ELKOST International Literary Agency

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Only a Miracle Could Save Us: Life and Survival under Stalin's Terror

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Rights sold to: Germany  - CAMPUS

Only a Miracle Could Save Us: Life and Survival under Stalin's Terror

For many years, we knew next to nothing about the private lives of ordinary Soviet citizens during Stalin’s reign. Until very recently, the social history of the Soviet Union written by Soviet and Western historians alike was limited entirely to the public sphere – politics and ideology, and the collective experience of the ‘Soviet masses’. The individual (insofar as he or she appeared at all) featured mainly as a letter-writer to the Soviet authorities (that is, as a public actor rather than a private person or member of a family).

It was only from the end of the 1980s that the practice of oral history – politically impossible in the earlier Soviet period – began to develop in Russia. Public organizations like Memorial, established in the late 1980s to represent the victims of repression and record their history, took the lead, collecting testimonies from survivors of the Gulag. This was an urgent and important task in the glasnost period because these survivors were disappearing fast and because their memories were practically the only source of reliable information about life inside the camps.

Russian journalist and historian Irina Sherbakova of Memorial in Moscow was one of these who interviewed many Gulag survivors…

For her new book Sherbakova has selected the five life stories, five examples of oral history, each in its own way depicting the inhuman policy of Soviet regime during different stages of Stalin’s reign. Among her protagonists are the biologist who was arrested as a ‘wife of an enemy of the people’ and even in prison remained a convinced follower of the Communist ideology; the young Trotskyist who survived through many Gulag prison camps; the son of a German actress who was pursued solely because of his origin;  the Red Army officer to whom a single joke about Stalin cost career and freedom… Sherbakova begins a book with the story of her own family, with recollections of her grandfather, who was a Bolshevik and a member of the Comintern and later fell into disfavor.


Unlike other East European countries, Russia is not striving for a critical appraisal of its Communist past. A dedicated work of Memorial society members, including Irina Sherbakova, is a rare exception. Sherbakova have definitely chosen the only correct method of presentation, because the terror of Stalinism can not be expressed in abstract numbers. Much more impressive is the presentation of an individual biographies, each reflecting the precarious history of the Soviet Union.