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A Zek Remembers Stalin’s Camps

A new foreword to Julius Margolin’s stunning, recovered memoir of the gulag

Timothy Snyder
October 01, 2020
Political prisoners eating lunch in the Intalag coal mineWikipedia
Political prisoners eating lunch in the Intalag coal mineWikipedia

We speak of memory, but memory is empty without witness. It is too much to expect that all who suffer speak. Yet without witness, memory devolves into propaganda that serves the moment. Julius Margolin asks whether the real Russia is the one that celebrates victory over Nazi Germany on Red Square, or the one that exists in the uncharted universe of concentration camps that he calls “the land of the zek.” He wrote in 1946 and 1947, right after five years of Soviet penal servitude; the question is still pertinent in the Russia of the 21st century. Margolin was himself a “zek,” a convict, who survived incarceration in the largest concentration camp system during its most murderous period.

We call the Soviet camps the Gulag, after the title of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s much later book, published in 1973. Had Margolin’s book been published when he wrote it, “zek” and “land of the zek” would be the terms we use now. This first complete collection of Margolin’s texts about the camps, published as a whole in English translation, arrives at a time when we know a great deal about them. When documents became available after the end of the USSR in 1991, historians sought to balance the experiences of the prisoners with those of the guards, the camp directors, the politburo, Stalin himself. We know certain things that Margolin did not: the locations of most of the camps, the numbers of registered prisoners and deaths, the names of those who persecuted them. Yet without the voices of the witnesses, even such knowledge is not enough. If memory is challenged by witness, history is enriched by it.

Only a very few memoirs of concentration camps, and only a scarce handful of memoirs of the Gulag, give a sense of what it was like on the inside. Margolin gives a reason: to become a zek was to lose the points of reference that would make the experience intelligible to others: “No one retains his original form. Observation is difficult because the observer himself is deformed. He, too, is abnormal.” In this sense the title of this book is perfectly chosen. Margolin recounts the five years between his deportation from Soviet-occupied Poland in 1940 and his return to postwar Poland in 1946 and then his subsequent departure for Palestine via France. It is a mark of his honesty that he records his own decline; it is a mark of his recovery that he was able to write this book. This literary and philosophical memoir is not simply an unmatched historical record; it is also a deep moral judgement. Tens of millions of people passed through the Gulag; only a few were able to write searching and reliable books about it. This one is perhaps the best.

Margolin was a philosopher, which made him a special witness. Born the son of a doctor in the predominantly Jewish town of Pinsk in what was then the western Russian Empire, he studied for a while in revolutionary Russia and then completed a doctorate in philosophy in Berlin. He called himself a Polish Jew and spent most of the 1930s in Poland, mainly in Łódź. In 1936 he and his family moved from Poland to Palestine. He was in Poland settling some necessary business when Germany invaded on 1 September 1939. Like about a quarter million Jews in western Poland, he fled eastward before the Germans. The Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east on 17 September. Like many of those Jews, Margolin tried to find a way out. When he failed, he returned to his parents in Pinsk, where he lived through the annexation of eastern Poland and the imposition of the Soviet system.

Margolin defines himself as a European and as a “man of the West.” He was forty years old when he entered his first concentration camp, old enough to have seen something of the world and to start a family, but young enough to react with flexibility. He had a strong sense of decency and normality: human rights and truth were basic concepts. He had the vocabulary and concepts of a philosopher with a strong interest in literature: he never lacked for words or concepts in an environment that beggared description. He was a native speaker of Russian, the language of the camps, but also a native speaker of Polish and Yiddish, the languages of the prisoners with whom he was sentenced.

As Margolin saw matters from Łódź or Pinsk in late 1939 and early 1940, the Nazis and the Soviets had together destroyed Europe. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939,and the joint German-Soviet invasion of Poland that followed, was the end of the life he thought he was leading. Poland, from which he had emigrated but for which he had sympathy, was destroyed by its powerful neighbors. In Pinsk Margolin watched as local resources, grain and meat, were directed by Soviet power to the Nazi ally, even as Germany invaded western Europe. Both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union declared that the Polish state did not exist; this created a basic problem of access to law and protection for tens of millions of people who were subject not to a conventional occupation but to annexation and colonization. In Margolin’s case, he was sentenced to five years of hard labor in a camp for having the wrong papers.

Rue des Archives/The Granger Collection, New York

His choices were constrained by the joint action of Nazi and Soviet power. Jews could flee Germans, but would find themselves in territory that would become Soviet. Margolin is a keen observer of what happened in eastern Poland under Soviet rule: the deportation of elites, the subjugation of the economy, the closing of all independent organizations. Many Jews wanted to go back: “as late as spring 1940, Jews preferred the ghetto to the Soviet equality of rights.” Many Jews did in fact return. Those like Margolin who stayed were expected to take Soviet citizenship. Jews who did not were deported to special settlements in Soviet Kazakhstan and Siberia in June 1940. A few weeks after that, Margolin was sent to a camp in the Russian far north to fell trees.

During Margolin’s first year as a zek, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were allies. His forced labor served an economy that supplied the Wehrmacht. We might be tempted to think of this as ironic; for Margolin it was simply the end of his world: “Both sides were inhuman reflections of everything we held dear and sacred.” There was nothing surprising, for him, in “Russia’s alliance with Nazi Germany.” A Jew in Soviet confinement, he had to endure pro-Nazi propaganda: “The rare Soviet newspapers that landed in the camp were full of pro-German publicity.” The Soviet press was reprinting the speeches of Nazi dignitaries. “In line with Hitler’s successes,” Margolin recalls, “antisemitism increased in the camp.” Although he was a Polish Jew, and well aware of Polish antisemitism, no one called him a kike until he was in a Soviet camp.

Margolin knew Germany well but never saw a Nazi camp; he left the country in 1929, four years before Hitler came to power. The comparisons were, however, unavoidable. A young German Jew who feared Nazi terror found his nightmares realized in a Soviet camp. Jews who had been in Dachau said that Soviet servitude was worse. Margolin also noticed that young fascists with whom he was imprisoned admired the camp structure. They agreed with its basic organizing principle: the strong should survive, the weak perish.

Margolin and his fellow inmates were evacuated eastwards from the camp on Lake Onega when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. Some four million people were in Soviet camps when Hitler betrayed Stalin and Nazi Germany invaded its ally. In the next two years some 2.5 million more Soviet citizens were sentenced to the camps. Between 1941 and 1943, chaotic transports and drastic shortages made a camp sentence even more dangerous than before. About half a million deaths were officially registered in the camps in those years; the true figure is likely far higher.

Margolin survived these conditions, observed them, chronicled them, and analyzed them with unparalleled clarity and insight. In extraordinary descriptions, we learn about what he called “the fatal year 1942” when around him “zeks were falling like grass.” He and his fellow prisoners talked about which kinds of grass and which kinds of bark could be eaten. With great precision and without pathos he describes, for example, digging in a canal downstream from an outhouse looking for edible material left over from swill for pigs.

Margolin’s great subject was dehumanization: the reduction of zeks in their own minds to hungry beasts, and in the minds of their bosses to laboring machines. Everyone was hungry all the time. Food was rationed so that the more productive got more than the less: “The means of coercion was hunger.” A prisoner can be brought “to a bestial condition where the moment of satiety becomes the culminating point of every day, the sole stimulus of his actions.”

To be treated only as an instrument of labor destroyed a sense of self-worth. “Only a free person,” Margolin wrote, “knows the joy of free labor, and for him this labor is meaningful because it serves a goal that he chooses and in which he believes.” It is physically difficult to fell trees all day in a north Russian forest, as Margolin did in his first labor assignment. Yet he notices the spiritual costs as well: “The surest way to make a person ludicrous and contemptible is to force him systematically to do work that he is incapable of doing, in the company of people who are superior to him in strength and skill.” People are reduced to the quantity of labor they perform: “I myself was not worth anything. My right to life was measured by the percentage of the work norms that I fulfilled.”

The sheer pointlessness was an element of the suffering. Margolin labored poorly, punished for actions that he could not regard as a crime, sentenced by a state of which he was not a citizen, serving a regime he abhorred. After the war, Margolin read Jean-Paul Sartre and laughed at Sartre’s idea that alienation was something experienced by bourgeois French people. He saw Sartre’s complaint about the absence of absolute meaning in existence as a temptation to seek it in politics, in a system such as communism. As a prediction of Sartre’s politics, this was correct. Margolin actually experienced something very much like a pure alienation and wrote about it with a skill that should have been humbling to those who wrote about what they did not know.

Margolin is a chronicler not only of the cruelty and suffering of others but also of the disappearance of the self. In his prose the physical and institutional structure of the camp figures as a threat not just to life but to any sense of what living might mean. Throughout the book, for example, he returns to his constant difficulty in keeping clothed. These passages concern the extreme cold—and basic dignity: “The moment arrives when we no longer have anything of our own. The state dresses and undresses us as it pleases.” Poland is destroyed and Palestine is far away; he has no contact with the people who mattered to him before his sentence; “family ties are liquidated.” It pains him that his wife and son in Palestine do not know what has happened to him. The continuity of life itself is broken, the accumulation of moments, days, and memories that is the oxygen of our consciousness. Prisoners “gradually forgot about our past,” as the present became a matter of mechanical repetition and animal survival.

Margolin survived physically, thanks to his languages, his friendships with camp doctors, his canniness, and a good deal of luck. He almost died several times, and his gifts as a writer are perhaps most apparent in his recollections of those moments. Yet perhaps the central experience was not malady but dehumanization. He is saddest about the day when he first robbed from a fellow prisoner, the day when he first struck another man in the face. Even as Margolin gave way physically and spiritually to the system, he never lost his sense of human value. In circumstances where such behavior was understandable and even necessary for survival, he still remembers it as wrong, and as damaging to himself. The Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski said that when we choose the lesser evil we must remember that it is evil. This is a challenge in daily life; that Margolin could retain this level of ethical reflection in the camp is miraculous.

Margolin never lost his capacity to see his fellow zeks as human. He takes care to describe the particular conditions of his fellow Jews, who were the majority of his campmates at the beginning. He explains that Poles, with whom he shared a language and a country, were the group closest to Jews in the camp. Margolin befriends Ukrainians, with whom, as he recalls, Jews had an uneasy history. Ukrainians were sent to the Gulag in disproportionate numbers before, during, and after the war; in Margolin’s book they have a voice.

Margolin knew that he was an unusual witness. Concluding his book in 1947, at a time when the world did not know about the Gulag and did not want to learn, he writes, rather formally, that on “the basis of my five-year experience, I affirm that the Soviet government, utilizing specific territories and political conditions in its country, has created a subterranean hell, a kingdom of slaves behind barbed wire, inaccessible to world public opinion.” Margolin correctly anticipated that the very moral emptiness that he experienced would become an argument of the defenders of the Soviet regime. What he opposed was the total abandonment of ethics, the open nihilism and its attendant sadism: “Might is right; everyone lies; everyone is a scoundrel; fools must be taught a lesson.”

The defense of the Soviet system, before the war, during the war, after the war, and even today, was that the abandonment of humanity served some goal. What Margolin experienced as an emptiness could be seen from a distance as a stage in history. Hunger, dehumanization, and mass death in wastelands were necessary to reach a greater good. This is what Sartre, for example, believed, and similar defenses of the Gulag are mounted even now, in Russia and beyond. Margolin’s experience directly contradicts this wishful thinking: “What I saw in five years of my stay in the Soviet subterranean kingdom was an apparatus of murder and oppression acting blindly.” He turns the argument from determinism around: “The Soviet regime’s crime is not justified but, on the contrary, aggravated and accentuated if it turns out that there is no other way of reinforcing the power of those in the Kremlin than the monstrous camp system of contemporary slavery and millions of anonymous deaths.”

Margolin had no patience with relativism, or what we today call what-aboutism. It is no defense of Soviet mass killing to point out that the Nazis committed worse crimes. The Soviet camp system, he noted, was older, larger, and more durable than the Nazi one. It was wrong to “justify the Soviet camps by asserting that Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Treblinka were much worse.” As Margolin saw matters, the Nazis and the Soviets had together destroyed Europe in 1939. Neither side was right in the war that began in 1941,and so defending one by referring to the crimes of the other was a logical mistake. Margolin was himself physically trapped between the two systems. But human freedom, for him, was the ability to judge both on higher criteria, rather than on the terms their alliance or their clash seemed to force.

Margolin has a final word for those who would shrug their shoulders at the history of Soviet concentration camps in the belief that in so doing they are somehow serving progress. “The people who justify Soviet camps, who say ‘Let them sit in camps’ or ‘Perhaps this is not true’ or simply ‘What do we care?’ may consider themselves anti-fascists and wear a mask of rectitude. It is clear to me that these people are preparing a second edition of Hitler in the world.” If you lose your concern for the facts of history, you have lost your concern for humanity. If you choose evasion and propaganda, then the anti-fascists lose out to the fascists, the better evaders and the better propagandists. The act of truthfully recording human suffering, by contrast, is also the act of affirming human value. The dignity of recalling detail is also the dignity of passing judgement. As a matter of individual ethics and also as a matter of democratic pragmatism, no “trampling on human rights should remain anonymous.”

Witness undoes anonymity, and judgment girds an ideal. Margolin thought that democracy transcended a shallow quarrel between Right and Left. The Right was not bound to defend fascism, and the Left was not bound to defend the Soviet Union. And no one was bound to identify with Right or Left. The trap of us-and-them was dehumanizing. What humanized was an active moral concern for truth, access to the historical record, and the freedom to express what was learned. Although every democracy is flawed, as he recognized, the flaws can be seen as such. When the witness and judgment of individuals informs the discussion and choices of citizens, a democracy can be corrected and renewed.

From Journey Into the Land of the Zeks and Back: A Memoir of the Gulag by Julius Margolin. Copyright © 2020 by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Timothy Snyder is the Levin Professor of History at Yale University. His latest book is Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary.