A Diary From Inside the Gulag Meets Evil with Lightness

A Diary From Inside the Gulag Meets Evil with Lightness

But attitudes toward Stalin and his terror have become far more tolerant, not least because the Kremlin has recast his time as head of the Soviet Union with a certain nostalgia. President Vladimir V. Putin does not deny Stalin’s repressions, but there has been a new emphasis on his legacy as an “efficient manager.”

Organizers of the exhibition consider the diary so important because it puts a human face on past crimes.

Getting caught with a pen and paper in the Gulag was sufficient grounds for execution. Keeping a diary was “particularly impossible,” said Irina S. Ostrovskaya, the senior archivist at Memorial, the Russian civil rights organization founded to establish a record of the victims of Soviet political repression.

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Olga Ranitskaya snakeskin-bound diary is believed to be the only surviving account of the Gulag to be written from inside a camp. Credit James Hill for The New York Times

Ms. Ranitskaya persevered for almost two years, across 115 pages, drawing the small, spunky figure mostly in black and white.

The author began the diary in 1941 — the date written on the first page — while she was working at a weather station that served the farming operations of the sprawling Karlag labor camp in Kazakhstan.

The diary features the misadventures of camp life experienced by the stick figure called the “Little Weather Devil.” Drawn in the style of pre-revolutionary comics, each page depicts a theme, like hunger or fear, or illustrates specific, often emotional moments, from the tragedy of losing a coat in a harsh climate to the joy of finding a she-wolf for a pet. On some pages, the figure contemplates existential questions or the vagaries of fate.

The diary frequently references Russian literature, including the poets Pushkin and Lermontov, as well as Latin axioms. The title of the diary, “Work and Days,” came from the epic poem of Hesiod, a Greek poet, from around 700 BC, which discussed corruption, honesty and justice.

The couplets are difficult to translate, particularly the more philosophical musings. They are often word plays or otherwise ambiguous.

“It reveals a very good knowledge of the language and literature, but it is often hard to tell what she means,” said Dmitri A. Belanovsky, who translated parts of the diary into English. He thinks the ambiguity was insurance in case the guards found the diary.

The Gulag History Museum published a copy of the diary in a small, handsome volume that also includes reproductions of newspaper articles about its discovery, the record of Ms. Ranitskaya’s interrogation when she was arrested and some longer poems that she wrote later. It took some eight years to pull it all together.

In February 2009, Ms. Eroshok, a founding editor of Novaya Gazeta, a liberal newspaper, received the diary from a woman in Siberia whose own mother had spirited it out of the camp in 1946. The only thing the woman remembered being told about the book was that it had been written by a woman named Olga, that she might have worked at the weather station and that she probably died in late 1942, when the diary ended.

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In the left panel, entitled “Grief,” the Little Weather Devil says, “Evil fate has taken my coat.” In the right panel, “Disaster,” her dinner is taken away. Neither panel identifies a culprit. Credit James Hill for The New York Times

Ms. Eroshok found the diary stunning and wondered about its author. “She responded to this evil with something of quality, the quality of the drawing, the quality of the language and the quality of strong and positive feelings: her love for her son, her love of life, her love for people,” said Ms. Eroshok. “I had this deep sense of responsibility that I had to find something out about this woman, tell her story somehow.”

The journalist thumbed through the tiny volume repeatedly, seeking clues.

The author had dedicated the diary to her son, Sasha. Maybe he was still alive? The diary’s first entry shows the stick figure sitting atop a weather station, staring out over the fields. The words suggest the figure is yearning for distant Ukraine. Did Sasha live in Ukraine?

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The page on the left lists the last names of employees of the camp’s weather station. The journalist Zoya Eroshok was able to track down the author of the diary from the list. Credit James Hill for The New York Times

Another page contained a list of six weather station employees. Only one was female, Ranitskaya. (In Russian, a surname often reveals a person’s gender.) Could that be Olga?

Ms. Eroshok wrote to the archives of 15 different secret police agencies, courts and other organizations in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, requesting information about one Olga Ranitskaya. The central archives wrote back that they had no information. Her quest was a typical example of how difficult it can be to verify information about the victims of Soviet brutality.

Frustrated, she wrote an article in Novaya Gazeta about her hunt, and clues trickled in. She got lucky.

In Israel, Inna A. Nogotovich, a Russian immigrant occasionally nostalgic for home culture, read the article by chance and got in touch with Ms Eroshok. Ms. Nogotovich was Ms. Ranitskaya’s niece, and she filled in many blanks.

Then Ms. Eroshok heard from an even more unexpected quarter. Vasily Khristoforov, then head of the notoriously secretive archives of the F.S.B., or Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the Soviet secret police, offered to help. He contacted several security agency archives, including one in Ukraine, and obtained the records of Ms. Ranitskaya’s interrogation after her arrest.

From this, Ms. Eroshok was able to piece the story together. Ms. Ranitskaya was a Ukrainian Jew born in Kiev in 1905 to two professionals. The family name was Rabinovich, which she eventually changed. Ending her education early, she married a Communist Party official and had a son, Sasha, in 1925. She divorced and married another party official.

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The title on the left reads in Latin, “Free us from love,” while the couplet from a Russian poem on the right page says that love brings both joy and trouble. Credit James Hill for The New York Times

She was arrested in 1937, during Stalin’s Great Purge, charged on the dubious grounds of spying for Poland and sentenced to five years in a labor camp. She ended up serving nine. Her first husband, who was also arrested, was executed.

While his mother was in the camp, Sasha stayed with his grandmother. In 1942, at age 16, unable to bear the taunts from his schoolmates that his mother was a prisoner, he committed suicide. Ms. Eroshok believes that several blank, numbered pages at the end of the diary signal the author’s grief when she learned that her son was dead.

Ms. Ranitskaya was forced to remain in exile like many former camp inmates until after Stalin’s death in 1953. She worked in a clinic and wrote a book of poetry before dying in Kiev in 1988.

Some mysteries endure, and Ms. Eroshok’s work is not finished. Ms. Ranitskaya was reportedly an exceptional beauty, but Ms. Eroshok has never found a picture. “I think it’s very important when there’s this book, when there’s this life, that there be a face,” she said.

She and Roman V. Romanov, the director of the Gulag History Museum, put a slightly different emphasis on the diary’s value.

Mr. Romanov believes that Russia must get past the arguments over how many millions Stalin killed and focus instead on the fate of ordinary people. “This is a game with abstract terms,” he said, “What is important is to return to people’s fate and allow the viewers to be part of someone’s life.”

For Ms. Eroshok, the book is testament to Ms. Ranitskaya outliving the system that sought to erase her.

She has managed to rescue herself from oblivion, Ms. Eroshok said, and the diary is not just evidence, but a form of revenge against Stalin for all his victims.

“He wanted them to be wiped off the face of the earth,” she said. “Well, now he is gone, but this book remains.”

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