During this academic year I have a lot to read for my qualifying exams in May 2014. Since my major is “Narratives of Imprisonment and Exile” in Russian literature, I more often than not find myself reading works which I would rather not read: painful personal accounts of atrocities, stories of violence and violations, tales of broken families, broken lives, broken individuals. One scholar before me noted that the reading of Gulag narratives has a “voyeuristic dimension” in that we sit in the comfort of our cozy chair at home, sipping hot tea, nibbling cookies, and devouring the telling of someone else’s tragedy while anticipating a dinner with our loved ones later the same evening. I do not agree with this scholar. I think this approach is inadequate and prejudiced and very dangerous indeed (not to mention that it smacks of some kind of dusty bourgeois mindset). I have a different opinion which I explained in an article which is forthcoming in the scholarly journal Baltic Worlds. When it is published I will maybe comment upon my opinion here, but right now I feel that it is best to wait for it to be read – so that everyone gets a chance to articulate their own stand. One work that I did not want to read to the end is Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. This is mainly because it is a very long book – not even a book but three books – a total of some 1800 pages in the edition I own. In 2011 I read the first volume almost to the end, and a few weeks ago I picked up where I stopped reading two years ago. After a while I got into the narrative, even though trying to mentally handle all the heavy information and all the constant deaths from starvation or execution does have a way of making the reader wish it would all end soon. For a while I did not have any big problems with The Gulag Archipelago; I read it as an important monument to the horrors of the Gulag [which it is] and in that capacity I was certain that I would gain much knowledge from its expansive structure. It was not until I came to a chapter called “The Woman in the Camp” that I understood that something is wrong here, something is very wrong indeed. Obviously, Solzhenitsyn, not being a woman himself, does not know the female camp experience through his own skin. I have come across representations of women in the camps in the works of Varlam Shalamov many times before, and even though neither he was a woman himself, I never found anything that was so challenging to me as a modern reader. Shalamov shows well-balanced and subtle representations of female characters: they are entitled to their own life-stories, they work and they create and they live and they do not come across caricatures of some farfetched Female Ideal. Solzhenitsyn begins his chapter (some 40 pages out of that total of 1800 pages) with a detailed description of women’s arrival in the camp; and what is the first thing the women do? Sell their bodies to prostitution. This is not a particularly advanced concept, nor is it anything new in the history of humanity, and yet Solzhenitsyn spends more than a few pages on the functions of prostitution – as if almost every female prisoner was a prostitute in the camps. Call me naïve, but as a female reader I find this hard to believe. He continues with love stories between female and male prisoners, a theme he could not find any other place for in his books, and then moves onto pregnancy in the camps. Female prisoners, if one is to believe Solzhenitsyn’s account, become nothing but a body in the camps: they prostitute themselves, they engage in romantic relationships (because, he concludes, “a woman needs someone to take care of – to feed him by taking of her own food, to wash his clothes…” etc., etc.), and they become pregnant and give birth to children. Although he momentarily touches upon the fact that women also had to perform the same manual labor as the men in the camps, very little attention is given to this aspect of their camp life. Women are “the weak ones” and it is because they are weak that they use their body in any way possible to gain advantages for survival – but the body is limited to being the object of desire of the men, with the surprise result of childbirth eventually. What I got out of this chapter is the following: a woman in the camp, although separate from men of all sorts by barbed wire, threw herself on the closest male – on work sites, during public events, even giving access to her private parts through the barbed wire [Solzhenitsyn cannot be blamed for lacking crude realism or even cruder naturalism] – in order to produce a pregnancy which would give her one month of rest before and after birth. This is the female camp experience as told by The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn’s women reminded me of the women in Strindberg’s foreword to Fröken Julie: they are sexually insatiable creatures who feed on the men and take their strength and have nothing better to do with their lives. I found this a difficult chapter to swallow. It is especially difficult given that I have read Gulag memories and Gulag narratives by outstanding female survivors, such as Nina Gagen-torn and Evgenia Ginzburg. Both Nina and Evgenia were university professors before they entered the camps. They did not engage in prostitution, and neither do they write about their friends having done anything like it. They composed poetry in prison (Ginzburg) and even an opera while in Kolyma (Gagen-torn). They created lasting friendships, they helped their fellow prisoners by teaching them about Russian history (Gagen-torn) and by serving as a nurse in the hospital (Ginzburg). Both of them wrote subtle, insightful, even beautiful (because of their humanity and their vocabulary and narrative strategies) narratives about their experience as “a woman in the camps.” Both of them worked hard at traditionally male hard labor sites, and none of them got pregnant to try and save themselves – none of their friends got pregnant for that purpose either. What bothers me the most about Solzhenitsyn’s chapter on women in the camps is that he has read them both, and yet he does not feel any obligation to give a more nuanced account. Nina Gagen-torn and Evgenia Ginzburg are not reduced to mere bodies in their own narratives, but constructed as complete and living characters with professional as well as personal concerns. I do not know, nor do I understand, why Solzhenitsyn wrote what he wrote and why he wrote it in the way he wrote it. Instead of trying to guess what he had in mind, I will use a citation from an interview with him that came up when I searched for “Solzhenitsyn and feminism” on google:
“I do feel that feminism is anti-natural,” Solzhenitsyn asserted. “It destroys the feminine, and in so doing, it also destroys mankind. It disassembles the female side of mankind, and the male side also suffers. This is one of the manifestations of the fact that people have lost the high image of man as a creation of God. Instead we have this unbridled, almost frenzied, moving about of liberalism, which fails to understand human nature itself, not just the feminine, but human existence, being blinded by this wild, liberal dancing.”
Reading the last word in this citation, “dancing,” I cannot help but to think of Nora’s dance in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. If a woman dances in Russian literature – or in any artistic work of aesthetic significance for that matter – it is always a subversive act, a challenge as it were to the contemporaneous social order. And it never ends well. Either you dance yourself into suicide (Russian nineteenth century literature) or you dance yourself into a freedom which none ever gets to witness (Nora); but is there a subject here? A female subject? Or is all we ever get a female object, which we perceive and watch and enjoy? Even as she, in the words of The Gulag Archipelago, stands on her knees in the dirt with her behind close enough to the barbed wire so that the man on the other side can have his coveted share of sexual intercourse? What kind of description is this? Who writes this? Probably the main problem is not the writing in itself, but the fact that it is left without any commentary. And so the image of the female prisoner in the twentieth century becomes this: faceless, without a fate, without a name, simply a body in the service of sex [not even a body but a vagina]. We are not told anything else about her because it is implicit in the text that we as readers do not need to know anything more. This is she, the granddaughter of the first women able to vote – and the grandmother of me, a scholar of Russian literature. This is our history, women of the world, this is where we go and where we stand (on our knees). Nothing else is known about us because our stories are not interesting. What is interesting, however, is who invented this sexual act – probably a man. But a man is allowed to do so much more that he needs not be too closely associated with this event. It is on the periphery of his history. He has the rest of the 1760 pages to tell his tale. All she gets is 40.
I think I must file this post under “Josefina randomly reads Nobel Prize winners.” Solzhenitsyn, you know, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970.