Days and Lives :: Fates

Prisoner: John Noble

“Early in June, I was eating my cabbage soup in the stolovaya [cafeteria] when the nevalney, my barracks master, rushed in excitedly. ‘Americanitz, the camp commander is looking for you. You have orders to proceed to Moscow.’ I looked up at him and laughed in my soup. A few minutes later, a friend came in with the same news. I rushed nervously to the Administration Building and stood at attention before MVD Lieutenant Antrashkevich. ‘You are to leave for Moscow at 7 A.M.,’ he said. ‘As far as I know, you’re going home.’ I heard him, but the words didn’t sink in. I wouldn’t let them. The thought was wild. Why should I be released? There was no general amnesty. I had so lost touch with the world that Vorkuta and its regulations were the only reality I understood. But I prayed, just in case.”

Remembering the Gulag

Other than a brief period of openness that saw the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, discussing the Gulag’s history was forbidden until late in the 1980s. At that time, groups of former political prisoners started to document and commemorate the history of Soviet repression through monuments and publications. Although at first there was tremendous interest in learning about this part of their history, since the mid-1990s Russians seem to be forgetting the Gulag—a troubling development for many who believe historical knowledge is key to avoiding a repetition of the abuses of dictatorship.

To learn about the efforts to preserve the last Soviet camp as a museum and historic site, please visit the related exhibit on the Gulag Museum at Perm-36.

The post-war Gulag population differed in two key ways from its pre-war counterpart. First, it included significant numbers of nationalist partisans from the Baltics, western Ukraine, and western Belorussia—peoples whose homelands had been joined to the Soviet Union only as a result of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact and who had fought a vicious guerilla war against Soviet forces until the late 1940s. These prisoners were accustomed to struggling against the Soviet state and against long odds. Second, the post-war Gulag population comprised many Red Army soldiers and officers who had served in Europe or been held in Nazi prisoner-of-war camps and thus came under the suspicion of the state. After Stalin’s death, such veterans combined forces with the former nationalist partisans to carry out a series of mass uprisings in Gulag camps.