Women of the Gulag: Portraits of Five Remarkable Women
Paul Roderick Gregory
Various Locations, Soviet Union
PLOT SUMMARY: Women of the Gulag details the story of five women navigating life in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, amidst Stalin’s purges and the mass incarceration of a significant swath of the population. Interspersed within their stories is the story of Stalin and decisions made at the highest levels of the Soviet government, providing chronological context as these five women contend with the consequences of his actions.
The women in question are:
- Agnessa Argipopulo, who leaves her husband for an up-and-coming member of the Soviet secret police – Mironov – and lives a life of luxury as the world seems to suffer and die around her. Eventually, her husband is arrested and she goes to the gulag due to denunciations by her neighbors and has to navigate the brutality and gendered violence within.
- Maria Senotrusova, a working-class wife with three children whose husband – an engineer – is eventually arrested on false chargese and soon finds herself in the a Kazakhstan Gulag camp,g too, witnessing acts of depravity in the Kazakhstan gulagthere.
- Evgenia Feigenberg, whose third husband was Nikolai Ezhov, the head of the Soviet secret police. Stalin decides to test his loyalty and asks him to divorce her, essentially signing her death warrant. He resists but eventually his will wavers, and he does so and she commits suicide in captivity. In 1940 along with others responsible for the purge, he Ezhov is executed by Stalin.
- Fekla Andreeva, a victim of Stalin’s dekulakization who was sent to a Gulag settlement to work in mines and fields, who – after her Father’s execution – is inspired by his last words to receive a doctorate. She was instrumental in the rehabilitation of 419 people.
- Adile Abbas-ogly, the wife of the brother of Nestor Lakoba, a communist leader who established Bolshevik power in Abkhazia (a region near/part of modern-day Georgia). He was eventually murdered by Lavrentiy Beria (the leader of the Secret police under Stalin during and after World War II) – who then cast Lakoba’s entire family as enemies of the state and condemns Adile to punishment, interrogation and imprisonment.
ANALYSIS: Achieving its intentionally narrow focus in spectacular fashion, Gregory’s Women of the Gulag adds human faces to the statistic of deaths and incarcerations of the purges of the Great Terror, and not only adds the stories of women into a male-dominated tradition but is able to enrich what Solzhenitsyn aptly termed the “‘Gulag Archipelago.”’. By casting a wide net in whose story gets told, Gregory is able to capture a range of stories of women who do not even make it onto the annauls of history, essentially using their “‘ordinariness”’ to express the widespread nature of Stalin’s victims. And it is the unique and stunning nature of their stories that turns the statistic back into a tragedy, as the readers comes to understand that their stories are probably as terrifying, grotesque and amazing as those of the millions of victims of the Gulag – they just happened to survive while others did not.
The five women chronicled do not all make it to a gulag, and the stories of the ones that do are depressingly familiar to a reader of Russian prison literature with one key difference – they are not men. An obvious statement, yet one that this text reveals is depressingly important when it comes to the Gulag and the great purges in the 1930s – just as the Gulag purifies its male prisoners, allowing for journeys of meaning and purpose, it reduces its female prisoners to their gender, not even giving them time to find any purpose in their struggle as they fend with societal expectations and violence directed at them by prisoners and guards alike all while being punished for the sins of the men in their life. And those that who do not make it into a physical [MOU4] Gulag illustrate effectively how the Great Terror invaded the minds of everybody in the Soviet Union at the time, effectively imprisoning everybody in one way or another.
Evgenia in a letter to Stalin: “I live only with the knowledge that I am honest before you and the country. I feel myself a living corpse. What can I do?” (Gregory, 172)
Agnessa to a clerk: “Well, you gave me fifty kopeks for my murdered husband. He did not die. They shot him.” (Gregory, 192)
Fekla’s father’s last words: “Make sure your sisters are educated. You are now the head of the family. They cannot take your education away from you.” (Gregory, 141)
BIOGRAPHY: Paul Roderick Gregory - born February 10, 1941 in San Angelo, Texas – has a Ph.D in Economics from Harvard University, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a Professor Emeritus in Economics at the University of Houston. Widely respected in his field, he specializes in Soviet Russian economics and politics as well as comparative economics and transition economies. He is a prolific author who - as of 2021 - has authored or co-authored more than twenty books and a hundred articles on Russia and comparative economics.
“Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series” Encyclopedia.com, www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/gregory-paul-r-1941-paul-roderick-gregory.
Gregory, Paul R. Women of the Gulag: Portraits of Five Remarkable Lives. Hoover Institution Press, 2013.
“Paul R. Gregory.” Hoover Institution, www.hoover.org/profiles/paul-r-gregory.FURTHER READING:
Budryte, Dovile. “Deportation and Gulag as Gendered Processes.” Routledge Handbook of Gender in Central Eastern Europe and Eurasia. 2021. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/347987033_Deportation_and_Gulag_as_gendered_processes_in_httpswwwroutledgecomThe-Routledge-Handbook-of-Gender-in-Central-Eastern-Europe-and-EurasiaLazda-Fabian-Johnsonpbook9781138347755.
Budryte discusses the gendered processes embedded in the Gulag and deportations in Stalin’s Russia, and uses Gregory’s book to display the differences in experiences of men and women, namely that women faced gendered violence that men did not have to endure – making their experience distinct, and that the children of imprisoned women often grew up taught to hate their own parents.
Vej, Nasha. “Female Prisoners in Stalin’s Gulag – Conditions and Survival Strategies” Entremons: UPF Journal of World History. Vol. 10, pp. 1-27. https://www.raco.cat/index.php/Entremons/article/view/362315
Nasha Vej discusses the lack of academic research and works that concern female prisoners of the Gulag. She mentions that while books like Gregory’s exist, they are essentially just using excerpts of women’s memoirs and experiences. And while the intentions are good - bringing attention to lesser-known witness accounts - they are “completely without commentary or academic considerations.””. She values memoirs more highly and believes them to be the best sources available, even though they are written after the events and the authors can often find inspiration in each other’s accounts, creating a genre of sorts.
Yarovskaya, Marianna. Women of the Gulag. Mayfilms, 2018.
In this movie adaptation of Gregory’s book, Yarovskaya offers a unique perspective on the stories shared in the book of thy featuring three of the women in the movie, and having them tell their own stories. Another three women are also included, and they paint a picture of the Gulag and acts of resistance, hope and despair using the experiences of survivors, much like Gregory’s book.