A Gulag Diary Counters Evil With Wit and Love

Posted January 3, 2018 7:23 p.m. EST

MOSCOW — For nearly 70 years, Olga M. Ranitskaya’s exceptional palm-sized diary, bound in snakeskin, slumbered in obscurity.

Combining whimsical drawings with clever rhyming couplets, the diary — more graphic novel than ordinary journal — portrays the physical and emotional hardships of a spirited stick figure, the author’s alter ego.

What makes this diary unique is that Ranitskaya created it while incarcerated in the Gulag, the Soviet system of forced labor camps where, at its height, Josef Stalin imprisoned millions of people from the 1930s to the 1950s. The Gulag inspired famous literary accounts, such as the works by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov, but they were all written after the authors were released. Ranitskaya’s diary is believed to be the only one written inside the camps to have survived.

How the diary emerged reads like a detective story, with Zoya Eroshok, a prominent Russian journalist, spending years piecing together the identity of its author and her fate. The saga is the subject of the new exhibition “Evidence: Little Book,” which runs through Feb. 8 at the Gulag History Museum in Moscow. The exhibition arrives as Russia stands at a crossroads in its attitude toward the darker reaches of its recent history. The government just unveiled the first national monument to the victims of political repression, and the revitalized Gulag History Museum, which moved to a larger building in 2015, has been recording the recollections of remaining survivors.

But attitudes toward Stalin and his terror have become far more tolerant, not least because the Kremlin has recast his time as head of the Soviet Union with a certain nostalgia. President Vladimir Putin does not deny Stalin’s repressions, but there has been a new emphasis on his legacy as an “efficient manager.”

Organizers of the exhibition consider the diary so important because it puts a human face on past crimes.

Getting caught with a pen and paper in the Gulag was sufficient grounds for execution. Keeping a diary was “particularly impossible,” said Irina S. Ostrovskaya, the senior archivist at Memorial, the Russian civil rights organization founded to establish a record of the victims of Soviet political repression.

Ranitskaya persevered for almost two years, across 115 pages, drawing the small, spunky figure mostly in black and white.

The author began the diary in 1941 — the date written on the first page — while she was working at a weather station that served the farming operations of the sprawling Karlag labor camp in Kazakhstan.

The diary features the misadventures of camp life experienced by the stick figure called the “Little Weather Devil.” Drawn in the style of pre-revolutionary comics, each page depicts a theme, like hunger or fear, or illustrates specific, often emotional moments, from the tragedy of losing a coat in a harsh climate to the joy of finding a she-wolf for a pet. On some pages, the figure contemplates existential questions or the vagaries of fate. The diary frequently references Russian literature, including poets Pushkin and Lermontov, as well as Latin axioms. The title of the diary, “Work and Days,” came from an epic poem of Hesiod, a Greek poet, from around 700 B.C., which discussed corruption, honesty and justice.

The couplets are difficult to translate, particularly the more philosophical musings. They are often word plays or otherwise ambiguous.

“It reveals a very good knowledge of the language and literature, but it is often hard to tell what she means,” said Dmitry A. Belanovsky, who translated parts of the diary into English. He thinks the ambiguity was insurance in case the guards found the diary.

The Gulag History Museum published a copy of the diary in a small, handsome volume that also includes reproductions of newspaper articles about its discovery, the record of Ranitskaya’s interrogation when she was arrested and some longer poems that she wrote later. It took some eight years to pull it all together.

In February 2009, Eroshok, a founding editor of Novaya Gazeta, a liberal newspaper, received the diary from a woman in Siberia whose own mother had spirited it out of the camp in 1946. The only thing the woman remembered being told about the book was that it had been written by a woman named Olga, that she might have worked at the weather station and that she probably died in late 1942, when the diary ended.

Eroshok found the diary stunning and wondered about its author. “She responded to this evil with something of quality, the quality of the drawing, the quality of the language and the quality of strong and positive feelings: her love for her son, her love of life, her love for people,” Eroshok said. “I had this deep sense of responsibility that I had to find something out about this woman, tell her story somehow.” The journalist thumbed through the tiny volume repeatedly, seeking clues.

The author had dedicated the diary to her son, Sasha. Maybe he was still alive? The diary’s first entry shows the stick figure sitting atop a weather station, staring out over the fields. The words suggest the figure is yearning for distant Ukraine. Did Sasha live in Ukraine?

Another page contained a list of six weather station employees. Only one was female, Ranitskaya. (In Russian, a surname often reveals a person’s gender.) Could that be Olga?

Eroshok wrote to the archives of 15 secret police agencies, courts and other organizations in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, requesting information about one Olga Ranitskaya. The central archives wrote back that they had no information. Her quest was a typical example of how difficult it can be to verify information about the victims of Soviet brutality.

Frustrated, she wrote an article in Novaya Gazeta about her hunt, and clues trickled in. She got lucky.

In Israel, Inna A. Nogotovich, a Russian immigrant occasionally nostalgic for her home culture, read the article by chance and got in touch with Eroshok. Nogotovich was Ranitskaya’s niece, and she filled in many blanks.

Then Eroshok heard from an even more unexpected quarter. Vasily Khristoforov, then head of the notoriously secretive archives of the FSB, or Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the Soviet secret police, offered to help. He contacted several security agency archives, including one in Ukraine, and obtained the records of Ranitskaya’s interrogation after her arrest.

From this, Eroshok was able to piece the story together. Ranitskaya was a Ukrainian Jew born in Kiev in 1905 to two professionals. The family name was Rabinovich, which she eventually changed. Ending her education early, she married a Communist Party official and had a son, Sasha, in 1925. She divorced and married another party official.

She was arrested in 1937, during Stalin’s Great Purge, charged on the dubious grounds of spying for Poland and sentenced to five years in a labor camp. She ended up serving nine. Her first husband, who was also arrested, was executed.

While his mother was in the camp, Sasha stayed with his grandmother. In 1942, at age 16, unable to bear the taunts from his schoolmates that his mother was a prisoner, he committed suicide. Eroshok believes that several blank, numbered pages at the end of the diary signal the author’s grief when she learned that her son was dead.

Ranitskaya was forced to remain in exile like many former camp inmates until after Stalin’s death in 1953. She worked in a clinic and wrote a book of poetry before dying in Kiev in 1988. Some mysteries endure, and Eroshok's work is not finished. Ranitskaya was reportedly an exceptional beauty, but Eroshok has never found a picture. “I think it’s very important when there’s this book, when there’s this life, that there be a face,” she said.

She and Roman V. Romanov, the director of the Gulag History Museum, put a slightly different emphasis on the diary’s value.

Romanov believes that Russia must get past the arguments over how many millions Stalin killed and focus instead on the fate of ordinary people. “This is a game with abstract terms,” he said. “What is important is to return to people’s fate and allow the viewers to be part of someone’s life.”

For Eroshok, the book is testament to Ranitskaya outliving the system that sought to erase her.

She has managed to rescue herself from oblivion, Eroshok said, and the diary is not just evidence, but a form of revenge against Stalin for all his victims.

“He wanted them to be wiped off the face of the earth,” she said. “Well, now he is gone, but this book remains.”