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Last Days of the Gulag

Even for those of us who lived before and during the collapse of the Soviet Union with memories of other dissidents who wrote about those times, Levan Berdzenishvili’s Sacred Darkness: Last Days of the Gulag comes as a bit of a jolt. I remember reading Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) in an English translation the year after its release in Russian, in a publication intended for external distribution during a brief Soviet cultural thaw. That was 1963 when I was in Nigeria, and the story of one man’s ultimate humanity in prison in what we then learned was a vast Gulag of forced labor camps could not have been more revealing. We certainly didn’t believe that the Soviet Union was going to collapse. Glasnost and Perestroika would come several decades later.  Hence the surprise of Berdzenishvili’s Sacred Darkness, with its subtitle The Last Days of the Gulag.

A second surprise? The book begins in Washington, D.C., or just outside of it, at Sibley Memorial Hospital where, yes, I have also been a patient—and not in Russia. En route to Cancun, Mexico, during a lay over in Washington, the writer is taken to Sibley because of illnesses in his kidneys and his leg (a skin infection), where—to his surprise—he encounters a doctor who was also in the Gulag. Obviously Berdzenishvili has no health insurance to pay for what is expected to be a rather large medical bill. Forget the fact that this complication (our terrible medical system, especially in regards to non-residents caught here accidentally) is almost uniquely American of all Western countries. What are we going to do? Hold him hostage because he can’t pay for emergency medical services? Send him on to his destination with an infection so contagious that he may die, let alone infect other passengers on his next flight? Let me say that these questions are mine and not the author’s. Fortunately, the attending physician says to Levan, the narrator, that if he will tell him about his years as a dissident, as a political prisoner in the Soviet Union—shortly before its collapse—he will wave the charges for his treatment and, hopefully, prevent him from dying. Yes, his medical complications are that severe.

That arrangement brings Levan to his focus on more than a dozen dissidents incarcerated in Barashevo, Mordovia, housing prisoners from across the Soviet Union—with a heavy concentration from Georgia—just as the Soviet Union is about to collapse. Their situations are not as extreme as those held in prisons in earlier years. They are expected to work, from 7 AM to 4 PM, and during that time sew 92 pairs of mittens, with the remaining time mostly their own. Levan tells us—like other famous political prisoners—that the three years of his incarceration were the best years of his life. Not because of the hardships of the prison, but because of the intellectual simulation he encountered, the men he met, the friendships he developed with dissidents who after the Soviet Union’s collapse became important writers, judges, statesmen, linguists, professors, etc.  They were also important before the collapse—intellectuals, basically arguing for regional and/or ethnic self-identity, independence.

Each chapter of Sacred Darkness is headed with the name of one of men who left his mark on him, followed by background of that specific individual, detailing his enormous talents and expertise. For example, the savant, Zohra, who “smothered the entire prison camp with his calculations. He drove us insane, terrorizing us with six- and seven-digit numbers…he was constantly scribbling calculations.” The birthdays of prisoners, their children and wives, the prisoners’ arrest dates, the birthdays of famous people, both historical and living. “His vast knowledge had neither beginning nor end. Like a supercomputer, he was always plugged-in, constantly doing calculations, running himself ragged.” And—as far as they could tell—all of his calculations were accurate. Levan goes on and on about Zohra’s obsession with phone numbers, especially those that had the digits 2 and 6, providing them with a mystical aura that included prognostications regarding the Soviet Union’s future.

Then there’s Vadim, also a “mathematician by education, but in real life he was a topologist, philologist, philosopher, polyglot, mathematician, physicist, chemist, brainiac, or to put it more succinctly and affectionately—an –ist and an –ian.” He knew “English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Ancient Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit. He was fully versed on questions of general and Indo-European linguistics, especially Romance languages. He was familiar with old and new Georgian linguistics….” His knowledge was so broad that “The entire prison population addressed their most controversial questions to him.” Vadim “was in charge of the special committee that planned cultural and educational activities.” Yes, within the prison these and other incredibly erudite inmates engaged in philosophical discussions comparable to graduate seminars at famous universities.

These are only two of the more than dozen individuals Levan describes in his mesmerizing account of life in one specific prison in the final years of the Gulag archipelago, respectfully, humanely, and mostly with few conflicts among the inmates. All were incarcerated for specific time periods, typically five to seven years, followed by several years of exile from the areas they lived in before they became prisoners. They were inmates predominately from the Baltic areas and the Caucuses, like Levan himself and his younger brother, who are the focus of the final chapters of the book.

Dato—Levan’s younger brother—wasn’t even twenty when he was carted away by the Georgian State Security, followed quickly by Levan himself. That was June 23, 1983. The tentacles of the KGB were extensive. Levan observes, “We’d waited for our arrest just as one waits for death, not seeing any life afterward, so when the uninvited guests came and proceeded to search our apartment, the fact that we were still alive came as a surprise and made us laugh.” Levan’s laughter disturbed the authorities, so he was carted off at the same time. Both were sent to Dubravlag, in Mordovia, and then on to Barashevo, where Levan, being older, tried to protect his younger brother.

What had they done to result in their incarceration? The answer is quite revealing. In 1978, soon after Levan’s marriage, when he was working “in the Greek and Roman library” in Tbilisi, he purchased his first typewriter “a Ukraine-2, near the metro station named after Lenin, in what we called a ‘New’ Department Store, where they asked to see my passport, took a typing sample of all the letters (the KGB didn’t rest, not even in stores), and registered the typewriter in my name. In the box marked ‘intended use,’ they wrote ‘scholarly work.’” But, then, Levan took the typewriter to a near-by shop and had all the letters changed to a Georgian font, and with that typewriter, and a second one, he began producing The Bell Tower, along with his younger brother.

That “publication,” or samizdat of one copy, became the organ of “the underground Georgian Republican Party,” regarded as anti-Soviet because the Communist Party was a single-party system, so any “non-Communist Party was illegal.” Essentially the other dissidents in prison with him were agitating for the same cause: cultural, ethnic, geographical identity, which the Soviet Union feared would lead to independence. Along with Dato, who was only seventeen, their supposed political party consisted of four members. Big threat, or so the KBG regarded them, resulting in their incarceration four years later for a period of three years. Fortunately, the winds were changing and incarceration along with the other dissidents in the Barashevo prison became part of a game: they were “sentenced to waiting.”

Sacred Darkness is the fascinating account of the Soviet Union’s  treatment of its dissidents, its intellectuals, the men who in a normal situation would be regarded as the country’s greatest assets. After his release, Berdzenishvili himself went on to write numerous scholarly books about ancient Greek and Latin literatures, while also serving as a member of the Georgian parliament and director of the Georgian National Library. In spite of the fact that he and the other inmates he describes were not tortured or humiliated the way earlier dissidents had been, Berdzenishvili’s book is a warning: there’s only a thin line separating democratic and autocratic leaders and their desire to lock up those who oppose their worst desires.

Watch carefully. Prevent their rise before it becomes too late.

Sacred Darkness: The Last Days of the Gulag
Levan Berdzenishvili
Trans. by Brian James Baer and Ellen Vayner
Europa Editions, 227 pp., $17

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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