Grassy Narrows: emerging from trauma


Grassy Narrows song

Among the instructive parallels that Jing Jun makes in his portrayal of trauma in a Gansu village under Maoism is the wretched fate of a First Nation community in Grassy Narrows, northwestern Ontario—as detailed harrowingly in

  • Anastasia M. Shkilnyk, A poison stronger than love: the destruction of an Ojibwa community (1985, with an introduction by Kai Erikson). [1]

Grassy Narrows cover

The ordeals of Grassy Narrows make an extreme instance of the chronic problems faced by indigenous communities in North America and elsewhere.

Anastasia Shkilnyk (1945–­2014) was herself born to a Ukrainian refugee family in a Displaced Persons Camp, going on to study at the University of Toronto. As she found during her initial stay at Grassy Narrows from 1976 to 1979, successive disasters had compounded the vulnerability of the community.

All the indications of material poverty were there—substandard housing, the absence of running water and sewage connections, poor health, mass unemployment, low income, and welfare dependency—but something more fundamental seemed amiss.


In Chapter 1 Shkilnyk presents a gruesome catalogue of the self-mutilating disintegration of the community since the 1960s: spree drinking, child neglect and abuse, gas-sniffing, violent death, suicide, incest, gang rape. As she reflects after arriving at Grassy Narrows:

It wasn’t just the poverty of the place, the isolation, or even the lack of a decent bed that depressed me. I had seen worse material deprivation when I was working in squatter settlements around Santiago, Chile. And I had been in worse physical surroundings while working in war-devastated Ismailia on the project for the reconstruction of the Suez Canal. What struck me about Grassy Narrows was the numbness in the human spirit. There was an indifference, a listlessness, a total passivity that I could neither understand nor seem to do anything about. I had never seen such hopelessness anywhere in the Third World.

In what she describes as a “failure to thrive”,

caught in a void between two cultures, the children in this community are learning neither the basic skills of the mainstream community nor the traditional skills of the Indian way of life. […] The young have now been disinherited from the accumulated knowledge of earlier generations; at the same time, they have been dispossessed of the physical and emotional nourishment prerequisite to cognitive development.

Until the 1960s the Ojibwa

had preserved an ethos that encompassed, among other things, a deep attachment to the land and the rhythms of nature, respect for the dignity of the person, and the independence and self-sufficiency of clan-based family groups. They lived, as they had for generations, by hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering, now supplemented by occasional wage labour. The ebb and flow of life was reflected in their seasonal migrations between the winter trapping grounds and the summer encampment on the old reserve. Because of their relative isolation and limited contact with white society, the people managed to maintain considerable stability and continuity with the ancient patterns of Ojibwa life.

Chapter 2 outlines their traditional lifestyle and culture on the old reserve before the 1960s, noting gradual change. The common pattern of change throughout indigenous (and other) communities, over a long period since white contact, has been further exacerbated here by more recent relocation and ecological disaster.

Most challenges that the Ojibwa faced over this period can be traced directly or indirectly to white contact. Early encounters were mainly with the trading posts of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1873 Ojibwa chiefs (including, for the Grassy Narrows band, chief Sah-katch-eway) signed the important Treaty 3 with Queen Victoria.

But as white settlement expanded with the railroads, First Nation bands were vulnerable to the growing exploitation of native lands by logging and mining. Missionaries continued their work, recruiting youngsters to “residential schools” where they were to be assimilated and “civilised”.

In 1919 the global influenza pandemic struck the Ojibwa [2]—with medicine men powerless, this early sign of fatal defencelessness made them feel cursed. Shkilnyk cites at length the recollections of Maggie Land (b.1916)—while aware of the former community’s bond with the natural world, she recognised that there was no going back.

On the old reserve, rituals provided a sense of identity for the people of Grassy Narrows, such as naming ceremonies, the puberty vision quest, and the shaking tent ceremony. [3] Medicine men played a major role in regulating social conduct—including their use of malevolent magic. Yet

of all the symbolic observances practised on the old reserve just twenty or thirty years ago, only the rituals of death have meaning and continued relevance to the conditions of life on the new reserve.

Photos: Hiro Miyamatsu, late 1970s.

White society encroached gradually; but even as government measures increased from 1945, contacts remained quite limited until the relocation in 1963. The whole Ojibwa way of life—hunting, trapping, fishing, guiding—had been based on family ties, which were now torn apart. Both family and community bonds were eroded. As in other First Nation bands (only with alarming rapidity), with traditional livelihoods becoming untenable, new forms of wage labour were sporadic and unfamiliar; and as self-jurisdiction was eclipsed, the community found itself subject to government intervention in the form of welfare, dependent on external sources of life support. The role of chief became purely political. [4] With the shift from production to consumption, it was only from the 1960s that heavy drinking and violence became a serious problem. In the words of a former chief, “Alcohol was the white man’s poison, and now it’s ours.”

Shkilnyk discusses the role of the nearest town of Kenora, 60 miles southwest of Grassy Narrows. She notes that most of its early inhabitants were recent immigrants who worked on railway construction crews: Norwegians, Finns, Ukrainians, Yugoslavs, Poles, Scots, Irish, English, and Chinese (cf. Accordion crimes).

After a road connecting Kenora and the reserve was built in the late 1950s, it was on the town’s bars that Grassy Narrows people would descend for destructive bouts of spree drinking. Here too they encountered racist aggression and the full force of the white man’s law.

The Indians exchanged the intangible benefit of independence for the tangible benefits they received from the federal government (housing, schools, jobs, welfare, medical treatment). As the Indians accepted the goods and services offered to them by the government, they progressively lost their claim to being an independent people. Ultimately, they lost the ability to make decisions for themselves, at least within the context of the goods and services they accepted.

All this also gave rise to prejudice against them—ignoring

the historical evidence that it is the very geographic, legal, and economic segregation of Indian people from the mainstream society, combined with the erosion of the traditional economic base of Indian culture, that has led to their present dependence on government bureaucracies.

Isolated protests against discrimination (a civil rights march in 1964, and a more aggressive confrontation in 1974 by the Ojibwey Warriors Society) hardly changed attitudes—indeed, the 1974 incident prompted a backlash.

In Chapter 7 Shkilnyk details the transformation of a society in which “there was a remarkable degree of integration between spheres of activity that we label social, political, religious, and economic”; where “the people built a life based on hard work, subsistence, self-sufficiency, and independence”. She shows the process of government policies of “community development” and modernization: compulsory school attendance, sedentarisation, the promise of wage labour, even as trapping, hunting, and gardening were swiftly becoming untenable. As tourism became popular, guiding and commercial fishing would only provide a temporary resource. She goes on to discuss the economics of dependency, increasing social inequality, the ethics provided by the new economic system, undermining traditional Indian values—and diet:

In a span on only one generation, the Grassy Narrows people changed from being active producers of most of their own food to passive consumers of store-bought groceries. Their eating habits changed from a protein-rich diet of game and fish to a nutritionally inferior diet of imported food staples heavy in starch and sugar.

Again, this problem resembles that of affluent societies, but the change here has been abrupt. Shkilnyk describes the transformation of the role of women, “the silent victims of modernisation”.

As an elder summarised:

When the people moved to the new reserve, they became better-off in some ways. They got better houses, more cash, they were nearer to a road, they got better care by doctors. Life on the old reserve was much harder. People worked hard to eat; they were skinnier. Today, life is much easier, but why are so many people dying from alcohol?

Life is more easy now. But before … you could depend on your own people, and now you have to depend on the white man. The white man has taken over in all the basic things. Now the government people tell you what to do. We had a lot more freedom in the old days. We gave up the freedom to use the land in exchange for getting things from the white man. I say that freedom was not a good thing to trade.

Shkilnyk ends the chapter by posing two questions:

First, who really benefits from the kind of development set in motion in Indian communities by the federal government? Second, has this development led to the stated policy goal, namely, “the full, free, and nondiscriminatory participation of Indian people in Canadian society”?

Her answers are not encouraging.

What government policy has accomplished is to push the Indian people further away from participation in the productive activities of the nation than they have ever been, to separate them from the means of production embodied essentially in land and in the resources of the land, and to turn them into men and women who have neither land nor capital nor even a secure palce among those Canadians who exchange only their labour for a subsistence wage. The increase in the material standard of living on Indian reserves, therefore, must be seen not as a result of free and equal participation in Canadian society but as compensation, paid by the society, for the continued exclusion of Indian people from the productive processes of the nation. The ultimate hallmark of this kind of development is not participation but marginality.

Chapter 8 explores government policy and decision-making in the context of evolution of national policy, focusing on the decision to relocate and the physical planning of the new community. Like commune members in Maoist China, some likened the new reserve to a concentration camp. Still, Indian communities across Canada disintegrated whether or not they were relocated.

For a people already cast adrift from their moorings, the 1970 discovery of mercury poisoning in the river system, with long-term effects, was “the last nail in the coffin”—not only destroying their health but depriving them of their few remaining sources of livelihood (including guiding). As the Reed Paper Company sought to protect itself from culpability, and as political interests came to the fore, making court justice look remote, the community became even more hostile towards the white authorities—an imprint that Shkilnyk suggests may be “every bit as cruel and demoralizing as the poison in the river”. The net effect

was to further undermine the conditions for self-sufficiency, to intensify dependence on government support, and ultimately to accelerate the breakdown in community life.

Psychologically too, the disaster made people feel that “the land had somehow turned against them and become poisonous. […] The world of nature, not only the world of men, could no longer be trusted.” Despite considerable media publicity, their struggle for justice only “reinforced the Indians’ feeling of helplessness, apathy, and alienation”.

The limited assistance that was forthcoming for remedial and short-term projects was always extended in the spirit of charity; neither government wished its actions to be interpreted as an acknowledgement of legal, moral, or social obligation to redress injustice or to compensate for inflicted adversity.

Shkilnyk updates the story: by 1985 compensation was finally being paid. Yet

money alone will not solve all the social problems. The hope is that the settlement will be a catalyst in rebuilding community morale and helping individuals rediscover their own strength in repairing the damage done by years of neglect. At least now there is a chance for renewal, a foundation for a new beginning, so long delayed.

In a Postcript, she reflects on the catastrophe and its background, and points out the valiant efforts the people have made since the 1970s to cope with their problems. Yet

Today, over half the Indian adult population of Canada is dependent on welfare for subsistence. Only 20% of Indian children complete secondary school, compared to 75% nationwide. Indian housing conditions are abysmal; fewer than 40% of Indian houses have running water, for example, compared to over 90% in the country as a whole. There are more Indian children in the care of foster homes today than at any time since the 1960s; since 1962, there has also been a fivefold increase in the number of Indian children taken for adoption. Among those Indians who survive infancy, many will die violently; about 33% of all Indian deaths in Canada are due to violence. Indians in the 15 to 44 age-group meet with violent death at a rate that is five times the national average. And suicide rates among Indian people have been climbing steadily over the 1970s. Suicides now account for 35% of all Indian deaths in the 15 to 20 age-group, and 21% of all deaths in the 21 to 34 age-group. Suicide rates among Canadian Indians are six times the national average and are significantly higher than among Indians in the United States.

Unpacking the well-meaning yet misguided official notions of development and progress, she sees the Grassy Narrows case as both a unique and a generalized tragedy.

In the face of both the continuity of impacts stemming from almost a hundred years of internal colonialism and the added pressures generated by the relocation and the mercury pollution, it is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit that the people of Grassy Narrows have managed to survive at all. For not only has their entire way of life been rendered dysfunctional, but they have been consistently been led to believe that their culture is barbaric and that they are a primitive and inferior people.

Shkilnyk’s book is a clear and detailed exposition of a complex and traumatic subject. She was a social scientist deeply concerned for the people of Grassy Narrows; but are there any limits on what should be exposed to a wider public, when real people are trying to survive? She comments “However painful this portrait may be to a people seemingly disfigured and broken in spirit by historical circumstance, it is the price they have to pay to make us understand their case for social justice.”

Sure, to understand and remedy the problem, we have to know about it; yet conscientious as is Shkilnyk’s research, I suspect that not all will be convinced that they should still have to pay yet another price. So while her book was well received (e.g. here), other sources refrain from dwelling on all the alcohol-fuelled child abuse, of which this is an extreme instance of a common problem. Indeed, this review by David McRobert is more critical: he still finds it “a largely parasitic and partly anemic work in the tradition of liberal thought in Canada”.

In effect, what emerges from the painful passages in the book is a ringing endorsement of the ancient notion that the worst pain one can suffer is to have insight into much and power over nothing. Shkilnyk’s position throughout is truly tragic—she sees what is wrong with the community and knows how it could be better but [neither] she nor the others in government responsible for dealing with the problem seem to think that anything can be done about it. Apart from a few cryptic passages, she is unable to describe the alternative approaches that might have been  pursued by the government in resolution of the Grassy Narrows crisis. […]
In the end, one is left with the uneasy feeling that this book is too good to be true. Literally. Shkilnyk’s attempt to mass-market the pain of Grassy Narrows seems crass and one wonders what exactly the book can accomplish at this point. I hope it will be viewed as a historical treatise by the community members themselves. It is unfortunate that they have to have their personal tragedies revealed to the international community through publications of this kind in order to get the attention their horrible situation deserves.

The wider context, and the recent picture
Beyond the problems of First Nation communities (including the Inuit) and Native Americans in the USA, one thinks of ethnic minorities under modern nation-states elsewhere around the world, such as Aborigines in Australia and other nomadic populations (e.g. Kazakhs); the Jews and Roma; and traumas under Stalin (e.g. Figes, Applebaum), the Holocaust, and Mao (such as Tibetans and Uyghurs, and for the Han Chinese, China: commemorating trauma).

So, returning to Jing Jun, he did well to draw a parallel with Grassy Narrows in his study of a demoralised community under Maoism amidst ecological and social destruction. As he wrote:

Turning memories of suffering into a source of cultural revitalisation is an extremely difficult task. In a sensitive ethnography describing the removal of an Ojibwa community to a new, alien, and polluted reserve in Canada, Anastasia Shkilnyk reports that members of this community have a quite unified memory of what caused the destruction of their homeland. There is also a pervasive agreement that on the old reserve life was characterised by close family ties, communal support, moral principles, and traditional norms of social and sexual interactions. But such memories only serve to accentuate the agony of a deeply wounded culture, they provide scant defence against increasing rates of child abuse, alcoholism, divorce, suicide, gang rape, and murder. While this deplorable situation is related to the internal decay of the traditional social order that followed resettlement, it is exacerbated by external forces of racial hostility, bureaucratic indifference, job discrimination, cultural stereotypes, and a long history of defeats since the greater Ojibwa community’s initial encounter with Europeans. In contrast to the Jewish experience, what we see in the Ojibwa case is that collective memory and communal mourning do not suffice to turn pain into any positive energy; what remains is full-blown despair.

Of course, areas of “affluent” Western society are seriously dysfunctional too. Shkilnyk concludes by observing:

For one thing, we now know that there are communities that can become unraveled to such an extent that the people in them lose much of their sense of self-worth and well-being, sometimes even their will to survive, and begin to spin off in directions of their own and die, literally or figuratively. For another, we know that this can happen when people are subjected to fundamental change, at a rate far beyond their ability to cope, in every single aspect of their culture simultaneously. In this process of total intrusion, if they also lose the hold on their spiritual selves, their vision of the future, and their hope of regaining some measure of control over their circumstances, then life itself ceases to have meaning. In this sense, Grassy Narrows serves as a poignant example of how fragile a society can be, and how we as humans may respond to conditions of unprecedented stress by destroying ourselves.

It may well be that Grassy Narrows also represents a microcosm, greatly magnified and concentrated in time and space, of the destructive processes at work in our own society. Is it not possible that the pressures that crippled the people of Grassy Narrows are the same pressures that, much more slowly and covertly, are crippling us as well?

The struggles of society elsewhere, and of alienated youth, suggest general lessons about individual and collective trauma—the former (as Ericson comments) more readily mended than the latter. Still, in Western society the post-war rebuilding continued, largely oblivious to the sufferings of indigenous peoples like the Ojibwa. Shkilnyk’s story casts a disturbing light on the energy that we celebrate since the 1960s; and it all seems a world away from the civil rights movement, or indeed the violence and depression of the Cultural Revolution.

Recent attention to Grassy Narrows (e.g. here) focuses on mercury poisoning; but social issues continue—see e.g. this report from 2016.

Steve Fobister (1952–2018), the most respected chief in modern times, who campaigned tirelessly for his fractured community to be compensated, died of the long-term effects of mercury poisoning in 2018.

But it seems that the more recent picture may not be not altogether desolate; and if even partial recovery is possible, then that too deserves study and publicity. A more encouraging update is

  • Anna J. Willow, Strong hearts, native lands: the cultural and political landscape of Anishinaabe anti-clearcutting activism (2012).

While world music fans rightly celebrate the cultures of the Inuit, or the Australian Aborigines, or the Uyghurs, where can expressive culture possibly come into all this? We have to consider it within the context of the decimation of society.

Just one instance of the recent Ojibwa ritual tradition in north Wisconsin:

And as young people in Grassy Narrows try to make sense of their lives, it’s worth ending on a note of hope—here’s Home to me (2016):

The story now prompts me to explore Native American cultures further—starting here.


[1] For introductions, see the Canadian Encyclopedia and wiki entries, both more discreet. The community’s own site focuses on continuing efforts to gain compensation for the ecological disaster. For a range of reports from CBC, see here; for a general introduction to the Ojibwa, here.

[2] For the vulnerability of First Nation bands during the present pandemic, see e.g. here.

[3] For some recordings of Ojibwa music, click on sidebar menu here; for Minnesota, see Michael D. McNally, Ojibwe singers: hymns, grief and a native culture in motion (2000). All this is part of the major field of studies on changing Native American musical cultures—from Frances Densmore, George Herzog, and Marius Barbeau to Bruno Nettl, Alan Merriam, David McAllester, and Charlotte Frisbie (To Name But A Few). See e.g. the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians (along with Helen Myers’ overview in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies, pp.404–18), the Garland encyclopedia of world music, and various dedicated bibliographies. Note also the Inuit: some links here.

[4] Here one may find a certain resemblance to the intrusion of the modern state into rural China since the Republican era, as the traditional moral and political leadership of village affairs was replaced by appointees answerable to the wider secular government; for Hebei, see e.g. Prasenjit Duara, here.


Chinese-Russian Muslims: the Dungan people


Dungan 2

Source: wiki.

Among the many ethnic minorities of the former Soviet Union (see e.g. Cheremis, Chuvash, and Kazakhs), the Dungan people are Chinese Hui Muslims who fled in waves from Shaanxi and Gansu in northwest China by way of Xinjiang, following the uprisings of the 1870s. Mainly living in Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan, by 2003 they numbered around 100,000. Along with their traditional customs they preserved their original Chinese dialects, using Cyrillic instead of Chinese characters.

* * *

In the West, knowledge of the Dungan people sets forth from the work of the remarkable Svetlana Rimsky-Korsakoff Dyer, great-granddaughter of the composer.* The following is adapted from this post. I do hope she’s been writing her memoirs.

Her father Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakoff, a high-ranking officer in the Czarist army, had fled to China after the 1917 Revolution. After the fall of St Petersburg he joined the Russian community in Harbin in northeast China, where Svetlana was born in 1931.

Later the family moved to the capital Peking, where the young Svetlana received a mixed Russian–Chinese education. During the Japanese occupation of Peking the family took refuge in the southwestern province of Yunnan, where they were eventually granted Chinese citizenship.

In 1945, after the retreat of the Japanese, the family returned to Peking. Svetlana’s second father, the last governor of Kamchatka under Czarist rule, took up a professorship of history at Tsinghua University. Svetlana enrolled at the Catholic Fu Jen University in Peking and became one of the rare foreigners studying and living among the local Chinese students, witnessing violent clashes between Communist and Nationalist troops. She was present during the siege of the campus by Communist troops, and was forced to attend anti-foreigner and anti-missionary campaigns under Mao Zedong.

Following the 1949 Communist revolution, the Rimsky-Korsakoffs were stripped of their Chinese nationality. A period of economic and psychological hardship began for the family. The father was forced to quit his professorship of history for ideological reasons, and to teach Russian instead. In the 1950s the family fled China by boat, along with the last missionaries expelled from China. Svetlana was now stateless, a plight that would only end many years later when she received Australian citizenship.

In 1960 she enrolled in the master’s programme for Asian languages at Georgetown University, Washington. Hoping to study Chinese proverbs, she sought the advice of Fr Paul Serruys, professor of Chinese philology at the university. But once he learned of Svetlana’s mixed Russian-Chinese background, Serruys promptly steered her to work on the language of the Dungan minority. In 1965 Svetlana submitted her master’s dissertation The Dungan dialect: introduction and morphology—the first scholarly work on the Dungans in the West. Virtually no other written materials on them were available in the West, and no fieldwork had yet been done among the Dungans themselves.

SvetlanaAfter Georgetown, Svetlana began teaching Chinese at Australian National University (Canberra) as she worked on a PhD. While still engaged in projects on early Chinese literature, her fascination with the Dungans remained.

In 1977, she embarked on the first of several stays with the Dungans, who were then living in kolkhoz collectives in the Kyrghyz and Kazakh republics. Svetlana shared their daily life, attending their weddings and funerals and recording their language. In the 1980s she also worked with the “national Dungan poet” Iasyr Shivaza.

Among her publications on the Dungans are

  • Soviet Dungan kolkhozes in the Kirghiz S.S.R. and the Kazakh S.S.R., Oriental monograph series, 25, Canberra (1980)
  • “Soviet Dungan nationalism: a few comments on their origin and language”, Monumenta Serica 33 (1977–8).
  • Karakunuz : An Early Settlement of the Chinese Muslims in Russia“, Asian folklore studies 51 (1992), citing impressive early Russian ethnographies as well as later fieldwork under the USSR, with an Appendix on her own visits in 1977, 1985, and 1991.

Dungan 1

Karakunuz (renamed Masanchin in 1965), Kazakhstan, 1991, from Dyer, ibid.
Much as I’d like to offer a photo of the Dungans during the Soviet period, media images revolve predictably around weddings and cuisine.

More recently the Dungans feature in the work of scholars of the Hui Muslims, such as Dru Gladney, Jonathan Lipman, and Ha Guangtian. Inside the PRC, while the Uyghurs bear the brunt of recent persecutions, the Hui Muslims are not exempt.

On the cultural front, Vibeke Børdahl kindly alerts me to the work of the Russian sinologist Boris Riftin (1932–2012) on Dungan folktales, notably

  • Li Fuqing 李福清 [Boris Riftin], Donggan minjian gushi chuanshuo ji 東干民間故事傳說集 [Collection of Dungan folktales and legends] (2011, translated from original 1977 Russian edition), reviewed in CHINOPERL 31 (2012), along with the tribute
  • Rostislav Berezkin, “Academician Boris L’vovich Riftin (1932–2012): the extraordinary life of a brilliant scholar”.

Riftin first visited the Dungans in 1950, going on to work as a volunteer there in 1953—a period when ethnography of the changing times would have been instructive, yet impossible.

As ever, what interests me in particular here is the lives of people, and their culture, through the turbulent, distressing period of Stalin’s regime (cf. The Ukraine famineThe whisperers, Svetlana Alexievich, and again the Kazakh famine); I’d like to read details of the early years of the revolution, the Great Purge, the Great Patriotic War and the aftermath. But it seems that such stories for the Dungans remain elusive.

Even in 2020 a violent ethnic clash occurred that resulted in more cross-border flight:


With thanks to Beth McKillop.


* For a superfluous yet wonderful link, do listen to my violin teacher Hugh Maguire’s 1964 recording of Scheherazade with Pierre Monteux and the LSO.



Forgotten victims




Margerite Kraus, a Czech Roma who survived Auschwitz (her camp number visible on her left forearm) and Ravensbrück. GDR, c1966.

Only a few more days remain to view an exhibition at the excellent Wiener library in London,

The site gives extensive links to press coverage. Note also relevant sections of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, including this page on music (Roma musicians also play a major role in my post on Musical cultures of east Europe).

In the history of the Holocaust, the Porajmos (“Devouring”, though among the Roma the term is controversial and little used), far less publicised than the Jewish genocide, is often reduced to a footnote.

The exhibition explores Roma and Sinti life in Germany and Austria prior to the Second World War, and genocidal policies starting in German-occupied Poland in 1940. It also examines the post-war lives and legacies for Roma and Sinti, who fought to obtain recognition and compensation for their oppression. It reflects on the situation in Britain and Europe today, with prejudice and discrimination against them still common—featuring the testimony of Józef Sadowski, the only known Roma survivor of Nazi persecution living in the UK today.


A most compelling ethnography is

  • Isobel Fonseca, Bury me standing: the gypsies and their journey (1995); she reflects on the Porajmos in ch.7. 

Gypsies have no myths about the beginnings of the world, or about their own origins; they have no sense of a great historical past. Very often their memories do not extend beyond three or four generations—that is, to those experiences and ancestors who are remembered by the oldest person among them. The rest, as it were, were not history. […]
The Second World War and its traumas are certainly within living memory; but there is no tradition of commemoration, or even of discussion. Some thought that such talk might actually be dangerous: “Why give them ideas?” a young Hungarian Rom asked, fifty years after the event. Under the Nazis, the Gypsies were the only group apart from the Jews who were slated for extermination on the grounds of race. It is a story that remains unknown—even to many Gypsies who survived it.

As Fonseca observes, whereas the Enlightenment brought European Jews opportunities for education and commerce previously closed to them, the Roma remained the “quintessential outsiders of the European imagination”, rejecting assimilation.

Belzec camp, 1940: left, perhaps Jozef Kwiek, self-proclaimed King of Polish gypsies; right, Kalderash gypsies from Romania.

Even before Hitler came to power in 1933, a law “Combatting Gypsies, vagabonds, and the work shy” was passed in Bavaria in 1926, with a counterpart in Prussia the following year. The plight of the Roma became ever more acute through the 1930s. The Nazis regarded gypsies as congenital criminals, subsuming them in a litany of “undesirables” or “asocials”—along with communists, social democrats, trade unionists, pacifists, homosexuals, dissenting clergy, Jehovah’s Witnesses, freemasons, Slavs.

Rough estimates of Roma murdered during the war (and their populations of the time) vary widely: from between 220,000 and 500,000 (25% to over 50% of slightly under 1 million Roma), to about 1.5 million out of 2 million.

Although German Gypsies had been out into German concentration camps as early as 1934, in November of 1941 Łódź became the first place in Poland where Gypsies were gathered for extermination in a camp setting. Here they were completely sealed off, and were out of sight; only the few Jewish doctors who treated a typhus epidemic, and then Jewish gravediggers, witnessed their end.

Apart from the Sinti of central Europe—German, Austrian, Polish, Czech, Slovak—those rounded up came from Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Russia and the Baltic states; from Norway, Belgium, France, and Holland. Many were herded into ghettos and deported to camps—including Auschwitz, Chelmno, Dachau, BuchenwaldRavensbrück, and Sachsenhausen—and subjected to forced medical experiments and sterilisation. In Auschwitz they were housed as families in Zigeunerlager; but the atrocious conditions there soon led to fatal epidemics.

And as Timothy Snyder points out, in the Bloodlands those summarily executed in mass shootings far outnumbered those who perished in the camps.

On commemorating the traumas of Nazism, note also A Nazi legacy. For the USSR, see under Life behiind the Iron Curtain: a roundup; for Maoist China, here.

Keeping you guessing

I’ve found the last few weeks most fruitful—I hope you’re as stimulated as I am by this range of topics. Here’s a reminder of some recent posts.

Below I group them under themes, but in real time I also keep the reader [singular, eh? Mrs Ivy Trellis I presume—Ed.] guessing by purposefully alternating them, with frequent cross-links—the old “delighting in all manifestation of the Terpichorean muse“. Do click away: 

On war, trauma, and memory:

Not forgetting China:

and more… Some of my favourites from the archive, both serious and jocular, are grouped here.

The Kazakh famine

Trauma and memory


The famine in Ukraine of the early 1930s (see posts under Life behind the Iron curtain: a roundup) was publicised abroad by early journalists like Gareth Jones, and later through the work of the Ukrainian diaspora and scholars like Robert Conquest and Anne Applebaum.

But from 1931 to 1934 there was widespread dearth throughout the Soviet Union; the Ukraine holodomor has largely eclipsed other devastating famines in the North Caucasus and the Volga, and notably further east in Kazakhstan—a vast territory the size of continental Europe. It makes an important piece of the grisly jigsaw filling in the troubled histories of Russia, Xinjiang, and China (see e.g. here); and it also relates to the commemoration and recognition of guilt in Germany (see e.g. here).

Conquest had already addressed the topic in chapter 9 of his 1986 book The harvest of sorrow (1986), “Central Asia and the Kazakh tragedy”. Now we have two major books to help supplement the picture: [1]

  • Robert Kindler, Stalin’s nomads: power and famine in Kazakhstan (translated by Cynthia Klohr, 2018; German original, 2014)
  • Sarah Cameron, The hungry steppe: famine, violence, and the making of Soviet Kazakhstan (2018)

It is no easy task to unravel the threads of forced collectivization, famine, and all the social changes that they entailed. In Central Asia, the state’s attempts to implement socialism were further complicated by their mission to permanently sedentarise nomads. While I look forward to reading Cameron’s book, here I’ll discuss that of Kindler.

Central Asia since the 1990s

Central Asia since the 1990s.

In his Introduction Kindler summarizes the main themes.

More than a third of all Kazakhs died, or a fourth of Kazakhstan’s entire population. People died of hunger or disease, were shot, or slain. Hundreds of thousands were displaced; some turned to begging or banditry. Social nets fell apart. As the nomads’ herds were confiscated and depleted, the economy of the steppe collapsed. […]

Clans were replaced by kolkhozes, brigades, and other collectives that produced and distributed indispensable resources. People became dependent on the institutions of the Soviet state. […] It was Sovietization by hunger.

These initiatives “threw the region into chaos, causing mass flight, civil war, and an unprecedented shortage of food”.

As Kindler observes, Soviet modernity made no provision for pastoralists. Nomads were difficult to tax and difficult to supervise, thwarting the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Citing James Scott, he notes that

the probability of catastrophe grows when authoritarian leaders use such methods on societies that are unable to ward off radical change. […] But the road from theoretical sedentism to real permanent settlement was long, arduous, and paved with suffering.

For the competing groups within Kazakh society,

collectivization and sedentarization gave them opportunities to advocate their own particular interests. […] Different levels of loyalty [to the Soviet state] were often difficult to distinguish.

While the whole system was built on confusion and terror, violence, omnipresent throughout the USSR under Stalin, was not a simple two-sided war between the state and the people. As later in China,

The Soviet project to rebuild society rested on the generation of perceived differences. […] Stalin pitted various institutions against each other to keep them under control.

Kindler unpacks the inadequacies of analyses of famine:

Students of the Soviet famine of 1932–33 have often focused on the social, political, and economic causes of famine and its demographic consequences. Much of this research has suggested that under the circumstances of food shortage, frustrated people had no influence on the events dictated to them. People affected by famine were mostly depicted as vague, passive, helpless victims with almost no agency. What happens to people who starve, how they behave when threatened with death, and what it means to survive a food shortage have seldom been described. Rarely do we read that people confronted with starvation become self-centered and asocial. Post-Soviet historiography in particular has cultivated the myth that peasants and nomads formed mutually supportive groups to master the crisis collectively, but that, unfortunately, they failed.

It takes time for food shortages to wreak devastation. Citing Amartya Sen on “food entitlement decline”, Kindler suggests a broader approach going beyond economic analyses. Strategies to cope with vulnerability; even in extremis, when a crisis becomes so great that it can no longer be met with the instruments normally employed in such situations, people are not merely victims. Still, by the early 1930s the Kazakhs had lost much of their capacity to resist external threats. Hunger may not have been premeditated, but it broke the nomads’ resistance.

Kindler disputes the popular theory of deliberate genocide that has become common for Ukraine. He notes the inevitable bias of the text-based, largely Soviet and Russian, sources; naturally we have few written accounts from the largely oral, illiterate culture of the nomads themselves. Even major sources that he utilises in the Kazakh archives still only contain the nomads’ own views as mediated by others.

Chapter 1, “Kazakh nomads and Russian colonial power”, shows that in the hierarchical traditional Kazakh society, the term kulak was no more relevant than for other cultures in the Soviet Union. Waves of state sedentarising policies predated the revolution but escalated. In 1916 the conflict between peasant settlers and nomads erupted in a major uprising, with hundreds of thousands of Kazakhs fleeing to China. Civil war soon followed, bringing anarchy and starvation.

In Chapter 2, “Soviet rule in the steppe”, Kindler shows how the Communists gradually expanded their power by destroying the old clans, at the cost of deeply alienating the people. But as later in rural China, there were severe obstacles to the reach of the state:

Many party members were technically and politically illiterate: they could neither read nor write. When documents could not be translated into Kazakh, the most rational solution for aul leaders was simply to gather, acknowledge, and then ignore them.

Alliances between indigenous leaders and the Communists were fragile.

Kindler goes on to explore the process of sedentarization. As later with the Chinese peasantry, the thorny issue of “raising the cultural level” of the nomads loomed; the Bolsheviks considered them “backward”, their whole culture “inferior”. But their efforts to transform the nomads’ customs by addressing issues in hygiene, and the status of women, were largely fruitless.

Source: Central State Archive of Video and Photo Documents of the Republic of Kazakhstan (courtesy of Zhanbolat Mamay), via Sarah Cameron.

The leadership only briefly countenanced the warnings of experts that nomadism was the only form of productivity on the steppe, and that to transform it would be to destroy the economy. State power depended on limiting mobility.

As the conflict between nomads and settlers intensified, Russian farmers also suffered. With land reform, many were forcibly deported in a reign of terror led by Georgii Safarov. Resistance in 1920 was crushed: as one report commented, “These evacuees are almost exclusively women and children. There are no men among them; the men have almost all been executed”. The Kazakhs saw land reform as an opportunity for revenge for the massacre of 1916.

Land reform came to a halt soon after Safarov was demoted in 1922. Meanwhile unyielding grain procurements led to another famine in 1921–22, when conservative estimates suggest that over 400,000 died. As the pendulum swung again, a fragile peace obtained. Kazakhs were given preferential treatment over settlers migrating to the region, but the latter put up a fight, and with Party leaders unable to reconcile the disparate interests, by 1928 settler migration was once again condoned.

In 1925, as Filipp Goloschekin was installed as the first Party Secretary of the region, conflict, repression, and purges escalated. Kindler goes on to unpack the complex competing networks among clans and within the Party leadership. Kazakhs within the Party were often marginalized, as mere figureheads—a pattern later all too common among the minority regions of the PRC.

Chapter 3, “Collectivization and sedentarization”, shows how central policies continued to impact on the regional picture. In the wake of the national Great Terror of 1927–28, the Great Turn of 1929, implemented with violence, initiated the destruction of the private sector. Confiscations and requisitions of grain and livestock from pastoralists soon led to destitution. Many fled across the border to Xinjiang, as they had often done before. But “collectivization was not only a war of the state against the people, it was also a war of the folk against itself”.

Both peasants and nomads had to pay. In the winter of 1929–30 hell broke loose in Soviet villages, with brutal raids. The task of the young activists sent by the central leadership to implement the brutal decree, often with no experience of either rural or nomadic life, was also unenviable:

Emissaries from the Soviet regime were threatened, beaten, tortured, and murdered when they collected tributes or tried to force people to join the kolkhozes.

1929 ganbu

While many of them had been successfully educated to believe in their task, not all were crusaders for the cause.

Numerous reports of the men’s enormous consumption of alcohol and their excessive carousing perhaps indicate that many suffered emotionally from the strain of their duties.

In March 1930 Stalin briefly put a brake on coercive collectivization—immediately prompting mass defections as well as further agricultural ravages. But even while 20,000 “kulak” families were deported from Kazakhstan, the region had to accommodate 30,000 “kulak” households from elsewhere in the Soviet Union. As the catastrophe escalated, herds were destroyed: by 1933 over 90% of all livestock had been lost. “Sedentarization through expropriation turned nomads into refugees and beggars.” Settlements were decreed on land unsuitable for cultivation; lack of materials made building work fruitless. Chaotic measures took a terrible toll.

Nomads would also have to make way for the vast network of labour camps for victims of repression from elsewhere, that was being planned from 1930.

In Chapter 4, “Civil war and flight”, Kindler shows the tenuity of Bolshevik rule if Kazakhs could manage to mobilize in resistance. By 1930 the long hostility of both nomads and peasants to state policies escalated into a fragmented civil war—Kindler again unpacking diverse motives for popular violence. Some Muslim groups waged holy war and sought to establish sharia law. Brutal revolts were brutally suppressed; after September 1931 serious uprisings ceased.


Amidst the vast coercive displacements of the whole Soviet people, the indigenous Kazakh population was inundated with outsiders, including many inmates from labour camps. While nomads always depended on mobility, they now resorted to more radical migration across borders, with a vast exodus of refugees. While state policies eased somewhat after 1935, with nomadism tacitly condoned again, the pattern of cross-border migration would continue over a long period—and in both directions.

Warfare was intense in the Sino-Soviet borderland. Many Kazakhs fled by arduous routes to the Chinese-held province of Xinjiang; but there too, complex power struggles were under way, with smugglers, spies, and bandits among the population. [2] Nomads were accustomed to moving between borders, and there had been major flights in 1916 and 1928. Soviet forces carried out several massacres. For those Kazakhs who managed to reach Xinjiang, starvation was a danger there too.

Within the Soviet borders many Kazakhs also fled to Turkmen and Uzbek territory, as well as western Siberia. Unwelcome in such regions that Soviet policies had also reduced to desperation, they often became beggars.

Chapter 5, “Famine”, most lengthy and harrowing of all, opens starkly:

Between 1930 and 1934 at least a quarter of Kazakhstan’s total population perished.

Famine was widespread throughout the Soviet Union, not just in Kazakhstan and Ukraine but in North Caucasus and the Volga region. Other ethnic minorities within these regions also starved. But relief was secondary to the central goals of procurement and collectivization: the crisis reached its peak following the introductions of measures contrived to reduce it.

The catastrophe had unfolded gradually, but in the midst of armed struggles and mass migration, reports of famine multiplied from 1930. As solidarity and social cohesion dwindled, no-one could escape violence and its consequences. Children were orphaned or abandoned. Kindler cites documents describing cannibalism, and tellingly discusses the very countenance of starvation:

Going hungry radically changes people. They do not suddenly become recognizable victims. Over a longer period of time their figures, facial features, and ultimately their natures begin to change. Death by starvation is not sudden and unexpected. It announces itself gradually over days, weeks, even months. […] The hungry lose weight and look haggard and boney. Their skin loses suppleness and becomes pale. Muscles atrophy and warp posture. The starving often become apathetic and passive toward their environment. Finally they lose interest in anything except food. Starvation blocks out all other emotions and and induces a condition in which people tend to develop extreme forms of what, under other circumstances, they would consider their “normal” behaviour.

The faces of the starving frighten and horrify others. Their countenances speak of imminent death. Others may feel as if the radical change in facial expression comes from a loss of individuality and personality.

He cites the shocked reports of officials on the disaster.

But after experiencing the initial horror most people became complacent and callous. No-one could handle such constant confrontation with misery. […] The majority gradually became accustomed to the starving around them and resigned to accepting it. The longer they were confronted with hungry people, the less it bothered them. […]

Rejection of the starving often enough turned into overt hostility. […] The starving formed society’s lowest stratum. They were chased off, threatened, and often killed. They were strangers and beggars. Refugees were part of an undifferentiated gray mass with no future and a past that interested no-one.

As with the later Chinese famine,

It is no coincidence and it was not for a lack of camera equipment that there are few photographs of starving people in Kazakhstan. The catastrophe had no countenance and it was to be given none.

The food distribution points set up by the authorities were sites to which the starving were banished and left to die, reflecting “what characterized the Soviet Union as a whole: the conviction that useless people must be cleared away and disposed of as waste”. Violent ethnic tensions increased further. Officials too were vulnerable, concerned only for their own survival in a fragile pecking order. For the Soviet leadership the famine was an opportunity to subordinate the Kazakh nomads and peasants once and for all.

By late 1933 minor policy adjustments gradually led to the end of the worst sufferings. Despite resistance from both the Kazakh leadership and refugees, refugees began to be repatriated. Even people who had fled to Xinjiang, itself in the grip of civil war, planned to return. Still, with provisions for returnees quite inadequate, the death count continued to rise in 1934. A repressive system of internal passports was introduced. Those who had somehow survived now had to resign themselves to the kolkhoz.

In Chapter 6, “Soviet nomadism”, Kindler describes the aftermath. While plans for sedentarization continued, nomadism was now partially tolerated; the size of herds gradually increased, although only a minority would now be under the control of the kolkhozes. The leadership even began to accept national customs and folklore, at least in commodified form—as ever, I’m keen to see local reports on any such grassroots revival. Conditions on Kazakh-run kolkhozes were yet worse than those managed by Russians, and their performances poorer. Kolkhozes often became fictitious entities, lacking permanent buildings.

This standoff continued until the chaos unleashed by the Great Terror of 1937–38. In Kazakhstan regaining control over livestock breeding became a focus, resulting in further expropriations. And the region now became one of the major destinations for mass deportation:

Entire ethnic groups like Armenians, Koreans, and later Germans and Chechens populated the “special settlements” and the Kazakh branches of the Gulag, including above all the gigantic Karlag.

As the plan to “make the steppe arable” was left to prisoners and slave-labourers, the gulag came to form the backbone of Soviet power in central Kazakhstan (see e.g. here and here), a major part of the fatally warped economy. In One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich Solzhenitsyn describes his time in Kazakh gulags in the early 1950s. Between 1931 and 1959 over one million “enemies of the people” laboured in the Karlag.

The war that erupted when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 caused grievous losses throughout the bloodlands of the western regions. It also marked a renaissance for Kazakh nomadism, although many livestock froze or starved to death. After the Great Victory, agronomists and ethnologists gave attention to ways of making migratory animal husbandry serve the interests of the socialist economy. “Soviet status was no longer bound to a sedentary way of life”.

In the brief but important final Chapter 7, “Legacy”, Kindler reflects:

Kazakhstan’s present multi-ethnic society is largely a product of Stalinism, forged by the nomads who managed to survive the famine and by the victims of Stalin’s mass deportations who were settled there.

As he explains,

Moral behaviour became perilous during the famine. Many people had no choice but to abet the corrupt system. The distinction between victim and perpetrator was blurred and, even in retrospect, we cannot clearly separate one from the other. A society that deemed the individual worthless and made the collective the greatest good stamped a verdict of guilty on anyone who valued his own life. […]

The crisis did not erode Soviet structures, it strengthened them by making individual survival almost completely dependent on Soviet mechanisms of order and distribution. Whoever survived the famine did so by the grace of the state that had caused it in the first place.

This resulted in complex processes of adaptation and psychological repression. […] Many Soviet citizens who had survived hunger, terror, and war, went on to live under the strain and stress of the Soviet system. They learned to cope with the tension and bury the dark sides of their past. […]

Victory in the Great Patriotic War blocked the tragedy of famine out of the collective memory of Kazakh society.

After the death of Stalin, in the mid-1950s many migrants poured into the steppe in response to Kruschev’s Virgin Lands Campaign—which though an economic failure and an ecological disaster, further integrated Kazakhstan into the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile I note that after the 1949 Communist victory in China, many Kazakhs and Uyghurs fled to the Soviet Union, particularly in the wake of the disastrous Great Leap Backward: a major exodus took place in 1962. And in Xinjiang today, while the Uyghurs bear the brunt of the brutal clampdown as their whole culture is assaulted, Kazakhs and other “minority” peoples are also suffering in a pervasive new gulag network.

Kindler explains the partial reclaiming of Kazakhstan’s history in recent decades:

After decades, it was finally perestroika that enabled the mention of famine in Kazakhstan. […] But due to the challenges of life under ongoing social transformation the topic was soon abandoned. After a short phase of public commemoration and rehabilitation between 1988 and 1993, coming to terms with the past once again became the domain of historians whose findings were barely noticed outside the small world of academic research.

This suited the new national narrative of independent Kazakhstan (for the current human rights situation, see here). A monument to victims of the famine, set up in 1992, was only completed in 2017. Commemorations finally increased from 2012. But with the example of Ukraine in mind, the authorities have remained wary:

The oasis of stability that the leaders of Kazakhstan like to present may then soon prove to be fictitious.

By now the urban–rural divide between Russian and Kazakh was even clearer. Kindler shows how the narrative of Kazakh victims impedes the study of the famine, downplaying the role of Kazakhs themselves in the disaster and silencing those who suffered. However, Kindler suggests that the interests of rulers and ruled might in some ways coincide:

Where no-one spoke about dying and suffering, no-one asked about personal responsibility and guilt. Silence held people together. When no-one spoke out, it was not only for fear of the regime. It also suppressed awareness of one’s own involvement. Excluding the victims meant including everyone else and doing so far beyond the end of the famine itself.

As in China (see this post on commemorating the abuses of Maoism), “forced trust” bound Soviet leaders and citizens together. People continued carefully to observe taboos: “the rules prescribed not only what was said, but what was not said as well.” Meanwhile in Germany the recognition of trauma took place more openly. Finally Kindler refrains from suggesting answers:

In light of Kazakh society’s instability, was it a rational strategy for coming to terms with the past to ignore the problematic aspects of the country’s own history? Does it suffice to label the famine a “national tragedy”, like a natural disaster, and leave it at that? Or is it time for Kazakhstan to explore its own responsibility for the outbreak of famine?

Note this recent documentary by Zhanbolat Mamay, Zulmat: mass hunger in Kazakhstan:

Now I look forward to reading Sarah Cameron’s book too.

For both nomadic and sedentary populations, Soviet policies led to extreme suffering. The whole period was a nightmare. With my focus on China I find it all the more tragic that some twenty-five years later, the CCP allowed this same disaster, with similar causes and consequences, to befall over forty million Chinese people. Wherever we do fieldwork, people still have to live with the memory of such traumas.

For the destruction of a First Nation community in Canada, see here.


[1] Both works are reviewed here; Cameron’s work here and here, as well as this substantial lecture. See also here and here; and note Alun Thomas, Nomads and Soviet rule: Central Asia under Lenin and Stalin (2018). For further comparative studies, see Famine: Ukraine and China, under “Comparisons, figures”.

[2] For the perspective of Uyghur culture, see Rachel Harris, The making of a musical canon in Central Asia, pp.29–33.

Soviet lives at war

Svetlana Alexievich and the struggle over memory

in hiding

Continuing my belated education in Soviet lives, always bearing in mind parallels with modern Chinese society, I’ve begun reading the remarkable oral history projects of Svetlana Alexievich (b.1948), winner of the Nobel prize in 2015 (see e.g. this NYT review), starting with

  • The unwomanly face of war (1983, English translation 2017) (review here) and
  • Last witnesses: unchildlike stories (1985, English translation 2019) (review here).

Such memoirs should be read in conjunction with historical accounts such as Timothy Snyder’s The bloodlands. And they are just the kind of memories utilised by Orlando Figes in The Whisperers and documented on his website. For a roundup of posts on life behind the Iron Curtain, see here.

A genuine sense of collective idealism, so difficult for the Soviet state to instil through all the tribulations of forced collectivisation, famine, show trials, and gulags, only came much later with the Great Patriotic War unleashed by the 1941 Nazi invasion. But after the Victory this patriotic pride was soon followed by renewed disillusion. For the People’s Republic of China after 1949, conversely, the national myth fed on the whole process of the revolution, of which the wartime resistance against Japan was but one element. And then, as I observed in Lives in Stalin’s Russia,

Whereas the 1989 Soviet “liberation” occurred after over seventy years of repression, in China “reform and opening” not only happened earlier, following the collapse of Maoism in the late 1970s, but came after a mere thirty years of state repression. Both Russia and China suffered grievously under invasion and warfare; and for both, the hard-earned victory came to form a cornerstone of the national image. But whereas in China the war set the scene for the Communist takeover and the people finally “standing up”, in Russia it made an interlude within a system in which repression was already deeply entrenched; it seemed to offer hopes for reform, which were soon thwarted. In China too the lid on popular expression of trauma remained quite tightly sealed, though as Sebastian Veg notes, “after a period of post-traumatic outpour, followed by commodified nostalgia, popular memory in recent years has shown signs of moving towards more critical discussions.” But both Chinese and Russian regimes continue to devise new forms of repression.

* * *

In The unwomanly face of war Alexeivich focuses on the roles of women, their strivings and sufferings: tank drivers, snipers, sappers, pilots, nurses and doctors, on the front lines, on the home front, and in occupied territories; as well as the “second front”, all those women working backstage—doing laundry, cooking, repairing machinery and vehicles, and so on.

She also comments on the whole issue of representing war; on the process of eliciting such painful memories; and on the difficulties of publishing such material even after perestroika—notably in the lengthy opening section, “A human being is greater than war”.

I am writing a book about war…

I, who never liked to read military books, although in my childhood and youth this was the favourite reading of everybody. Of all my peers. And this is not surprising—we were the children of Victory. The children of the victors. What is the first thing I remember about the war? My childhood anguish amid the incomprehensible and frightening words. The war was remembered all the time: at school and at home, at weddings and christenings, at celebrations and wakes. Even in children’s conversations. […]

For us everything took its origin from that frightening and mysterious world. In our family my Ukrainian grandfather, my mother’s father, was killed at the front and is buried somewhere in Hungary, and my Belorussian grandmother, my father’s mother, was a partisan and died of typhus; two of her sons served in the army and were reported missing in the first months of the war; of three sons only one came back. My father. The Germans burned alive eleven distant relations with their children—some in a cottage, some in a village church. These things happened in every family. With everybody. […]

The village of my postwar childhood was a village of women. Village women. I don’t remember any men’s voices. That is how it has remained for me: stories of the war are told by women. Their songs are like weeping. […]

At school we were taught to love death. We wrote compositions about how we would love to die in the name of … We dreamed.

As a review comments:

The official response to this legacy of suffering was a Soviet history that reduced pain to superlative clichés —heroism, bravery, sacrifice—and replaced the individual with the archetype of the Soviet soldier-hero.

The “Holocaust by bullet” in the bloodlands, which bore the full brunt of Hitler’s invasion, were particularly horrendous—notably in Belarus, [1] where Alexeivich grew up; indeed, many of the accounts that she went on to collect refer to the Minsk region. Vasil Bykau’s novel The dead don’t hurt [aka The dead feel no pain] was published in 1965 but immediately banned: “his characters stubbornly stand outside the Soviet national myth. They are cowardly as often as they are brave; they betray and are betrayed; they are not always sure that victory over fascism or capitalism justifies their deaths” (from this review).

Eventually Alexeivich came across another book about wartime Belarus that struck a chord: I am from a burning village [aka Out of the fire, 1977] by Adamovich, Bryl, and Kolesnik. Impressed by the book’s polyphonic style, Alexeivich found it to be

composed from the voices of life itself, from what I had heard in childhood, from what can be heard now in the street, at home, in a café, on a bus. There! The circle was closed. I had found what I was looking for. I knew I would.

After another long struggle with the censors, Elem Klimov was finally able to begin shooting a film based on the book, Come and see (1985; review here). Here’s a trailer:

As Alexeivich read more widely, it became clear to her that the standard literature on war was “men writing about men”:

Men hide behind history, behind facts; war fascinates them as action and a conflict of ideas, of interests.


No one but me ever questioned my grandmother. My mother. Even those who were at the front say nothing. If they suddenly begin to remember, they don’t talk about the “women’s” war but about the “men’s”. They tune into the canon.

She reflects on the way women portray their wartime selves (memory too is a creative process), noting that educated people are more “infected by secondary knowledge”, by myths. She explains the process of finding the women and interacting with them.

The wartime recollections are disturbing, but the fortunes of the manuscript make another worrying topic. The 1983 manuscript of The unwomanly face of war was criticized for tarnishing the image of the Soviet woman.

The manuscript has been lying on my desk for a long time… For two years now I’ve been getting rejections from publishers.

Then came perestroika, and an edition appeared (albeit heavily censored), soon becoming hugely popular; as she received dozens of letters daily, she soon found herself “doomed to go on writing my books endlessly”.

In the unexpurgated 2017 English edition Alexeivich includes excerpts from her journal from 2002 to 2004:

I think that today I would probably ask different questions and hear different answers. And would write a different book—not entirely different, but still different.

She gives instances of passages that the censors threw out—and even that she herself had censored. Many of these have since been restored, but as she says, they too make a document. She intersperses such passages with her conversations with the censor:

“Who will go to fight after such books? You humiliate women with a primitive naturalism. Heroic women. You dethrone them. You make them into ordinary women, females. But our women are saints.”

Our heroism is sterile, it leaves no room for physiology or biology. It’s not believable. War tested not only the spirit but the body, too. The material shell.

“Where did you get such thoughts? Alien thoughts. Not Soviet. You laugh at those who lie in communal graves.”

Another exchange:

“Yes, we paid heavily for the Victory, but you should look for heroic examples. There are hundreds of them. And you show the filth of the war. The underwear. You make our Victory terrible… What is it you’re after?”

The truth.”

“You think the truth is what’s there in life. In the street. Under your feet. It’s such a low thing for you. Earthly. No, the truth is what we dream about. It’s how we want to be!”

Alexeivich laces the brief, distressing individual memoirs with revealing notes on the context of her encounters with their authors: their demeanour, the cramped apartments.

Amidst the frank descriptions of warfare, some of the women she met retained an enthusiasm for Communism, but others were bitterly critical of the society that Stalin had created. Here’s one letter she received:

My husband, a chevalier of the Order of Glory, got ten years in the labour camps after the war… That is how the Motherland met her heroes. The victors! He had written in a letter to a university friend that he had difficulty being proud of our victory—our own and other people’s land was covered with heaps of Russian corpses. Drowned in blood. He was immediately arrested… His epaulettes were torn off…

He came back from Kazakhstan after Stalin’s death… Sick. We have no children. I don’t need to remember the war. I’ve been at war all my life…

Another woman, whose husband had fought, was captured, and then sent to labour camp after Victory, reflects:

I want to ask: who is to blame that in the first months of the war millions of soldiers and officers were captured? I want to know… Who beheaded the army before the war, shooting and slandering the Red commanders—as German spies, as Japanese spies. […] I want… I can ask now… Where is my life? Our life? But I keep silent, and my husband keeps silent. We’re afraid even now. We’re frightened… And so we’ll die scared. Bitter and ashamed…

After one harrowing account from a former medical assistant of a tank battalion, Alexeivich adds a sequel. She received a package containing published praise for the woman’s patriotic educational work, and found the material she had sent heavily censored. Alexeivich reflects on the two truths that live in the same human being:

one’s own truth driven underground, and the common one, filled with the spirit of the time. The smell of the newspapers. The first was rarely able to resist the massive onslaught of the second.

On the interviews, she goes on to note:

The more listeners, the more passionless and sterile the account. To make it suit the stereotype.

One veteran explains how women were silenced after the war:

Back then we hid, didn’t even wear our medals. Men wore them, but not women. Men were victors, heroes, wooers, the war was theirs, but we were looked at with quite different eyes. […] I’ll tell you, they robbed us of the victory.

Alexeivich finds them less candid in speaking about love than about death. Indeed, traditional values remained punitive: one woman tells how she got married after Victory, only to find that her husband’s parents were ashamed of this frontline bride.

After the war we got another war. Also terrible. For some reason, men abandoned us. They didn’t shield us.

* * *

Woman’s history has rightly become a major topic, both in fiction and non-fiction. I’ve addressed women at war in Les Parisiennes and Bearing witness; there have been notable studies for Britain too, also providing a much-needed corrective to our legacy of patriotic war films. For China, the voices of women are an important aspect of Guo Yuhua’s study of a Shaanbei village under Maoism (see also my series on Women of Yanggao, starting here, and China: commemorating trauma). Among many posts under my fieldwork category, I explore issues such as listening to people here.

* * *

Whereas the narrators of The unwomanly face of war were at least in their teens when they joined the Great Patriotic War, in Last witnesses (first published in 1985, and again adapted for the English translation, which bears the dates 1978–2004) they are often recalling their very early years, aged from 3 to 14. Here Alexeivich refrains from comment, leaving the young voices to speak for themselves. “Instead of a Preface”, she cites People’s Friendship magazine to remind us:

In the course of the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945) millions of Soviet children died: Russians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Jews, Tatars, Latvians, Gypsies, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Armenians, Tadjiks…

The accounts make up a relentlessly grisly litany of partisans, atrocities, torched houses, mutilated corpses, transports, camps—an indelible trauma for these young children, often orphaned after witnessing their families and fellow-villagers murdered, hiding in forests and swamps, constantly hungry. However repressed, this trauma would persist throughout the years following the Victory.


[1] Belarus is a frequent topic of Snyder’s Bloodlands. As in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region, the war was never a simple struggle between the local population and German invaders. The NKVD had already committed terrible atrocities, complicating the partisans’ allegiances: some groups were pro-Soviet, others fighting for independence.


The first gulag


Prisoners of the Solovki camps. Source here.

With an Iron Fist, We Will Lead Humanity to Happiness

—slogan at gate of Solovki prison camp.

Prompted by the troubled memory of abuses under Maoism in China, and the ongoing sensitivity of the topic (cf. my posts on the Nazi camps of Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen), and following my reviews of Orlando Figes’s The whisperers and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands (for a roundup, see here), I’m gradually, and belatedly, reading up on the Soviet gulag system. A suitable starting point is the Solovki prison camp in the White Sea, prototype for the whole gulag network.

Even during the early years of the camp, some quite frank descriptions of Solovki were published, such as S.A. Malsagov, An island hell (1926) and Raymond Duguet, Un bagne en Russie (1927).

But it was only much later that more thorough accounts would emerge. After the chapter devoted to Solovki in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s seminal The gulag archipelago (1973), Anne Applebaum gives an incisive account of the camp’s history in chapter 2 of Gulag: a history (2003). [1]

The inhospitable Solovetsky islands had been home to a fortified monastery complex since the 15th century, and a remote place of exile under Tsarist rule. After the revolution, the prison camp was constructed from 1923, as the monastery property was confiscated and monks murdered or deported to other camps. The number of prisoners soon grew rapidly. Solovki was itself a network of camps, both on the main island and the yet more lawless outlying islands, becoming a major site for forced labourers constructing the Baltic–White sea canal, all under the brutal direction of the OGPU state security apparatus.

Over the sixteen years of the network’s sorry existence (1923–39), the harsh conditions and the brutal labour regime alone gave rise to endemic, often fatal, disease; but sadism, torture, and executions too were soon routine. As the system was refined, notably under the leadership of Naftaly Aranovich Frenkel—a former prisoner—Solovki became a model for the gruesome system of “corrective” slave labour for profit, such as we see even now in a sinister modern incarnation in Xinjiang. The notion of “re-educating” inmates to create model citizens was always a figleaf.

After a serious incident in 1923, the socialist politicals (who had at first been privileged) were downgraded in status, becoming lower in the hierarchy than common criminals. In its isolation Solovki was virtually impregnable, and only a tiny handful of prisoners somehow managed to escape in 1925, 1928, and 1934 (Gulag: a history, p.358).

Here’s a remarkable silent 79-minute propaganda documentary filmed in 1927–8 (also here; a 5-minute cut, with translated captions, is here):

Cultural life and religion
Like Nazi camps, Solovki had its own concert band, theatrical performances, a library, a printing press, and a Society for Local Lore. [2] But under Frenkel such cultural activities were curtailed.

Remarkably, even religious services were observed in the early years (cf. Famine: Ukraine and China). A former prisoner recalled the “grandiose” Easter of 1926:

Not long before the holiday, the new boss of the division demanded that all who wanted to go to church should present him with a declaration. Almost no one did so at first—people were afraid of the consequences. But just before Easter, a huge number made their declarations. … Along the road to Onufrievskaya church, the cemetery chapel, marched a great procession, people walked in several rows. Of course we didn’t all fit into the chapel. People stood outside, and those who came late couldn’t even hear the service.

Applebaum goes on:

Along with religious holidays, a small handful of the original monks also continued to survive, to the amazement of many prisoners, well into the latter half of the decade. […] The monks were joined, over the years, by dozens more Soviet priests and members of the Church hierarchy, both Orthodox and Catholic, who had opposed the confiscation of Church wealth, or who had violated the “decree on separation of Church and state”. The clergy, somewhat like the socialist politicals, were allowed to live separately, in one particular barrack of the kremlin, and were also allowed to hold services in the small chapel of the former cemetery right up until 1930–31—a luxury forbidden to other prisoners except on special occasions.

Meanwhile, catacomb services were held in secret (for more accounts of the Solovki martyrs, see e.g. here):

As Applebaum relates,

Solzhenitsyn tells the story, repeated in various forms by others, of a group of religious sectarians who were brought to Solovetsky in 1930. They rejected anything that came from the “Anti-Christ”, refusing to handle Soviet passports or money. As punishment, they were sent to a small island on the Solovetsky archipelago, where they were told that they would receive food only if they agreed to sign for it. They refused. Within two months they had all starved to death. The next boat to the island, remembered one eyewitness, “found only corpses which had been picked by the birds”.

Gorky’s visit, and the final days


Maxim Gorky (centre) visiting Solovki, 1929.

In June 1929, to counteract foreign criticism, Maxim Gorky, “the Bolsheviks’ much-lauded and much-celebrated prodigal son”, returned to the USSR for an elaboratedly-choreographed visit that included a three-day visit to Solovki (Gulag: a history, pp.59–62). Though he was not entirely credulous, seeing through part of the official smoke-screen, his report in published form for the international media inevitably put a benign spin on conditions at the camp. As Applebaum observes, “We do not know whether he wrote what he did out of naivety, out of a calculated desire to deceive, or because the censors made him do it”.

Elsewhere too, foreign visitors were easily misled, whether out of enthusiasm for the new social experiment or out of expediency during the struggle against Nazism—such as journalist Walter Duranty for the Ukraine famine, and USA Vice-President Henry Wallace on his 1944 visit to the Kolyma camp in Siberia (Gulag: a history, pp.398–401).

1929 marked “the great turning point”. As Stalin further consolidated his power, the regime becoming ever more draconian, with more systematic persecution of its perceived opponents.

Throughout the Solovki camp’s history countless prisoners were executed, culminating in the Great Terror of 1937–8. As war loomed—with the site lying too near to the border with Finland, and as its main industry of logging was depleted with the deforestation of the area—the camp was closed in 1939, amidst further executions. Meanwhile the gulag system persisted throughout other parts of the USSR right through into the late 1950s, even after the death of Stalin.

The legacy since perestroika
In the 1980s, as memoirs of the period began to be published more widely, intrepid researchers like Yuri Brodsky set about unearthing the dark secrets of Solovki. I’m keen to see Marina Goldovskaya’s 1988 documentary Solovki power (some footage here). But within Russia—even since the collapse of the Soviet Union—the history of the gulags has remained contested (see e.g. here).

As early as 1967, while the Solovetsky monastery was still inactive, a museum had been opened there; by 1989 a new permanent exhibition became the first to commemorate the gulag system. In 1992 the monastery was re-established, and the inscription of the complex on the UNESCO World Heritage list thoroughly downplayed the dark history of the camp.

With official repression of memory continuing to grow in an unholy pact between church and state orthodoxy, by 2015 human rights activists were deploring the removal of all traces of the Solovki camp (see this NYT article from 2015). This article shows how pilgrims from Ukraine have also been obstructed from visiting in recent years.


[1] Both works feature in this New Yorker review. Online there are many sites about Solovki, such as herehere, and (an early exposé from 1953) here. For more work by Applebaum, see here, as well as her major study of the famine in Ukraine.

[2] Note the virtual exhibition Beauty in hell: culture in the Gulag (introduced here), with some fine photos—product of the research of Andrea Gullotta (e.g. here; see also this TLS article from 2018).