Sex was survival strategy in gulag, says US journalist

Monika Horáková
7. 12. 2010 12:11
Austria hosted a conference on the experience of female prisoners in Soviet gulags

Prague/Sankt Pölten - If you think that history as it is taught in schools is too much oriented on men, and above all "great men", a conference that took place last week in Sankt Pölten, Austria called "Forgotten lives: Austrian women in gulag" was something just for you.

The issue of Austrian women in Soviet labor camps, or gulags, was discussed by historians, who provided their scholarly knowledge, and witnesses, who spoke of their direct experiences.

One of the main stars of the conference was US journalist Anne Applebaum, who had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for her book Gulag: A History.

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Women in gulag

"Many women that survived a gulag are convinced that being a woman was a big advantage in the prison system. They say they were able to take care of themselves better than men, in spite of limited possibilities. They could patch their clothes and maintain their hair clean," Applebaum said in an interview with

Anne Applebaum with Czech historian Tomáš Bouška
Anne Applebaum with Czech historian Tomáš Bouška | Foto: Produktion West

"Also, it was easier for them to adapt themselves to smaller portions of food. They were able to create strong friendships and help each other in ways men did not know. Their practical skills - for example sewing - were often critical for survival," she added.

Sex as a survival strategy

"Men tend to say that women in gulag turned into 'perverts', because men often persuaded or forced them to sex. On the contrary, women describe sex in exchange for food of work in warm spaces as one of many strategies to survive in gulag. Women did not perceived this strategy as less legitimate than other ways. Generally, it can be said that women criticize the behavior of others in gulag less than men."

According to Applebaum, it was impossible for men prisoners to take care of the children they had with female prisoners, because men and women were placed in separate camps, and children were mostly put into female camps.

Most of the relations that were started in the camp did not survive the eventual freedom. "That what united the male and female prisoners during their stay in the camp mostly could not continue after they left it, because people tried to get beck to a more 'normal' life. In spite of this, there are exceptions. For example the writer Lev Razgon met his second wife in a camp and stayed with her even after getting home."

When asked what story she remembers the best, she said that the worst are histories about children. "For example the story of Hava Volovich, who got pregnant in gulag with a man whom she did not like at all. Little Eleonora died before her second birthday. Hava Volovich had to witness, powerlessly, as her daughter lived poorly in the camp's nursery. Women who were fostering the children there let them starve and their care looked more as maltreatment."

Applebaum said that her interest in the topic started when she was living in Poland in 1988-1991. "I was frequently visiting Ukraine and Baltic states at the time. There, I met people who had been imprisoned in gulags. At the same time, Soviet archives started to open. I also knew many people who worked in those archives. I decided to investigate more deeply," said Applebaum who speaks Polish, Russian, French and some German, in addition she says she can understood Czech, Slovak and Ukrainian sources.

Applebaum investigated above all in camps near Syktyvkar, the capital of Russia's Komi republic. After that, she went to the Solovet islands, Karelia, Perm-36 and other camps.

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Zdroj: ČTK
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