A Look in the Mirror: A Conversation with Marianna Yarovskaya about “Women of the Gulag”

FOR A FEW YEARS after his death in 1953, Joseph Stalin’s body was displayed alongside Lenin’s in the mausoleum on Red Square. Then, in 1961, during the first wave of de-Stalinization, it was interred behind the mausoleum. This was, in effect, an attempt to make Stalin disappear, but history and the memory that structures it cannot be defeated so simply. Stalin lives on, tucked between Lenin and the walls of the Kremlin.

Marianna Yarovskaya’s latest documentary, Women of the Gulag, opens with members of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation placing flowers on Stalin’s grave and proudly taking photos of themselves in front of the bust that stands above it. In contemporary Russia, it seems, there will always be flowers on Stalin’s grave, and, according to a recent article by Daria Khlevniuk, there is an increasing number of unofficial monuments dedicated to him. Along with his presence in physical space, Khlevniuk points out, Stalin has a large, and increasing, presence online in various social media groups dedicated to defending his legacy.

Stalin’s popularity often serves as an indicator of other problems in contemporary Russia. For example, positive memorialization of Stalin seems incompatible with truthful accounts of the Soviet system of mass imprisonment known as the Gulag. In Women of the Gulag, Stalin worship is placed in opposition to the fight to preserve and disseminate the memory of Soviet repressions, terror, displacement, torture, and death. The women who provide their memories for the film are very old and very fragile, but their living witness counters the tales spun by the people standing by Stalin’s grave, who have convinced themselves (perhaps) that he couldn’t have known what was going on around him.

In a time when Russian historians of the Great Terror, including Yury Dmitriev and, most recently, historian and director of the Medvezhyegorsk District Museum Sergei Koltyrin, are being silenced by roundabout prosecutorial means, Women of the Gulag reminds viewers of the Soviet lives that were crushed in the first half of the century. The film is accompanied by Paul R. Gregory’s book, also titled Women of the Gulag (2013), which presents narratives by five women from different backgrounds who were repressed in the 1920s and 1930s, before World War II began. The film pulls different subjects’ comments into loosely chronological accounts of different aspects of imprisonment: arrest, interrogation, hard labor.

I sat down with the Yarovskaya after a screening of the film at the Laemmle Film Center in Santa Monica to discuss the documentary and its role in Gulag memory preservation.


LYDIA ROBERTS: At what point did you become involved in the project?

MARIANNA YAROVSKAYA: It was maybe in 2012, when I was at Stanford University. I had worked at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, the Holocaust museum in Moscow. We did a dozen videos and I came back to the United States thinking, “How come Russia has the largest Holocaust museum in the world, but doesn’t have a decent museum of the Gulag?” It did have one at the time: it was a two-story, tiny-windowed, tiny building in Moscow. They didn’t have much. They ran an old BBC video. It wasn’t very impressive to me. I was talking to my friends and they said, it would be nice to do a bigger project, something like Spielberg did: a Gulag Shoah.

Then I went to Stanford. They have this seminar with the Hoover Institution, the Workshop on Authoritarianism and Democratic Breakdown, dedicated to totalitarian regimes. There were a lot of interesting people there: Anne Applebaum, author of a Pulitzer Prize–winning book on the Gulag [Gulag: A History (2003)]; Robert Service, who was incredible; Katherine Jolluck; Kate Zhou, a scholar from China; and specialists on the issue from all over the world. Among them was Paul Gregory, an economist, who organized the seminar. He said, “I think your idea is great, but it’s too broad. Why don’t you narrow it down? I’m thinking of writing a book about just five women. How about I write a book and publish it here at Hoover, so that we get a little bit of funding, and you make a movie?” That’s how the idea was narrowed down. It wasn’t born there; it was narrowed down.

I looked at his book in progress and said, “It’s difficult because only two of your characters in the book are still alive. We should find someone who is still there.” He said, “Well, you do it. Would $20,000 be enough? $30,000?” I said, “Probably not.”

It was a big idea that became very small, and then became bigger again. I took this thought, this idea, and we interviewed every scholar there. Some of the biggest experts on Stalinism in the world came to this workshop to develop their books. … The workshop was meant to produce books, not films, but they accepted me as one of their own. We interviewed Anne and we interviewed Robert Service and a couple of other experts, and they were great, very strong interviews. We recorded all these interviews, and then I went to Russia for the first time and interviewed Ksenia, the girl in the red scarf, and two women from Paul’s book, Adile and Fekla. Adile is from this very noble family, from Abkhazia, who married into the family of a communist leader who was later killed by Stalin, so everybody else in the family was cut out of society. And then we have a very simple peasant woman, Fekla.

While we were filming Fekla, we accidentally ran into — and this is what happens with documentaries — this sacred procession dedicated to Gulag repressions, and people were putting up a memorial monument or cross. It was funded with the people’s own money; at the time, there were no state organizations, nothing really that would support Gulag memory actively, and though it’s changed a little bit in the past few years, that’s really still the case. They actually created a Gulag museum, which is sort of serious, you know, but it’s still not enough, in my view. But back when we started, there was not even that. It was sort of like a half-apology, you know? Half-apologies are made, some confessions are made, but there is never full repentance on the government’s side.

We returned to film Fekla because the first time, she had just had a stroke and could barely talk. She recovered by the time of the second interview. And we interviewed Ksenia a second time as well, but by then she was completely blind. She died a few months after that. We did not use the blind interview because we wanted the women to appear strong as much as we could — with some weaknesses — but we didn’t want to show them in a completely weakened state.

Then my acquaintance Yermolai Solzhenitsyn introduced me to his friend Nadezhda Levitskaya. We interviewed Nadezhda several times. She was amazing and very different from the others. Through some activist groups we found Yelena Posnikov, who agreed to be interviewed, and Vera Hecker. They were all near Moscow, and they had all gone through the camps in the 1940s. Paul was very concerned. He said, “We’re talking about events that mainly happened in the ’20s and ’30s, but you’re bringing in the 1940s. That might create an issue.” We thought about it a little, and I said, “You know, the Gulag spanned all these decades. If we exclude the 1940s, we have very few interview subjects, so let’s include them and show that mass imprisonment came in waves: first there were the peasants, then there were families of the enemies of the people, and then there were those who accidentally ended up in occupied territory. We’ll show a little bit of each.”

And the book was written simultaneously with the film?

He started writing it simultaneously. He finished it within a year, and it took me five more years to make the film. Clearly books don’t require big financing. What really helped us is that we received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant in 2013 for $75,000. That was for research. Funding for production would have been amazing, but we applied twice and didn’t get it. It was like being given a boat but no oars to move it. It was enough for us to start, but not enough to really finish it, and we wanted it to be done properly, so we did a little crowdfunding both here and in Russia and raised about $30,000 more.

So you went over to Russia for the first set of interviews in 2012? I know that you were executive producing a documentary about Pussy Riot at the same time, and I’m curious how those two projects overlapped in your career.

When Pussy Riot’s 2012 protest happened, a Russian director invited me to come along and help them organize. She was a first-time director and didn’t know exactly how to organize the shoot, so I said I would help. … In my view, the only way it really overlapped is that I’m on the side of democratic changes and I understand activism and so this just felt like a project that I wanted to be involved in, but we couldn’t really exchange any footage.

You also have a long history of environmentalism and working on films related to it, especially as head of research on An Inconvenient Truth (2006). I’m curious how the environment and the history of the Gulag interact in your understanding.

I have been very lucky to be involved in projects that became first steps in important conversations. I would say that An Inconvenient Truth is one of them, and Samsara (2011) is another. I was a senior editor for Greenpeace at some point, and I worked on Swift Current (2016), which was partly about a hockey player who was raped by his trainer as a child an went on to build a center for victims of abuse. And, of course, the Pussy Riot documentary. There are many. I worked on a film called The Last Days in Vietnam (2014), which documents how the American government left behind some of their Vietnamese allies in the last days of war. It was nominated for an Oscar. And I worked on Mark Harris’s Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (2000), which made history and won an Oscar.

Occasionally, you know, these films did not coincide with the ideologies of some of my peers. For example, The Hoover Institution is a right-wing, Republican nest within Stanford University. It’s a think tank. So, when they learned that I was a head researcher on An Inconvenient Truth with Al Gore, they would present me as “Marianna, who worked on this Academy Award–winning project, which we will not mention here.” But I did coincide with Hoover, and this organization in Washington called “Victims of Communism,” in respect to my attitude toward what happened to Russia, what happened to my people during those times.

It seems to me that I’ve always worked on projects that were close to me, sometimes not even understanding that at the start. … You begin to understand where you are once you’re riding that wave. I’ve had a bit of luck, it seems, that I’ve never worked on a project that I would ever be ashamed of.

These are pretty heavy topics. How do you deal with working on subjects like the Gulag over long periods of time?

I like horror films. I don’t know how psychologists explain this, but it heals your emotions and it heals your trauma in a way. Talking about something openly heals the trauma, right? I think that’s on any level: if you talk to a psychologist about something very traumatic that happened to you, or if you make a film or a book about something very traumatic that happened to your people or your nation, it’s a way of healing.

The reason that Russia has the problems it has today is because they never spoke about the Gulag with all the honesty and openness that this issue deserves. How do the Germans work through their past? They talk about it openly. They never paused. It wasn’t that they started talking about it in the 1990s and then they stopped. They cleared their conscience and they cleared their history to the best of their ability. I’m sure there must be some problems still, but this is a way of cleaning and healing — to talk. To me, that is in fact healing, not necessarily on a personal level, but on a generational level. It’s a bit of vengeance, too: you did this to us, let me do this to you.

Vengeance directed at whom?

At … at those who did what they did to my poor ancestors.

Isn’t that one of the problems: where to direct that pain?

I think you can go to a protest, say something, physically do something to these communists who are worshipping Stalin, or you can make a film. I am the kind of person who prefers to be behind the camera and behind the scenes and let somebody else talk for me. I would never go in front of the camera, even though my family has three generations of actors. It’s not me. So I have someone else say it.

One thing I really loved about this documentary is that you simply let these women tell their own stories. What was it like doing these interviews?

Before answering that question, I must say that the effort to interview Anne Applebaum and Leonid Borodkin, who was chair of the history division at Moscow State University — doing all these beautiful interviews — was partially futile, because we cut them out immediately. Nothing can be compared with an eyewitness. Scholars … they sum it up amazingly. That has its merit, but firsthand testimony cannot be replaced.

I felt that all my subjects were eager to talk. As one of them says, “I lived long enough to tell this story.” I think it comes from the same idea, that in order to heal you have to talk about it.

Some of my immediate family were affected, directly and indirectly; there was some starvation, some exile. They’re silent about it. I’m sure they will come and see the film when I bring it to Russia, and they will be very happy and very proud, but at a dinner they would like to focus on what they have today: communal soup, a beautiful country house. They don’t want to interfere in politics — they want to take care of their kids and their grandkids, and not touch that at all. I think it’s partially self-preservation and instinct, and this is how they’re healing. They cut it off and they live without analyzing the past. I think it was easier to analyze for me because I left. When you leave and you’re able to spend time looking at something from the outside — that’s incredible luck, to be able to do that. You see clearer, you understand what the issue is much better than when you are inside.

These people who are still in it, who are unable to leave, is the film directed at them?

Like every film, you don’t necessarily make it for one group or audience. We’ll think that the film succeeded if it reaches the broader audience. I’m sure there were many films shot inside Russia on the subject that never made it across the border. The language of film, unfortunately, is not universal. You have to tailor. You have to understand what’s understood universally and what’s not. It’s a very fine balance, what we can leave and what we have to cut out because it’s too long to explain without losing the essence of it. So I think our film is directed at people everywhere, because genocide can happen anywhere — in Rwanda, in Europe. For the Russians it will be a little bit of an outside view. There is nothing immediate about it. There are events that repeat from year to year and don’t go away. The film is directed globally, I would say … I would really hope.

Right now, in Russia there’s a sort of push and pull on the subject of the Gulag. There’s a lot of funding for the new Gulag museum, for the Solzhenitsyn Foundation …

Which just started in the last couple of years. When we started to film there was nothing like that.

Absolutely. There’s that, which is happening now, but there’s also this very clear push to prevent individual research from happening. I would say the Dmitriev case is a clear effort to repress grassroots Gulag research. Earlier you made a point about the timelessness of this film, but what, in your understanding, is the current situation in terms of Gulag memory, and how does the film fold into it?

I think that my characters say it. I think it’s clear from the film, the current situation. I tried to convey that, no matter what, they can never fully make up for what has been done, for the crime that has been committed. Whatever the efforts are, it will never be enough. And they’re not doing enough, even nearly. They could move everything out of Red Square and put the Gulag Museum there instead of the State Historical Museum, and it would still not be good enough. We’ve pretty much lost the last witnesses, and there hasn’t been that kind of enormous apology that would have naturally come from the government, an acknowledgment like they had in Germany. They missed their chance in the 1990s, they missed their chance during the Khrushchev years. They were too late, too late. They didn’t apologize by the ’90s and, to a certain extent, it’s just too late.

Applebaum, when I spoke to her, said that now there’s only one means: the next generation. Maybe a different generation will grow up, one that will want to know what happened to their great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers. But I worry that she’s not quite right, that she’s a little too hopeful, because the schoolbooks have been rewritten and there aren’t any archives. It’s not Germany; the archives aren’t accessible, because no normal archives have been preserved. There are drawings, notes, memories, sketches. … But what we found most useful was at the Hoover Institution. When all the Soviet archives opened up, Yeltsin sold lots of copies to the Hoover Institution; then, under Putin, many of the archives closed. Now you have to go to Stanford to find these archives. Why aren’t all of these things open in Russia?

I was in Berlin, at the film museum there. You can go into the museum, into a dark room, and open up cabinets with everything about the years 1941 and 1942. It’s saying, “We’re ashamed, but we will not hide this. You can go into that dark room at any time, see that dark page in history, and we will not hide it.” That’s not happening in Russia and, for me, it’s just … I’m shocked that things could have devolved from that moment in the 1990s when it was clear that everything would be opened up, and that maybe there would be some repentance.

I have the feeling that if we don’t actually try to do something about this, then it will stay the same, that it won’t remain in our memory like fascism remains in the memory of the Germans. And there are so many examples of this. Levitskaya has said that we didn’t have our own Nuremberg, and we won’t have it. Maybe someone will talk about it, but it won’t be coming from the center. I don’t know what the reason is. It’s a crime.

You know, I was looking for a Russian film editor, but I couldn’t find one. I found some people with good reputations, and it would have been good to do the editing over there, so I set up some interviews. This guy came to interview, looked at my material, and said, “You have a problem here: how do you know that these old grannies are telling the truth? You don’t know that, and viewers won’t believe it. You’ve got these allusions to Stalin, but Stalin had only an indirect relationship to all that. Most of the crimes were committed by petty managers. Stalin knew practically nothing about it.” And this was a regular person who lives in Moscow and works as an editor for Russian television. He didn’t get the job, but …


That was my reaction. Wow. And there are lots of people like this. There was no reckoning. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in Russia next. We need to take a look in the mirror.


This interview has been condensed and partially translated from the original Russian.


Lydia Roberts is an MA candidate in the Department of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures at UCLA.