My grandfather's memoirs
Keep Forever: Gulag Memoirs
In the freezing nights of a labor camp, fifty prisoners "settle in like herring in a barrel, tightly nuzzled next to each other, and someone among them would cover the rest with clothing". And then the night-time storyteller begins his tale.
Aleksandr Sokolenko's four true stories of life in the Soviet camps detail a world of baffling catch-22s, but also of intense community. From farm work to timber-driving, wrestling marmots to runaway brides, the daily reality captivates.
Vivid characters fill the pages: the aged merchant Semyonov's rich life history and wry acceptance ("At least here, they can't arrest you"); the thief-king who tries to break free from his followers; the high-society orphan who turns barbering into an art; and the inept, vicious Captain Ivanov. Stepping back to narrate their stories as well as his own, Aleksandr offers us a broader picture of the USSR and its history, as lived by his fellow inmates.
The human suffering is blunt and clear - scurvy, starvation, injustice, drownings - but what lingers is a sense of humans' capacity for kindness and boundless talents.
Keep Forever, they stamped on his prison files, and Keep Forever is what we must do with these four stories.
v v v
Encounter on the Island of Tears
On the Island of Tears, Sokolenko's elderly fellow prisoner, Ilya Yemelyanovich Semyonov, says philosophically, "At least here, you know they can't arrest you!" As life in the camp unspools, Semyonov's story paints a Russia beyond the camps and before the Soviets, of nomadic merchants, wrestling marmot shows, runaway brides, and a lifelong passion for work.
Driving lumber down the Chilik river is close to a death sentence. Sokolenko, with his passion for detail and love of work, takes pride even in this. But as winter comes on, those who escape the log jams must still survive the freezing water...
Order of the Red Banner
As the prisoners drive logs down the treacherous Chilik river, Sokolenko narrates the story of Leonid Fedorovich Dubrovskiy: the high-society orphan afraid to die without the world remembering he ever lived. At first his Order of the Red Banner smoothes his path through the quicksands of Soviet business, but even heroes aren't safe.
Captain Ivanov's Crime
Vicious, spiteful, and inept, Captain Ivanov has full control of the camp, no understanding of the work, and a wife like a cat in heat. His crimes are many - but the secret in his past, covered up by the highest echelons of government, dwarfs them all.
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