Wednesday, May 25, 2016

`The Old Story Glowed with Fresh Color'

Recently on the radio I heard a well-known dupe eulogizing an even better-known dupe, Henry A. Wallace (1888-1965), the thirty-third vice president of the United States, unsuccessful presidential candidate and sometime apologist for the Gulag. Wallace is a parody of the “useful idiot,” a fellow traveler happy to commend the latest totalitarian scheme. Wallace shows up late in Within the Whirlwind (trans. Ian Boland, 1981), the second volume of Yevgenia Solomonovna Ginzburg’s memoirs of the eighteen years she spent in Stalin’s prisons and camps, and in internal exile.

In 1937, Ginzburg (1904-1977) was a teacher, a writer for the newspaper Red Tartary, an enthusiastic Communist, the wife of a Kazan Party Secretary and mother of two boys. She was arrested by the N.K.V.D. and charged with belonging to a “counter-revolutionary Trotskyist group” – a rubber-stamp accusation during Stalin’s Great Purge (1936-1938), when more than a million people, many of them, like Ginzburg, members of the Communist Party, were murdered. She received a ten-year sentence and was transported to a labor camp in Kolyma, in northeastern Russia, where she became a dokhodya, a “goner,” a prisoner consigned to death by overwork and malnutrition.

Released from the Gulag in February 1949, she was forced to remain in exile for another five years in Magadan, a camp near Kolyma that had been visited in 1944 by then-Vice President Henry Wallace. He likened the slave-labor camp to “a combination Hudson’s Bay Company and TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority].” Ginzburg was arrested again in October 1949 and returned to Kolyma. She worked secretly on her memoirs and was released from the Gulag in June 1955. In Part II, Chap. 13 of Within the Whirlwind, Ginzburg recounts the story of Engineer Krivoshei, a fellow exile and flamboyant storyteller whose “best piece” was titled “Wallace’s Monologue”:

“We were all familiar with the story of how the American Henry Wallace had managed to travel through Kolyma and observe only the Potemkin villages that the authorities had decided to show him. But Krivoshei, when he delivered `Wallace’s Monologue,’ impersonated the perspicacious traveler and imitated his accent so well that the old story glowed with fresh color.”

Ginzburg’s quotes Krivoshei quoting Wallace: “The tall sturdy boys from Central Russia are determined to conquer this wild region,” “Pioneers of progress. The founders of new cities,” and more proletarian platitudes. The following morning, Ginzburg learns of the “Doctor’s Plot,” another of Stalin’s inventions. In January 1953, he accused nine Moscow doctors, six of whom were Jews, of plotting to poison the Soviet leadership. After Stalin’s death in March, the charges were dismissed and the doctors exonerated.

Ginzburg was released from exile two years later and returned to Moscow, where she worked on the first volume of her memoirs, Journey into the Whirlwind. The English translation was published in 1967, though the book was not published in the Soviet Union until 1989. In Russian, the volumes are titled Krutoi marshrut I and Krutoi marshrut II -- Harsh Route or Steep Route. Ginzburg’s son was the novelist Vasilii Pavlovich Aksyonov (1932-2009), who was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1980 and settled in the U.S. During Ginzburg’s time in the Gulag, her older son Alyosha had died of starvation during the siege of Leningrad. Ginzburg died on this date, May 25, in 1977.

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