Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

Women of the Gulag

Women of the Gulag
Marianna Yarovskaya
Soviet Union: the Urals, Far East, Sukhumi, and Moscow Oblast

PLOT SUMMARY: Women of the Gulag is a documentary film interviewing six women who survived imprisonment in Stalin’s repressive Gulag system. The six women are Vera Hecker (in prison and camps 1941-1946, in exile 1946-1954), Ksenia Chukhareva (in special settlement 1931-1947), Adile Abbas-ogly (in prison and camps 1939, in exile 1940-1947), Elena Posnik (in prison and camps 1945-1954, in exile 1954-1957), Fekla Andreeva (in special settlement 1931-1942), and Nadezhda Levitskaya (in prison and camps 1951-1955). The film documents their experiences and shares their stories.

The film begins and ends with footage exemplifying Soviet nostalgia and adoration of Stalin which exists still in Russia. A statistic at the end of the movie even suggests that a “2017 poll found 38 percent of Russians considered Stalin the most outstanding person in world history.” This is all despite the horrific tragedy that his regime inflicted upon millions of people. Women of the Gulag highlights this horror by interviewing women who have survived incarceration under Stalin. The film demonstrates the suffering and the cruel inhumane violations of human rights that took place in the Gulag system and gives voice to unfiltered women’s stories. It also emphasizes the senseless nature of these repressions and fact that imprisonment was heavily arbitrary.

     Repressions were catastrophic and millions died. Adile Abbas-ogly, a survivor, recalls that “in every family somebody had to perish. Either at the front, in the war, or during the repressions. These repressions – you know how wheat gets cut down? That’s how they mowed down all the best people.” This points to the senseless nature of the loss that occurred; “somebody had to perish” at the hands of the regime and countless innocent people were “mowed down.” Another survivor, when recalling the details of her arrest, says, “Two people came. I did not know what they wanted.” This detail emphasizes the fact that guilt had little to do with incarceration and that reasons for arrest could be vague. This woman did not know what she was being arrested for, but this did not matter. The suffering, violence, and poor conditions were unimaginable. Abass-ogly’s profound words, “What you see, what you hear, what you experience does not go away. You don’t forget it. I am talking to you, but it is as if I am there,” demonstrates tragically that the trauma that she and her fellow survivors experienced is one that never leaves. Not even after freedom from prison were many of these women truly free. “They were out of prison, ‘free’ but not allowed to leave the area. They lived under strict supervision.  Every month you had to sign that you would live and work there, and not flee. So that’s exile,” recalls a survivor. Incarceration would often be essentially extended beyond prison sentences, making freedom even more unattainable under Stalin.


“The guard forced you to work even though you have no strength left. Some would fall and not get up. Two guards would come and beat you. “Why aren’t you working? Why aren’t you working?” Some were beaten to death. We dragged them away. This place was built on our bones.” (27:55)

 “Each day the executioner would sign off. This was to confirm that he had done his job” (43:22)

“I asked a priest during confession if I can forgive the people who tortured and killed my father. And he said you can only forgive your own prosecutors.”

Marianna Yarovskaya is a Russian-American filmmaker who is known for her work in many popular documentary films. She was born in Moscow and, after studying journalism, decided to pursue cinema at age 23. Her films tell pressing stories from around the world through an artistic documentary style. She has also worked for programs such as Discovery Channel and History Channel for many years. She has directed the films Undesirables (1999) and Holy Warriors (2007), and she has produced Greedy Lying Bastards (2012) and Pussy Riot: the Movement (2013). Yarovskaya was also the head of research for the Academy Award-winning An Inconvenient Truth (2006). Other documentaries which she has done extensive research for are: Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (2000), Countdown to Zero (2010), Samsara (2011), Spirit of the Marathon II (2013), Last Days in Vietnam (2014), Vessel (2014), Merchants of Doubt (2014), Red Army (2014), Swift Current (2016), Betting on Zero (2016), and Boston (2017).

Notably, she directed the recent 2018 film, Women of the Gulag, which gives voice to six women who survived the Gulag. Women of the Gulag was shortlisted for an Academy Award and has received numerous other distinctions. According to Yarovskaya, “As a Russian, I realized that, unlike the Holocaust, the Gulag lacks, as Anne Applebaum declares, a ‘big moment.’ Women of the Gulag, shot entirely in Russia, is our attempt to create a ‘moment.’ We focus not on the horrendous statistics of the Gulag. Instead, we allow six actual witnesses to recount their stories in their own words.” (Women of the Gulag). This film holds obvious momentous importance, as in the realm of memoir-style accounts of the Gulag experience, there are far fewer documented women’s stories.


“About.” Marianna Yarovskaya, Accessed June 29, 2021.

“Marianna Yarovskaya.” Wilson Center, Accessed June 29, 2021.


Women of the Gulag. Accessed June 29, 2021.

Yarovskaya, Marianna. “ScreenTalk: Women of the Gulag director Marianna Yarovskaya.” Interview by Olya Sova. Read Watch and Listen, Barbican, January 5, 2021. Video. Accessed June 29, 2021.


Barnes, Steven A. Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society. Princeton University Press, 2011. Barnes gives an analysis of the role of the Gulag in Soviet society. He argues that the Soviet government did not design the Gulag as a means of genocide, but rather an institution of “reeducation,” from which many did not survive.

Bell, Wilson T. “Sex, Pregnancy, and Power in the Late Stalinist Gulag.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 24, no. 2, 2015, pp. 198–224.
Wilson’s article examines issues relating to sexuality and pregnancy in the Gulag system, shedding more light onto the particular experiences of women that are rarely discussed.

Gregory, Paul R. Women of the Gulag: Portraits of Five Remarkable Lives, Hoover Institution Press, 2013. 
Gregory writes about the history of Stalin’s regime and the Gulag, and goes on to piece together the story of five women who survived the Gulag. He tells the story of their lives from before, during, and after their imprisonment.


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