Marianna Yarovskaya’s Oscar-shortlisted short film Women Of The Gulag is a deeply moving piece of filmmaking that shares the accounts of female survivors of the Gulag – a brutal instrument of political repression enforced in the Soviet Union.
Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge caught up with Marianna for an in-depth talk about the film, why many people have no knowledge of the Gulag, how education about the past can inform the future, and much more.
Q: Women of the Gulag’ is a vital piece of filmmaking. What led you to make a celluloid companion to Paul R. Gregory’s book?
I’ve been wanting to make a film on the subject for the past ten years, since the time when I made 20 videos for the Jewish Museum and Tolerance center in Moscow (the largest Holocaust museum in the world). In the process of filming that, I realised there was still no big monument or big Gulag museum in Russia. I wanted to understand why.
I had a grandiose idea to make a Gulag-Shoah project, interviews with the last survivors, but I understood that the task should be narrowed down to something manageable.
I met Paul at his Stanford workshop on Stalinism some seven years ago, as he was reading unpublished autobiographies of Gulag survivors. We noticed that the most complete and detailed accounts were by women. We decided that film was a better medium for telling their stories than the printed page.
Anne Applebaum was in attendance and our first interview for the film. She warned that any survivors would be in their 80s and 90s and would not be compelling subjects for the camera. With this proviso in mind, we began our search for living “last witnesses.” Three of the subjects of Paul’s book we found alive and anxious to meet with me.
Without any secure funding, we started the project as I made arrangements to meet the last witnesses and develop ties with human-rights organizations (like Memorial, Solzhenitsyn Center, and Sakharov’s Center in Moscow) to find through their records more last witnesses. We decided that we would have to limit the number to six, because we wanted really to tell their life stories, and could only fit in six.
Q: I find it troubling that far too many people in the West have a lack – or complete absence – of knowledge about the horrors of the Gulags, but your documentary shows this is also the case for many Russians. Why do you believe this is the case as well as the continued cult of Stalin?
A: Something like half of Russia’s youth have not even heard of the Gulag and Stalin’s Great Terror.
Older Russians know because few families were spared. Millions have a grandparent or great grandparent among those “repressed” to use the Soviet term.
For Russians who experienced the collapse of the USSR, they look back on the Soviet period as one of stability and order, but they are thinking of the post-Stalin years, which were characterised by “lesser terror.” Although the Yeltsin government intended to have a “trial of the communist party” – this never happened. The Russian people were therefore deprived of their “Nuremberg.”
Some conversations about promoting the study of the Gulag were started in Gorbachev and Yeltsin’s times. There was relative press and publication freedom starting from Perestroika and Glasnost eras, but then it all stopped except for the individual efforts of scholars both in Russia and outside.
The Putin government wishes to dwell on Russia’s glories (beating Napoleon and Hitler), and does not wish to talk about Stalin’s atrocities. In the Western world, the Stalin regime was the worst perpetrator of genocide—of the Russian people not of foreign enemies. Remarkably, few Russians seem to know or care about this sad fact.
Today’s school history books were rewritten to present Stalin as an “efficient manager” and to talk about the success of industrialisation first in the 30s and to mention repressions only after that, in an abbreviated way. Solznenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago is a mandatory reading in schools now, but only in the literature classes, with other fiction including “social realism” novels, not in history classes.
For Russia, understanding the history of the Gulag and the Soviet period is absolutely critical to understanding why the society is the way it is today. There are many things about contemporary Russia that are easy to blame on Yelsin and even Putin, which are in fact legacies of a more distant past. Understanding the behaviour of the police, the way the court system works, the judicial system works.
I think in order to understand all this you need to understand what came before. I’ve been in prisons and camps in contemporary Russia. I was one of the producers of the film about Pussy Riot, so I went to the prison camp in Mordovia where the leader of Pussy Riot was kept – Nadya Tolokonnikova. I was shocked by the resemblance they bear to the things that Solzhenitsyn described. That to me is an indication that people have not digested the lessons of the past and haven’t been able to make deeper changes to their political system, which would enable them to overcome their past.
So the importance of the Gulag for modern Russia cannot be underestimated.
But I think absolutely the understanding of the Gulag is crucial also for the West. Contemporary North Korea has camps which are actually carbon copies of the Stalin camps. In order to understand the mentality of North Korea, it is absolutely crucial and important to understand the mentality of the Soviet camp guards and the Soviet prison system. China is another obvious example: we know from documents and other sources that there were Soviet advisors who went to China in the 1950s and helped the Chinese set up these prison camps.
By the way, in Hollywood there has not been one notable film about Stalin.
I must, however, mention one film that was made in the past few years – it is a brilliant and exceptionally well-researched film – The Death of Stalin, which not surprisingly has been banned in Russia. The Russian Ministry of Culture withdrew the film’s distribution license in 2018.
Q: Your film takes us to a few Gulag locations, including the Perm-36 museum – the only preserved Gulag labour camp. What did you take away from these visits?
A: Even the Perm-36 museum, the only intact facility remaining in Russia from the Soviet-era gulag system of political prisons and labor camps, despite its barbed wire, isolation cells, and guards towers, is a relatively sanitised version of the Gulag.
The Baltic States are, of course, more open about their own Gulag experiences. They have preserved the torture chambers through which victims were interrogated, beaten, and placed on what was called the “conveyer” of terror. We show these torture chambers in our film courtesy of Baltic historians.
Q: The film documents the personal accounts of six female Gulag survivors – Vera Hecker, Ksenia Chukhareva, Adile Abbas-ogly, Elena Posnik, Fekla Andreeva, NadezhdaLevitskaya. How was your experience spending time with these women and listening to their heart-breaking accounts?
A: I wish we could have spent more time and started this work some years earlier – but some of these women we interviewed several times.
For instance, we visited Fekla three times in Kamensk Uralsky. We would drink tea in the kitchen, bring a cake, what normal Russians do when they visit friends. We had many conversations. She was not well during the first interview, but several months later she had recovered – and we could record some really moving moments.
With Kseniya (96), we first interviewed her at a memorial procession in her native settlement of Martiush. This was pure luck and coincidence that the oldest citizen and the only survivor of those events in that particular township was there at that procession to the memorial cross that local residents built. We returned to interview her a year ago, but unfortunately she was already completely blind.
That interview was so heart-breaking that I ended up not including it in the film. I want people to be able to hear what they say, these survivors, not feel sorry for them. Kseniya died several months after that.
Two of our characters died before we completed the film. Some were in their late 90s. We are really at the 11th hour, these are the very last witnesses.
Q: These are obviously women of remarkable strength and courage. Did they surprise you in any way?
A: I did not want the audience to feel pity for these women. They are survivors, this is a story of survival. I often think about their experiences – about what helped them go through what they experienced and not break.
What was surprising to me is how eager they were to talk. For most our heroines, the telling of their stories was cathartic. Adile, in her 90s, put it this way: “I lived so long to be able to finally tell the truth.”
Q: The film includes drone shots and stock images, but I think the most striking visual of the documentary for me was the illustrations by Vera’s sister. What was your reaction when you first saw them?
A: I feel these drawings become even more impactful when you see them in the context of their lives, when you have already met the family and heard what these sisters went through, and you see the drawing of a pregnant woman entering the camp’s gate. It brought tears to my eyes.
I felt incredible sadness that I could not ask Vera’s sister about these paintings. Vera was the last survivor out of five sisters, the youngest, and the last alive. I only know that the black and white pictures were made in the camp, and the color ones – after the release.
One big note about this. I am an archival film researcher – film research is how I make my money, and the film was especially difficult to make because there is not much evidence/archival materials left, everything was meticulously destroyed – to not leave any trace to the crime.
These gulag camps were not filmed like the Nazi camps “for posterity”. All I had to deal with were several propaganda videos made during the Soviet times about how “enemies of the people are re-educated.” Even those propaganda videos, of course, don’t produce a very good impression, but no atrocities are shown on film.
All we can rely on are notes, memoirs, diaries, letters/correspondence that were preserved – and yes – drawings of the inmates. I saw her horrific pictures of frozen bodies, including children, being loaded into carts and was sickened. I know of no collections of paintings by Gulag survivors that better capture the atrocities and horrors of the Gulag experience and, in this case, from a woman’s perspective. For example, there is one picture of women enjoying a rare moment from work that suggests there was even a degree or normality in the worst of Gulags.
Q: As I said earlier, this is a vital piece of filmmaking that needs to be seen by the widest audience possible. What are your future plans for the film and what imprint do you hope it leaves?
A: One of our main goals for this film is for the people to see it.
We feel there must be two audiences.
I would love to show Women of the Gulag on Russia’s Channel One – where the audience is 40 million people. This film needs to be seen in Russia, especially now, when people just brought a record amount of flowers/carnations to Joseph Stalin’s grave in the Red Square by the Kremlin wall. In the city of Lipetsk, they just built a new monument to Joseph Stalin right in front of the office of the communist party. People take pictures in front of the statue all the time, with their families, kids.
I think the time for this discussion has come.
We do not know if government media will allow the film to be shown. If it wins an Oscar, I think the chances are greater. Otherwise, we must be content with smaller showing sponsored by human rights organisations which themselves are under attack.
The Western world is also a target audience, given the level of inattention to the subject, and the importance of dealing with genocide irrespective of where it takes place. We would hope for good placements on TV. University audiences are another target. We are already getting almost daily invitations to show the film at universities accompanied by panel discussions.
Q: You have always worked on meaningful and impactful projects. Why do you feel you have been drawn to this kind of work?
A: As a Russian-American who has chosen documentary film making as a profession, it was inevitable that I would be drawn to this subject. In my own family, there were aunts and uncles who suffered under Stalin’s repressions. My grandfather, a noted film actor of the Moscow Art Theater and Lenfilm, was a victim of an anonymous letter for “wrongful interpretation of the killing of Sergey Kirov” – that killing started a Great Purge. My grandfather ended up on the front and fell during the first days of WWII – “the Great Patriotic War.”
As for the other projects, I was a head researcher for An Inconvenient Truth with Al Gore (2007 Academy Award), I worked for Greenpeace USA as a senior editor (videos), worked at NASA (Ames Research Center) for several years making videos for NASA and for the Congress – to explain complicated technical concepts to laymen/to the audience.
I am currently working for a TV show now called Extinct or Alive? Animal Planet/Discovery Communications make it – it is a TV program where the host goes to the remote parts of the planet looking for the animals who are nearly extinct or extinct – trying to find their traces. We are now filming in Madagascar, next will be Colombia. This is to bring awareness to disappearing species. I have always been interested in environmental issues.
Other films I was involved in (Samsara, Kindertransport, Last Days in Vietnam, Countdown to Zero) – are films on global issues.
My own films I always took big, global subjects. Holy Warriors, a film about sniper who turned into a priest, is about war and religion. I feel if you are to spend many years of your life on something, it needs to be meaningful and a start of an important conversation.
Q: What is next for you in 2019 and beyond?
A: In the near future, I would like to develop a bigger project related to Russia’s current and past politics. I am interested in some opposition movements in the history of the 1990s.
I feel films today can be a big influence.
In relation to our movie, I keep thinking of the story of Holocaust mini-series in Germany in 1978 with Meryl Streep. 20 million people (half of the German population) watched the film. It first brought the matter of the genocide during World War II to widespread public attention in a way that it never had been before. It helped restart the public discussion decades later.
Gulag deserves more big stories like that, to restart the conversation.
The west knows very little about Gulag, but Russia too is still lacking a big moment of acknowledgement, that moment has not yet come. The former KGB is not interested in talking about their role in these mass crimes… The likelier path is that there will be a new generation that would want to find out what happened to their grandparents.
It is not my generation because – even though we were not directly involved – we are still emotionally connected to these times. It is the next generation of those who are now teenagers; telling the truth about what really happened is a way to restart the conversation.
And of course, I would like to keep promoting Women Of The Gulag – educationally too. I would like for as many people as possible to see the film. Ultimately, this is why I made the film – I want people to see it. We hope that being shortlisted for an Academy Award is already helping us in our task.