3: Excerpt, Nina Gagen-Torn’s gulag testimony, 1995.
Nina Gagen-Torn (1900-1986) was a Russian and Soviet poet, writer, historian, and ethnographer. During and after the Great Purge (the Soviet Union’s campaign of political repression lasting from 1936 to 1938 and involving widespread surveillance, imprisonment, and executions), she spent the years 1936-1942 in Kolyma labor camps and 1942-1943 in exile, as well as serving prison time in 1947-1952 in Mordovia. She was permanently exiled to the Yenisey River region in 1948 and amnestied in 1954.
Gagen-Torn was an accomplished ethnographer who had served as a researcher at the State Academy of the History of Material Culture, taught Russian and Ostyak languages and geography at the Institute of the Peoples of the North, and researched for the Institute for the Study of the Peoples of the USSR, Soviet Academy of Sciences, and Institute of Anthropology and Ethnography prior to her internment. She applied her ethnographer’s eye to her dire experiences during her time in exile. This excerpt was taken from Memoria, a compilation of diary entries and letters she originally wrote during her exile. In the passage, she describes different expressions of faith (political and religious) among Siberian prisoners. After her exile, Gagen-Torn returned, with much difficulty, to scholarly work, and was a pioneer in the fields of ethnography of the peoples of the Soviet Union, Russian and Bulgarian folklore, and the history of Russian ethnography.
Suggested Activity: Ask your students to discuss: What does this excerpt reveal about the relationship between the prison authorities and the idea of religion? How does that further illuminate the Mash story for your students?
Gagen-Torn writes that she would like to paint the scene that she describes. Invite your students to draw or paint either Gagen-Torn’s scene, or a moment from Mash’s story that they feel shares aspects of Gagen-Torn’s scene. Ask them to explain what emotions they are trying to convey through their artwork.
Source: Nina Gagen-Torn, “On Faith,” in Gulag Voices: An Anthology, ed. Anne Applebaum (Yale University Press, 2011), 79-80.