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
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.