Women of the Gulag: Portraits of Five Remarkable Lives

Women of the Gulag: Portraits of Five Remarkable Lives

by Paul R. Gregory

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During the course of three decades, Joseph Stalin’s Gulag, a vast network of forced labor camps and settlements, held many millions of prisoners. People in every corner of the Soviet Union lived in daily terror of imprisonment and execution. In researching the surviving threads of memoirs and oral reminiscences of five women victimized by the Gulag, author

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During the course of three decades, Joseph Stalin’s Gulag, a vast network of forced labor camps and settlements, held many millions of prisoners. People in every corner of the Soviet Union lived in daily terror of imprisonment and execution. In researching the surviving threads of memoirs and oral reminiscences of five women victimized by the Gulag, author Paul R. Gregory has stitched together a collection of stories from the female perspective, a view in short supply. Capturing the fear, paranoia, and unbearable hardship that were hallmarks of Stalin’s Great Terror, Gregory relates the stories of five women from different social strata and regions in vivid prose, from their pre-Gulag lives, through their struggles to survive in the repressive atmosphere of the late 1930s and early 1940s, to the difficulties facing the four who survived as they adjusted to life after the Gulag. These firsthand accounts illustrate how even the wrong word could become a crime against the state. The book begins with a synopsis of Stalin’s rise to power, the roots of the Gulag, and the scheming and plotting that led to and persisted in one of the bloodiest, most egregious dictatorships of the 20th century.

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"[...] Women of the Gulag tells the fascinating stories of five representative Soviet women—Agnessa, Maria, Evgenia, Adile, and Fekla—drawn from across the class and geographic spectrums of the Soviet empire. Three of these women were connected to the highest echelons of the nomenclatura by marriage, though the common denominator is that all were arrested for the actions of their husbands or fathers." —Vladislav Davidzon, tabletmag.com

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Women of the Gulag

Portraits of Five Remarkable Lives

By Paul R. Gregory

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-1576-6


Terror's Human Face

A remark often attributed to Stalin is, "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic."

This is the story of five such tragedies. They are stories about women because, as in so many cases, it was the wives and daughters who survived to tell what happened.

These five women put a human face on the terror of Stalin's purges and the Gulag in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. They show how the impersonal orders emanating from the Kremlin office of "the Master" brought tragedy to their lives. They cover the gamut of victims. Two are wives and daughters in ordinary families unable to comprehend why such misfortune has overtaken them. A third is a young bride living in the household of a high party official. The last two are wives of the Master's executioners. These stories are based on their memoirs — some written by themselves, others by close friends or by their children.

Together, they put a human face on what author Robert Conquest termed The Great Terror.


Agnessa Argipopulo was born in 1903 in the small town of Maikop, in far southern Russia, near the Black Sea port city of Novorossiysk. She and her older sister, Lena, exemplified the mixed heritage of the people of the Russian "South": a blend of Greek, Russian, and Mongol blood which made them the acknowledged beauties of Maikop. The Red and White armies traded control of the town during the Russian Revolution. While the sisters were both still in their teens, Lena married a White Guard officer ... Agnessa a Red. But Agnessa's fate was settled when she left her first husband for a rising star in the NKVD, the Soviet secret police force that carried out Stalin's purges in the 1930s.


Maria Senotrusova was born in 1904 in the isolated village of Tolbaga, in Eastern Siberia. This former czarist dumping ground for exiles and revolutionaries was opening up to the world thanks to the Trans-Siberian Railway. When a spur line was built to nearby coal deposits, Maria joined the local work force and met her future husband, the engineer in charge of the work. They married and raised three children in a hard-working, well-educated family that exemplified everything the USSR wanted and needed in the New Soviet People who would build the socialist paradise. But Stalin's purge destroyed their lives as it did the lives of hundreds of thousands of other innocents.


Evgenia Feigenberg, born in 1904, had no intention of remaining in her hometown of Gomel, Belorussia, close to Poland and Ukraine but far from the European capitals where she was sure she belonged. Nor did she intend to follow the normal life course for the daughter of a rabbi: an early marriage and many children. Her first marriage took her to Odessa. She left her husband for a better catch, who took her to Moscow and to the Soviet Embassy in London. But it was her third partner who took her with him as he climbed ruthlessly to the highest levels of Soviet power — only to doom them both to destruction when Stalin tired of his purges and looked for a scapegoat for the Great Terror.


Adile Abbas-ogly, born in 1920, was only fifteen when she was literally swept away by a handsome older man who was a member of the Lakoba clan, the leading family in Sukhumi, in the Abkhazian portion of the Soviet Union. Adile's father was Persian, and her family, while Muslim, celebrated the Christian holidays. Her choice of a husband appeared inspired: his brother-in-law was Nestor Lakoba, the head of the powerful Lakoba clan and a close associate and personal friend of Stalin. Nestor had led the Bolshevik takeover of the region and appeared solidly in charge. But Lavrenty Beria, his rival for power, set out to destroy the Lakobas and everyone associated with them.


Fekla Andreeva was born in 1926 in Suvory Village in the Ural Mountains. Her pleasant childhood ended early in 1930 when Stalin ordered the "dekulakization" of the Soviet countryside. Her family's relative prosperity — they owned a small farm and some livestock and could afford to hire help to bring in the harvest each year — put them into a group which Stalin wanted "liquidated as a class." Stripped of all belongings, the family was eventually sent to a nearby settlement, where they and other kulaks built crude barracks and worked in mines and fields on starvation rations. Fekla and her sisters went to school where they strived to be good Soviet citizens and learned to revere Stalin. But far worse was yet to come at the hands of "the Master."



Struggles and Successes

Who was this man of diminutive stature but outsized ambition who had clawed, bullied, and assassinated his way to the pinnacle of power in the new nation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics?

Joseph Stalin was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in 1879 in the mountains of Georgia, in the Caucasus region of the Russian Empire. An early convert to the Bolshevik cause, he assumed the name Stalin, "man of steel." He took on a series of low-level leadership positions under Vladimir Lenin after the Russian Revolution, quietly finding ways to gain power. When Lenin, the "Old Man," died in 1924, few of the Old Guard expected Stalin to come out on top in the power struggle that followed. However, the man who would become "the Master" had a game plan and would do anything to win.

Lenin suffered a series of strokes beginning in May 1922 that eventually left him mute and bedridden. Until then, the Old Man had handled details like medical care, leaves abroad, and housing — for example, Lenin gave Stalin a bigger Kremlin apartment. After the Old Man's incapacitation, the Master made sure he decided such things. The others could not be bothered. Only Stalin realized the power it gave him.

As the Old Man's health deteriorated, Stalin chose his doctors and nurses and procured his medications. The Master's own wife, Nadezhda Allilueva, served at Lenin's sickbed in the Kremlin.

The most nerve-racking part of the power struggle was waiting for the Old Man to die. Lenin's crone of a wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, kept issuing optimistic reports from the sanatorium outside Moscow. He'll return to work any day, she insisted. The Master knew that his political career would be over if Lenin regained his health. In his political testament, the Old Man had advised the party to fire Stalin. As general secretary, Stalin had accumulated too much power and had the audacity to insult the Old Man's wife. Fortunately, the vain Lenin was an even-handed critic with ample insults for the others. Only Lenin could do the job right, it seems.

The Old Man did not return. The Master shrugged off rumors that he poisoned Lenin, but he kept the idea to use against his rivals.

As soon as the Old Man had drawn his last breath on January 21, 1924, the Master sprang into action. He assumed control of the funeral arrangements. The others jockeyed to be at the front of the bier. The Master inconspicuously brought up the rear — an almost invisible pallbearer.

It helped that Stalin's colleagues underestimated him. As far as they were concerned, he sat at his desk and pushed papers. While they made speeches and argued, he quietly placed his people in key positions. His fellow Bolsheviks scarcely noticed that they turned to him for cars, amenities, and even envelopes of extra household cash. The Master supervised — and eavesdropped on — the special Kremlin phone lines.

Stalin dealt easily with his rivals for power. The posturing peacock Leon Trotsky waited in vain to be anointed as a reward for his civil-war heroics. The Master joined the naïve Nikolai Bukharin to get rid of Trotsky. Together they charged Trotsky with "splitting the party" in order to drive Trotsky and his allies into exile in Kazakhstan in 1928. Trotsky was expelled from the country in 1929 but kept up his polemics from abroad until his assassination in Mexico in 1940.

BUKHARIN, THE PARTY'S FAVORITE, proved just as easy to defeat. The Master's allies soon dominated the party's Central Committee. They booed Bukharin as he spoke out against Stalin's programs in 1928. Feigning regret, the Master bowed to the party's demand that Bukharin be removed. As the Master liked to say in such situations, "Friendship is friendship but duty is duty."

When the Bolsheviks grabbed power in 1917, they ruled out capital punishment for themselves. They feared the bloodbath of the French revolution. Thus constrained, the Master could not yet kill his political rivals, but he could liquidate other enemies. Socialist industry could not prosper until loyal Soviet "specialists" replaced the rotten carryovers from the old regime. The hapless technicians confessed to heinous crimes in open court to save their families. Spectators and journalists left believing in real trials with real villains. The Master shot or imprisoned thousands of these engineers and other skilled workers.

Liquidating the hundreds of thousands of kulak households represented a more ambitious undertaking. In January 1930, the Master assigned each region numerical targets for arrests, shootings, and deportations of kulaks, defined as the more prosperous peasant farmers who owned their own land and who tended to oppose collectivization. Ukraine, in particular, would long remember the Master's lackey, Lazar Kaganovich's, reign of terror. The poor and middle-class peasants provided surprisingly little help — they feared they would be next. But in their place, members of the militia and the secret police force known as the Cheka, plus 25,000 activists, took care of the kulaks and anyone else opposed to Soviet power.

As mass starvation followed the "successful" dekulakization, the Master forbade mention of the word "famine." If we do not speak of famine, he indicated, it does not exist. Such semantics proved little comfort to the six million or more who died in South Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.

Meanwhile, life in the Kremlin fell into its own routine.

Much like the French court, the Bolshevik monarchs lived together in the Senate House and nearby buildings on the Kremlin grounds. They worked together in the Kremlin or on the Old Square up the hill. Their children played in the alleyways, exploring their nooks and crannies. Armed guards, perched on rooftops, shouted down their advice to the boys and girls playing games below. Cars of every make dropped off officials; mothers strolled with baby buggies. Their children cleaned the floor and washed dishes in the "Red Star" kindergarten alongside the offspring of the staff, but the children understood who was who.

The Master had socialized more in the years before he became "the Master." He liked to appear unannounced at the doors of fellow Kremlin residents, as silent as a cat waiting to pounce. On occasion, he joined Kaganovich, "the Cobbler" for a game of chess. He was less likely to drop in on his most valued deputy, Vyacheslav Molotov, or "Lead Butt," as he was called behind his back. Lead Butt and his wife valued their privacy. Stalin exchanged greetings in Georgian in the courtyard with industry czar Grigory Ordzhonikidze, or "Sergo," as everyone called him.

Back then, Anastas Mikoyan, "the Armenian," ambled across the courtyard, hoping to be invited for dinner. He needed rest from his five energetic boys. The Armenian, like the other Bolshevik elite, had one apartment for his large family. Only the Old Man's spinster sister had a place to herself. "Klim" (Kliment Voroshilov) lived with his Jewish wife in one of the largest apartments in Corpus No. 12. Childless, they adopted three children. The Cobbler, Lead Butt, Sergo, Klim, and the Armenian constituted Stalin's inner circle. They were a strange lot to lead the first socialist state: a Georgian (Ordzhonikidze), an Armenian (Mikoyan), a Jew (Kaganovich), and two Russians (Molotov and Voroshilov). The Cobbler did not mind doing dirty work. No one denied Sergo's commitment and organizational talents, but did he always have to let his temper explode? Only Lead Butt stood up to him. The Armenian took on any job, no matter how disagreeable, without complaining. The dullard Klim was perfect to oversee the military and attack the Master's enemies.

His Kremlin colleagues led happier family lives than the Master. Stalin's first wife, Katya, died of typhus a decade before the Great October Revolution of 1917. They met when her Svanidze family sheltered him from the czarist police. Katya gave him his first son, Yakov. He loved her unconditionally, and with her died most of his feelings of warmth for humanity. The Master regarded his in-laws as family. His sisters-in-law occupied the neighboring dacha and he included them in his social gatherings.

Stalin's second marriage ended in tragedy as well. Nadezhda gave him a son, Vasily, and a daughter, Svetlana. But in November 1932, following an argument with Stalin at a public event, she rushed back to their Kremlin apartment where, stung by his public humiliation, she fired the fatal bullet. Afterward, the Master traded apartments. He could not live where his Nadezhda had died. At least, Nadezhda could no longer share intimate details with her friends. Stalin did not blame himself. She betrayed him like all the other suicides. They "spat" on the party, he said. But he sobbed at her funeral. His little son, Vasily, comforted him: "Do not cry, Papa."

After Nadezhda's death, Stalin's colleagues wanted him to remarry. They lined up candidates, but the Master remained single. Presumably, he contented himself with dalliances in artistic circles arranged by his chief bodyguard. After all, the Master loved ballet and watched his favorite performances many times over. And he had his "secret wife" in the Near Dacha (so-called because it was nearer to Moscow than his other dachas) in the Moscow suburb of Kuntsevo. She earned that nickname after the staff spied her leaving his bedroom in the early hours.

The Master's two sons gave him no comfort. Yakov, the elder, wed a twice-married ballerina — yet another sign of weakness, in Stalin's eyes. Earlier, when Stalin disapproved of Yakov's first choice for a wife, Yakov tried to commit suicide, but failed. The boy couldn't even shoot straight when he tried to kill himself! His younger son, Vasily, had always been wild and rambunctious. The Master knew Vasily would amount to nothing, just like his older brother who committed suicide in a German POW camp. (Vasily would die a drunk in exile in 1962.) Little Svetlana scarcely saw her busy father. But she was the only one dear to him. He playfully called her his "master." Only she could touch the chords on the iron strings of his heart.

By the mid-1930s, Stalin was ready to consolidate his power. Whether the Master ordered it or not, the assassination of Leningrad party boss Sergei Kirov on December 1, 1934, gave him his chance to kill off the party elite.

The Master rushed with his retinue to the scene. He personally interrogated the assassin and Kirov's bodyguards the next day. A rash of mysterious accidents and suicides of eyewitnesses followed. Stalin ordered his kowtowing NKVD head, Genrikh Yagoda, to find Kirov's assassins among his political enemies, but Yagoda dithered until the Master decided he was not up to the job. The Master needed a loyal executioner who asked no questions and did as he was told.

The Cobbler had discovered Nikolai Ezhov a decade earlier, working as a functionary in the Central Committee on Old Square. Ezhov's immediate boss at the time, Ivan Moskvin, saw promise in this lackluster, dwarfish man dressed in a cheap suit with a collar fastening on the side: "If you give him an assignment, there is no need to check, but you must watch him. He does not know when to stop." The sinister cruelty in this diminutive and quiet man caught the Master's eye. He recognized indiscriminate and uncontrolled appetites when he saw them. He could use Ezhov's "black marks" — his alcoholism, his attraction to men, and his chasing after every skirt in sight — when the time came.

Ezhov did not disappoint as head of the Master's NKVD: he ecstatically tortured prisoners, his shirt covered with their blood. He shot the woman who had treated him as a son in Moscow. He gave the order to shoot a comrade, whose last words were, "I see in your eyes that you feel sorry for me." Ezhov's comrade was wrong.


Excerpted from Women of the Gulag by Paul R. Gregory. Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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