To Hell and Back

Kolyma Stories: Volume One

by Varlam Shalamov, translated from the Russian and with an introduction by Donald Rayfield
New York Review Books, 741 pp., $22.95 (paper)
Boris Lesnyak/Russian State Archive of Literature and Art
Varlam Shalamov, 1970s

By the end of the twentieth century, nearly every country in Western Europe that had experienced Nazi occupation had undergone a reckoning with the painful topic of collaboration, including in the Holocaust. This process encountered resistance. But its replication across most of what then constituted the European Union testified to the emergence of a shared awareness, at least among elites. Separate national narratives of victimhood at the hands of Nazi occupiers were yielding to a supranational history of collective moral responsibility.

In 2000, two dozen European countries issued the Stockholm Declaration, pronouncing the Holocaust “unprecedented” and an assault on “the foundations of civilization.” Two years later, the Council of Europe designated January 27—the date of Auschwitz’s liberation (by the Soviet army, which went unmentioned)—as the “Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and for the Prevention of Crimes Against Humanity.” “The Holocaust,” according to the council, “is a European heritage which has common roots in the European nations.” Citing an expansive list of victims—“Jews, Roma, Resistance members, politicians, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, disabled persons”—it declared the Holocaust “a paradigm for every kind of human rights violation and crime against humanity.” This was the new credo that future members of the European Union were expected to adopt as their own. “Holocaust recognition,” as the historian Tony Judt put it, “is our contemporary European entry ticket.”

New member states from the former Soviet bloc didn’t quite see things this way. One of the first objections came from the foreign minister of Latvia, Sandra Kalniete, who was born in 1952 in Siberia after her parents and grandparents had been deported along with roughly 200,000 other residents of the recently annexed Baltic states—or as Soviet authorities called them at the time, “kulaks and their families, the families of bandits and nationalists.” A third of the deportees wound up in the slave labor camps of the Gulag. “Behind the Iron Curtain,” Kalniete declared,

the Soviet regime continued to commit genocide against the peoples of Eastern Europe and, indeed, against its own people.

For 50 years the history of Europe was written without the participation of these victims of genocide…. It is only since the collapse of the Iron Curtain that researchers have been able to access archived documents and the life stories of the victims. These confirm the truth that the two totalitarian regimes—Nazism and Communism—were equally criminal.

Without mentioning Hitler’s genocide against European Jewry, Kalniete—three of whose grandparents perished in Siberian exile—took it as the template for understanding what Stalin did to various targeted groups within the Soviet sphere. Today, in Riga’s Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, Vilnius’s Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, Budapest’s House of Terror, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the Gulag has become an anchor of historical memory.

As in postwar Western Europe a half-century ago, so in…


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