The Big Zone

How a Ukrainian dissident remained free in the Gulag
Myroslav Marynovych was detained after placing flowers at the foot of this monument to Taras Shevchenko (Oleksandr Prykhodko/Alamy Stock Photo).

A young man named Myroslav Marynovych was arrested in 1977 for telling the truth about his country. The crime for which he was sentenced was the distribution of bulletins about human-rights abuses in Soviet Ukraine. When he was arrested at twenty-eight, he was an agnostic. When he was released a decade later, he was a Christian ethicist and political thinker. His memoir is a humble, and humbling, account of a man maturing in hell.

In the 1970s, human rights posed an unexpected challenge to Soviet power. Along with the United States, Canada, and every European state except Albania, the USSR signed the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. This treaty was a turning point in the Cold War. It confirmed existing boundaries, prepared the way for arms-control negotiations, and affirmed human rights. In the Soviet Union and its East European satellites, citizens seized upon the concept of human rights to define their own public activity. If human rights were now the law of the land, went their reasoning, it must be legal to document violations. 

The Ukrainian Helsinki Group, which Marynovych joined in 1976, followed that logic. Its members published information about the harassment, arrests, trials, and sentences of Soviet citizens. This Ukrainian Helsinki Group’s activity led directly to the persecution of its members, which was then recorded by those who remained. The group’s members were loyal: some of those who were arrested refused to answer any questions at all. Marynovych claimed that he was personally responsible for all of the group’s activities.

Myroslav Marynovych was arrested on April 23, 1977, interrogated for nearly a year, and tried on March 22, 1978. He was sentenced to seven years in the Gulag and to five more years in internal exile. The facility to which he was sent, Perm-36, was perhaps the most notorious camp of its time. In the 1970s and 1980s it was used for people deemed to have committed “especially dangerous crimes against the state”: that is, prisoners of conscience. In Perm-36 at that time, as throughout the Gulag during its entire history, a disproportionate number of the prisoners were Ukrainians. 

Marynovych was released from Perm-36 on May 14, 1984, and sent to internal exile in Kazakhstan. The next year Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. At a time of reform, the punishment of political prisoners became an embarrassment. Marynovych refused to petition for amnesty in early 1987, but was released later that year anyway, along with other dissidents. He returned from Kazakhstan to Ukraine, where he saw the Soviet Union come to an end in December 1991. He continued his civic engagement in independent Ukraine, culminating in his work as an instructor and administrator of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.

 

Although Marynovych’s memoir begins with his early life and concludes with his time in Kazakhstan, its center is the seven years that he spent as a prisoner of conscience in the Gulag. Its explicit theme is the meaning of incarceration for him. An implicit theme is how the national persecution of Ukrainians in the 1970s drew people such as Marynovych toward a form of dissidence that involved a universal ideal.

The concept of human rights can seem noble in its abstraction: certain obligations that every state must uphold with respect to everyone, flowing from an ethical ideal that no power can alter. Human rights could be a practical tool to use against Communist regimes, given the formal legal commitments they had made at Helsinki in 1975. Yet the nobility and the practicality do not quite explain the appeal. The dissidents of the time who are best remembered now, such as Václav Havel, spoke less of human rights as a concept or a tool, and more about their felt need to defend decency during the stale Communist 1970s. It had to do with the unperturbed living of an individual life, with all of its unpredictable commitments.

A concern with human rights, then, might or might not have to do with national questions. When it did, it was the sense that national expression and solidarity can make up part of a normal human life and might be inseparable from a personality. The idea was not that everyone must have a nationality—much less the same nationality—but rather that nationality was an element of the inner life of many individuals, such that suppression of nationality was also the suppression of the individual. A few snapshots from Marynovych’s life before the Gulag reveal how the two issues are intertwined.

Marynovych, born to a Ukrainian family in western Ukraine in 1949, was educated in both Ukrainian and Russian and spoke both languages. As an outstanding student in physics in high school, he was invited in 1967 to take a qualifying university exam in Kyiv, the capital of Soviet Ukraine. Knowing that he was taking a risk but wishing to be true to himself and his upbringing, he asked to take the (oral) examination in Ukrainian rather than Russian. In principle this was permitted, but in reality it was discouraged. He received a low mark, which prevented him from studying where and what he wanted and also amounted to a personal humiliation. Had he chosen to take the exam in Russian, everything might have been different. He studied instead at Lviv Polytechnic in western Ukraine.

Ukraine was a challenge for the Soviet Union from the beginning to the end.

Marynovych was drawn to Kyiv anyway, which he regarded as the center of everything Ukrainian and as the capital of some future independent Ukraine. This might have seemed a romantic idea in the 1970s, when Kyiv was very much a Russian-speaking city. The Ukrainian language was associated with the provinces and the past. Few Soviet citizens, or indeed outside observers, imagined that the USSR might come to an end in their lifetimes. For Marynovych, the attraction of Kyiv was the presence of Ukrainians who chose to wear their culture on their sleeves, demonstrating who they were amidst the grayness around them. He was detained in May 1973 after he placed flowers at the foot of the monument to the Ukrainian national poet, Taras Shevchenko.

Russian colonialism emerges from within Soviet power in Marynovych’s descriptions of life in Kyiv in the early 1970s. Marynovych recalls a Kyiv friend who was unable to summon an ambulance for his mother, who had just suffered a heart attack, because the dispatcher refused to take a call in Ukrainian. The distressed son was told to “speak a human language,” which meant Russian. Later, when Marynovych was in the camp, he was required to speak Russian with his mother when she visited. 

Yet what does it mean to be excluded from university admission and social advance by the use of one’s native language, when in principle that language is officially endorsed? What does it mean to be arrested for laying flowers in front of a monument that is allowed to stand? This bespeaks a strange colonialism, one without a clear colonial mission. Ukrainians in the 1970s were expected to regard their own culture as backward but were given no grounds for seeing the Russian language as progressive—except in the purely personal sense that using it would make life easier. By that point, the basic idea was that Soviet culture was to be simplified for the pragmatic purposes of those who administered the state. 

But what if some people found it easier to live by their own lights rather than for comfort and conformity? In the setting of the Soviet 1970s, the apparently abstract idea of human rights came down to the sense that a life ought to be lived for individual purposes rather than for the convenience of the powerful. In this situation, a dissident was someone who did not accept uniformity as an end in itself. 

 

Ukraine was a challenge for the Soviet Union from the beginning to the end. Indeed, the national question always bedeviled Marxists. Was national loyalty an artifact of the feudal past, to disappear along with capitalist development, and thus irrelevant to the socialist future? Or might national identification actually arise with capitalism, making it a practical challenge for those wishing to make an international revolution? World War I had seen both workers and socialist leaders side with their own nations in a disastrous conflict that took tens of millions of lives. It was a demoralizing blow for the radical Left. Lenin, however, drew from it the conclusion that capitalism had been pushed to the brink and that a revolt in the backward Russian Empire could push industrial nations into revolution and propel history forward to its next stage.

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was meant to bring about a global conflagration, during which all national questions would collapse into nullity as the world turned socialist. It began in civil war and with wars against the nations on its borders. It ended roughly within the borders of the state where it had begun, having met national resistance on all sides. The USSR, established in 1922, was neither Russian nor global but an accumulation of national groups across Eurasia of which the Russian was the most numerous. The most important non-Russian territory of the old empire had been Ukraine, and it posed the greatest challenges for the Bolshevik experiment. Of all the national questions in the history of Communist politics, the Ukrainian-Russian proved to be the most important.

During the nineteenth century, the era of national movements, the lands of today’s Ukraine were divided between the Russian Empire and the Habsburg monarchy. The Ukrainian national movement began in the 1820s in the Russian Empire, in eastern and central Ukraine. Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861), that national poet upon whose monument Marynovych laid flowers, exemplified European Romanticism. He defended a smaller language against a larger one and celebrated the past of the common people rather than the lineage of the powerful. For most of the nineteenth century, Ukrainian nation-building was a matter of collecting historical and ethnographic knowledge, an activity seen as a permissible part of a larger study of Russia. The Crimean War (1853–1856) and a Polish uprising (1863–1864) encouraged an attitude that identified the Russian language with the imperial state. In the 1860s and 1870s, Russian imperial authorities suppressed the use of the Ukrainian language.

Ukrainian national activity shifted across the border to the Habsburg monarchy, known from 1867 as Austria-Hungary. Thanks to a free press and elections, national politics could flourish. Ukrainians in Austria-Hungary also had something like their own church. The Uniate Church, formed in 1596 with the ambition of merging Western- and Eastern-rite churches, was dissolved within the Russian Empire beginning in 1839. This church survived, however, under the Habsburg emperors, who renamed it “Greek Catholic,” as it is still known today. One of Marynovych’s grandfathers was a Greek Catholic priest. (Married men are permitted to become Greek Catholic priests.) The eastern part of the Habsburg crownland of Galicia became the center of the Ukrainian national movement, though it was always understood that the Ukrainian heartland lay across the border in the Russian Empire.

World War I brought national self-determination to much of Eastern Europe but not to Ukraine. This was not for lack of effort. Ukrainians of the Habsburg monarchy established a West Ukrainian state, which was defeated by the Poles. Ukrainians in Kyiv founded another republic after the Russian Revolution of November 1917. Ukrainian territory was a major theater of the civil war between the Reds and the Whites, the armies of revolution and of restoration. In 1919, the Polish army intervened as an ally of the state based in Kyiv. After a brief conquest of Kyiv, the Poles (and their Ukrainian allies) were pushed back to the outskirts of Warsaw by the Red Army in summer 1920. A counterattack that August defeated the Red Army and brought the fighting to an end. The result was a peace treaty in 1921 and a Polish-Soviet border in which eastern Galicia (and some other territories inhabited chiefly by Ukrainians) was incorporated by Poland, whereas the majority of Ukrainian lands remained under Bolshevik rule.

The Red Army was meant to march through Warsaw and on to Berlin. The end of combat in Europe in 1920 was also the end of expectations that the Bolshevik Revolution was the beginning of a global transformation. Bolshevik Russia had to become a state, and the Ukrainian question influenced the form that this state took: a Soviet Union, a nominal federation of national republics. The experience of the revolution had taught that the national question was inevitable. Almost no one at the time doubted that Ukraine was a nation; the question was how to square that historical reality with the vision of a socialist future. The Soviet solution in the 1920s was “Ukrainization,” the promotion of Ukrainians within the state and party apparatus and the support of Ukrainian culture, in the expectation that this would create political loyalty. The 1920s were thus a rich decade for Ukrainian art, literature, and scholarship, so much so that a number of activists who had earlier chosen Galicia (and after 1918 found themselves in Poland) moved east to Soviet Ukraine.

Ukrainization worked reasonably well as long as the Soviet revolution hung suspended between the seizure of political power in 1917 and the Communist mission to create a planned economy. Ukrainization coincided in time with the New Economic Policy, which legalized a certain amount of free enterprise and allowed farmers to own land and work it as they chose. This was important in Ukraine, where the struggle for private property had been intense (and sometimes violent) during the latter decades of the Russian Empire. In the late 1920s, however, Stalin was consolidating power. In 1928, he undertook the second great transformation: the economic revolution. Its central element was a forced industrialization campaign to be financed by extracting capital from agriculture. Stalin spoke of an internal colonization; richer agricultural regions such as Ukraine would be sacrificed in the name of development and progress.

In practice, this meant seizing farmland from peasants, forcing them to work in collective farms, exporting grain for hard currency, and exploiting the labor of those who resisted in concentration camps. As this collectivization of agriculture failed to improve crop yields, Stalin blamed Ukrainian officials and Ukrainians in general. Cultural policies that favored Ukrainians were halted, and the new generation of activists purged. Leading writers were executed or committed suicide. Because Stalin treated the problem in Ukraine as one of political resistance, collectivization was sharpened in 1932. The collective farms and villages that failed to meet production targets had their livestock seized and were cut off from the rest of the economy. Peasants were forbidden from traveling to cities to beg and locked in barracks to starve in the dark if they tried. Inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine were forbidden from leaving the republic. The result was death by hunger of nearly four million people. Marynovych refers to this atrocity as the Holodomor.

Such sharp alterations in Soviet policy toward Ukraine had little to do with actions taken by Ukrainians and much to do with larger demands of domestic or foreign policy. Given its agricultural potential, western geographical location, and demographic weight, Ukraine was always in a sensitive position. It mattered greatly to the Soviet leadership but had no meaningful representation within the Soviet system, which was based upon central control by a small group of party leaders. 

The reversal in policy toward Ukrainians from the 1920s to the 1930s was characteristic. Although later shifts were never so drastic as that between affirmative action and mass starvation, the question as to whether Ukraine was to be treated as a threat or an asset was never firmly resolved. After Germany and its allies invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Ukraine was suddenly important again, as the terrain of battles and as the Soviet republic (with the exception of Belarus) that suffered the most from German occupation. Stalin thus referred to wartime Ukraine as heroic. Once Germany was defeated, however, a policy of cultural centralization followed in 1946. A certain relaxation followed Stalin’s death in 1953. Under his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, Ukrainians protested for cultural autonomy and against Russification.

A diverse 1960s group of writers, artists, and scientists, the shistdesiatnyky, led a cultural flowering comparable to that of the 1920s. Between 1963 and 1972, Petro Shelest was first secretary of the Ukrainian section of the party; he allowed these trends a certain space for development. These were the years when Marynovych was a teenager and a university student. This tendency was reversed by Leonid Brezhnev, who had Shelest replaced as the Ukrainian first secretary in 1972. Marynovych completed studies at Lviv Polytechnic that year, worked for a while in Lviv, performed his army service, and arrived in Kyiv in 1974. He was coming to a Kyiv that was once again subject to intense Russification. This mattered a great deal. But it also mattered where he was coming from.

 

Marynovych was born in 1949 in eastern Galicia. This territory had belonged to the Habsburgs until 1918 and then to Poland from 1918 until 1939. Although Ukrainians in Poland suffered various forms of discrimination, Ukrainian political and social life there was far less hindered in the 1930s than in Soviet Ukraine. In interwar Poland, Ukrainians were harassed and discriminated against, but the basic shape of Ukrainian society remained intact. Traditions of religious practice, economic cooperatives, local media, and national politics continued. Ukrainian society in Poland was spared the mass starvation and terror of the 1930s. 

The dominant trend in Ukrainian politics in interwar Poland was democratic and centrist. One minor strain of Ukrainian politics was the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, which directed violence against Polish moderates who sought to improve Polish-Ukrainian relations. In 1939, when Poland was destroyed, these nationalists took on a greater role. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, fighting then as de facto allies under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, invaded from the west and east. After Poland’s defeat, its lands were divided between the conquerors, with the Soviet Union taking roughly the eastern half. In late 1939, eastern Galicia was annexed by the Soviet Union. In less than two years, these territories were subjected to the Soviet policies of the previous two decades: deportations, terror, nationalizations, collectivization. Ukrainian nationalists had opposed Polish rule; they had seen Germany as the agent that could destroy Poland. Now they hoped that Germany could destroy the USSR.

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the first lands the Wehrmacht reached were precisely those, such as eastern Galicia, which had just been incorporated into the Soviet Union. In eastern Galicia and indeed throughout Soviet Ukraine, much of the population expected that German rule would be preferable to Soviet collectivization and terror. Jews suffered first and most, as victims of a German campaign of mass shooting that brought in ever more local accomplices. The vast majority of Jews in Ukraine were murdered in 1941 and 1942, usually shot over pits close to where they had lived. Because Germans kept the hated collective farms, starved prisoners of war, and engaged in murderous terror, Ukrainian opinion turned against them. 

World War I brought national self-determination to much of Eastern Europe but not to Ukraine.

After the Red Army defeated the Germans at Stalingrad in February 1943, turning the tide of the war, Ukrainian nationalists in western Ukraine formed a partisan army known as the UPA. Its plan was to allow the Soviets to defeat the Germans, and then to seize power from the Soviets. In 1943 it ethnically cleansed local Poles. It did indeed engage the Soviets in a bloody and doomed war, which was coming to an end when Marynovych was born. Soviet power continued the ethnic cleansing, forcing Ukrainians and Poles across the border established between Soviet Ukraine and a newly Communist Poland in 1945. Marynovych’s family was expelled from its village by the new Polish Communist regime. These expulsions were presented in Polish Communist propaganda as a response to Ukrainian nationalism. In the Gulag, Marynovych met Ukrainians of an older generation who were serving out very long sentences for resisting Soviet power by force.

Marynovych was thus a child of a displaced family in a territory that had been under Soviet rule for a very short time. Eastern Galicia had been drastically altered by the mass murder of Jews and the expulsion of Poles. It became Ukrainian in this negative demographic sense and Soviet in a political sense at the same time. Ukrainians in eastern Galicia found themselves, for the first time, a demographic majority in towns and cities such as Drohobych (where Marynovych was raised) and Lviv (where he studied). They were living within a larger unit called “Ukraine,” but it was a Soviet republic without sovereignty. The institutions that had marked and supported Ukrainian civil society in eastern Galicia for decades, such as cooperatives and newspapers, were no longer possible. The Greek Catholic Church was forcibly merged into the Russian Orthodox Church, which was subordinate to Soviet power. Greek Catholic leaders, including Metropolitan Josyf Slipyj, were deported to the Gulag. Slipyj was held in the camps until 1963. 

Marynovych was thus raised in the 1950s and 1960s in western Soviet Ukraine in an environment where a special religious commitment hung in the background, although he regarded himself as an agnostic. He took Soviet power for granted as a young person and sympathized with Communism. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, so long as Shelest was first secretary in Ukraine, it was reasonable to think that some kind of secular Ukrainian identity would be permissible within the Soviet Union. Yet in Kyiv, Marynovych experienced new kinds of barriers. His arrest for laying flowers was symptomatic of larger changes. Beginning in 1972, Ukrainian writers and activists were systematically arrested and imprisoned. Brezhnev had consolidated power, Shelest lost his position, and a new calculation drove these repressions. 

Brezhnev was less ideological than his forebears and less ambitious. He turned the official gaze from the future to the past, setting aside the dream of Communism in favor of a cult of World War II. The present was to be consumerist but without any of the political values of the West. The Soviet Union was therefore to become functional, served by educated classes with technical degrees who spoke Russian. Eventually the Soviet peoples would merge as a result of “real socialism,” which Brezhnev claimed already existed. Ukrainians were expected to sacrifice their nationality but not in the service of any universal ideal. Ukrainian books would be removed from schools and the Ukrainian language would be marginalized in universities, but just why that should be was unclear. 

Identity was to be sacrificed to efficiency. People were understood to be a means to an end, but there was in fact no end—except, perhaps, the self-preservation of an aging elite.

 

The Russification of the 1970s intruded into private lives. For a young Galician Ukrainian in the metropolis such as Marynovych, it felt like a restraint on normal camaraderie. In his account of the mid-1970s in Kyiv, social life blends into national life: his closest friend at the time is another committed Ukrainian. He speaks to his friends in his native language; he speaks his native language in public; he commemorates the Ukrainian past with his friends. As he puts it, his transgression was “trying to live a normal Ukrainian life” in the capital of Soviet Ukraine. 

As his interrogators made clear to him in 1977, the problem was not his internal convictions but his public actions. This was no longer the 1930s, when Stalin famously said that Soviet citizens could be punished for their thoughts. That era of great terror was also a moment of grand vision, of a New Soviet Man who could be refashioned and repurposed. By the 1970s the Soviet secret police had no such ambitions. It made no sense to inflict pain in the name of a bright future that was no longer on offer. In Marynovych’s account, his interrogators would have been perfectly content with hypocrisy. A good Soviet citizen was not a believer, but someone who kept his disbelief to himself and behaved like everyone else. Power was no longer about changing the internal self but about quarantining it. What was normal was to conform. 

Marynovych seemed to have other ideas about what was normal. It was normal for him to live as he pleased. When times got tough, as they did, it was normal to behave honorably, because that is what friends and family would expect. Normal was not what was but what should be. This kind of everyday idealism about the shape of an individual life fit the idea of human rights, which was just coming into currency.

Ironically, the Soviet Union had endorsed human rights in 1975 as part of an effort to keep things as they were. In the Helsinki Final Act, the signatories had endorsed the territorial status quo. This was what Brezhnev wanted: stasis. Yet the price he paid was the affirmation of a universal idea that generated demands for change. That created an implicit problem for Brezhnev’s real socialism. In his version of history, everything was as good as it could be, all ideals had been fulfilled insofar as this was possible, and there was nothing more to be said. When ideology is insincere, it is difficult to challenge it with another ideology. Human rights offered not an alternative vision of the future, but a different framing of the here and now. 

If what mattered was the present, then what mattered in the present was the individual human life. A life could only be individual if a person was allowed to articulate and realize some of the values that seemed normal. The language of human rights communicated the desirability of a relationship between the inner life and the outer. It should be normal for a person to be able to act out at least a few preferences and convictions, rather than holding them all inside and lying all the time. It should be normal for people to have a certain freedom in life, to express their own views, to choose their own culture. Activity on behalf of human rights meant recording glaring violations by the state: arrests, repressions, deportations—very often for nothing more than speaking about human rights. 

The Gulag held tens of millions of prisoners and caused millions of deaths, and yet it has been all but forgotten by the official Russia of today.

Human rights thus provided some Soviet citizens, such as Marynovych and his friends in the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, with a way to directly challenge the implicit Soviet value of conformity without directly challenging its explicit ideology of socialism. These dissidents emphasized their own lawfulness by declaring their activity openly and claiming that their only intention was to dignify the Soviet Union’s own commitment to law. Soviet authorities recognized the implicit threat immediately and sought to break the human-rights networks that emerged after 1975. Human-rights activism was treated as the most dangerous form of political crime, and activists were sentenced accordingly. 

During his work for the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, Marynovych was asked by a friend whether he was ready for prison. The question gave him pause. He knew that incarceration was coming, but he could hardly have known what it would be like. When he was arrested, he was a young man with some ethical commitments, good friends, and a mother and a sister he regarded as models. During his interrogation he experienced an epiphany; by the time he was sentenced, he was a Christian believer. In the camp he became a philosopher, writing sentence by sentence on purloined scraps of paper, each of which had to be rolled up, hidden, and then eventually smuggled out of the camp in a way that will be familiar to those who know something of these matters.

 

The Gulag held tens of millions of prisoners and caused millions of deaths, and yet it has been all but forgotten by the official Russia of today. Perm-36, as it happens, was the very last worthy memorial to the Gulag on the site of a former camp. It served for a time as a humble but valuable museum of the Gulag as a whole, while hundreds of other camps were disassembled or allowed to return to wilderness. Then Perm-36 fell victim to Vladimir Putin’s politics of memory. After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, the museum was labeled a foreign agent, on the logic that it glorified Ukrainian fascists. The old Soviet propaganda flourishes in Putin’s Russia: prisoners of conscience and enemies of Russia merge. The museum has been altered to help the visitor identify with the camp guards. 

What is left of the Gulag, then, are the state archives used by historians and the memories of survivors. The most famous of these is Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose Gulag Archipelago, published in Russian in 1973 and in translation a year later, finally opened the discussion of Soviet concentration camps in the West. Earlier Gulag memoirs were written by people of Polish or Polish-Jewish background who could compare what they called “the land of the prisoners” (Julius Margolin, 1949), the “inhuman land” (Józef Czapski, 1949), or the “other world” (Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, 1951) with the world beyond the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian Danylo Shumuk, who spent three decades in the Gulag, published his recollections in 1984. Archbishop Slipyj’s memoirs, including his recollections of eighteen years in the Gulag, appeared in 2014.

Marynovych’s descriptions of Perm-36, which he and other inmates called “the zone,” must be read carefully because he evinces a certain manly tendency to describe the perils and the tortures indirectly, only as necessary for the development of an anecdote or a theme. This is a style he developed in his letters to his mother and sister.

Perm-36 was a “special regime” punishment facility, designed for people designated as dangers to the state. In 1978, when Marynovych began his sentence, about sixty prisoners were held behind its seven layers of barbed wire. Most of them, like Marynovych, were sentenced for words they had spoken, published, or distributed. A disproportionate number were Ukrainians. Some inmates were members of an earlier generation, punished for their armed resistance to Soviet power (in the UPA, for example). People of various nationalities had been sentenced as collaborators with the German occupation regime. It was characteristic of Soviet policy to confuse prisoners of conscience with Nazis. The association of Ukrainian political life with fascism has continued in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union, notably during the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

In Marynovych’s account of prison, the reader will find several distinct kinds of cruelty above and beyond the inherent cruelty of years isolated from the world at hard labor. Perm-36 was located not in the city of Perm, which is about nine hundred miles east of Moscow, but about sixty miles farther northeast—in the middle of nowhere. The climate was forbidding: not as lethal as other camps in the far north, but still below freezing all day and all night for five months of the year. The work itself was dangerous. Marynovych, who had fainting spells, was assigned work as a lathe operator. The prisoners were subject to rules that could not possibly all be followed. Not making a bed properly (in the eyes of a guard), failing to meet the dress code (in the eyes of a guard), or showing “disrespect” to guards could all result in punishment. Psychological abuse was the norm. Prisoners were told that their friends had betrayed them to the police and that their wives had betrayed them with their friends; guards and secret policemen went to great lengths to make the inmates believe that they were all alone.

Health problems led to medical torture. Prisoners who fell ill or who required surgery were told that they had to promise to improve their behavior (in other words, acknowledge their guilt) before they could receive medical treatment. Mykola Rudenko, a fellow inmate and member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, had been injured in World War II and classified as an invalid. That status was revoked inside Perm-36 in 1982, about four decades after he had been injured, when he was sixty-one years old. He was then assigned to labor he could not complete and punished for not fulfilling his quota. Prisoners responded to such outrages with sympathy hunger strikes for which they were sent to punishment cells. These were dark, cold chambers with water or ice on the floors and walls, uneven planks for beds, and no plumbing. It was routine for prisoners to be sent to the punishment cells for six-month terms. Careful readers of Marynovych’s memoir will realize that he spent much of his seven-year sentence in punishment cells, usually for such expressions of solidarity. 

Marynovych, who was a young man serving his first term in the Gulag, makes a point of saying that he learned how to behave from other prisoners of conscience. In his account, the dissidents generally supported one another. Within the narrow confines of the camp, issues that might have been divisive outside, such as the national question, became topics of fruitful discussion. Marynovych notes that time in the camp “changed many things for the Russian inmate,” who was now in a minority and confronted with people whose national identifications were intermingled with their choice to suffer for human rights. He recalls debates about whether the Soviet system was to be understood as totalitarian or imperial. He records that a Ukrainian-Jewish dialogue about history began in the camp. This encounter among prisoners was continued by some of them, such as Joseph Zissels and Marynovych himself, after their release. Today, Jewish-Ukrainian history is a major subject of teaching and research at Marynovych’s Ukrainian Catholic University.

Human-rights activists recorded and published facts. The idea was that the regime should be held to the standard that it had formally accepted and that only the evidence of human lives disrupted by repression could serve this purpose. This work, incredibly, continued within Perm-36 itself. Prisoners continually wrote letters to higher authorities about their treatment, knowing that this could only redound to their personal disadvantage. As Marynovych recalls, “We never deviated from the truth, because the truth itself could be more condemning than any words. Likewise, reality itself could be more cynical than any description thereof.” Prisoners who wrote such letters were punished inside the camp for “distorting Soviet reality.” Speaking truthfully of personal experience in a punitive Soviet institution was the cause for more punishment in that institution. 

The truthfulness of Marynovych’s memoir runs deep. His personal honesty about his life blends into a rare and attractive humility. He writes openly about the foolishness of his own youth and that of his friends in Kyiv of the early 1970s. We see his immaturity because he is mature enough to reveal it. He accepts that his life might have gone entirely differently: if he had gotten a better job or had chosen a less morally demanding set of friends. He believes that his actions reflected the moral example of his mother and sister rather than any particular virtues of his own.

The moral risk, as he sees it, is taking pride in doing the right thing. He chose to go to prison in the defense of values and then had to resist what he calls “infectious bouts of glory.” The prose runs along two tracks: the physical and the metaphysical. “One half [of me] was involved in the normal physical survival of a political prisoner, carving out my living space in daily resistance to the camp administration. My other half continued to hover in metaphysical space, accumulating more ‘bumps’ while experimenting and perfecting my religious mindfulness.” He believes that there was “no better opportunity to test one’s Christian devotion” than in the Gulag.

 

Perhaps the greatest challenge of this memoir to most readers will be its discussion of freedom. It will be tempting for people in the West to imagine that they were free in the 1970s and 1980s, and that the book that they hold in their hands is a description of Soviet unfreedom. This is not quite Marynovych’s position. Of course he leaves a clear record of the horrors of the camp (“the zone”) and of the Soviet Union itself (“the big zone”). And yet Marynovych speaks of himself and his companions as free people. 

Freedom involves consistency between the inner life and the outer. This means that there must be some inner life, some set of commitments to religious, ethical, or aesthetic values that fix upon the world as it should be—as opposed to the world as it is. Freedom would also then require some ability to realize those values in the outside world or, failing that, taking risks or suffering for them. This is what Marynovych and his fellow prisoners of conscience had done. 

Marynovych chose the values he wished to defend. Because he made a choice, he can characterize his own actions as a sacrifice, as suffering that was meaningful. The pain had a sense, because it closed the gap between a flawed outer world and the values held by people. In such a sacrifice, he writes, it is the sufferer who retains agency, whereas the torturer is pushed to the margins. As he recognizes, this ability to tell his own story puts him in a different position from people who are wrongly imprisoned but who did not choose the occasion. 

Freedom, we have come to think, is about giving in to impulse, and complaining when that is not possible. Yet the more impulsive our actions are—the more they realize some transient emotion—the more likely they are to reflect the power of someone or something else. If we give in to impulse, then our interior life withers, and the outer world determines everything. This process is complete when we concede the word “freedom” itself, assigning it to our moments of unthinking rage and to our bestial selves. When we see no difference between freedom and instinct, the story of freedom ends.

It might not seem like freedom to stick your head in a latrine. We find offal physically revolting. We retch. Our senses and our nerves urge us to move away. In Perm-36, when a Russian poet had a birthday, his friends each composed poems for him and recited them the only way that he could hear them, which was through the tunnels dug for excrement. Hearing the poems brought the man joy. Only free people could have thought of such a gesture and carried it through. Marynovych realizes that the image will be puzzling for readers and stresses that doing this seemed natural at the time. He quotes Semen Gluzman’s memoir: in Perm-36 “we created our own world, and we were free.”

Marynovych faces down the most basic of instincts. He undertook several hunger strikes, an action that works directly against physical necessity. At one point he starved himself for twenty days in solidarity with a fellow inmate, the Russian Sergei Kovalev, who had undertaken a hunger strike. “Your self-preservation instinct,” he writes, “cries out at the top of its voice when you are staring down the barrel of a machine gun, surrounded by vicious trained dogs, suffocating in overcrowded vehicles, so exhausted by malnutrition that your body swells up.... But just as heroism is not eternal, neither is fear.” 

Marynovych believes that “the suffering that I endured provided me with the spiritual strength that gave my life its true meaning.” That metaphysical meaning is an encounter with God. The earthly meaning arises in communion with others: with fellow inmates with whom and for whom he suffered, with fellow Ukrainians, with fellow Soviet citizens, with all those whose human rights were and are violated. Solidarity expresses a free choice. 

 

The Universe Behind Barbed Wire
Memoirs of a Ukrainian Soviet Dissident
Myroslav Marynovych
Translated by Zoya Hayuk
Boydell & Brewer
$39.95 | 482 pp.

This article has been adapted from Timothy Snyder’s foreword to The Universe Behind Barbed Wire: Memoirs of a Ukrainian Soviet Dissident by Myroslav Marynovych, published this month by Boydell & Brewer. Used by permission. 

Published in the May 2021 issue: 

Timothy Snyder is the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University and the author, most recently, of Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary.

Also by this author
Not a Normal Election

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Culture
Collections