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A book of Gulag memoirs that includes almost twenty accounts of music-making in the Gulag. Vilensky, Simeon, ed. Till My Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

In looking for instances of music in the Gulag, I found that most books about Russian music of the time omit tales from the Gulag. I do not know why. However, I also started reading anthologies of Gulag survivors’ stories, and they richly detail the musical life in the camps. During my spring break, I have found almost 40 distinct events to enter into my data collection. These events range from a random Ukrainian couple singing Ukrainian folk songs in a wagon to staged performances directed by professional non-prisoners from Moscow. The music ranges from folk song (from many different countries) to liturgical sacred music (from several religions) to operettas like Akulina, Yevgeny Onegin, and Rigoletto. The fact that they staged operas sanctioned by the camp officials attracts enough interest, but looking thought the survivors’ memoirs gives an intimate look at the music that was never “performed.” Rather, these small songs and prayers that prisoners sang to themselves to stay sane in harsh, inhumane conditions speak to the culture and the horrors found in the Gulag.

During the soviet regime, Lithuanians, Poles, Americans, Germans, Ukrainians, and Tartans were imprisoned purely based on their nationality. Additionally, strong anti-Semitic Soviet thought imprisoned Jewish people based on their ancestry alone – often, people were taken in the middle of the night arbitrarily with no idea what they had done to earn a twenty-year sentence in the labor camps. On the music side of things, Stalin and his leaders of the Soviet Composers’ Union (along with leaders of other organizations) deemed only Russian nationalist music acceptable to perform. Composers and performers came under fire for promoting any music not based on simple, Russian folk tunes. Violations of this led to prison sentences and the label “enemy of the state” (a dirty term that led to life-long scorn, even after rehabilitation by the government). Despite the strict regulations of the outside world, in the Gulag, Americans, Armenians, Ukrainians, Russians, Lithuanians, Poles, and many others created a “melting pot” of musical culture. In placing millions of people from culturally and musically diverse backgrounds together in cramped, dirty, horrendous conditions, the Soviet government inadvertently created one of the greatest and large-scale exchanges of musical ideas of the century. In reading the personal stories of scores of prisoners, I have seen how music from far-away places reached peasants who likely never would have traveled much and heard such music. It did not matter if people were amateurs (as most were) or if they were professional musicians who studied at the conservatory. Music’s universal nature means it is easily shared and learned by people of all skill levels.

I do not say this in order to indicate that the music in the camps made them any less unbearable, especially if we focus on small-scale instances of music. If a man whistled a mournful tune while he dug a mass grave (that he likely would end up in several days later), I hardly think that indicates that the music bettered his experience. Often, these instances of music are written immediately juxtaposed with instances of gang rape, beatings, torture, loss of sanity, mothers burying their children, or other monstrous accounts of human suffering. This music and these stories, while they enlighten, simultaneously sober and remind us all of the terrifying, degrading, and abusive experiences of those in the camps. Death, suffering, and sorrow often accompanied the melodies of desperation and despair.

However, while the music often brought no palpable reprieve from reality, the large-scale performances directed by non-prisoner professionals give the illusion of bourgeois, artistically savvy camps. In reality, the actors and singers were emaciated amateurs (as they had to fulfill daily work quotas like everyone else), the production values cheap, and the rewards relatively small in comparison to grueling conditions.

Conclusively, the irony of the situation reigns supreme. In attempting to create a completely Russian, nationalist state, the Soviet government imprisoned millions of people from dozens of countries and belief systems. Thus, they created large-scale trade of musical ideas from many cultural and economic backgrounds. Additionally, the banned music performed (such as religious music) lived on in not only the descendants of those who would have known those works anyway, but also in the minds of completely unaffiliated people who heard those banned pieces while in the Gulag. In imprisoning all of the “dissidents” together in the vast Gulag system, they accidentally ensured that the music would live on; this irony would be more sweet, were it not for the millions of people who died directly as a result of the Soviet forced-labor imprisonment system.


Further Reading:

Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: A History. New York: Random House, 2003.

Applebaum, Anne, ed. Gulag Voices: An Anthology. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Cohen, Stephen F. The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag after Stalin. London: I.B. Taurus, 2011.

Gheith, Jehanne M. and Katherine R. Jolluck. Gulag Voices: Oral Histories of Soviet Incarceration and Exile. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Petkevich, Tamara. “The Art of Surviving the Gulag: Drama: Through theatrical performances, actors in the Soviet prison camps encouraged themselves – and their audiences – to live.” Baltimore Sun, March 9, 2013.

Valensky, Simeon, ed. Till My Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.