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Keeping Faith with the Party: Communist Believers Return from the Gulag

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How is it that some prisoners of the Soviet gulag—many of them falsely convicted—emerged from the camps maintaining their loyalty to the party that was responsible for their internment? In camp, they had struggled to survive. Afterward they struggled to reintegrate with society, reunite with their loved ones, and sometimes renew Party ties. Based on oral histories, archives, and unpublished memoirs, Keeping Faith with the Party chronicles the stories of returnees who professed enduring belief in the CPSU and the Communist project. Nanci Adler's probing investigation brings a deeper understanding of the dynamics of Soviet Communism and of how individuals survive within repressive regimes while the repressive regimes also survive within them.

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1: The Gulag Prisoner and the Bolshevik Soul

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CHAPTER 1

 

The Gulag Prisoner and the Bolshevik Soul

Oksana Lazarevna taught socioeconomics at Odessa University and was the mother of two. She was also the wife of an “enemy of the people,” who had been arrested and taken away. Oksana was a committed Party member, but as she watched the arrest of one after another of her cohorts, she suspected that the enemy had “penetrated the Party, and it was the NKVD.”1 One day, while Oksana was nursing her infant son, they came for her too. The NKVD agents tore the baby from her and dispatched her sons to her parents. Oksana was taken to an Odessa prison. There, the suspicions she had harbored when she was free were confirmed by what she witnessed in prison.

By the time Oksana was sent to the Gulag, she had resolved to “clear the names of honest Communists.”2 From her barracks, she began to write letters to Stalin and the Central Committee. She charged that “lawlessness reigns in the organs of the NKVD…it has led to the destruction of the Odessa Party ranks and many sincere Leninist-Communists.”3 Her campmates were terrified. They warned, “You will have to give these letters to the NKVD authorities in the camp. Don't you understand what the consequences will be? You will die, and you will kill your children.” In her response, Oksana illustrated how the dedication to a set of values can override even so strong a human devotion as motherhood, let alone personal survival. She declared: “I am a Communist in the first place, and after that a mother.”4 Oksana was transferred, and her story, recorded in the memoirs of a campmate, ends there. The author, also a committed Party member, wrote in 1963: “In these days of the triumph of truth and justice, the complete unmasking of the cult of personality of Stalin, the restoration of the Leninist principles in life and Party leadership, I would love to know what ever happened to Oksana Lazarevna—a sincere Communist with a capital C.”5 Given the content of Oksana's letters, it is unlikely that she even made it to, or survived transport to, the camps. What is likely is that she maintained her faith until the very end.

 

2: Reconciling the Self with the System

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CHAPTER 2

 

Reconciling the Self with the System

Under Stalin, in the years before the 1956 Twentieth Party Congress, simply being charged with a crime was commonly prima facie evidence of being guilty, and punishment followed quickly. After Stalin's death, and particularly after 1956, the Party officially declared that arbitrary punishment was a crime perpetrated by Stalin and his henchmen against loyal Communists and others. E. Charents, an Armenian poet who considered himself a loyal Communist, was born before 1956. “There is no crueler punishment,” he lamented, “than when a man is denounced as a traitor to an idea that was sacred to him, that was in fact the only thing that made sense in his life.”1 that life, and whatever sense could be made of it, was extinguished by the terror in 1937.

When Charents was denounced, he lost his social, material, and ideological sources of support. Such victims were impelled by the belief that their predicament made sense—if only they could decipher that sense. And therein lay a paradox. The punishment made sense only if the crime made sense, but for those falsely accused, their alleged crime was a political fiction. Like Kafka's Gregor Samsa, who awoke with dismay to discover that he was a bug, or his equally dismayed Josef K., who suddenly found himself under arrest, these victims tried to make sense of their misfortune, assuming that insight would lead to a way out of the morass. The Soviet terror had created facts out of fiction for innocent arrestees, now presumed guilty by reason of arrest.

 

3: Beyond Belief: Party Identification and the “Bright Future”

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CHAPTER 3

 

Beyond Belief
Party Identification and the “Bright Future”

Mikhail Aleksandrovich Tanin had been a Party member since 1918, and by 1935 he had progressed through the Party hierarchy to become Khrushchev's assistant. However, in 1937, while serving in the Moscow Party Committee, Tanin was arrested, sentenced to (the notoriously euphemistic) “ten years without the right of correspondence,” and executed. Meanwhile, Tamara, who had been his childhood sweetheart and later his wife, was advised to leave Moscow because the wives of “enemies of the people” were being picked up. She did not heed this advice, because she accepted the official explanation that if these women were arrested they must have been guilty. At the very least, they were probably complicit in their husbands’ offenses. Tamara later cursed the “blessed simplicity” that had misled her. In her memoir she reflects, “Later, through my own experience, I understood the ‘guilt’ of the overwhelming majority of arrestees in those years. The real enemies, well masked, wishing to weaken the Party and undermine its authority, snatched its best members and simply physically destroyed them.”1

 

4: Striving for a “Happy Ending”: Attempts to Rehabilitate Socialism

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CHAPTER 4

 

Striving for a “Happy Ending”
Attempts to Rehabilitate Socialism

It is a historical irony that those loyalist returnees and the family members of non-survivors, who had lived into, but not beyond, the Gorbachev era, died with the assurance that their faith in Communism had been redeemed. Their belief had survived the camp experience, the post-camp experience, and the post-Khrushchev period of re-Stalinization, during which the Gulag had once again become a tabooed theme. Despite the repression they had suffered, it appeared that there was a “happy ending”—for them and for the Party. Having survived and endured, the Party was now reinvigorating itself with glasnost and perestroika, as it officially embraced the broadest efforts hitherto to fill in the blank spots in history and rehabilitate and reinstate those who were eligible. If these returnees survived the Gorbachev era, they witnessed the end of the CPSU and the Soviet Union itself.

 

5: The Legacies of the Repression

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CHAPTER 5

 

The Legacies of the Repression

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the demise of the Party had not been foreseen by either Communists or non-Communists. But the Communist faithful were particularly ill-prepared to make sense of the disappearance of an empire, much less the political institution that had successfully conflated itself with “the people” and patriotism. Where, now, was meaning to be found, especially for those raised in Soviet orphanages, where the policy was to indoctrinate them to believe that their parents’ incarceration was justified by a now defunct Party? Their narratives describe an amalgam of idealism and alienation, as well as an intermingling of open and clandestine rejections of Communism. But the narrators are often so guarded that it is difficult to distinguish between their accommodation to the immutable and their assimilation of the immutable—probably even for them.

As the orphaned and displaced “heirs of the Gulag,” the children of executed or imprisoned Communist loyalists bore unique political and psychological burdens. But all the “heirs of Stalin” had to find a way of adapting to Stalin's immediate and long-term influence. Some were infected by the repression and became carriers of the repression; others became resisters of repression and tried to spread resistance. In this final chapter, we will explore some of the questions that confronted the second generation (the children of repressed loyalists), and look at the short- and long-term legacies of decades of repression. In conclusion we will consider what, if anything, might be learned from a repression that had succeeded and a system that failed.

 

Epilogue: The “Bright Past,” or whose (Hi)Story?

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EPILOGUE

 

The “Bright Past,” or Whose (Hi)Story?

Those who have witnessed the collapse of a regime, presided over an unsuccessful civil war, or mourned the demise of a political party could respond by undertaking a painful reappraisal of what went wrong. Instead, they often divert attention from the failed present to a “golden past” / “bright past,” now retrofitted with a glory it had never originally possessed. “Why shouldn't we be proud of our past,” a Serbian aphorism claims, “when each new day is worse than the previous one?”1 The aphorism wittily and perhaps unwittingly addresses one of the critical impediments to the often wrenching national process of coming to terms with an onerous past. Both for individuals and for nations, ontological events are imparted with different meanings, which constitute different truths. The aphorism's subversive disjunction of time frames illustrates that the construction of history need not adhere to chronology or facts; the purposes of the present can change the meaning of the past without changing the facts. The meaning of these facts can seem self-evident if they are put into a persuasive story, whether a personal or national narrative, that meets the current needs of the audience. The longer-term needs of the audience would be better served by a narrative that acknowledges failure and invites audience participation in seeking a remedy. However, this was not the story promulgated by Russia, Serbia, and other formerly repressive regimes.

 

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