Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

To Live Like Everyone

To Live Like Everyone
Anatoly Tikhonovich Marchenko
Moscow + Aleksandrov, Vladimir oblast + several prison camps, including Valay, Solikamsk, Perm, and Nyrob


PLOT SUMMARY: Marchenko begins the story by describing the time immediately after release from his first stint in the camps, musing about what it is like to be on the outside again. While imprisoned, Marchenko had become acquainted much of the Moscow intelligentsia, and upon his release he becomes a part of their community. (He himself is from a modest background -- he is the child of railway workers -- but his prejudices the Moscow Intelligentsia were quick to dissipate.) The academics try to help Marchenko get a residency permit but when the militia refuses to issue one, he heads home to Barabinsk. There, Marchenko reunites with his family, though it is clear that he has grown to be very different than his uneducated, nervous, Soviet-supporting parents. 

     Marchenko’s intelligentsia friends find him a place in Moscow in Summer 1967, but still unable to get a job or residency permit, he instead moves to the Vladimir oblast (about two hours from Moscow). There, Marchenko begins writing what later became My Testimony. Larisa, a Moscow acquaintance who later became his wife, serves as editor. She visits him on weekends and eventually takes a two-month vacation, during which they work for over eighteen hours per day. Marchenko and his intelligentsia friends type out several copies of the manuscript, though many attempt to dissuade him from publishing. Everyone knows that he will likely be arrested, and in August 1968, he is. The author is sentenced to a year in strict regimen camps -- apparently for lack of permit -- but the trial is mostly performance. It is clear that the real reason for his arrest is My Testimony. Marchenko spends the final chapters describing the transit prisons and work camps. Just when his sentence is almost over, one of the KGB officials brings a fabricated case against him and he is forced to serve two additional years in the camps. Marchenko ends by expressing the sense of helplessness and uncertainty that the false conviction evoked. 


ANALYSIS: To Live Like Everyone both conforms to and breaks with traditional soviet prison narratives. Like Ginzburg, Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, Dovlatov, and others, Marchenko feels a duty to tell the world about his experience in the camps. Indeed, he begins the narrative discussing the way he and fellow prisoners had seen the world from “behind barbed wire” (2). They had all wondered why the “decent and intelligent” people who went free hadn’t done enough to bring their suffering to light; they had felt isolated simply because there was “no information about us, that nobody cared” (4). It seems that Marchenko’s motivation for writing about the camps is to counter this kind of oblivion. He mentions early on that writing is not enough; one must also publish. He also, however, seems to write for himself -- it is a way to relieve himself of the burden of memory. Reflecting on the process of writing My Testimony, Marchenko observes that “it’s curious that not long after I wrote everything down, I could no longer recall many details and had forgotten many a name” (81). Sharing the information is a way to disperse the responsibility of knowing


     Unlike much prison literature, Marchenko offers a pretty explicit denunciation of communist ideology. Though many of the other dissident-writers produce subtly editorialized narratives (perhaps for safety’s sake), Marchenko makes his hatred for Soviet philosophy -- epitomized in the titular phrase “live like everyone” --  evident.  His thesis seems to be, living like everyone is not so utopian when everyone is suffering. “Each of [the prisoners], while he was behind barbed wire, raged and fumed along with everyone else,” Marchenko writes on the very first page. He presents prison as a great equalizer, but suggests that perhaps we should not aspire to equality through suffering. Other countries managed to rebuild after war “without referring to the life of deprivation as heroism and dedication,” Marchenko reminds us. “That means our sacrifices were senseless” (67).  Marchenko renders a striking criticism of the Soviet world: not just the pain of the camps, but the fatuity behind them.




“To live means to suffer…that was the philosophy of my parents’ existence.” (6). 


“That’s the vicious circle: the law says, get a residency permit, but the militia refuses to issue it, knowingly and deliberately making you a “criminal” (17). 


“‘Unless you leave Moscow, you will be tried for violation of internal residency regulations. You won’t be tried for the book. Live like everyone! Stop throwing mud on the good name of our Motherland!’” (120).


BIOGRAPHY: Anatoly Marchenko was born in 1938 in Barabinsk, Siberia to an illiterate railway worker, Tikhon Akimovich Marchenko. He became a Soviet dissident writer, and spent most of his life in either prison or internal exile. Marchenko was first arrested at the age of 19 and sentenced to eight years in a labor camp, allegedly for participating in a construction workers’ brawl. The eight years turned into nearly half of his life. In 1969 he wrote his first book, My Testimony, which was one of the first very detailed accounts of life within the Soviet prison system -- Marchenko wrote candidly of the despair and anguish he felt and the physical deprivation and abuse he endured. Samizdat copies of My Testimony circulated in manuscript form and it was eventually published in the West, where it caused quite a stir by revealing that Stalin’s gulag system continued after his death.

     Marchenko wrote several other works, including To Live Like Everyone, and From Tarusa to Siberia, both of which were autobiographical. From Tarusa to Siberia, published in October 1975, told the story of his recent trial and subsequent hunger strike. Marchenko’s final book, To Live Like Everyone, covered the period during which he was writing My Testimony. It was smuggled out of the Soviet union and published in English. The KGB often offered Marchenko many opportunities to move to Israel, but Marchenko refused and remained in the Soviet Union as a prisoner of conscience. He died in prison, at the age of 48, after a brain hemorrhage caused by a hunger strike. 




"Anatoly (Timofeevich) Marchenko." Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center Accessed 18 Mar. 2019.




Yaroshevsky, Felix. “Self-Mutilation in Soviet Prisons.” Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal, vol. 20, no. pp. 443–446. 
This study of self-mutilation inside Soviet Prison camps aims to shed light on why prisoners resorted to such desperate measures and how authorities responded. Marchenko died of a hunger strike, one of the primary forms of self-mutilation explored here. 


Pospielovsky, D. "From Gosizdat to Samizdat and Tamizdat." Canadian Slavonic Papers, 20:1, 1978, 44-62.
This paper traces the development of uncensored Russian literature in the Soviet Union. Marchenko's book was published samizdat style: that is, it was unapproved material reproduced in the Soviet Union by hand.


Elena A. Gerasimova, and Alla A. Salnikova. “The Chistopol Prison as a Space of Political Repression (1978-1990).” Tarih Kültür ve Sanat Araştırmaları Dergisi 6.4 (2017): 606–614.
This is an in-depth study of the Chistopol prison, where Marchenko died in December, 1986. It explores the especially brutal “corrective” practices employed there and attempts to construct a picture of what day to day life looked like on the inside.

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