Alexander Dolgun’s Story: An American in the Gulag
by Alexander Dolgun, by Patrick Watson
Knopf, 370 pp., $10.00
The Education of Lev Navrozov
by Lev Navrozov
Harper’s Magazine Press, 628 pp., $12.95
In bare outline, Alexander Dolgun’s is the story of twenty-four years in the life of an innocent American, from “one day in 1948” when on his way to lunch he was kidnaped on Gorky Street in Moscow by agents of the MGB, the Soviet Secret Service, to “that brilliant day” in January 1972 when, with his Russian wife and their young son, he boarded a Boeing 707 and arrived at Kennedy Airport—twenty-four years, of which eight were spent in jails and hard labor camps and the rest in enforced residence in the Soviet Union. His release was obtained only through the unremitting efforts of a devoted sister who happened to be in a position to pull the right strings and, after many years, succeeded in getting the American secretary of state to intercede on his behalf. What happens, one wonders, what has happened, and may perhaps still happen to the countless victims who have no one to take their case to the highest authorities? The question is chilling.
Dolgun was incarcerated on a pre-posterous and wholly unfounded charge of spying. He was a twenty-two-year-old clerk, employed in the consular file room of the US Embassy, and, being lively and attractive, was often invited with his fiancée to the parties of his superiors. To the Russians, unable to understand the elasticity of American social relations, this looked suspicious. They determined to make him confess, and since he had nothing to confess, subjected him to prolonged “interrogation,” that is, torture. His mother, as he found out years later, was also tortured; she lost her mind in consequence.
To reconstruct these dreadful years and compose his book, Dolgun relived in memory such anguish as few men could have withstood, or if they had, would have been unwilling to call up again. He forced himself to do so, recorded his recollections on tape, and Patrick Watson transcribed them, with what appears to be complete fidelity, for manner and substance are perfectly blended in this admirably unpretentious narrative, graphic, matter-of-fact, objective, sometimes even humorous—and resolutely accurate:
Most of my story is what I actually remember, but some is what must have been. There are episodes and faces and words and sensations burned so deeply into my memory that no amount of time will wear them away. There are other times when I was so exhausted because they never let me sleep or so starved or beaten or burning with fever or drugged with cold that everything was blurred, and now I can only put together what must have happened by setting out to build a connection across these periods….
The lapses of memory are scrupulously noted.
There were months of unimaginable suffering, notably in the notorious torture jail of Sukhanovka which in Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn described from Dolgun’s words, for he knew no one else who had come out of it alive and sane. I will not rehearse the appalling details. The wonder of Dolgun’s story is survival, its grandeur …
A Reply October 30, 1975