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:

“We climbed down a very steep, slippery wooden stairway with great difficulty and finally reached the bottom. It took us some time to accustom our eyes to the dim light of the dingy lower deck.”
“As I began to see where we were, my eyes beheld a scene which neither Goya nor Gustave Dore could ever have imagined. In that immense, cavernous, murky hold were crammed more than 2000 women. From the floor to the ceiling as in a gigantic poultry farm, they were cooped up in open cages, five of them in each nine-foot-square space. The floor was covered with more women. Because of the heat and humidity most of them were only scantily dressed; some had even stripped down to nothing. The lack of washing facilities and the relentless heat had covered their bodies with ugly red spots, boils, and blisters. The majority were suffering from some form of skin disease or other, apart from stomach ailments and dysentery.”
“At the bottom of the stairway we had just climbed down stood a giant cask, on the edges of which, in full view of the soldiers standing on guard above, women were perched like birds, and in the most incredible positions. There was no shame, no prudery, as they crouched there to urinate or to empty their bowels. One had the impression that they were some half-human, half-bird creatures which belonged to a different world and a different age. Yet, seeing a man coming down the stairs, although a mere prisoner like themselves, many of them began to smile and some even tried to comb their hair. Who were these women? And where had they come from? I asked myself. I soon learned that they had been arrested all over Russia and those countries of Europe overrun by Soviet armies. The main accusation against them was collaboration with the enemy.”

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:

“She had a business suit on. Her hair was all askew. This woman stood there for what seemed like minutes and then she held down her skirt and just stepped off the ledge. I thought, how human, how modest, to hold down her skirt before she jumped.”

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.