CONTROL / The compelling and tragic stories of six women as the last survivors of the Gulag.

Kino Regina, a cinema run by Finland’s National Audiovisual Institute, is cocooned inside the walls of Oodi, Helsinki’s spanking new, innovative library complex. At least, it’s called a library, but it’s much more than that. A kind of high-tech “«living room for residents,» it has, in addition to its «Book Heaven» of literature-stocked shelves on one floor, tools from sewing machines to laser cutters and 3D-printers, which residents can freely use to make clothes and jewelry or solder spare parts in an environment of mutual knowledge sharing. Filled with rugs inspired by Finnish classics and other public art, Oodi is a cosy, calm space that feels genuinely geared toward nurturing visitors’ wellbeing and inclusion, far removed from for-profit dehumanisation — a utopia of communality, or at least a rare oasis in a Europe turning toward the far right (the library was partly conceived of as a bulwark against populism, equipping its citizens with the confident know-how to navigate a disorienting future). Strolling through Oodi, it’s easy to imagine a version of reality in which an entire political system of collectivism functions smoothly. So the venue of Regina for festival Helsinki DocPoint’s screening of Women of the Gulag, Marianna Yarovskaya’s collection of testimonies of six women who survived life inside the most brutal network of institutions that sprung from the Soviet order, added an additional level of thought-provoking and tragic tension between the lofty ideals of communism and its abhorrent applications.

Women of the Gulag, a film by Marianna Yarovskaya

Ruled by terror

Famed Soviet poet Anna Akhmatova said that when those interred in gulags return, «two Russias will look each other in the eye: the one arresting, and the one arrested». Her quote opens a film portraying a Soviet Union that became divided into victims and torturers — and which, under Stalinism, destroyed many of its best people. Set up by Lenin and reaching its peak under Stalin between the ‘30s and ‘50s, the gulag system of forced labour camps were used to maintain the Soviet economy, and as an instrument of political repression to prop up a so-called dictatorship of the proletariat. Penal colonies were established in remote areas of Siberia and Russia’s Far East, which were short on voluntary settlers for work due to their extreme conditions. The imprisonments came in waves: first, the dispossessed, more well-off peasant kulaks; then, the targets of purges; and finally, returning prisoners-of-war and suspected Nazi sympathisers. Estimates vary, but some suggest that 14 million people were imprisoned between 1929 and 1953. The gulags’ brutality permeated a society ruled by terror.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent eight years incarcerated, described the harsh conditions of the camps (a taboo subject) in his seminal book The Gulag Archipelago, which initially circulated illegally under samizdat. Women of the Gulag bears witness through eye-witness testimony of the female experience of Stalinist repression. Also subject to back-breaking labour, women were under increased threat of rape, and some bore children inside the camps. Six women — Vera, Ksenia, Elena, Fekla, Nadezhda, and Adile — who are in their eighties and nineties recount their experiences. Now in their last days (all but one died shortly after their interviews), they speak with little hesitation, seeming eager to have their stories heard; the truth of their ordeals recorded, indelible.

«I was here»

Their backgrounds and stories of arrest vary, but they all speak of «a totally sadistic system». Elena, a language translator, is accused of fraternising with Germans, and says the air of suspicion meant she did not even dare to learn Latvian. Fekla is named by her father as head of the family at age eleven as he is lead off as a condemned man. «Educate your sisters, because it is harder to crush an educated person,» he tells her. The urge to not be erased is strong: beaten, a prisoner places a clutch of her own hair, and teeth, into a crack in the cell floor — that which «will not rot» left as an insistent claim on identity, an «I was here».

The gulags’ brutality permeated a society ruled by terror.

In addition to these gripping testimonies, we see citizens gathered on Moscow’s Lubyanka Square, site of the former KGB headquarters, taking turns to read out the identities of those murdered during Stalin’s purges. This «Returning of the Names» ceremony, organised by human rights group Memorial, happens every year. But so does another kind of remembrance: we also watch as members of Russia’s Communist Party lay flowers on Stalin’s grave. Initially displayed embalmed in an open casket next to Lenin’s in the Red Square mausoleum, Stalin’s body was removed several years after his death and buried behind the tomb during a process of de-Stalinisation, as the state sought to dismantle his cult of personality. Nowadays, the tide is turning again, as 38% of Russians regard Stalin as the most outstanding person in history, ahead of Putin and Pushkin. A sobering reminder that history is never finished, but few of the future’s main thinkers will have been incubated in cutting-edge libraries, learning the hardest lessons of the past.