Stephen F. Cohen


On his book The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin

Cover Interview of February 14, 2011

The wide angle

While I focus on individuals, The Victims Return has a wide angle or broad context.

The book begins with a short overview of Stalin’s mass terror, from 1929 to 1953, and then follows the saga of survivors from their liberation from the Gulag, under Khrushchev in the 1950s, through their attempts to salvage what remained of their shattered professional and personal lives during the years and even decades ahead.

The book also tells the story of what the poet Anna Akhmatova called “the two Russias”—the struggle between the returning victims and the people who had participated in their victimization.  Since millions of Soviet citizens were involved on both sides, the book is both political and social history, as well as human saga. Photograph of an NKVD execution squad in 1936.  (From David King’s Ordinary Citizens, reproduced in the book on page 45.)

I came upon this little-known story almost by chance—though Russians who knew me said it was my “fate” to write it.  And I came upon it not in books or archive documents, but in barely visible realms of Russian life.

Doing scholarly research several months a year in Moscow in the 1970s, I found myself living, through mutual Russian friends, among a large number of Gulag survivors.  They, and through them many other terror-era victims, began telling me their stories and especially accounts of their liberation and return to society.

Though it took me thirty years to finally publish the book, I knew even then I had to write it.  That’s why The Victims Return, though it also relies on considerable formal research, is substantially autobiographical: I knew personally, and often well, many of the victims I write about.  The reviewer for The New Yorker called the book a “memoir”—but it is far from that in the full sense.