A Gulag Diary Surfaces

Share

From the New York Times

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.

Subscribe to My Blog

Get an email notice when a new blog post is published.

Upcoming Events

Share

Book Signings

  • October 10, 2019: Friendship Senior Living, Roanoke, VA
  • October 14: Sage Academy for Lifelong Learning, Goucher College, Baltimore, MD
  • October 14, 2019: Charlestown Sr. Living, Catonsville, MD
  • October 15, 2019: Brookdale Battery Park, New York, NY
  • October 15, 2019: American Scandinavian Foundation, New York, NY
  • October 16, 2019: Atria Great Neck, Great Neck, NY
  • October 16, 2019: Atria Cutter Mill, Great Neck, NY
  • October 16, 2019: Atria Cranford, Cranford, NJ
  • October 17, 2019: 55-Plus Club, Princeton, NJ
  • October 17, 2019: Heritage Point, Barnegat, NJ
  • October 17, 2019: Westlake Golf and Country Club, Jackson, NJ
  • October 18, 2019: Somerset Run, Somerset, NJ
  • October 18, 2019: VASA/Lodge Linne, New Providence, NJ
  • October 20, 2019: Rappahannock Westminster-Canterbury, Irvington, VA
  • November 1, 2019: Osher Lifelong Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • November 14, 2019: Maven’s Club/Temple Emanuel, Winston-Salem, NC
  • January 23, 2020: Shalom Club/Carolina Preserve, Cary, NC
  • January 30, 2020: Kiawah World Lecture Series, Kiawah Island, SC
  • January 31, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • April 26, 2020: Chicago Sinai Congregation, Chicago, IL
  • April 27, 2020: Shorewood Glen, Shorewood, IL
  • April 28, 2020: Admiral on the Lake, Chicago, IL
  • May 28, 2020: Augsburg Luteran, Baltimore, MD
  • May 29-31, 2020: Georgetown University Bookstore, Washington, DC
  • June 2, 2020: JCC of Central New Jersey

People are talking


"A thousand thanks for your most wonderful lecture on your beautiful and informative book. What a labor of love you have undertaken for the world. . . . I still regard the lecture as one of the most perfect I have ever heard, and since I became 84 in the past week, that amounts to many thousands, mostly in an academic atmosphere."

- Nan Bentley Director, Wednesday Forum University Unitarian Church Seattle, WA

For more posts please see our archives.

Archives

On This Date

< 2019 >
October
SMTWHFS
  12345
6789101112
13141516171819
202122
  • A border pilot attempting to help 9 Jews escape to Sweden kills policeman; Jews are blamed
23242526
2728293031  
Legend
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history