ÉCU Film Festival | 2019
WOMEN OF THE GULAG
Dir. Marianna Yarovskaya
The history of the Gulag might not be that well known to most modern audiences but it is fair to say that few people have not heard of the Gulag. The Russian prison, in operation throughout Stalin’s long reign, was known for being brutal and a place where millions of people lost their lives.
As is the case with most of history the focus is always on HIStory and we rarely get the chance to listen to HERstory but director Marianna Yarovskaya’s powerful documentary WOMEN OF THE GULAG changes this. We hear from six survivors of the Gulag: Fiokla, Natalia, Vera, Elena, Ksenia and Adile who each paint a heartfelt and heartbreaking story of what life was like for them and how the Gulags changed and shaped whom they would become.
Within the first few minutes of WOMEN OF THE GULAG it becomes clear that the Gulag is still a thorny subject in modern Russian. The reality being that millions of Russians had their lives ruined without any justification is not enough for Russian society too, collectively, condemn this period in their history and hold Stalin truly accountable.
By not solely focusing on the past and including a much more fuller picture of contemporary Russia Yarovskaya exposes the complexities of memory, history and the public desire for truth. Towards the end of the film, it is revealed that with 38% Stalin was voted ‘World’s Most Remarkable Public Figure'.
How can this be? Do they know something that we don’t know?
“All of the survivors share a personal history that is not just important but vital.”
This question is one that will end up making you go round in circles. The very idea of the Gulag system and the broad knowledge that it was used indiscriminately against all types of Russian citizens means that most Russians would have, in some way at least, a connection to someone who was sent to the Gulag. Even former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was the grandson of Gulag victims.
And yet little seems to have been done to help bring this dark chapter on Russian History to a close. Vigils are held for the victims and fights have continued to try and get victims named but that seems to be it. The public remains divided and during one of the scenes during Stalin’s birthday a woman, rather proudly, proclaims that Stalin wasn't as bad as people think.
We listen to Fiokla, Vera, Elena, Natalia Ksenia and Adile and there is a strange sense of calm in how they describe the destruction of their lives, families and experiences in the Gulag. There is a collective sense of ‘this is how it was’ and though there is a pain, a deep-rooted pain that time can never heal, the sense of anger has long passed. Each of the women is now in the 80s or 90s and remain as determined as ever to tell their story and the story of the millions of Gulag Victims that are yet to have their names read out.
No amount of words, images or even video from the period can ever express what this time was like for people living under Stalin’s dictatorship. In a powerful scene Vera, a music student, is listening to some music on the radio and you feel the love and that special connection that she has to music. Vera later explained that if the authorities could not find anything on you they would just make it up ‘but I was 19’ what could they make up? She goes onto explain that the authorities knew she was a music student and said that she was playing music during the occupation, and then they arrested her.
Later in the film, Vera attempts to play the piano noting that it was hard for her to tell the difference between the black and white keys but she played all the same. It is a strange feeling to think that if one had regret for having a passion for music, art, literature and the state would use that to arrest you it could make you feel sour towards that passion. But Vera doesn’t hesitate to love her music and to feel the great sense of comfort that it brings her.
All of the survivors share a personal history that is not just important but vital. On April 6th, coincidentally the night of this screening was the beginning of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. Globally we recognise this as a Genocide but in respect to the Gulag, this is seen as a deeply personal Russian history and one that is not globally recognised as a genocide.
In truth within all the horror of the experiences that the survivors share with us one thing that they don’t have is hate. Each of them speaks with passion and fierce determinations (Adile is perhaps the most animated of the six) and their willingness to share their history is rather summed up aptly by Adile who says “I lived so long to be able to finally tell the truth.”