Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

11 Years in Soviet Prison Camps

11 Years in Soviet Prison Camps
Elinor Lipper

PLOT SUMMARY: Elinor Lipper’s Eleven Years in Soviet Prison Camps recounts her experiences through the Soviet prison system over her eleven year conviction. After merely two months of living in the Soviet Union, Lipper was arrested and sentenced five years for counterrevolutionary activity, yet was imprisoned for 6 more years, most in the Kolyma Gulag, one of the most infamous camps in the Soviet Union.

     Throughout, Lipper describes almost all aspects of prison life, detailing the miserable living and working conditions, abuse, and interpersonal dynamics between guards and prisoners. Her writing coincides with the fluctuations in hope and despair she experienced, detailing the smallest joys and the highest points of despair. Her account ended in 1948 when she was finally freed. 

ANALYSIS: One of the most poignant messages found in Eleven Years in Soviet Prison Camps is the emphasis of the disconnection between one’s physical and psychological self for survival. The smallest forms of art and beauty offered a meaningful escape from the dismal atrocities occurring within their realities. Lipper notes that these psychological breaks were things she could never forget. Yet, permeating through the text are frequent examples of the degradation of humanity enforced by the guards, and the Soviet prison system itself. In one instance, a prisoner wrote to a guard requesting to be of equal status to a horse, as the animals were treated with more respect than the prisoners themselves. The request was treated with outrage by the guard, who punished the prisoner, yet upon more reflection, increased his ration for the next month.

     Lipper highlights these juxtapositions of cruelty and kindness, exemplifying the varying nature of humanity in face of hardship. Despite the guards’ cruel acts, Lipper always manages to include snippets of the small acts of kindness that happen as well. The contrast between good and evil presented creates a narrative that even under the strict hierarchies and apathetic nature of those upholding the system of incarceration, the human quality to empathize is never lost, though sometimes difficult to find.


A believer in socialism cannot believe in the Soviet Union, for it is impossible to defend the slaughter of millions of innocent human beings and to claim at the same time that one is striving to benefit suffering humanity.” (14)

“‘That is what he died for, Citizen Commander. A piece of bread.’” (201)

The storyteller is the only person in camp who is loved and respected by all prisoners equally, no matter whether they are contriki or criminals. For every prisoner wants to forget reality, and the storyteller gives him forgetfulness.” (221)

BIOGRAPHY: Elinor Lipper was born in Brussels, Belgium in 1912 to a German-Jewish family. They moved to the Netherlands. When she was 19, she went to Germany to study medicine, then became a communist a year later. However, as the Nazi regime gained power in 1933, Elinor’s flat was raided, surfacing banned communist books. Wanted by the Gestapo, she fled to Switzerland to stay with relatives. She was outed again by the Swiss Police for being a member of the Swiss Communist Party. In order to escape exile from the country, she arranged a marriage to a Swiss citizen in order to continue her communist activities.

     In 1937, Lipper was arrested in Moscow and imprisoned on suspicion of counterrevolutionary activities. She was sent to Russian prison camps, where she had a daughter and spent the next eleven years. In 1948, she was freed by the Swiss authorities and was able to return to Germany. In 1950, she published a book about her experiences in Soviet prison camps, Eleven Years in a Soviet Prison Camp. Her testimony in both the book and in international court was vital for publicizing the realities of Soviet prison camps during the Cold War. She was invited to tour in the United States, and later settled briefly with her husband in Madagascar and retreated from the public eye. She finally returned to Switzerland and became a translator. She died in Switzerland in 2008, survived by her daughter and grandchildren.


Gissurarson, Hannes. “Totalitarianism in Europe.” European Journal of Educational Research, vol. 9, no. 2, 2020, pp. 5–17.


Bell, Wilson T. "The Gulag and Soviet Society in Western Siberia, 1929–1953." University of Toronto (Canada), 2011. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 12 Mar. 2021.
Bell characterizes the nature of relationships between the prison camps and the surrounding populations, as well as the role of sex and women in prison life. Bell asserts that prison camps existed as part of a larger social structure, not isolated from society. 

Given, Dean W. "Kolyma: 'Kolyma'." Chicago Tribune (1963-1996), May 21 1978, p. 2. ProQuest. Web. 12 Mar. 2021.
In this short article, Given outlines the book, The Diary of Vikenty Angarov, and provides contextualization of the setting of the Kolyma Gulag, where Elinor Lipper was also imprisoned. Given suggests that Kolyma is the prototype of prison camps under Stalin. 

Toker, Leona. “Two Strands of Concentration-Camp Literature: A Brief History of an Entanglement.” Gulag Literature and the Literature of Nazi Camps: An Intercontexual Reading, by Leona Toker, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, USA, 2019, pp. 48–87.
Toker gives more insight into the interrelated experiences in both Nazi and Gulag camps. She touches on not only starvation, work, and disease, but also women's issues such as pregnancy, birth, and motherhood.

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