drawing on nearly twenty years of fieldwork, as well as ethnohistory, politics, and economics, this volume takes a close look at changes in the lives of the indigenous Siberian Khanty people and draws crucial connections between those changes and the social, cultural, and political transformation that swept Russia during the transition to democracy. Delving deeply into the history of the Khanty—who were almost completely isolated prior to the Russian revolution—the authors show how the customs, traditions, and knowledge of indigenous people interact with and are threatened by events in the larger world.” (source)

Stalin’s Peasants analyzes peasants’ strategies of resistance and survival in the new world of the collectivized village. Stalin’s Peasants is a story of struggle between transformationally-minded Communists and traditionally-minded peasants over the terms of collectivization–a struggle of opposing practices, not a struggle in which either side clearly articulated its position. But it is also a story about the impact of collectivization on the internal social relations and culture of the village, exploring questions of authority and leadership, feuds, denunciations, rumors, and changes in religious observance.”

“Memoirs of a Jew born to the Skorupa family in Kalisz, Poland, in 1921; pp. 49-111 relate his experiences under German occupation. Skorr was arrested with a younger brother, and sent to work on a farm. When they were forced to bury the bodies of murdered Jews, Skorr helped his brother escape and later jumped on a train that turned out to be heading toward Soviet-occupied territory. He then returned home and managed to rescue his family just before they were interned in the ghetto. He and his family repeated the route to the East, sharing the terrors of avoiding Nazi capture, and managed to cross over into the Soviet zone. Skorr almost joined Anders’ Army, but its Polish antisemitism made him fear being killed before seeing combat. He spent the rest of the war in the USSR, where he also experienced antisemitism, and his father and younger brother died while serving in the Soviet army. He returned to Poland in 1946 with his mother and three other siblings; after experiencing antisemitism there as well, the family left for Israel.” (source)

“Philipps opens his book with warm descriptions of German Russian villages as they were at the peak of their prosperity. The struggles of pioneering were over; the depredations of the Communists had not yet begun. He writes a brief history of South Russia to help us understand his experiences. This is the kind of personal book many may prefer to read about German-Russian history… He was probably one of the more fortunate ones during the Communist takeover. He was given training as an agriculturist and assigned to a job in a Machine Tractor Station, a special kind of unit that provided and maintained tractors and other machines for the collective farms in an area. That is where he was when Hitler’s armies swept into South Russia in 1941, and he went to Germany with panicky refugees in 1945, just ahead of the Russian advance. He was drawn into the German army, along with Peter Pfeifer of Elsass, possibly a relative of North Dakota German-Russians. In 1955, with the help of Alexandra Tolstoy, a Russian woman who also helped others to get out of the clutches of the Communists, he migrated to the United States. Philipps was nervous about writing this book and says he omitted names for fear of reprisals to families still living in Russia. But he was a sharp observer and he understands where his personal experiences fit into the larger historical picture. You may appreciate knowing how it was from someone who personally lived during this very difficult time. He attended a convention of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society several years ago, and it was truly exciting to see this German-Russian hero in the flesh.” (source)

“Mikhail Sholokhov is arguable one of the most contentious recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature. As a young man, Sholokhov’s epic novel, Quiet Don, became an unprecedented overnight success. Stalin’s Scribe is the first biography of a man who was once one of the Soviet Union’s most prominent political figures… Stalin’s Scribe is remarkable biography that both reinforces and clashes with our understanding of the Soviet system. It reveals a Sholokhov who is bold, uncompromising, and sympathetic—and reconciles him with the vindictive and mean-spirited man described in so many accounts of late Soviet history.” (source)

“A Russian journalist provides a haunting account of the Lykovs, a family of Old Believers, members of a fundamentalist sect, who, in 1932, went to live in the depths of the Siberian Taiga and have survived for more than fifty years apart from the modern world.” (source)

“The study offers a new perspective not only on the period of collectivization, industrialization, and terror but also on the regime’s most rudimentary method of controlling human behavior and reshaping the social order. In her conclusion the author analyzes the long-term impacts of the Stalinist “dictatorship of distribution”, from bureaucratization to rural depopulation to the emergence of a distinctive type of black-market economy.” (source)

“В книге рассмотрены практики выживания российских ученых в условиях гражданского противостояния (1917–1920 гг.). Территориальные рамки исследования – регионы России, большую часть времени находившиеся под властью антисоветских режимов, ставшие центрами массовой миграции столичного населения. Произведенный автором анализ дневников, мемуаров, личной переписки ученых, документов вузов, научно-исследовательских учреждений, периодической печати позволил понять, как люди науки отвечали на вызовы Гражданской войны.” (source)

“In this study, the Finnish Gulag memoirs are considered as testimonies on Soviet communism. More than thirty memoirs have been published from the early 1920s to the late 1990s. Thus, the entire Soviet era can be taken into consideration.” (source)

“A comprehensive and well-documented survey of Soviet Jewry up to the Gorbachev era by the author of several books on Jewish history. Based largely upon secondary and some primary sources, mainly in English, these volumes form a highly detailed and readable account for a wide audience.” (source)

“A comprehensive history of the Jews in the Soviet Union in the 20th century, this book offers a portrait of Soviet Jewry from the overthrow of the Tsarist regime by the Bolsheviks and takes the reader through pogroms, resettlements, World War II, and the Stalin era, to present-day refuseniks.” (source)

To the Tashkent Station brilliantly reconstructs the evacuation of over sixteen million Soviet civilians in one of the most dramatic episodes of World War II.Rebecca Manley paints a vivid picture of this epic wartime saga: the chaos that erupted in towns large and small as German troops approached, the overcrowded trains that trundled eastward, and the desperate search for sustenance and shelter in Tashkent, one of the most sought-after sites of refuge in the rear.”

“An Engaging Account of life in today’s turbulent Russia, this book faithfully presents the richly contradictory views of Muscovites and rural Russians on their work, their families and communities, their government, and their daily lives.” (source)

“The book’s approach is mainly historical; nevertheless it focuses on some of the most important and controversial present day international challenges both in Europe and Asia. Its aims to address academics, journalists and other specialists, but also is written for the general public.” (source)

“It is the first book to have been written in English on penal practices in the contemporary Russian prison system. Surviving Russian Prisons focuses in particular on the reality of work and labour within Russian prisons, exploring its changing function. From being for much of the twentieth century a major activity as well as an ideological justification for prison regimes, its main function now has been to enable prisoners to survive through participating in a barter economy. In exploring the microworlds of the Russian prison this book at the same time presents new evidence and offers fresh insight into how prisons are governed in societies undergoing turbulent social and political transformation; it explores how current practices in relation to prisoners’ work comply with international regulations designed to promote humane containment and positive custody; and debates the nature of knowledge on penal discourse in transitional states.” (source)

Stories of the Soviet Experience: Memories, Diaries, Dreams

“In a major new work on private life and personal writings, Irina Paperno explores this massive outpouring of human documents to uncover common themes, cultural trends, and literary forms. The book argues that, diverse as they are, these narratives—memoirs, diaries, notes, blogs—assert the historical significance of intimate lives shaped by catastrophic political forces, especially the Terror under Stalin and World War II. Moreover, these published personal documents create a community where those who lived through the Soviet era can gain access to the inner recesses of one another’s lives… With a sure grasp of Russian cultural history, great sensitivity to the men and women who wrote, and a command of European and American scholarship on life writing, Paperno places diaries and memoirs of the Soviet experience in a rich historical and conceptual frame.” (source)

“This book is the first to attempt to retrieve their stories and reconstruct their lives, drawing upon recently declassified archives of the former Soviet Secret Police in Kiev. Hiroaki Kuromiya uncovers in the archives the hushed voices of the condemned, and he chronicles the lives of dozens of individuals who shared the same dehumanizing fate: all were falsely arrested, executed, and dumped in mass graves. Kuromiya investigates the truth behind the fabricated records, filling in at least some of the details of the lives and deaths of ballerinas, priests, beggars, teachers, peasants, workers, soldiers, pensioners, homemakers, fugitives, peddlers, ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Germans, Koreans, Jews, and others. In recounting the extraordinary stories gleaned from the secret files, Kuromiya not only commemorates the dead and forgotten but also proposes a new interpretation of Soviet society that provides useful insights into the enigma of Stalinist terror.” (source)

“This is a biography of a borderland between Russia and Poland, a region where, in 1925, people identified as Poles, Germans, Jews, Ukrainians, and Russians lived side by side. Over the next three decades, this mosaic of cultures was modernized and homogenized out of existence by the ruling might of the Soviet Union, then Nazi Germany, and finally, Polish and Ukrainian nationalism. By the 1950s, this “no place” emerged as a Ukrainian heartland, and the fertile mix of peoples that defined the region was destroyed… Drawing on recently opened archives, ethnography, and oral interviews that were unavailable a decade ago, A Biography of No Place reveals Stalinist and Nazi history from the perspective of the remote borderlands, thus bringing the periphery to the center of history.” (source)

Online Resources

This site is subtitled “An on-line archive of primary sources,” but it is much more than that. Two Soviet historians led the creation of this renowned website. One can also find useful glossaries, biographies, bibliographies as well as scholarly essays on important topics of Soviet history.

“The rarest type of information concerning the USSR consists of interviews with Soviet citizens. Such an interview, however, was made possible in France when a 33 year old Soviet physician was freed last year among a group of Russian prisoners, with the aid of comrades of the Fourth International. This interview was published in June-July-August issue of Quatrième Internationale organ of the European Executive Committee of the Fourth International.”

“The goal of this “collective bibliography” is to put together a bibliography of works on the Great Terror of 1937-1938 in the provinces of the Soviet Union.  Special attention is given to regional works, because it is hard to find books and articles published in the local press, universities and publishing houses of the Russian Federation and the former Soviet republics.”

“ … RGASPI [The Russian State Archive of Social and Political History] documents from Stalin’s personal papers … [and] The Annals of Communism series [Yale University Press].”

“The Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System Online provides access to digitized materials selected from the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System (HPSSS). The digital collection consists chiefly of summary transcripts of 705 interviews conducted with refugees from the USSR during the early years of the Cold War. A unique source for the study of Soviet society between 1917 and the mid-1940s, the HPSSS includes vast amounts of one-of-a-kind data on political, economic, social and cultural conditions. The HPSSS’s value is compounded by the fact that it was compiled in English and organized according to a rigorous social science framework, making it accessible to a broad range of students and scholars.”

“This exhibit is divided into many small displays divided on two floors. You can visit them in any order, or follow the footsteps for a guided tour. The guided tour will bring you back to this entrance room. Almost every display contains images of documents from the Soviet Archives. These images are too small to be readable, but when you click on them, you will get the full size originals (each are 100-400 Kb apiece; do expect some color changes). Hanging next to most displays is a translation on some scrolls, indicated by a small icon:

It should be noted that the images often show only fragments of the document, so don’t be confused if the translation doesn’t seem to match the image. You can start the guided tour on either of the two floors of the exhibit hall.”

“Several of the following versions of archival documents held by the HPCWS are stored as Portable Document Format (PDF) files. Viewing these files requires the free Adobe Acrobat Reader software.”

“Eto dokumental’naia igra pro glavnye sobytiia v Rossii XX veka. Vy sledite za sud’boi real’nogo cheloveka i delaete za nego vybor.” It is also a sequel to Mikhail Zygar’s ”1917: Svobodnaia istoriia”.