The New York Times ran a fascinating article yesterday about a palm-sized diary, written in the Soviet Gulag, which “slumbered in obscurity” for “nearly 70 years.” Here’s the link.
Written by Olga M. Ranitskaya, who was arrested in 1937 during Stalin’s Great Purge, the 115-page diary uses a stick figure, “Little Weather Devil,” as an alter-ego to describe Ranitskaya’s experience working in the weather station at a labor camp in Kazakhstan. In 2009 it arrived in the desk of Zoya Eroshok, a newspaper editor in Moscow. It had been sent by the daughter of a Gulag survivor, but with no clue as to its original author other than a first name: Olga.
Reading the article, I was struck by the number of parallels between Ranitskaya’s work and Nansen’s diary.
Nansen was born in 1901; Ranitskaya in 1905. She began writing in 1941; he in 1942. Ranitskaya’s diary is believed to be the only one written in the Gulag to have survived; getting caught was sufficient grounds for execution. Nansen’s diary is one of only a very small number of concentration camp diaries to have survived, of which only a handful have ever been translated into English. As Nansen noted on February 25, 1944: “A Dutchman has been found out keeping a diary, and that may lead to disaster.” I have previously written about the fragility of diaries (here).
Ranitskaya titled her diary “Work and Days” from an epic poem by Hesiod, a Greek poet. As I have written (here), Nansen’s title might well have come from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Ranitskaya’s writing “reveals a very good knowledge of the language and literature.” Nansen’s diary is undeniably eloquent, and replete with Biblical, classical and literary references.
According to Eroshok, Ranitskaya responded to evil “with something of quality, the quality of the drawings, the quality of the language and the quality of strong and positive feelings: her love for her son, her love of life, her love for people.” The quality of Nansen’s sketches bespeaks a formidable artistic talent, and, as I discuss in my Introduction to Nansen’s diary, the entire work can be “viewed as one long love letter to Kari,” his wife, as well as his children, to say nothing of Nansen’s love for young Tommy Buergenthal (which I’ve written about here). Eroshok also views the diary as a form of revenge against Stalin for all his victims. As I also write in my Introduction, “In the final analysis, it is Nansen’s diary itself that may constitute his ultimate act of resistance,” quoting Primo Levi to the effect that “’testimony was an act of war against fascism.’”
It took eight years for Eroshok and Moscow’s Gulag History Museum to track down the identity of the diarist and publish “a small, handsome volume” which includes the record of Ranitskaya’s interrogation as well as other poems she wrote. My journey from re-discovery of Nansen’s 60+ year-old diary to re-publication in a deluxe, annotated version with Vanderbilt University Press, took six years.
Finally, it is telling that the director of the Gulag History Museum, Roman V. Romanov, feels Russia must “get past the arguments over how many millions Stalin killed and focus instead on the fate of ordinary people.” He writes: “’What’s important is to return to people’s fate and allow the viewers to be part of someone’s life.’”
Ironically, the first blog post I ever wrote, on September 3, 2015 (here), begins with a quote from none other than Stalin that one death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic, and contains this observation: “Nansen’s diary is many things, but at one level it is an attempt to give a face, and personal story, or at least some recognition, to each individual he encountered, to bestow some dignity on them, notwithstanding their condition.”
A special shout-out to my friend Frank Schaberg who alerted me to this article.