Harvard Educational Review
  1. Children of the Gulag

    Cathy A. Frierson and Semyon S. Vilensky

    New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010. 480 pp. $55.00.

    The Western world’s awakening to the existence of Soviet labor camps was largely fueled by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s narrative memoir The Gulag Archipelago (1973). The word gulag has come not only to describe the particular Soviet system of exile, internment, labor, and punishment for millions of Russians but also to broadly symbolize the condition of great suffering, hardship, and isolation. Despite the popular view of the gulag as a system of political repression, most of the people who perished or survived in these camps were not political prisoners. Many of them were children.

    Cathy Frierson and Semyon Vilensky dedicate their book Children of the Gulag to the child victims and survivors of Soviet repression. They describe how, from 1918 to 1953, the children of persons  categorized by the Soviet partystate as “enemies of the people” shared their parents’ fate, which included famine, war, imprisonment, forced migration and labor, death from such conditions, and execution. In just 1937 and 1938, a conservatively estimated 1.4 million children lost a parent to execution. Of the 20 million people convicted of crimes and sent to corrective labor in the 1930s, roughly 40 percent were children. Presenting the major historical episodes in Russia during this era, general trends in children’s experiences, and reminiscences of survivors, the authors address three basic questions: What happened? Why? What is the impact on those who survived?

    Children of the Gulag draws on data from secret state archives opened to historians by Gorbachev’s glasnost policy, local grassroots sources that provided an array of personal narratives and documents, and oral history interviews with childhood survivors who are now adults. The volume’s seven chapters address, in roughly chronological order, children’s experiences during major events in Soviet history, Stalin’s war against the peasantry and famines, the “liquidation” of enemies of the state, deportation, World War II, compromised opportunities postwar, and anti-Semitism. This gallop through history is told—consistently and relentlessly—from the standpoint of children.

    The book is replete with historical artifacts such as photos, maps, lengthy letter excerpts, official reports, and testimony transcripts, making the facts of history palpable. For example, one photo shows a mass grave site—“the dead lie in unmarked graves under the pine needles on the forest floor, where mounds of various sizes hint at the ages of those buried . . . around four feet” (p. 103). A bulletin from the director of the field medical station dated May 1930 reads in part: “It is impossible to administer smallpox vaccinations . . . 75% of the population have emaciated bodies the color of dirt, the children are swelling up and dying of malnutrition” (p. 108). Reading Children of the Gulag is an emotional experience, given the firsthand accounts of children’s suffering in conjunction with the accompanying official records and testimony.

    Yet Frierson and Vilensky do not merely catalog suffering. Through their exhaustive documentation, they develop cohesive arguments regarding the immediate and long-term effects of childhood trauma, the dynamics of social categorization, and the nation-state’s relationship with its children. In this regard, this book is a worthwhile read for any educator interested in the transmission and persistence of trauma through multiple generations. Frierson and Vilensky summarize the emotions most prevalent in their collection of narratives as fear and loss, which led to stunted emotional and social lives, depression, and political apathy. American educators would certainly find resonant the idea that emotional legacy makes itself manifest in schools, considering the ways that “emotions born in previous decades continue to reverberate through family and work communities” (p. 12).

    Amidst the suffering, Frierson and Vilensky document some glimmers of hope. One moving example describes teachers who managed to subvert the repressive forces around them: “Child survivors remember these teachers as not treating them as ‘defective’; on the contrary, teachers went out of their way, however subtly, to insure that these would-be pariahs met the highest expectations they could set” (p. 389). Another positive outcome was the “literariness” (p. 396) characterizing Soviet political repression. Children turned to literature to create psychological distance between themselves and their stressful conditions, and as they grew into adulthood, they composed memoirs and fiction as a psychological defense against disintegration due to trauma.

    Children of the Gulag does not end on an idealized note, however. Frierson and Vilensky conclude with a plea to remember those children who perished and who survived and to renounce categories of ascription with the purpose of determining who belongs and who must be excluded. Because this book is intended for a Western audience, it serves as an invitation to reflect on how we treat the children of our own present-day societies.
    i.a.l.
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    Book Notes

    Children of the Gulag
    Cathy A. Frierson and Semyon S. Vilensky

    Our Schools Suck
    Gaston Alonso, Noel S. Anderson, Celina Su, and Jeanne Theoharis