A quote from Michael Solomon, Romanian writer and prisoner in the Soviet gulag system, brought to mind another, more recent. Spending most of his time at Kolyma, but fortunately not one of the millions murdered there, he was one of the gulag writers who left the world a chronicle of the worst and most dangerous regime since the khanate. After being snatched and sent off to Siberia, he was starved and frozen in concentration camps before being loaded onto a ship for transport to Kolyma where chances were that he would be worked to death. Finally herded into the bowels of his ship, he describes the scene:
A quick aside on “collaboration”: After the war, the USSR put the people of its conquered territories in an awful pickle. Those who had vigorously resisted the Nazis were targeted for extermination since the Soviet state viewed anyone demonstrating such initiative with suspicion. Those who did not resist vigorously enough were labeled collaborators. A central aspect of totalitarianism is to declare entire populations to be potential criminals. Virtually all of these women were completely innocent of even passive resistance to the USSR. Not that it matters what these women may have “done”.
The part that struck me in that quote was his mention of the reaction of the women to Solomon’s arrival – the smiles, the combing of the hair, one imagines shy aversions of the feminine gaze. Even in such degraded circumstances as they found themselves, reduced, as they had been, to mere creatures, a response asserted itself which was purely human. It reminded me of another quote, from a New Yorker who had stood watching as victims trapped in the World Trade Center were leaping from windows as the only alternative to being burned to death. He said:
The insistent refusal of the women in each quote to give up their humanity although the world itself seemed to have ended moved me profoundly. A skeptic would say that the cultural conventions which shaped their behavior have no place in a ruined world, but there is something like the strength and glory of a warrior’s last stand in their defiance. And it is defiance. My tendency is to want to write essays on simple points, but this time I’ll just leave it at that.