Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Slavery 3 The evolution of slavery in modern times and the struggle for its abolition

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny, a thrilling story of an escape from Stalin's GULAG.

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

In my last post (Slavery 2) I argued that the emergence of slavery was the first Great Fall of humankind.

Many slave systems in different parts of the world are well known to the broad public. Most North Americans, hearing the word “slavery”, will immediately recollect early modern slave plantations in both Americas. Those who know world history can also recollect ancient slavery in construction of the Egyptian pyramids (though as recent archeological data show the issue is not straightforward and that pyramids might be built not by slaves but by free professional craftsmen), ancient Greek silver mines, Roman stone quarries, and chained rowers on ancient, medieval or early modern galleys.

People today, when they read about slavery, can’t understand how anyone could do such a gruesome thing to their fellow human beings. To understand how they could, one must know that the notion that every human in the world is a “fellow human being” became the rule only well into the modern age. It was first clearly formulated only in the 18th century Enlightenment. Before that, everybody divided other people into “us” and “them”. Many people still do. From this point of view, a person is a fellow human being only if they are one of “us”. A person who is one of “them” is not quite a fellow human being, but something less. So the norms of behaviour towards a fellow human being fully apply only to those who are one of “us”, while the norms of behaviour towards those who are one of “them” vary with the circumstances: from neighbourly coexistence to fighting in war to treating them like domestic cattle or hunted wild animals.

For a kin-based or tribe-based traditional culture, the division between “us” and “them” is based primarily along kin or tribe lines: to be one of “us”, one must be a relative in the clan or a fellow tribesman, or possibly a member of another tribe related by blood or marriage. Any other human is one of “them”, with lesser status and weaker protection by one’s norms of behaviour. Later, the division between “us” and “them” is based upon ethnic divisions, borders between states, or religious divisions, such as that between Christians and heathens or between Muslims and infidels. For example, in the Middle Ages the Roman papacy explicitly banned enslavement of fellow-Christians and from the time of prophet Muhammad Islamic law similarly banned enslavement of Muslims. From then on, both Christians and Muslims generally enslaved only people of a different faith. Crusaders enslaved captive Muslim Moors, and German knights during their conquest of Slavic and Baltic lands enslaved pagan Slavs and Balts. In fact the word “slave” comes from the French word “Esclaves” (“Slavs”), used as a generic term for ethnic Slavs and Balts who were sold en masse in the late 12th and 13th centuries on European slave-markets. From the 16th century on, Europeans with colonies in the New World viewed “uncivilized” natives, whether Black or Indian, as “lawful” human material for enslavement, especially for use as plantation farm hands.

Only after the European Enlightenment of the 18th century did the most enlightened educated people in Europe and its colonies finally come to the conclusion that keeping fellow human beings of any nationality, race, religion or education in slavery or bondage was abnormal and immoral in principle. Only then did anti-slavery (abolishinism) movements begin. And only well into the 19th century did the anti-slavery movement gain enough momentum to bring about the abolition of slavery by the major European and American powers: 1833 in the British Empire, 1848 in the French colonies, 1865 in the whole United States. By the end of the 19th century slavery became practically extinct throughout Europe and the Americas.

However, it was resurrected later in the 20th century in the form of the Soviet GULAG, Nazi concentration camps, Japanese slave-labour camps and similar systems in totalitarian regimes of one stripe or another.

Though banned throughout the world, this scourge of history is far from extinct. Slavery still exists in many parts of Africa (e.g. Sudan and Mauritania) and Asia (e.g. Burma and parts of Pakistan). It also exists in Russia, in the northern Caucasus, but also in many northern and central regions. Perhaps half of these modern-age Russian slaves are self-enslaved homeless people. Others are illegal migrants and street children, captured by modern slave-traders, who are often police officers. Still others are conscripts in the armed forces, sold into slavery by their commanding officers. Surviving communist regimes like China, Vietnam and especially North Korea still run labour camps. In Russia there is yet another incarnation of slavery; conscript soldiers are reduced to a kind of temporary slavery. Not only are they denied (like any conscript) the right to choose their occupation and place of living during their service, but they are not paid, are rarely if at all allowed leave, usually combine military drill with mandatory labour are perpetually overworked, and are subjected, especially in the first months of their service, to constant physical and moral abuse, which leads many of them to suicide .

Thus slavery, like war and famine, has not yet become history, but remains a problem for humankind today.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Slavery 2 // The first great fall of humanity

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

In my previous post (Slavery 1), I explained how slavery emerged among human beings as a byproduct of the shift from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural societies.

Some historians regard the emergence of slavery as progress. In hunter-gatherer societies, some point out, captives in inter-tribal wars were killed and eaten. In agricultural societies, captives were no longer exterminated but were spared–albeit to spend the rest of their lives in slavery.

I can’t agree.

First, slavery was normally so hard and brought so much pain, physical and emotional, and so often ended in violent death by the master’s whim, that quick death could be better–unless the slave had a chance to regain freedom by escape or manumission.

Second, before slavery wars between tribes and clans were quite rare. They were mainly due to blood revenge for a murdered fellow-tribesman or tribeswoman or to rivalry over contested hunting or gathering grounds–the latter especially in periods of scarcity. For decades and centuries, when neither blood revenge nor territorial disputes arose, peace was the norm of life. Probably everyone would agree with me that it would be much better if it had remained the norm of life throughout pre-modern times. Alas, when slavery emerged as a byproduct of the shift to agriculture, very soon there emerged slave markets, at which the captor of a slave was at any time able to sell his living booty for a certain price. Sometimes the price was higher, sometimes lower, but there was hardly a day throughout these many thousands of years when an able-bodied slave of either sex would not attract a buyer ready to pay a market price.

Not surprisingly, the frequency of wars as a result increased ten if not a hundred times. From then on wars between tribes, and later states, became pretty regular events throughout history. Probably in primitive societies before the emergence of slavery a whole century without any war was quite normal, though one certainly cannot say so for sure, considering the absence of written historical sources. In contrast, if you take the history of any nation at any time in the historical period, a century without any war, large or small, would be quite rare, at least in pre-modern and early modern periods. Even in times of peace, almost any person could be kidnapped and sold into slavery by raiders, pirates or random seekers of quick profit. Even the ancient Greek philosopher Plato was captured and sold into slavery, and had to be ransomed by his friend. Thus travelling alone or in a small unarmed group became dangerous. Thus in one Russian historical novel the main character, an ancient Phoenician teenager, when about to embark on a sea voyage into far-away lands, is warned by his mother: “Especially beware of those merchants who trade in human beings.”

Third, the emergence of torture and barbarous executions on a large scale was probably due to the emergence of slavery–a point that to my knowledge no historian or ethnographer has ever made. Not that tortures and barbarous executions were unknown before. But in primitive societies, as ethnographic evidence shows, even an ordinary death penalty was quite rare. Among ancient Slavs, Germanic tribes, most pre-contact American Indians and Siberian aboriginals alike, the normal punishment for murder, even of a fellow-tribesman or tribeswoman, was life-long exile from the clan or tribe. Probably a tribal council would impose the death penalty only for treason, sacrilege or murder of a revered clan member such as a clan elder. If so, executions would be rare.

As for torture, in pre-agricultural times when wars and murders were rare, there were few situations when there was a need to extract some information or confession from somebody or to punish somebody severely. This situation too evidently changed with the emergence of slavery. Most captives understandably resented their enslavement, and their owner could expect from them some form of resistance: escape, murder of the owner or his overseer, even rebellion. To discourage them from such resistance, the threat of a really brutal punishment was necessary. Further, the numerous wars brought about the torture of captives as means of extracting strategically valuable information. And from those prehistoric times until well into the modern period, human societies manifested extreme brutality towards their fellow humans.

All this shows that the emergence of slavery was indeed the first Great Fall of humankind, to use the Biblical term. As a result of the emergence of slavery, the famous Roman saying Homo homini lupus est (A human is a wolf to a human) became the norm for most of humankind for many thousand years to come.

In my next post (Slavery 3) I will talk about the evolution of slavery in pre-modern and modern times and the growing opposition to slavery that eventually resulted in its abolition.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Slavery 1 // Q: What brought slavery to humanity? A: Agriculture

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

I have been reading about slavery as part of the research for my second novel.

A slave is the property of another human or group of humans, on the same level as an inanimate object or a domestic animal. A slave’s owner can use the slave for any work; sell the slave; take sexual advantage; or even kill, torture or abuse the slave.

The slave on the other hand can’t choose where to live or what work to do; has no right to any property without permission from the master; cannot enter into trade, business or marital relations without the master’s permission; can travel only with permission; and depends for very survival on the master’s good will and the slave’s value as property

Just imagining oneself as a slave would make most people today tremble. Yet this status was the fate of many millions of our fellow human beings throughout pre-modern and early modern history. In fact, almost all the nations of the world experienced slavery. Even today, although it is banned almost throughout the world, it is far from extinct.

Slavery emerged long ago, in prehistoric times, before humans developed writing. Without written documentation, we will never know exactly when and where slavery first emerged, and who was the world’s first slave and who the first slave-owner. However, both the approximate time and the historical conditions of the emergence of slavery are clear from archaeological evidence.

In early prehistoric times, when most tools, implements and weapons were made of stone and bone, and the people still lived exclusively by hunting, fishing and gathering edible plants, there was no slavery, at least on a large scale. The main reason was that in such societies it was impractical. The primary goal of enslavement is taking advantage of the slave’s labour. It’s pretty risky to send a slave to gather edible plants in deep woods where the slave can escape, let alone send one to hunt with a weapon that the slave could use against the master. Theoretically, one can imagine such a hunter-gatherer society using slave labour for tending skins, processing the spoils of hunting and fishing, working with firewood, or cleaning the master’s dwelling. But that would mean that the tribal community would have to feed such a slave from the spoils of the free tribesmen’s labours, which in most cases were barely enough for their own and their children’s subsistence. So, not surprisingly, people in hunter-gatherer societies did not practice slavery. In particular, they did not make slaves of enemies captured in war. Wars did occasionally break out between hunter-gatherer communities, mainly as blood revenge for a murdered fellow-tribesman or to resolve a dispute over hunting-grounds. But the captives were usually not taken as slaves. Instead, they were killed and eaten.

The situation changed drastically with the emergence of agriculture (“civilization”). Unlike hunting and gathering, agriculture provides ample opportunities for use of forced labour, in terms of both the nature of the work and the creation of a surplus. We know from archaeological evidence of differences in modes of burial that slavery first emerged with agriculture

In intertribal armed conflicts, captives were brought to the victorious community and enslaved, enemy warriors and women and children alike.

In my next post (Slavery 2), I will show how the emergence of slavery had such disastrous consequences that it can rightly be called the first great fall of humankind.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Versailles: The Peace Treaty that Caused a World War

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

Not long ago I watched the film “Paris 1919", which depicts quite vividly the process of creating the Versailles Peace Treaty. The events are shown (partly as documentaries, partly as a movie recreation) through the eyes of Canadian diplomat Harold Nicolson, who was attached to the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference. The conference was to define the conditions of the peace treaty and the fate of post-war Germany. The three major players in the negotiations - British Prime Minister Lloyd George, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, and US President Woodrow Wilson - all blamed Germany for starting the war and for the devastation it caused.

The three allies actually had quite different agendas in these peace negotiations. The British wanted to eliminate Germany’s economic and naval power–well, it’s good to get rid of one’s major competitor. The French, obsessed with revenge and fear going back to their defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, wanted to reduce Germany to economic and military non-existence, so that it never became strong again. As for U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (Oh! This American idealism!), he just wanted to create a League of Nations, an international body that would ensure that a conflict like World War I would never happen again. But to achieve this goal he needed the support of the British and the French, so he had to compromise and placate his allies in all the absurdity of their outrageous demands. The only sane voice on how much Germany should pay in reparations belonged to John Maynard Keynes , a British economist, who calculated the amount of reparations it could afford to pay–but who listens to the sanity of a normal professional in the face of “high” geopolitical ambitions?

The film is emotionally and rationally difficult to watch, especially from the present-day perspective, when we know how post-treaty events developed. With some kind of malicious satisfaction I learned that all three leaders were “punished “ by history - none of them had a political future. But the world suffered terribly from their short-sightedness (not to say stupidity).

As we know, the Versailles Peace Treaty, whose 90th anniversary was marked last summer, officially ended World War I. Although Allied war propaganda described the “Great War” as “the war to end all wars”, it was only 20 years later that World War II broke out. The harsh terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty were ultimately responsible for this, the most devastating war in human history.

Article 231 of the Versailles Treaty, the “war guilt” clause, proclaimed Germany solely responsible for the start of the war and therefore solely accountable for all the losses and damages. The western Allies were determined to make Germany weak, not only militarily, but also economically, which they perceived as the best guarantee against future German aggression. The vanquished Germany was deprived of all her overseas colonies and of many territories in Europe. Its military size was severely restricted: a regular army of no more than 100,000 men and a navy of no more than six cruisers, six destroyers and 12 torpedo boats. These conditions were humiliating for a nation used to great power status. However, to my mind it was not these military restrictions, or at least not only they, that prepared such fertile ground for the resurgence of extreme nationalism.

Far more pressing, and unbearable to the average German, were the severe reparation payments imposed by the victorious Allies. The treaty initially required total payments of 269 billion gold marks, equivalent to about 400 billion US dollars today. Though the sum was reduced later to 132 billion marks, it still remained an overwhelming burden on the German people. They paid most of it in the form of heavy surplus taxes, and the rest in the form of coal, steel, agricultural products and even intellectual property (such as the trademark for Aspirin). Thus the nation lost the vast profits it could otherwise have made from exports of these trade items, and it paid higher prices for them on the internal market. This economic squeeze inevitably impoverished the mass of the German people. It brought hyperinflation in the early 1920s and a severe economic crisis during the Great Depression. It was no surprise that Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party, the most vociferous opponent of “the humiliations of Versailles”, got increasing support, until it finally seized power in 1933, during the Great Depression.

When the Versailles Treaty was signed, Germany’s first democratically elected Chancellor, Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann, resigned in protest, saying: “Which hand, trying to put us in chains like these, would not wither? The treaty is unacceptable.” His words were prophetic: the victorious Allies would eventually pay a heavy price in World War II for putting the German people “in chains like these”.

The “chains” of Versailles were not justified. First, contrary to the statements of French and British politicians, Germany was not solely responsible for the outbreak of the War. Second, and most importantly, whatever the degree of responsibility of the German government, it was the semi-autocratic regime of Kaiser Wilhelm II that started the war. The German people overthrew this regime in the November 1918 revolution. The subsequent Liberal-Social-Democratic provisional government, which signed the armistice with the Allies as practically its first step, reflected the will of the majority of the war-weary German people. The heavy Versailles “chains” bound these people, while the kaiser lived comfortably in exile in the Netherlands, even though he had been proclaimed a war criminal. This disparity of treatment inevitably produced nationalist anti-Allies sentiment in many German commoners, who not long before were favouring the end of the war at nearly any cost. This sentiment was exploited by the Nazis, with the final results that we all know.

Thus the “war to end all wars” ended in a peace settlement that brought about a new World War. The main lesson is that a peace settlement that leaves any nation vanquished, humiliated and plundered (in practice if not in theory) inevitably brings about new conflicts and wars, rather than lasting peace.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The rehabilitation of Stalin: how is it possible?

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, SonyISBN 9781601643285)

As I wrote in my previous posting, the process of rehabilitating Stalin is under way in contemporary Russia, despite readily available evidence of his enormous crimes. This trend was detected quite early by such Russian commentators as Vladimir Volkov and Alexander Yakovlev. Now, in preparation for the 65th anniversary of victory in the "Great Patriotic War", Russian officials plan to display images of Stalin on billboards in Moscow. The cult of Stalin continues to divide Russian society.

The fact of rehabilitation may seem absurd. How can a tyrant and mass murderer be rehabilitated when his crimes are well described and well documented?

One clue comes from Arseny Roginsky, head of the Russian human rights organization “Memorial”. He points to a peculiar feature of the memory of the Russian people about Stalin’s terror. With a few notable exceptions like Solzhenitsyn’s The GULAG Archipelago, it was a remembrance of victims, but not of crimes and criminals.

The memory of crime presupposes both a victim and a criminal, both of whom can be named. In the case of Stalin’s terror, naming victims was relatively easy: all those who were executed, died in camps, or were starved to death in the 1933 famine. Naming the criminals was far more complicated, above all because many of the high-positioned perpetrators of collectivization, artificial famine and the 1937 terror later fell victim to a new round of purges. Further, many ordinary survivors and non-survivors of that grim epoch were tainted by being informers or otherwise collaborating with the terror state. For many people, naming the criminals and separating them from the victims becomes nearly impossible. All the more so because, in contrast to the Nazi crimes, where most victims were “others” (Jews, Poles, Russians, etc.) and not German nationals, in Stalin’s terror most victims were fellow Soviet citizens. As a result, somewhere in the mid-1990s many Russians began to think that there is practically no difference between the guilty and the innocent, so that pointing at criminals or perpetrators is a useless and fruitless exercise that only perpetuates hostility and bitterness. I have personally heard this argument from many people.

This uncertainty and doubt about historical memory was aggravated by another factor: the disappointment of many Russians by the mid-1990s in liberal democracy. Most of those who embraced this political ideal in the late 1980s and early 1990s hoped that it would quickly bring prosperity and a good life. But not only did post-Soviet capitalism and the Yeltsin government not bring quick prosperity, but prices rose sharply and most people became impoverished. Quite illuminating in this connection is the widespread condemnation by Russians of the economic policies of the late Yegor Gaidar (so-called "architect of Russian market reforms"), who is widely blamed for bringing economic disaster to Russia.

Beside economic devastation, the collapse of the Soviet system brought a rise in crime, alcoholism, drug addiction and other social vices. Many people felt cheated and started looking back at the Soviet era with nostalgia. This nostalgia spread even to Stalin, the bloodiest of Soviet leaders, who became for many the personification of law and order.

When the Putin government came to power, it took advantage of this nostalgia to promote the cult of Russian national glory throughout history, a cult rooted in the Russian people’s sense of being citizens of a great power in the world. The figure of Stalin became an integral part of this emergent ideology, because it was in his reign that there took place the greatest Russian military triumph of the last century, victory in World War II. The bloody tyrant became, for authorities and people alike, the leader of the forces of ultimate good which gloriously vanquished ultimate evil. For the general public this primitive scheme proved appealing, because it presented history in a simplistic black and white way while facilitating pride in themselves and their country. Not that the terror was completely forgotten, but the memory of it was pushed to the periphery of consciousness.

Most Russians seem to agree with this reappraisal of Stalin. But not all do. Many people in Russia and in the Russian diaspora resent any rehabilitation of Stalin, who along with Ivan the Terrible (who by the way is now considered by some Russians to be a saint) is one of the two bloodiest tyrants in Russian history.

Now, as never before, it is important for the anti-Stalinist minority of Russians to stick to their principles and beliefs, which are completely supported by facts and common sense. They must resist the temptation to conform to the pressure of Russian state ideology and of their compatriots, and must preserve the true historical knowledge of this tragic period, remembering not just the victims but the criminals as well. And they must share this knowledge and memory with the rest of humanity.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Stalin in contemporary Russia

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

The end of the Soviet Union was preceded by a flood of materials that portrayed in graphic detail the bloodiest period of the Soviet era, Stalin’s rule from 1924 to 1953. Because of these revelations, the Soviet state and the Communist Party lost whatever legitimacy they had. It seemed that the Soviet system, or at least its Stalinist period, was so discredited that it could never be rehabilitated.

This conclusion turned out to be premature. A mere 15 years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the moustached tyrant was again favoured by both the authorities and much of the population. Stalin’s approval rate among the general public went as high as 53%. In a recent contest on the Internet, in which the authorities invited the people to choose the historical figure that would personify for them “the name of Russia”, i.e. be Russia’s national symbol, Stalin came third. For a while he even ranked first.

In a recent Russian high school history textbook, covering the period from 1945 to 2006, Stalin is proclaimed “the most effective”of Soviet leaders. His reign of terror, in which at least 20 million people died, is described as a necessary means for running the country effectively.

Monuments and bas-reliefs to this monstrous dictator have been built or restored. Unbelievable as it is, an icon depicting this persecutor of religion together with a woman saint was painted and put up in a church near St. Petersburg.

Russia’s leadership, including Vladimir Putin himself, while recognizing the terror and occasionally paying tribute to its victims, mostly stresses his achievements as an effective leader, builder of a superpower, and victor in World War II.

This rehabilitation is happening while Russians have ready access to many volumes on Stalin’s terror and repression, his forced collectivization, and the artificially created Ukranian famine. The human rights organization “Memorial” is preserving and promoting the memory of Stalinist terror. Paradoxically its historical documentation shares the bookstore shelves with numerous newly published apologies for Stalin, some of which deny terror and repression under Stalin altogether, while others shift the blame for terror to Stalin’s enemies while reducing the number of terror victims to between half a million and a million and a half, compared to the real number of 20 million to 25 million. Most of the people prefer the apologetic works to the documentation of Stalin’s terror.

How can this be happening? In my next post, I will propose an explanation.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Excerpt (2) from “Against Destiny” translated into Russian/Отрывок (2) из романа Александра Долинина “Вопреки судьбе” в переводе автора

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

As I wrote previously, I have translated into Russian two excerpts (so far) from my novel Against Destiny (Russian title Вопреки судьбе, as the novel is advertised in Russian-language journals), for publication in the leading Canadian Russian-language newspaper Nasha Canada (Наша Канада). Below is the second of the two translations. It was published in issue #24 (208) December 2009, pages 10-11.

Отрывок из части 3 “В ПУТИ”.

Тем временем девушки в яранге внимательно следили за происходящим, прильнув к пологу выхода.
–Смотрите, девочки, мужчины! - воскликнула первая.
–Какие рослые, сильные! - прошептала вторая. - Один - чукча, остальные вроде русские.
–Наверное геологи или кто-нибудь в этом роде, - сказала третья.
–Тогда почему они с автоматами? - удивленно заметила первая. - Никогда не видела у геологов автоматов.
–Может быть потому что в округе много опасных людей, - догадалась четвертая.
–Кто бы они ни были, - сказала первая, - я бы хотела ребенка от кого-нибудь из них.
–Я тоже, - согласилась вторая, - мне уже двадцать три! Мне что же, всю жизнь оставаться пустоцветом?!
–А мне уже скоро двадцать пять! - воскликнула первая девушка. - Уже и старость не за горами! Я, девочки, полжизни бы отдала за то, чтобы переспать с одним из них.
–И я, - добавила третья, - поглядите на них, настоящие мужчины, не чета нашим слабосильным недоросткам...

–Это что такое?! Вы что, подглядываете за мной, паршивки несчастные?! - на пороге неожиданно возникла Кергина. - Вон из моей яранги! Вон! И чтобы ноги вашей здесь больше не было! А то нашлю на вас всех своих злых духов!
–Прости нас, тетя Кергина! Пожалуйста, прости! - со слезами на глазах взмолилась первая девушка.
–Клянусь духами-хранителями, мы стали смотреть только потому, что услышали мужские голоса! - попыталась оправдаться вторая.
–Ну как же вы могли?! - голос Кергины немного смягчился. - Как я вам теперь могу доверять?! Откуда я могу знать, не работаете ли вы на райуполномоченного?!
–Тетушка, ну поверь нам! Мы ведь оленеводки! Разве хоть кто-нибудь из честных оленеводов когда работал на советских уполномоченных?! - умоляла первая девушка. - Пожалуйста, ну пожалуйста, прости нас, тетя Кергина! Накажи нас, как хочешь, но только не прогоняй!
В слезах она бросилась на колени, и подруги последовали ее примеру.
Последовало минутное молчание, прежде чем Кергина снова открыла рот.
–Однако, вы все заслуживаете хорошей порки.
Кергина сняла с крючка на стене ремень из сыромятной оленьей кожи. Девушки, согнувшись, склонили головы в знак покорности. Кергина начала стегать их по спинам, а они молча и терпеливо сносили наказание.
–Ну, пожалуй что и хватит, - Кергина повесила ремень на место, - но больше никогда не пытайтесь подсматривать за старой Кергиной!
–Не будем, тетя Кергина! Никогда не будем!
–Надеюсь, - голос Кергины снова зазвучал спокойно и приветливо, - садитесь, я заварю нам чаю.

Какое-то время все пили чай молча, но потом первая девушка не выдержала.
–Тетя Кергина?
–Ну что тебе?
–Я хотела бы тебя спросить.
–И о чем же?
–Я...я не знаю, как начать. Я боюсь, ты опять рассердишься. Но...
–Ладно, - вздохнула Кергина, - говори! А то я вижу, ты иначе не успокоишься.
–Я...хотела спросить..., - запинаясь, пробормотала девушка, - о тех мужчинах, которые к тебе приходили... Тех с ружьями, геологов или кто они там?
–Об этом ты должна забыть, - лицо Кергины снова приняло каменное выражение, - иначе тебе придется забыть дорогу к моей яранге!
–Ну, тетушка, ну пожалуйста, не будь такой суровой! Пойми нас!
–Что же это я должна понять?
–Ты, тетушка, - настоящая женщина. У тебя были мужчины и был ребенок. А мы?... Что, если нас никто никогда не захочет, и вся наша жизнь будет тоскливой и пустой?
–Да-да, тетя Кергина, - поддержала третья девушка, - если у нас никогда не будет детей, что будет с духами-хранителями наших семейных очагов? Пойми нас, мы не хотим оставаться последними в роду. Ведь материнство - предназначение и счастье каждой женщины!
–Я уверена, что эти геологи будут нам рады, как и любые мужчины. Ведь мы молодые, здоровые и не дурны собой! - воскликнула вторая.
–И они ведь настоящие мужчины, сильные и мужественные,.- поддержала подруг четвертая. - Чует мое сердце, что сами Солнце и Рассвет привели их к нам. Пожалуйста, тетя Кергина, не препятствуй нашей с ними встрече! Заклинаем тебя Солнцем и Рассветом!
–За это, тетушка, потребуй от нас чего хочешь! - взмолилась первая. - Хочешь, мы будем приходить к тебе работать по праздникам?
Кергина вздохнула. Она, как никто, понимала девушек. Жажда мужчины, как и жажда материнства, так естественнны для молодой женской плоти. Она вспомнила свои годы с Яттой, долгие ночи сладостного томления. И главное, девушки хотели стать матерями - священное желание каждой женщины! И все же... подвергать Ятту, человека, который был ее жизнью, и его товарищей такой опасности? Впрочем, а так ли уж велика опасность? Ведь она прожила здесь двадцать лет, доверяя своим добрым соплеменникам, и они ни разу не обманули ее доверия. Они нуждались в ней, в ее помощи и заботе, и хранили ее существование в полной тайне от всех местных властей. И эти девушки из надежных семей, в которых нет ни одного партийного или комсомольца. Хотя нет, у Раулены старший брат - комсомолец, но он уже четыре года как уехал на какую-то стройку.

Кергина подумала и о Ятте с его товарищами. Захотят ли они сами? Ведь они еще молодые мужчины, а им пришлось годами жить без женщины. И лишь одному Создателю ведомо, долго ли вообще им еще суждено прожить. И весьма вероятно, что их не обрадует, если она помешает их встрече с девушками. Но ее долг в любом случае поставить их в известность, что девушки их видели.
–Что вам сказать? - вздохнула она. - Вы, голубушки, ужасно настырны. Но я знаю и вас, и ваших родителей, и всю вашу родню... Может быть, я и впрямь могу вам доверять?
–Можешь, конечно, можешь, тетя Кергина, не сомневайся! Клянусь! - выдохнула первая девушка.
–Тогда я, пожалуй, спрошу у них.
–Конечно, конечно спроси! - воскликнула вторая девушка. - Я уверена, они не откажутся. Как-никак, мы не уродки!
–Да не в этом дело! - возразила Кергина. - Но перед тем, как вы с ними встретитесь, вы должны поклясться своими жизнями и покоем душ своих предков...
–Чем хочешь, тетушка! - поспешила ее заверить первая девушка.
–Тогда, - голос Кергины стал заметно строже, - вы должны поклясться своими семьями и домашними очагами, и духами-хранителями своих предков, что вы никогда, никому не расскажете о встрече с этими людьми, что бы ни случилось, и кто бы ни спросил.
–Клянусь! - провозгласила первая девушка.
–Клянемся! - подхватили остальные.
Кергина окинула их пристальным взглядом:
–Вам надо помнить, что, если вы хоть кому-нибудь проговоритесь, и они и я можем попасть в руки подручных Усатого.
–Как, тетя Кергина?! - удивленно воскликнула вторая девушка. - Разве они не геологи, посланные сюда начальством?!
Кергина прикусила язык. Вопрос непростой. Что она должна сказать девушкам об этих людях? Пожалуй, лучше, если они будут знать правду, или по крайней мере что-то, близкое к правде. Тогда они поймут, почему им нельзя проговариваться.
–Что ж, - вздохнула она, - видимо придется сказать вам правду. Поклянитесь, что все, что вы услышите от меня сейчас, вы сохраните в полной и глубокой тайне.
–Клянемся, тетя Кергина! - хором воскликнули девушки, - Пусть наши языки отвалятся, если мы об этом хоть словом обмолвимся!
–Ну что ж, тогда...Впрочем, пожалуй, я сначала поговорю с ними самими. Узнаю, захотят ли они рискнуть встретиться с вами.
–Конечно, захотят! - уверенно воскликнула первая девушка. - Они так долго были без женщины!
–Как вы не понимаете, глупые девчонки, - развела руками Кергина, - что вопрос не в этом, а в их безопасности!
–Надеюсь, тетушка, ты скажешь им, что мы приличные девушки, а не какие-нибудь там комсомолки. Что нам можно доверять, - взмолилась вторая девушка.
–Ну что ж! - Кергина перевела дыхание. - Оставайтесь здесь, а я поеду увижусь с ними. Но помните, если вы еще раз посмеете подглядывать за мной, забудьте дорогу к моей яранге!
–Никогда, тетушка, никогда в жизни! - уверила ее первая девушка. - Сделаем все, как ты скажешь.
–Ну да ладно, - согласилась Кергина, - я скоро вернусь и скажу вам ответ мужчин.

Она свистом подозвала одну из своих собак, села на ездового оленя и уехала.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Excerpt (1) from “Against Destiny” translated into Russian/Отрывок (1) из романа Александра Долинина “Вопреки судьбе”.

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

I have translated into Russian two excerpts (so far) from my novel Against Destiny (Russian title Вопреки судьбе, as the novel is advertised in Russian-language journals), for publication in the leading Canadian Russian-language newspaper Nasha Canada (Наша Канада). Below is the first of the two translations. It was published in issue #24 (208) December 2009, page 10.
Из Части 2 "ПОБЕГ”.

Через пару дней, как Ятта и предсказывал, с утра пошел снег. Не пурга, способная в одночасье накрыть человека с головой, а просто сильный устойчивый снегопад. По словам Ятты, он должен был продлиться дня два. Лучшего времени для начала трудно было себе представить, и было бы глупо упустить такую возможность.
В короткий промежуток времени между подъемом и завтраком Трофимов, Бондаренко, Гольдберг и Тимошкин, собравшись в своем излюбленном месте за стеной сортира, в последний раз обсудили план действий. Сразу после завтрака они наскоро увиделись с Яттой, которому Бондаренко еще раз напомнил, как найти дорогу к их делянке.
Рабочий день шел как обычно. Они вчетвером работали, не прерываясь ни на минуту. Приступать к исполнению плана до обеденного перерыва было нельзя - тогда их отсутствие и труп вертухая будут обнаружены уже в середине дня. Самое лучшее время - вскоре после обеда, когда впереди останется еще шесть часов рабочего времени плюс час на дорогу домой. Этого вполне достаточно, чтобы уйти далеко. А так-как многие бригадиры заставляли своих подопечныхг трудиться и после окончания рабочего дня, чтобы выполнить дневную норму, в их распоряжении будет еще час или около того, пока их хватятся. Плюс еще сорок пять минут пока кто-нибудь из лагерной охраны доберется до делянки и поймет, что произошло. Итого не меньше восьми часов сорока пяти минут.

Ефрейтор Василий Пантелеев медленно ходил по делянке на своих лыжах, не спуская глаз с занятых работой мужиков и куря очередную самокрутку. На его часах было без четверти четыре по-полудни. А это значит еще шесть часов - целая вечность! - до того, как он сможет, наконец, отвести их назад в лагерь и вернуться в теплую казарму к ежевечерней выпивке и картам. И все эти бесконечные часы ему придется дрожать от холода и пронизывающего ветра и завидовать зэкам, согреваемым тяжелой работой. Господи, до чего осточертели ему эти северные края с их коротким и не слишком-то теплым летом и бесконечной лютой зимой, когда даже плевок замерзает на лету! И эта неизменнная говяжья тушенка на завтрак, обед и ужин. Единственная радость в этой постылой жизни - подрочить ночью, лежа на койке и думая о девушке с соблазнительными титьками и круглым задком. Только через год с лишним сможет он, наконец, вернуться в родной городок в среднерусских краях. Хотя, если подумать, много ли радостей ждет его там? Тяжелая работа в забое, очереди в продмаге, бесконечные постылые комсомольские, профсоюзные и всякие прочие собрания! И еще, ему придется постоянно видеть девчонку, за которой он перед службой пытался ухаживать. А она, когда его забрали в армию, взяла и вышла замуж за другого. Они даже и целоваться-то не начали.
Вдруг Тимошкин, размахнувшись топором, как бы невзначай задел плечо Трофимова. Тот с отборной руганью бросил свой топор в снег, кинулся на Тимошкина и наотмаш ударил его кулаком в лицо.
–Эй вы, - крикнул Пантелеев, - что за херня?! А ну живо, паразиты, за работу!
Трофимов с Тимошкиным, как ни в чем ни бывало, продолжали драться.
–Ах вы гниды! - заорал рассвирепевший Пантелеев. - Я вам, падлы, покажу!
Сорвав с плеча автомат, он рванулся к дерущимся и стал исступленно лупить их прикладом. И не заметил, как к нему сзади подскочил Бондаренко с топором. Мощный удар обухом по голове раскроил череп Пантелееву. Безжизненное тело рухнуло на Трофимова с Тимошкиным, повалив их на снег.
–Эй, капитан! Захарыч! Вставайте, он готов! - воскликнул Бондаренко.
Трофимов и Тимошкин поднялись на ноги. Гольдберг отвернулся и судорожно вздохнул.
–Мужики! - Тимошкин радостно взглянул на товарищей и на труп Пантелеева. Мы свободны! - он обнял Трофимова и Бондаренко. - Нет, мы и впрямь свободны! - он радостно прошелся по делянке, нос в крови и синяк под глазом.
–Не искушай судьбу, Захарыч, - тихим голосом возразил Трофимов. - Это только первый шаг, - он бросил взгляд вокруг. - Давай, Михаил, переодевайся в его форму. Она, к счастчью, не в крови.
Бондаренко подтащил труп Пантелеева к костру и стал стаскивать с него зимнюю форму.
–Бедный сукин сын, - вздохнул Гольдберг, - такой молодой, не больше двадцати и вот...
–Не знаю сколько их нам еще придется убить, - заметил Трофимов, - но без сомнения придется, и уже сегодня. Если Ятта придет сюда с конвоем, то... Кстати, сколько времени?
Бондаренко, который уже успел переодеться в зимнюю форму Пантелеева с теплым свитером под тулупом, снял часы с руки мертвого ефрейтора.
–Через полчаса должен придти Ятта, - напомнил Трофимов и бросил взгляд на Бондаренко. - Ну, Михаил, ты выглядишь как настоящий солдат.
–Неплохой трофей, - согласился Тимошкин.
–Ты услышишь, когда они будут подходить? - спросил Трофимов Бондаренко.
–Само собой!
–Дай нам знак, - он повернулся к остальным, - и мы заляжем в засаду.
Тем временем Бондаренко обыскал карманы своей новой солдатской шубы и вытащил полную фляжку, - гляди, мужики, спиртяга!
–Отлично! - повернулся к нему Трофимов. - Выпей и дай другим.
–За нашу свободу! - Бондаренко поднял фляжку и сделал большой глоток.

Приглушенный свист Бондаренко загнал всех четверых в заросли. Бондаренко схватил автомат. В следующую минуту на делянке появился Ятта, сопровождаемый конвоиром. Бондаренко прицелился и сделал одиночный выстрел прямо в голову вертухаю. Тот свалился замертво. Трофимов, Гольдберг и Тимошкин вышли из своего укрытия.
–Ятта! - воскликнул Трофимов, обнимая товарища.
–Вы однако оцень вовремя, - произнес Ятта, - он уже нацал цто-то подозревать, мол поцему я поставил капканы прямо у рабоцей делянки.
–Ну и ладно! - усмехнулся Трофимов. - Ты здесь, и все тьфу-тьфу идет путем. И у нас еще однин комплект теплой зимней одежды. Ну что, это кому пойдет? - он бросил взгляд на тело в шубе. - Кажется, твой размер, Яков. Не возражаешь, Захарыч?
–Ни в коем случае!
Гольдберг подтащил тело к костру и быстро переоделся. После этого он повернулся к остальным. Его было не узнать в форме.
–Неплохо смотришься, Яков, - одобрительно поднял большой палец Бондаренко, - боец что надо.
–Пошли, - прервал его Трофимов, - гасите костер.
Бондаренко и Гольдберг надели лыжи, оставшиеся от двух вертухаев и взяли автоматы. Тимошкин с Яттой засыпали снегом костер, и все пятеро двинулись в путь навстречу снегопаду.

Вернувшись в гостинную, Авдеев, к удивлению гостей банкета, не вернулся на свое место за стoлом, а остался стоять в дверях.
–Извините товарищи, но я должен идти. Немедленно. Беляев, Аристов, за мной!
–Какая жалость, Павел Егорович! - воскликнула жена полковника. - Вы у нас, так-сказать, именинник.
–Ничего не поделаешь, Марья! - оборвал ее муж. - Долг службы. Я надеюсь, Павел Егорович, - повернулся он к Авдееву, - когда орден будет уже у тебя на груди, мы снова отпразднуем от души.
–Спасибо, товарищ полковник! - натянуто улыбнулся Авдеев. - Беляев, Аристов, живее!

–Которая бригада?! - Авдеев в упор посмотрел на лейтенанта Соловьева.
–Четырнадцатая, товарищ майор, лесоповальная. Бригадир - з/к Трофимов, остальные - з/к Бондаренко, Гольдберг и Тимошкин.
–Кто конвоир?
–Ефрейтор Пантелеев, первое отделение, третий взвод ВОХР.
–И как же они его достали?!
–Зарубили топором.
–Мать-перемать! - зарычал Авдеев. - Не иначе как обалдуй ссал!
–Никак нет, товарищ майор. Наша команда досконально обследовала место преступления, и никакой мочи не обнаружено. Да и ширинка у покойного застегнута.
–Е-размое! - взвился Авдеев. - Тогда как же на хрен они это сумели?!
–Очевидно, им удалось чем-то его отвлечь.
–Сколько раз мы им, недоумкам, твердили быть начеку каждую секунду?!
–Мы все узнаем, когда поймаем их, - пробормотал Соловьев, - и еще, товарищ майор...
–Что еще?!
–Там еще один убитый, солдат конвоя.
–Еще один?! - побагровел Авдеев.
–Так точно, товарищ майор. Рядовой Беленко из второго взвода.
–Тоже зарублен топором?
–Никак нет, товарищ майор. Выстрел в голову, вроде бы из пантелеевского АК. Беленко конвоировал Ятту на охоту.
–Ятту?! - глаза Авдеева полезли на лоб. - Ты хочешь сказать...?
–Так точно, товарищ майор. По неизвестной причине Беленко пришел к рабочему месту четырнадцатой бригады и был застрелен. Очевидно, Трофимовым и еже с ним. Я проверил местонахождение Ятты, он ушел в сопровождении Беленко еще утром и до сих пор не вернулся.
–Ятта заодно с этими мерзавцами?! Как он мог?! Какой ему-то прок, так-перетак, бежать?! У него же здесь распрекрасная жизнь!
–Они могли его заставить, запугать, - высказал предположение Беляев, - но, по той или иной причине, он ушел с ними...

–Товарищ майор, разрешите войти? - в дверях стоял лейтенант Макаров.
–Какие-нибудь новости? - спросил Авдеев, сердце которого замерло в надежде на радостную весть о поимке беглецов.
–Так точно, товарищ майор. Патрульная группа А из пяти военнослужащих третьего взвода, командир - сержант Багиров, найдена в зарослях в стороне от окружной тропы, по которой проходил их маршрут. Все застрелены наповал, с них снято все обмундирование, оружие и боеприпасы...

Monday, January 11, 2010

An interview in Russian Bazaar/ Интервью в Русском Базаре

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

Several days ago I was interviewed by a well-known journalist, Natasha Sharymova (Наташа Шарымова), for one of the major Russian-language North American newspapers, Russian Bazaar (Русский Базар), which is based in New York.

The interview has now been published, in Russian. You can access it by clicking here .

If you google “Александр Долинин Вопреки судьбе”, the page will show up in the top 10 listings.

I find one fact about my interviews interesting. So far I have been interviewed three times about Against Destiny (in Russian Вопреки судьбе). The first interview was published in Polish in Australia, and its English original is on my previous post. The second was live on Hamilton radio station CHML on Bob Bratina’s morning show. The third was the present interview by Natasha Sharymova. The three interviewers asked me quite different sets of questions, but independently raised one common question: Is my novel about an escape from Kolyma labour camp to Alaska based on documented information about a real escape? The same question was asked by many of my friends and also by a reader commenting on the novel.

My answer to this question is no. As far as I know, no documents about such an event have come to light, either in Russia or in Alaska. But the topic of an escape fascinated me.

In my last posting I explained that there were some speculations that an escape like this one could have happened. As for my novel, I only explore such a possibility. I develop a fictionalized probability of how this could happen.

Why Alaska? Because it was the closest destination for an escape from the Kolyma region, and the only realistic one. It is actually shorter and less dangerous than other destinations described in memoirs of real escapes. Thus in The Long Walk Slawomir Rawicz describes an escape from a Jakutija labour camp to British India by way of the Gobi desert. In As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me Josef Bauer describes his escape from a camp in Chukotskij peninsular via Siberia proper to the Caspian Sea and to Iran.

As for the characters in my novel, I asked myself a question: Who could carry out such an escape? First, it could be accomplished only by individuals who had a substantial military experience and knew how to fight through the obstacles. Second, in order to cover thousands of kilometers of the subarctic wilderness, there had to be a guide, an aboriginal person, for whom this land is a place of normal habitat.

So the plot of the novel is built around these parameters. The destination is Alaska. The escapees are a group of five, four of them World War II veterans (and there were in reality lots of such people in Stalin’s camps after the war) and one a Chukchi man. To see how events unfold, you have to read Against Destiny. If you read Russian, you can read my Russian translations of excerpts from my novel (entitled in Russian Вопреки судьбе) in Nasha Canada (Наша Канада), in issues 208 (December 2009, already published) and 210 (January 2010, forthcoming at the time of this posting). I plan to post them on my blog “History and Us”.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Some questions about Against Destiny: The author responds

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

Many questions have been asked about Against Destiny before and after its publication. An interesting set of questions was raised in my very first interview which appeared under unusual circumstances - it appeared before the book was published, and not in the original English, but translated into another language, and on the other side of the Earth.

How did it happen? The interview (originally in English - below) caught the attention of Rev. Marian Szablewski, CR, a Polish-speaking priest in Adelaide, South Australia, which is more than 10,000 miles from where I live. He had the interview translated into Polish, by Teresa Wilkans, and published, a month before the release of Against Destiny, in the March 2009 issue of the most important publication in Polish in South Australia, the magazine Panorama. If your Polish is good enough, you can read the first page of the Polish translation by clicking here and the second page by clicking here.

Here is the interview:

What is your book about?
--It is about a daring escape of five brave men from a GULAG camp in North-Eastern Siberia to Alaska for a safe haven. More generally it’s about men, destined to seemingly inevitable death in a human hell, who choose to resist their grim fate rather than succumb to it.

Why did you decide to write it?
--In the literature about the GULAG and Stalin’s epoch in general, there was occasional brief mention that probably there were some successful escapes from camps in the Kolyma region to Alaska. There was no detail on the topic, but it somehow inspired me to think how such an escape could have happened and what kind of people could do it. And the novel sort of naturally developed from these considerations with some addition of my own fantasy to fill the gaps in real knowledge.

We already have The Gulag Archipelago. What’s the point of having a work of fiction about the same thing?
--Well, first of all fiction and documentary literature are different things, and one can hardly substitute for another. Documentary literature has the primary task of describing with maximum accuracy what really happened, while in fiction the author is entitled to apply his fantasy and apply it to what and how people think, feel and do in different situations they encounter. And apart from that, the primary topic of The Gulag Archipelago is life in the GULAG, while the primary topic of my novel is escape from it.

Isn’t this just a relic of the Cold War, which ended in 1989? Why should people in 2008 be interested in Stalin’s Gulag?
--For the same reason that they should be interested in Nazi crimes against humanity. Because such tragic periods of history are something that humanity should learn lessons from, at least for the purpose of preventing similar tragedies from happening again.

How would you compare the camps of Stalin’s Gulag to the concentration camps of Hitler? Weren’t Hitler’s camps much worse?
--No, I can’t agree with that. The GULAG camps certainly lacked gas chambers, but there were numerous other no less hideous ways of putting inmates to death, like for example freezing them alive. And above all the number of people who died there is no less, in fact more, than in the Nazi camps–although the GULAG prisoners lived much longer than the inmates of the Nazi concentration camps before they succumbed. In fact, the claim of some historians, that unlike Nazi Germany in Stalinist USSR there were no killing fields, is erroneous: there were a number of places of regular mass executions. Kurapaty in Byelorussia and Butovo Place near Moscow being the most famous. And there were so-called penal camps, in different sections of GULAG, where almost no-one survived, except for those who were lucky enough to be sent there not long before the camps were dissolved.
In general, I find the question inappropriate about who was worse and who was better: Hitler or Stalin. Whatever the intention, recognition of one as worse almost inevitably leads to partial rehabilitation of the other, as happened in the official historiography of Russia in the 2000's. To my mind, the attitude should be that both were extreme evil, which must not be forgiven or forgotten and from whose regimes we should take historic lessons.

Why do you think that there has been so much more written about the Nazi Holocaust than about the Gulag?
--It’s a good question, because so many people see no connection between Hitler and Stalin and, while preserving active memory of the Holocaust, prefer to forget Stalinist terror. I think there are two factors which can explain this situation.
First of all, the Nazi regime was vanquished, completely dismantled, and all its archives and other materials were publicized; as well, Auschwiz and Dachau were taken over by enemy troops. Nothing like that happened in post-Soviet Russia, where for example the KGB archives were opened only partially and some time in the mid-90's were closed again. This was because many people in authority at that time were former Soviet officials, who for understandable reasons were not interested in complete disclosure of the dark parts of Soviet history. And around then the campaign for so-called national reconciliation and concord started under the motto “Not everything was bad”, which reached its peak in recent years under the Putin-Medvedev regime. This regime made it known to the international community that it would regard the mere comparison between Nazism and Communism as an act of hostility towards Russia, which most of the Western public does not want to engage in.
Secondly, there was a difference in the strength of the lobbying to prevent historical amnesia towards the particular tragic events. The Western Jewish community did its best, and is still doing its best, to prevent the Holocaust from being forgiven or forgotten–and rightly so. There is no equally powerful pressure with regard to GULAG.

Do you think that the greater attention to the Holocaust is reasonable?
--No, I firmly disagree with that. Stalin’s terror took at least 20 millions lives, and to my mind that in itself explains why it deserves equal attention with the Holocaust. Above all, if we forget such tragic events, we risk their repetition at some different time in a somewhat different form.

There is a lot in your novel about the Chukchi, an aboriginal people of Northern Siberia. You don’t look Chukchi yourself. How do you know so much about them?
--Well, as I said before, in the beginning I was thinking about what kind of people could manage a successful escape. And I came to the conclusion that one of them had to be a native, who knew both the escape route in that territory and the required survival skills. And Chukchi is the main aboriginal nationality in the extreme North-East of Siberia. So I read several ethnographic reports on them, the main one being the fundamental book Chukchi Material Culture, written by the prominent Russian ethnographer Vladimir Bogoraz in the early 20th century. I also read Russian translations of Chukchi tales and legends. And all that gave a reasonably comprehensive knowledge of this people.

You have five different characters, each with a different type of background, escaping from their labour camp in Northern Siberia and trying to get to Alaska. How did you decide what backgrounds of the prisoners to choose? Do they cover the range of the different types of people who would have been in the camps in the late 1940s?
--Well, again, I started with figuring out what kind of men would be capable of such an escape. This led me to the choice of Trofimov, Bondarenko and Yatta, each of whom were essential for the success of the enterprise. Trofimov is an experienced combat officer, a captain of infantry with a nearly four years of war experience, Bondarenko an equally experienced partizan with expertise in fighting a guerilla war in the woodland, and Yatta a nomadic aboriginal who knows the terrain and all the skills of living in the extreme north in both taiga and tundra. Also, they represented certain types of people who were in GULAG at the time described. The other two were chosen mostly on the ground of representing two distinct groups that were downtrodden and oppressed by Soviet authorities, as they were previously under the tsars: Russian peasants and Jews–Timoshkin being a Russian peasant and Goldberg a Jew. Also, the figure of Goldberg, the most morally reflective of the five, helps to raise the uneasy and controversial issue of whether and to what extent forcible resistance to a reign of terror is justified.

Why do the escapees in your novel head for Alaska rather than for some other place?
--Well, Alaska was the closest foreign safe haven from the point of view of distance as well as availability–being separated from their camp only by land and by a strait which was ice-covered in winter. And the way there lay through wilderness away from populated places and major highways, which made pursuit far more difficult. And, as you can understand, after they killed several camp guards they could not even think of going anywhere within the borders of the Soviet Union.

Was it really possible to escape from the Gulag, or is your novel just an unrealistic fantasy?
--In fact, though official Soviet propaganda claimed that escapes were absolutely impossible, it was not so. There were numerous escapes from GULAG with varying success. A few of them are described in Solzhenitsyn’s GULAG archipelago, volume 2, in the chapter called “Changing one’s fate”. Others are described in one of the Shalamov's Kolyma Tales, “The Green Prosecutor”. As you will read there, some of them were actually successful, although some of the successful escapees were later re-arrested. Also, some successful escapes from GULAG were widely known in the West, and even described by escapees - the most famous accounts being The Long Walk by Slawomir Rawicz and As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me by Josef Bauer.