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Dariusz Tołczyk " The Uses of Vulnerability. Literature and Ideology in Evgeniia Ginzburg's Memoir of the Gulag"

Stories of Evil

Literary testimonies to the twentieth century`s concentration camps, prisons, and ghettos emphasize that the desire to tell the story of these extreme historic ordeals was one of the most fundamental needs of the victims, comparable to their desire for survival itself. The thought that "no one would ever learn of their death (...) was one of the prisoners` greatest torments," Gustaw Herling-Grudziński writes in his Gulag memoir, A World Apart. Among the most devastating effects of the camps on their victims, next to dehumanizing terror, violence, and hunger, he underlines the "anxiety at the thought that [the] (...) camps have robbed millions of their victims of the one privilege accorded to every death – its publicity, and the desire which every human being subconsciously feels: to endure in the memory of others."[1] These words of Herling-Grudziński referring to the horrors of the Gulag are echoed by many survivors of the twentieth century`s various systems of mass oppression. Describing the wall erected by the Nazis around the Warsaw Ghetto, Marek Edelman, the last surviving commander of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, speaks about the profound anxieties of those imprisoned inside:
The wall only reached to the second floor. And already from the third floor one could see the other street. We could see a merry-go-round, people, we could hear music, and we were terribly afraid that this music would drown us out and that those people would never notice a thing, that nobody in the world would notice a thing: us, the struggle, the dead... That this wall was so huge, that nothing, no message about us, would ever make it out.[2]
Witnesses to Nazi and Bolshevik camps alike emphasize that, for many prisoners, the desire to tell the story of their own ordeals and of the fate of those who (to use Solzhenitsyn`s words) "did not live to tell it"[3] became a powerful inspiration in their own struggle for survival in camps and prisons. Many admit that in the face of this desire they came to view their own survival not as a goal in itself but rather as a condition for an even more important goal – letting the world know what happened to people behind the walls and barbed wire. Alexander Donat, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Dachau, reminisces:
I felt I was a witness to a disaster and charged with the sacred mission of carrying the Ghetto`s history through the flames and barbed wire until such time as I could hurl it into the face of the world. It seemed to me that this sense of mission would give me the strength to endure everything.[4]
At the time of Donat`s ordeals at the hands of the Nazis, Evgeniia Ginzburg was a prisoner of Stalin`s arctic camps of Kolyma. She was to spend the total of eighteen years in Soviet prisons, camps, and confined settlement. "[J]ust remembering it all to record it later had been the main object of my life throughout those eighteen years," she writes.[5]
This emphasis placed by so many authors of prison camp literature on the moral importance of telling the story points to a common ethical assumption underlying this vast and diverse literary tradition. In his exploration of many types of literary testimonies to concentration camps, Tzvetan Todorov spells out this assumption. "No life is lived in vain," he writes, "if it leaves behind some trace of itself, some story that, when added to the countless stories, by which we know who we are, contributes, even in the
smallest way, to making the world a more harmonious and more perfect place. This is the paradox: stories of evil can create good."[6]
But in order to tell the story of evil in hopes that it will, indeed, create good, the storyteller (witness) of the camps must respond to a challenge that distinguishes the twentieth-century totalitarian extremities from many other historic instances of mass oppression. Whereas (as Todorov puts it) "the main character of camp literature is evil," many witnesses emphasize the special nature of the peculiar kind of evil revealed in the concentration camps of totalitarian regimes. This is a kind of evil which not only destroys human beings but also corrodes the language enabling these human beings to recognize and describe it as evil.
Authors of camp literature distinguish two simultaneous and interdependent types of of this assault mounted by twentieth-century totalitarian systems against the camp victims` capacity to perceive the camps through the traditional opposition of good and evil. On the physical level, extreme violence, hunger, fear, and deprivations are shown by numerous witnesses to numb the moral sensitivities of many victims. Barbara Skarga writes in her Gulag memoir: "Day by day, with hunger and work beyond one`s capacity, what seeps into our minds is acceptance of evil. We no longer know how to be morally outraged."[7] Many writer-survivors emphasize that as a result of extreme physical deprivations in the camps a person`s capacity to be motivated by moral values crumbles. "Conditions in the camps do not permit men to remain men; that is not what camps were created for," Varlam Shalamov remarks in Kolyma Tales.[8] Nevertheless, even those witnesses who argue that the horrors of totalitarianism expose traditional discourses of good and evil as inadequate or vacuous still appeal to their audiences` reliance on these discourses in recognizing the evil of the camps.
This physical assault against victims` capacity to refer to the camp horrors in moral terms is often portrayed by survivors as accompanied by a special ideological assault. Both Nazism and Soviet Communism (at least in its Leninist and Stalinist phases) consisted of organized attempts to turn utopian rhetoric into life. Thus, the concentration camps created by these regimes in order to isolate, exploit, and (especially in the Nazi case) exterminate selected categories of people can be described in terms of "theaters of life" (and death), in which victims were expected to enact in their real lives the roles projected onto them by this utopian rhetoric. "A person`s consciousness," as Todorov puts it succinctly, "is [always] an internalization of the discourse of others; the `I` is formed by the `they.`"[9] In the ideal world of totalitarianism, the only "they" who form the "I" (identity) of every inhabitant of this world are supposed to be the Party leaders.
Similar to each other in this fundamental respect, Hitler`s and Stalin`s theaters of life differed, however, in important ways, as each of them strove to enact a different ideological script. Prisoners of Nazi camps, identified as subhuman by their masters on the basis of irreversible "biological laws," were expected to confirm this identity by their behavior in the camp. In his description of the Russian prisoners of war in Auschwitz, the camp commander, Rudolf Höss, says: "They were no longer men. They`d turned into beasts who thought only about eating."[10] Rudolf Höss proves to be an ideal viewer in his own theater of life. He suspends his knowledge of the back-stage reality and forgets that he is, in fact, the stage manager responsible for the whole theatrical effect. Instead, he allows himself to be (as Plato puts it in the Republic) "infected with the reality" of what he sees on stage. Viewed as subhuman by their oppressors, Nazi victims were neither coerced nor lured into thinking about them as anything other than
evil. The message projected by the camp regime to the victims was hardly ambiguous in this respect: the moral categories, thoughts, and feelings of the victims have no significance because, as subhumans, they would never be able to become a part of the only world in which things really mean something ― the world of the masters. The opposition of good and evil was therefore supposed to appear to the victim as meaningless when confronted by the opposition of masters and slaves, the strong and the weak. In the face of the triumphant and blatant horrors committed by the victorious masters, calling these masters and their actions evil was to be viewed by the victims themselves as nothing more than a laughable exercise in futility carried out by history`s (and nature`s) losers.
The main difference, in this respect, between the Nazi camps and the Gulag is the fact that in the Gulag evil parades in the guise of goodness. Unlike the Nazi rhetoric, the official Soviet rhetoric, addressed to the prisoners, their camp masters, and the population at large, presented the Gulag as a well-meaning and successful experiment in resocializing ill-adjusted and confused individuals. According to the Marxist premise of class-based consciousness, the Bolsheviks claimed that the source of both crime and political opposition (actual or imagined by the Soviet authorities) to Bolshevism lay in a person's inability or unwillingness to free him or herself from the confusing vestiges of the pre-revolutionary bourgeois class consciousness. Therefore, eradicating crime (and political opposition) was presented as achievable through the transformation (coercive if necessary) of the old consciousness ("old man") into a new, Soviet one. Slave labor and systematic reeducation were viewed by the Bolsheviks as two mutually complementary means of this transformation. As early as 1919, Feliks Dzerzhinsky called for the transformation of the Bolshevik concentration camps of the Civil War into more systematically organized "schools of labor."[11] Soviet propaganda developed this rhetoric on a mass scale in the late 1920s and 1930s ― the time when slave labor became a significant factor in the Soviet economy and the Gualg system expanded dramatically [12] This rhetoric, centered around the metaphor of perekovka [reforging of people] was the only way of referring to the Gulag allowed in the Soviet world, and it was championed by Soviet propaganda abroad.[13] Imprisonment in labor camps, according to this rhetoric, was to be viewed not as punishment (let alone oppression) but as a sign of the Soviet regime's magnanimity and its "humanitarian" mission. For example, Belomorsko-baltiiskii kanal imeni Stalina (1934), a collective "non-fiction" volume by 36 Soviet authors praising the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal by Gulag inmates, describes this mission: "We eliminate only the most stubborn and stiff-necked enemies. As for people of the old world caught opposing the new, we try to transform them."[14] In her 1936 book praising the Gulag, Ot prestupleniia k trudu, Ida Averbakh presents the goal of perekovka [reforging] as "the transformation of the nastiest human material into worthwhile, fully useful, active, and conscientious builders of socialism."[15] In the Gulag system of the 1930s, prisoners were not only pressured (by hunger and violence) to engage in the "voluntary competition of socialist labor" and to inform on their less-motivated fellow prisoners, but were also expected to "prove" their inner transformation by expressing their enthusiasm for communism and the Soviet authorities in internal Gulag press, theatrical performances, concerts, etc.[16] In 1937, the year of an unprecedented wave of the Great Terror, the topic of the Gualg was muffled until the Thaw following Stalin's death. The Thaw, especially the publication of Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962, briefly challenged the perekovka rhetoric, but in the mid-1960s the theme of the Gulag was muffled again and remained a taboo in official Soviet discourse until glasnost'.[17]
According to the perekovka rhetoric of the Gulag, camp inmates were presented in terms of "human material" undergoing a beneficial transformation ― a sharp contrast to the Nazi rhetoric presenting the majority of the camp population as subhuman refuse. This difference can be traced back to the ideological factors determining a person's status in each of these two systems of oppression: "race" versus "class." In contrast to the central Nazi idea of "racial characteristics," the Bolshevik concept of "class consciousness" did not imply that the identity of each human subject is unchangeable. Unlike the Nazi camps, the Gulag was not designed to directly annihilate entire categories of people but rather to exploit them and, at least in theory, transform their consciousness. Thus, in the Bolshevik rhetoric of the Gulag, a victim is not a victim but an initiate whose progress is measured by his ability to refer to his own experience in the moral language of his oppressors ― a language prohibiting him from recognizing the evil done to him. In the words of Barbara Skarga, this language replaces the real camp with "a phantom or an idea of the camp," in which there are no victors and vanquished... No, there are only the good shepherds on the one hand and, on the other, the confused sheep who should be grateful for all the care of the shepherds. There are no masters and slaves exploited beyond their capacity… There are no murderers and murdered... No, the administration of the camp plays the role of worried fathers who, broken hearted, must punish their own children... The Nazis did not conceal their hostility nor did they require their victims to declare their love for them... And so, each prisoner of the Gulag, like each Soviet citizen, enters the domain of the lie. If he dreams of surviving he must deny his own self. He must speak the same language as his oppressors, he must repeat the same slogans, the same well-known words... He can do it cynically, knowing that this is a game. But he can go too far... He can start believing in his own game, and then his fate will be truly sorrowful. Before his body is destroyed, his soul will fall.[18]
Literary witnesses to the Gulag acknowledge that resistance against this moral manipulation usually consisted of a struggle to preserve the old moral categories in which identity was anchored prior to entry into the nether world of prisons and camps. What one struggles for in the Gulag is, besides physical survival, the survival of one's ability to identify oneself morally in opposition to, and not as a part of, the system of oppression. Crucial for the moral survival of the prisoner, this ability constitutes a fundamental condition enabling a prisoner of the Gulag to become a witness. To be a witness, one must successfully resist the pressure to internalize the language of the regime; a witness who views his Gulag experience according to the moral categories imposed on him by the language of his oppressors is not a witness but part of the cover-up.
A Crack in the Wooden Screen
Understanding the specific nature of the moral assault of the Gulag is crucial in order to appreciate the special character of Evgeniia Ginzburg's testimony to her eighteen years spent in Stalin's prisons, camps, and confined settlement. Ginzburg's two-volume memoir, Krutoi marshrut was translated into English under two titles: Journey into the Whirlwind (vol. 1) and Within the Whirlwind (vol. 2).[19] Ginzburg wrote the first volume during the Thaw, in response to the official critique of Stalin at the Twenty-Second Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1961. The Congress called upon writers to compose literary testimonies to the "period of the cult of personality." Ginzburg wrote hers with "a specific aim: to offer the manuscript to the major [Soviet] journals."[20] She admits: "Alas, together with my hopes of publication the (...) inner editor came into being. He carped at every paragraph: 'You won't get that past the censor.' (...) All this had a considerable effect on the first part."[21] She submitted the first volume for publication to Aleksandr Tvardovskii, the editor of Novyi Mir (the journal which had
just published Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) and Boris Polevoi, the editor of Iunost'. Both editors kept the manuscript for a long time only to finally reject it (Polevoi as late as 1966), clearly for political reasons. Meanwhile the memoir had begun circulating in samizdat and in 1967 it was published abroad (Frankfurt and Milan). After this publication, Ginzburg wrote the second volume without the hopes for publication in the Soviet Union. It appeared in 1979 in Milan.
Whereas most testimonies to moral resistance in the Gulag underscore the reliance of the victims on moral languages that anchored their identities before their imprisonment, Ginzburg testifies to resisting this assault despite discovering in prison that the moral language that anchored her identity before her imprisonment was, in fact, vacuous. Her experience of the Gulag is not of a successful defense of her moral identity against overwhelming pressures, but rather of a purposeful abandonment of her old moral framework of identity and the construction, almost from scratch, of a new one. She accomplishes this under conditions of extreme vulnerability, in a situation defying all reasonable expectations of success.
Describing her state of mind before her arrest, Ginzburg writes: "I don't want to sound pretentious, but I must say that had I been ordered to die for the Party ― not once but three times (...) I would have obeyed without the slightest hesitation. I had not the shadow of a doubt of the rightness of the Party line."[22] Ginzburg, a young Party activist and instructor of Marxism-Leninism in Kazan', was arrested in the purge of 1937 under false charges of "counterrevolutionary Trotskyist terrorist conspiracy." She admits that the moral discourse in which her identity was anchored before her imprisonment was essentially identical with the discourse of her would-be oppressors. So while the Soviet system of oppression tried to lure its victims into moral self-identification with the regime by presenting these victims with a fictitious prospect of their inner transformation, no such transformation was necessary in Ginzburg's case. Instead, as someone without "the shadow of a doubt in the rightness of the Party line," she was merely asked by her political superiors to reconfirm her political and moral allegiance to the Party. Wrongly accused and imprisoned, she was not pressured into abandoning a language in which her sense of moral identity was anchored. On the contrary, she was expected to make it even more solid and substantial.
In the fourth chapter of Ginzburg's memoir, the chairman of the bureau of Party political control, Comrade Beilin, asks young Evgeniia (Zhenia) Ginzburg (already accused but not yet arrested) to stop clinging to her "subjective" perception that she is innocent and, instead, to recognize that it is the Party, not her, who possesses the ultimate authority to "objectively" pronounce her guilt or innocence. In the Leninist ethical world, whose sole foundation is the "class interest of the proletariat," the only entity competent to define this interest objectively at a particular time and place is the Communist Party, the ultimate repository of the collective will and wisdom of the proletariat. Lenin made this point clear on many occasions. "Our morality is entirely subordinate to the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat," he explained. "Morality is what serves the destruction of the old exploitative society and the unification of all workers around the proletariat, which is creating the new society of Communists. We do not believe in eternal morality."[23] Since only the Party leadership knows where the "interest of the proletariat" lies at a given moment, a person experiencing a conflict between the "subjective" feeling of innocence and the "objective" pronouncement of his or her guilt by the Party reveals that his or her class consciousness is not sufficiently mature and needs further guidance. This person should immediately admit his or her shortcoming to the Party and embrace whatever remedy the Party deems fit. At the time
of Ginzburg's arrest, such confessions were commonplace. Throughout the Soviet Union, "large halls were turned into public confessionals," she writes.
Although absolution was not at all easy to come by ― expressions of contrition were more often than not rejected as "inadequate" ― the torrent of confessions grew from day to day... Beating their breasts, the "guilty" would lament that they "had shown political short-sightedness" and "lack of vigilance," "compromised with dubious elements," "added grist" to this or that mill, and were tainted with "rotten liberalism." Many such phrases echoed under the vaulted roofs of public buildings. The press, too, was flooded with contrite articles by Party theorists, frightened out of their wits like rabbits and not attempting to conceal this fear.[24]
In the totalitarian world generated by the Party discourse, where the political authorities are endowed with a monopoly on moral judgment, a refusal to comply with their verdicts is in and of itself a moral transgression. The young Zhenia Ginzburg refuses to join in this "torrent of confessions" to admit her guilt despite her innocence. By refusing she in fact fails to recognize the Party's position as the supreme judge of right and wrong. By Bolshevik standards, she becomes guilty of apostasy: despite her assurances to the contrary, she lacks faith in the ideology that endows the Party leadership with ultimate moral authority. Confronted by this test of ideological consistency, Zhenia fails by the standards that, just a little earlier, she considered her own. When tested, she discovers that in fact she does have more than "the shadow of a doubt in the rightness of the Party line."
What distinguishes Ginzburg's testimony from many other Gulag testimonies by Communists is that, under the extreme circumstances of prisons and camps, she does not rush back to the security of her moral identity as a Bolshevik. On the contrary, in Stalin's prison (the worst possible place for moral self-doubt), when her vulnerability, both physical and moral, is at its highest, she recognizes Bolshevik moral discourse as deficient and so allows her old identity, anchored in this discourse, to fall apart. During an interrogation, the NKVD officer, Major El'shin, hands her a list of people whom she is asked to identify as co-conspirators in a fictitious plot. She recognizes one name on the list – Kavi Nadzhimi, a Tatar writer she had seen a few times. When she refuses to incriminate anyone on the list, Major El'shin teases her:
"Anxious to spare Nadzhimi? He didn't spare you," said the Major enigmatically.
"That's between him and his conscience."
"What are you, an Evangelist or something?"
"Just honest."
Again the Major couldn't miss the chance to display his learning, and gave me a lecture on the Marxist-Leninist view of ethics. "Honest" meant useful to the proletariat and its state.[25]
Major El'shin is quite right: words like "conscience" and "honesty" do not belong in the language of Leninist revolutionary morality, if they mean anything other than unconditional loyalty to the Party. In order to be able to use such words and not contradict herself, Zhenia must find a new language, in which she can rebuild her undermined sense of moral identity. This must be a language in which words like
"conscience" and "honesty" mean more than Major El'shin suggests, a language enabling her to separate herself morally from her oppressors.
This realization does not, however, directly imply that she must abandon the ideological discourse of the Party. As paradoxical as it sounds, Gulag literature abounds in examples of Bolshevik victims who manage to preserve their old identities rooted in the ideological discourse of the Party precisely in order to separate themselves morally from their Bolshevik oppressors.[26] In order to preserve the security of their Bolshevik identities in Stalin's prisons and camps they either construct an opposition between Stalin (whom they identify as a traitor and enemy of the Party) and themselves (the "real Communists") or they call the whole matter an unfortunate mistake. Ginzburg is a superb observer of these psychological strategies at work. She relates her own anxieties and dilemmas after her arrest:
A Communist held by the Gestapo ― I would have known exactly how to behave. But here? Here I had first to determine who these people were, who kept me imprisoned. Were they fascists in disguise? Or victims of some super-subtle provocation, some fantastic hoax? And how should a Communist behave 'in prison in his own country,' as Major [El'shin] had put it?[27]
But instead of following this path of thought, which enabled many of her fellow Communists to preserve their psychological and moral sense of security, Zhenia abandons it and, instead, chooses vulnerability. In the midst of Stalin's horrors, where protecting the consistency of one's moral identity is a matter of survival, she chooses to undertake a lonely search for a new and more suitable moral language, in whose domain she hopes to rebuild her moral sense of the world and self.
What prompts her to embark on this path is her realization of a particular deficiency of the Party`s ideological discourse, which, in her eyes, disqualifies it as a basis for her moral identity. She realizes in prison that this discourse obscures a person`s ability to encounter the other. By encountering the other I mean, as Derek Attridge puts it, "the acknowledgment of the other human being`s uniqueness, and therefore of the impossibility of finding general rules or schemata to account fully for him or her."[28] Not until her arrest does Zhenia realize that in the world she lived in before ― a world generated by Party discourse – she was unable to encounter people. The opening chapters of Ginzburg`s memoir present this strange, rarefied world of Zhenia`s before her arrest. Here, the only people worth noticing and mentioning in the narrative are almost exclusively Party activists who are always referred to in terms of their functions in the Party hierarchy. Peculiarly enough, even Zhenia`s husband, although one would expect him to be defined by his intimate relationship to the protagonist-narrator, is introduced in the narrative as, first and foremost, "a leading member of the Tartar Province Committee of the Party."[29] In a telling event that opens the memoir, Zhenia is sent by her Party superiors to a textile mill in a working-class district of Kazan` in order to "enlighten" the workers about the recent assassination of Kirov, the Party chief in Leningrad. But Zhenia`s account of her meeting with the workers is of a most peculiar kind. While facing the workers she notices her surroundings, the "cotton filled sacks in the middle of the factory floor," but there is no account of the people to whom she speaks.[30] Unlike the Party activists described in detail, these workers are faceless. They exist only on the shadowy fringes of the world illuminated by the ideological discourse radiating from the leadership of the Party. Outside this domain of light is a realm of darkness, ignorance, and evil, where everything seems obscured and suspect, and where the class enemy seems to lurk, always ready to attack.
After her arrest, Zhenia realizes that preserving the security of Bolshevik moral identity in Stalin`s prison means keeping intact those boundaries between us (the Party activists) and the others (potential and actual enemies all around). One of Zhenia`s fellow prisoners, Anna, a Bolshevik, tries to find appropriate terms by which to refer to the others in the cell. One of those others is Nadezhda Derkovskaia, a member of the Social Revolutionary Party (SR) outlawed by the Bolsheviks. "You realize (...) she really is the class enemy," Anna confides to Zhenia. "Though of course, from what the schoolbooks said, I didn`t imagine them quite like that. She is really a good old soul, and dreadfully unhappy. But one mustn`t let one`s mind be swayed by pity."[31]
But at the moment Anna reveals to Zhenia her confusion between two moral responses to the other ― one prescribing hatred and the other suggesting compassion ― Zhenia is already well advanced on her journey away from the former and towards the latter. For her, this journey begins the very moment the door of the NKVD investigative prison in Kazan` shuts behind her. Descending into the underworld of the prison`s basement, she sees a row of cell doors lined up along the corridor.
Behind these doors were friends of mine, Communists who had been cast down into hell before me... I had mentally prepared myself for solitary confinement. So when the door, marked `3,` opened with much cracking and grinding, and I saw the outline of a human figure inside, I took this as an unexpected gift of fate. I was not alone. This already was a blessing.[32]
Characteristically enough, the thoughts accompanying Zhenia in her descent into the prison cellars reveal the same key opposition that shaped her "encounter" (or rather the impossibility of it) with the workers in the textile mill. On the one side of this opposition are her "friends, Communists"; on the other side is a blank – an absence of human beings (the prospect of solitary confinement). In her mind, meeting another human being means meeting someone who shares her own ideological discourse and who can be classified as one of "us Communists." The wording of her greeting addressed to the unknown woman in the cell reveals that perception: "Hello, Comrade," she says.[33]
But Zhenia`s cell mate is no "Comrade." Instead, she is a mystery. Her name is Liama Shapel` and her crime is to have lived abroad, in the territory of the East Siberian Railroad sold by the Soviet government to China (enough of a crime to be charged as a Japanese agent). As the two women try to communicate in the cell, Zhenia quickly realizes that her language is useless as a tool of communication between them. "I (...) had no idea what she was talking about. It was all so far away from my small, closed world of Party intellectuals and scholars," Ginzburg writes. All of a sudden, in a face-to-face encounter with a human being from outside of the world of Party discourse, that discourse appears to Zhenia as confining, preventing her from encountering a fellow human. "When I tried to tell Liama about myself," Ginzburg writes, "I found it was utterly beyond her. With all my teacher`s training, I could not explain to this child of another world what exactly I was being accused of. All of our talk of `lack of vigilance,` `appeasement,` `rotten liberalism,` was so much Chinese to her, or rather it was sheer gibberish, for she did know quite a lot of Chinese."[34]
A professional instructor of Marxism-Leninism who, before her arrest, taught others how to view their lives through ideological discourse, Zhenia finds herself helpless trying to use this discourse to explain her own predicament. Rhetorical clichés, taken for granted as meaningful and applied to reality as all-encompassing labels, suddenly reveal their vacuity. Their incomprehensibility to Liama is not a matter of her lack of knowledge of a particular communicative code. A code can be taught and translated into
another code, just as Chinese can be translated into Russian. Comparing the incomprehensibility of Bolshevik ideological language to the incomprehensibility of Chinese to a Russian fails Zhenia altogether. Unlike natural languages ― Russian, Chinese, and others ― Soviet ideological language refers to a universe derived from a series of rhetorical phantoms, whose mere existence is subject to belief rather than to verification. Therefore, this language is utterly meaningless for non-believers. Facing Liama, a non-believer unfamiliar with the ideological rhetoric, Zhenia can relate to her in two opposite ways. She may simply view Liama as some profane who should be either initiated into a higher level of consciousness or ignored. Instead Zhenia takes the opposite approach. Her failure to communicate with Liama appears to her as evidence of the inner vacuity of her own terms of communication rather than of the inadequate communicative competence of her interlocutor. And so, having disposed of her failed ideological language, Zhenia opens up to the inexhaustible reality of the human encounter with the other.
Ginzburg`s descriptions of her cell symbolically reflect this breakthrough. She describes her living space: "The window of our cell was protected not only by thick bars but by a high wooden screen which left only a tiny scrap of sky to be seen above it." "It`s dark even by day," Zhenia complains to Liama. In response, Liama asks: "`Look carefully at the screen. Do you notice anything?` No, decidedly, I didn`t. Bars, boards ― the world was locked away. But, as she showed me, there was after all a minute opening in it ― a chink of light between the second and third boards."[35] Liama not only guides Zhenia to a crack in the wooden screen, through which she will be able to see glimpses of the world outside the cell, but also helps her make an opening in the untransparent screen of her own language. It is through this opening that Zhenia becomes capable of viewing the world and other people anew, without the obfuscating impact of the ideological clichés.
The motif of the cracked wooden screen is immediately echoed by the motif of the prison walls "coming to life." A prisoner in an adjacent cell keeps knocking on the wall, trying to communicate with Zhenia and Liama. Slowly, Zhenia and Liama learn the "prison alphabet," enabling them to communicate by knocking on the walls. After painstaking efforts, Zhenia establishes communications with the prisoner in the adjacent cell. This happens without her knowing who this person is. She is astonished when she learns his name: Garei Sagidullin. "Yes it was he ― Garei Sagidullin, whose name for years past had not been mentioned in Kazan' without an 'ism' tacked to it: Sagidullinism. It was the heading of a propaganda theme. 'Sagidullinism' (...) stood for the heresy of Tartar 'bourgeois nationalism.'"[36] Placed outside of her familiar world of labels, Zhenia now encounters the very complex, often ambiguous, realities hidden behind these labels. Under the abstract noun "Sagidullinism," she now finds a concrete, living human being.
What Ginzburg's autobiographical testimony illuminates here is more than a personal experience; it is a peculiar twentieth-century form of the distinction between the language of (to use Camus' famous formulation) "those who make history" and "those who suffer it." Hannah Arendt describes the most radical twentieth-century form of this timeless distinction as a division between "those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organize masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives."[37] The most ruthless makers of twentieth-century history ― those motivated by totalitarian claims to omnipotence ― understood their primary ethical obligation not as an obligation to concrete human beings but rather to the ideological consistency of those claims. Viewed through those ideological prisms, the other appears as nothing more than a specimen of a larger abstract entity (class, race) or a locus through which this or that
ideological position is reflected. As long as one deals with these abstractions and does not meet the other in a face-to-face encounter, sealing the fate of the other seems psychologically assimilable. What Zhenia realizes in Stalin's prison is that, in order to rebuild her moral sense of self, she must find a language enabling her to view the world and herself from the viewpoint of those who suffer history, rather than of those who claim to make it.
Wads of Cotton and the Treasures of Our Minds
Zhenia's search for a morally anchoring language leads her towards literature. She recognizes literature as a repository of discourses enabling her to acknowledge other human beings' uniqueness and to view the world from the viewpoint of history's sufferers and not its self-proclaimed makers. Having abandoned the ideological discourse of the Party, Zhenia rediscovers her Russian literary classics and employs their themes, motifs, characters, metaphors, and narrative structures as models in her efforts to reconstruct her sense of the world and self. What she draws on in particular is the Russian tradition of literature as a force subverting the oppressive social status quo. Nikolai Nekrasov's long poem Russian Women and Tolstoi's Resurrection provide her with central models in this respect.[38] She compares herself to Nekrasov's characters of Ekaterina Trubetskaia and Maria Volkonskaia (both historical figures), wives of Decembrists, who accompanied their husbands to their punitive labor colonies in Siberia. Viewing her own fate in terms of Tolstoi's novel, she draws on a central character of Resurrection ― Maslova ― a victim of social injustice wrongly condemned to punitive labor, who, through her altruism towards fellow prisoners, experiences moral growth even under the oppressive conditions of a Siberian prison colony. By adapting these and other literary themes and motifs to her own experience, Zhenia manages to make herself part of an ethical world very different from the one her oppressors expected her to recognize as the only legitimate one.
Zhenia's immersion in the language of literature not only ethically sensitizes her to other human beings by constantly challenging reductive ideological terms, but also enables her to take possession of the world symbolically through aesthetic means. By reflecting on her experience in lyrical forms (she composes and memorizes poems) Zhenia orders her world by means of poetic language ― its rhythms, sounds, correspondences. As a poet, she repeats Adam's act of possessing the world by giving each being its name. Placed in an underground punishment cell, completely dark, cold, and infested with rats, Zhenia composes a poem:
Can a soul in hell be more lost?
I must drink my cup to the dregs,
But at least I am not alone
In my calvary.
A flagstone is my only cushion,
But Pushkin, sitting in one corner,
Sings me a song
About Gurzuf at night.
And, unseen by any guard,
Another priceless friend
Comes into my cell ―
His name is Alexander Blok.[39]
"Poetry, at least, they could not take away from me!" Ginzburg writes. "They had taken my dress, my shoes and stockings, and my comb, they had left me half naked and freezing, but this it was not in their power to take away, it was and remained mine. And I should survive even this dungeon."[40] The language of poetry and the special sensitivity it evokes are identified by Ginzburg repeatedly as a source of her spiritual survival and growth in the Gulag. She writes:
Many people (...) developed a sort of mental torpor, which enabled them to contemplate with indifference the dying, those afflicted with night blindness, wandering about in the evening, with companions to guide them and stretching out trembling hands, and even hordes of bugs which crawled all over the plank beds...
I felt instinctively that as long as I could be stirred to emotion by the sea breeze, by the brilliance of the stars, and by poetry, I would still be alive, however much my legs might tremble and my back bend under the load of burning stones. It was by preserving all these treasures in our minds that we should resist the onslaught of the horrors around us.[41]
But Ginzburg's memoir is not a facile glorification of literary art as a remedy for all the moral challenges of the Gulag. The special kind of sensitivity and awareness that literature awakens in her in the midst of Stalin's horrors is shown as a blessing but also as a source of a peculiar anxiety. On her first night in a new cell of Moscow's Butyrki prison, Zhenia meets a Latvian woman, named Milda, who offers her wads of cotton to put into her ears "so as not to hear, so as to get some sleep." Zhenia decides not to follow Milda's suggestion. "Rather than play an ostrich, I would see things through to the finish," Ginzburg writes.
And I saw them through on that July night of the year 1937 (...) . Not one, but a multitude of screams and groans from tortured human beings burst simultaneously through the open windows of our cell... Although they were only sounds, they conjured up such a vivid picture that I felt I could see it in every detail... How long could it go on? Till three o'clock, they had told me. But surely no one could endure this longer than a minute. Yet the noise went on.[42]
After one night of listening to the noise from Butyrki torture chambers, Zhenia turns to Milda:
"Give me some cotton now," I begged Milda. I stopped both my ears, then pulled over my head the prison blanket, smelling of dust and grief, and took a corner of straw pillow firmly between my teeth. It would be easier like this: I could neither hear not see. If only I could stop thinking as well! (...) I knew I should not sleep until I had repeated some poem over to myself ten or a hundred times. I chose Michelangelo's lines:
Sweet it's to sleep, sweeter to be a stone.
In this dread age of terror and of shame,
Thrice blest is he who neither sees nor feels.
Leave me then here, and trouble not my rest.[43]
Armed with poetic language, Zhenia views herself as prepared to face her prison experience including its most extreme aspects. Or, rather, she imagines herself so when she proudly refuses to "play an ostrich" and put cotton in her ears. What she discovers, however, is that the realm of experience revealed to her is a special one. As Lev Shestov put it, this realm "knows no volunteers and nobody enters it on his own will."[44] In the face of this kind of experience Zhenia's literary sensitivities reveal their ambiguous nature. She has already discovered that poetry sensitizes her morally and opens her up towards the other. What she discovers now is the eternal tension between ethical and aesthetic impulses behind literary art. For poetry can also function as a psychological device distancing her ethically from the other when her own emotional survival is at stake. In the underground punishment cell of the Iaroslavl' prison, Zhenia hears, once again, someone's desperate screams. This time it is a woman, an Italian Communist, incarcerated in another punishment cell close by. Ginzburg reminisces:
I prayed, as Pushkin once did, "Please God, may I not go mad! Rather grant me prison, poverty or death." The first sign of approaching madness must surely be the urge to scream like that on a single continuous note. I must conquer it and preserve the balance of my mind by giving it something to do. So I began again to recite verses to myself. I composed more of my own and said them over and over so as not to forget them, and above all not to hear that cry.[45]
In this description, poetry replaces the wads of cotton as it muffles the cries of another human being whom Zhenia cannot help. If the frustration caused by one's inability to respond in any practical way to the sufferings of another is a deep blow to one's emotional stability, poetry is shown here as a tranquilizer alleviating this blow. It works as a technique of both emotional and moral detachment.
This detachment can, however, be viewed as the source of a moral ambiguity of its own. Tadeusz Borowski in his Auschwitz stories dwells on this issue and shows its extreme forms. His narrator, an Auschwitz prisoner assigned to the much-coveted job of hospital orderly, describes his routine experience of watching columns of people led to gas chambers. "[T]he people were walking," he says. "Women, men, children... On warm evenings I sat at the barracks door reading Mon Frere Yves by Pierre Loti ― while the procession continued on and on."[46] Borowski's narrator, exposed day after day to horrors defying anyone's moral vocabulary, occupies his mind with literature. His account, unlike Ginzburg's, is conspicuously devoid of dramatic tones. The intensity of evil to which he is exposed leaves him no option of remaining morally sensitive and preserving his sanity at the same time. For him, literature and art are useful sources of moral detachment because they teach him how to replace ethical sensitivities with aesthetic ones. Hence he can look at a crowd of people waiting to be taken to the gas chamber and view them as aesthetic objects. "People were emerging from cattle cars and walking in the direction of the wood," he says. "All I could see from where I stood were bright splashes of color. The women, it seemed, were already wearing summer dresses: it was the first time this season. The men had taken off their coats, and their white shirts stood out sharply against the green of the trees."[47] The physical distance that separates Borowski's narrator from the people on the Auschwitz ramp, and which makes him see only "splashes of color," emphasizes the moral distance which can be achieved by focusing on the aesthetic
side of the experience. In aesthetic terms, people on the Auschwitz ramp are just elements of a visual composition of shapes and colors. As elements of this composition they are aesthetically equivalent to its other elements ― the trees, the sky, and any other objects within the narrator's view. In this way, the aesthetic side of the experience can serve as a muffler for its ethical aspects.
Solzhenitsyn, too, acknowledges this ambiguity. He illuminates it in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich through the character of Tsezar Markovich, a Moscow filmmaker imprisoned in a labor camp. Tsezar, an educated and artistically inclined man forced to live in the camp among peasants and workers, manages to avoid the grueling labor by performing administrative jobs. He regularly receives ample food parcels, and so does not have to share with others the tormenting experience of hunger. Embroiled in a discussion with another Moscow intellectual about Sergei Eisenstein's cinematic art, in the midst of hungry crowds of their fellow prisoners, Tsezar manages to remain oblivious to the constant presence of miserable people, who are neither capable of sharing his intellectual discourse nor invited to share his food supplies.[48] Tsezar Markovich is too preoccupied with matters of aesthetics to acknowledge the ethical challenges stemming from the presence of his hungry and miserable fellow prisoners.
Does this tension between aesthetic and ethical preoccupations of art show that Ginzburg's recognition of literature as a source of her moral resistance is, in fact, only a naive wish? Ginzburg's answer is: on the contrary. What might seem to be a chief weakness of literary art in this respect, a sign of its vulnerability, for Ginzburg represents its strength. One can remain open to the infinity of human encounters only if one is constantly aware that the terms one projects upon the other are always imperfect, tentative, incomplete. Literature is founded on such awareness. Its ceaseless efforts at reconciling, solving, or ignoring the tension between aesthetic and ethical aspects of human experience are always tentative. What they produce is not the definitive answer but an infinitely growing repository of genres, subgenres, and individual artistic idioms, none more definitive than another. Whenever literature fails to acknowledge its inner tensions and inconsequentialities, its own open-endedness, it tends to become utopian: it aims at making order, once and for all, out of the unruly human world of inexhaustible encounters. This order, when motivated by aesthetics, can obscure the ethical dimensions of its human subject matter. When motivated by ethical purposes at the expense of forsaking literature's inherent aesthetic preoccupations, it comes dangerously close to ideology. For Ginzburg, liberation from the ideological language of dogmas (the idiom of the twentieth-century's totalitarian masters) does not mean internalizing another language of dogmas. Literature gives her a language by which she can recognize her own perception of the other as always incomplete. Thus she oscillates between the irreducible nature of each encounter and the classifying tendencies of language itself. Remaining always open to the inexhaustible world of human encounters in Stalin's prisons and camps exposes her to perpetual risk and vulnerability. But this risk and vulnerability keep open for her the possibility of discovery ― the prospect of staying alive as a human being. It is because of this inherent open-endedness of moral perspective that literature, with its eternal tension between aesthetic and ethical commitments, is, in the view of Evgeniia Ginzburg, ethically superior to any ostensibly ethically motivated ideology. Only when aware of the incomplete and tentative nature of the terms one projects on others can one hesitate, reverse, and correct oneself before it is too late.
[1] Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, A World Apart, trans. Andrzej Ciołkosz (New York: Penguin, 1996), pp. 150-151.
[2]Hanna Krall, The Subtenant. To Outwit God, trans. Joanna Stasinska Weschler and Lawrence Weschler (Evanston: Nothwestern University Press, 1992), pp. 136-137.
[3]Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (New York: Westview, 1991), dedication.
[4]Alexander Donat, The Holocaust Kingdom (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965), p. 183.
[5]Eugenia Ginzburg, Within the Whirlwind, trans. Ian Boland (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), p. 417.
[6]Tzvetan Todorov, Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps trans. Arthur Denner and Abigail Pollak (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1996), p. 96.
[7]Barbara Skarga (Wiktoria Kraśniewska), Po wyzwoleniu, 1948-1956 (Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1985), p. 52.
[8]Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Tales, trans. John Glad (New York: Norton, 1980), p. 56.
[9] Todorov, Facing the Extreme, p. 104.
[10]Rudolf Höss, Le commendant d`Auschwitz parle (Paris: Maspero, 1979), p. 160.
[11] Istoricheskii arkhiv, no. 1, 1958, pp. 6-11.
[12] In 1929, the Soviet leadership ordered turning all prisoners sentenced to more than three years of incarceration into slave laborers, and sending them to especially difficult and dangerous locations. See "Materiialy ob ispol'zovanii truda ugolovno-zakliuchennykh" (Tsentral'nyi Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii, F.393 Op. 1, Eg. Khr. 285, L. 31).
[13] See Maksim Gorkii, "Solovki" (1929) in Gorkii, Sobranie sochinenii, vol. 17 (Moscow: Gosizdat, 1952); Maksim Gorkii, Leopold Averbakh, and Semen Firin (editors), Belomorsko-baltiiskii kanal imeni Stalina: Istoriia stroitel'stva (Moscow: OGIZ, 1934) (the book was published in an altered English-language version as Belomor: An Account of the Construction of the New Canal between the White Sea and the Baltic Sea [New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1935]); Andrei Vyshinskii (editor), Ot tiurem k vospitatel'nym uchrezhdeniiam (Moscow:NKIu SSSR, 1934); Nikolai Pogodin, Aristokraty (Moscow: OGIZ 1935); Ida Averbakh, Ot prestupleniia k trudu (Moscow:OGIZ 1936).
[14] Gorkii, Averbakh, and Firin (editors), Belomorsko-baltiiskii kanal imeni Stalina: Istoriia stroitel'stva, p. 25.
[15] Averbakh, Ot prestupleniia k trudu, quoted from Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), vol. 2, p. 104.
[16] See A. Gorcheva, Pressa Gulaga (1918-1955) (Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Moskovskogo Universiteta, 1996).
[17] For secondary literature on the Soviet rhetoric of the Gulag see: Mikhail Geller, Kontsentratsionnyi mir i sovetskaia literatura (London: Overseas Publications Interchange, 1974); Cynthia Ruder, Making History for Stalin: The Story of the Belomor Canal (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998); Dariusz Tolczyk, See No Evil: Literary Cover-Ups and Discoveries of the Soviet Camp Experience (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), Leona Toker, Return from the Archipelago: Narratives of Gulag Survivors (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).
[18]Barbara Skarga (Wiktoria Kraśniewska), Po wyzwoleniu (1944-56), pp. 84-87.
[19] Eugenia Ginzburg, Journey into the Whirlwind trans. Paul Stevenson and Max Hayward (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967) and Eugenia Ginzburg, Within the Whirlwind, trans. Ian Boland (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981).
[20]Ginzburg, Within the Whirlwind, p. 419.
[21] Ibid.
[22]Ginzburg, Journey into the Whirlwind, p. 4.
[23]Cited in Andrei Sinyavsky, Soviet Civilization: A Cultural History, trans. Joanne Turnbull (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 1990), p. 120.
[24]Ginzburg, Journey into the Whirlwind, p. 11.
[25] Ibid., pp. 84-85.
[26]See Franciszek Olechnowicz, Prawda o Sowietach (wrażenia z siedmioletniego pobytu w więzieniach sowieckich, r. 1927-1933) (Warszawa, 1937); Georgii Shelest, "Kolymskie zapisi," in Znamia, no. 9 (1964) pp. 164-180; Iurii Piliar, "Liudi ostaiutsia liud'mi, " in Iunost', no. 6, 7, 8 (1963) and 3, 4, 5 (1964); Boris D'iakov, "Povest' o perezhitom," in Oktiabr', no. 7 (1964) pp. 50-142; Andriei Aldan-Semenov, "Barel'ef na skale," in Moskva, no. 7 (1964) pp. 68-154; Matylda Temkin, W sowieckim łagrze. Wspomnienia komunistki (Warszawa: NOW, 1989); Mikhail Geller, Kontsentratsionnyi mir i sovetskaia literatura (London: Overseas Publications Interchange, 1974); Tolczyk, See No Evil.
[27]Ginzburg, Journey into the Whirlwind, p. 74.
[28]Derek Attridge, "Innovation, Literature, Ethics: Relating to the Other," PMLA, January 1999, p. 24.
[29]Ginzburg, Journey into the Whirlwind, p. 3.
[30] Ibid., p. 4.
[31]Ibid., p. 111.
[32] Ibid., p. 53.
[33] Ibid., p. 54.
[34] Ibid., p. 56.
[35] Ibid., pp. 57-58.
[36] Ibid., p. 72.
[37]Cited in Terrence Des Pres, "The Heroism of Survival," in John B. Dunlop, Richard Haugh and Alexis Klimoff (eds.) Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials (Belmont, Mass.: Nordland, 1978), p. 48.
[38] Ginzburg often admits stylizing her own self-image in the Gulag by comparing herself to literary and historical models (especially those reflected by Romantic culture), such as Charlotte de Corday, Mary Queen of Scotts, Madame Desmoulins. For detailed commentary on these literary and historical inspirations of Ginzburg see Barbara Bolibok, The Plural Self: The Aesthetics of Identity in Maria Dàbrowska's "Dzienniki" and Evgeniia Ginzburg's "Krutoi marshrut" Ph.D. Dissertation, Cornell University, 1996.
[39]Ginzburg, Journey into the Whirlwind, pp. 220.
[40]Ibid., p. 221.
[41]Ibid., p. 343.
[42]Ibid., pp. 161-162.
[43]Ibid., p. 162.
[44]See Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, "Problemat ˝uka. O światłocieniach zła Cezarego Wodzińskiego," Gazeta Wyborcza, 15-16 May, 1999, p. 18.
[45]Ginzburg, Journey into the Whirlwind, pp. 222-223.
[46]Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen and Other Stories, trans. Barbara Veder (New York: Viking, 1967), p. 84.
[47]Ibid., pp. 83-84. A similar situation is presented in Czeslaw Milosz's poetic description of a ferris wheel set up near a wall of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Ghetto uprising. (See "Campo dei Fiori" in Czeslaw Milosz, The Collected Poems 1931-1987 [New York: Ecco Press, 1988], p. 33.)
[48]Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich trans. H. T. Willets (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991), pp. 83-87.

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