When Books Save your Life

You certainly did not have to be a poet or an intellectual to be suppressed, threatened or murdered by fascism or communism – but it helped.    Dressed for a Dance in the Snow by Monika Zgustova is the somewhat euphemistic title describing the lives of nine female survivors of the gulag;   stories of those who faced the worst oppression of Stalin’s murderous regime and yet survived. 

Thank you to  @What’s Non-Fiction where I found this title.


Dressed For A Dance In The Snow by Zgustova & Monika

Sometimes painful to read of course –yet this book is not at all depressing. Quite the opposite. How did some survive when so many others couldn’t?  Answer: we don’t know.  But if there is  a communal thread running through these interviews it is a passion for  poetry; books, culture.

That said, being arguably one of the greatest Russian poets of twentieth century wasn’t going to save you as Nadezdha Mandelstam the widow of Osip Mandelstahm could testify.  That was only a greater danger. Zgustova’s decision to interview only female survivors of the regime came as a result of her feeling that their stories have been less documented that their male counterparts.

Elena Korybut-Daszkiewicz Markova, one of the interviewees in Dressed for a Dance

who spent more than ten years in the mines of Vorkuta showed the author a copy of one of Pushkin’s books published in 1905.

“You can’t imagine what a book meant to the prisoners:  it was salvation! Beauty, liberty, and civilisation in the midst of total barbarity!”

Zgustova writes “most historians estimate that 30 million people were killed by Stalin’s regime”  people were condemned for being ‘anti-soviet agitators’ often on the basis of hearsay or for being related to someone who was considered a threat.  Another story the author relates is that of Zayara Vesyolaya, whose mother (a nurse) was taken away by the authorities for being overheard telling someone to try and get hold of American anti-biotics because they worked quicker to combat infection than medicines available there.

Why do history’s darkest moments continue to have a hold on us?    The holocaust, the gulag.  Yes there is the imperative of ‘lest we forget’.   But memory is about something that has happened in the past.    There is in these stories something which is not of the past, but the present – and the future.  More than this, fascism tests the limits of endurance of the human spirit.  To put it another way, as Zgustova says “… I realized that there is no situation, no matter how awful, that we cannot survive.”  Maybe it is the stories of those who have faced down history’s worst moments and lived that we find endlessly fascinating, but surviving or not, it is not death itself, but the passing on of a message which is vital.

Curiously, despite the horrors of captivity they endured,  some of the women interviewed for Zgustova’s book reported that they felt their lives would have been incomplete without the experience of the camps, finding refuge in a level of friendship which perhaps would have been less likely without the commonality of those circumstances.

Valentina Iyevleva reported that a brutal beating she received from the camp guards resulted in her being sent to the barracks infirmary.  Whilst there she discovered an old copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  Amazed because books were forbidden, she read it in secret. Four times.

“When she left the gulag she filled the room she was renting with books up to the ceiling.”

I said this was not a depressing book and it is not.  What is depressing, however, is how history repeats itself.




In 2013 a young Russian woman named Maria Alyokhina wrote in a court statement:

“I came to court for all those who have no rights, for all those who have no voice, for those who are deprived of their voices, by those who have the power to do so.”

Maria Alyokhina, was a member of the girl band Pussy Riot who played music in a Church and managed to get Putin and his cronies very cross.  Where, I wonder as I read,  do these young women get the courage to fight atrocious regimes?  Where the determination?

Alyokhina wrote in her book Riot Days which I have previously written about

“The first book that robbed me of two days’ sleep, because I read it cover to cover, was Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov.

Oh, and this:

“We were reading Alexsander Vvedensky, a poet who was murdered by Stalin on a convoy somewhere between Kharkov and Kazan on its way to a penal colony.”


I am currently reading:  Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China. By Leta Hong Fincher (Verso, 2018)

in China young Women are being villified imprisoned and tortured for complaining about sexual harassment in the workplace.   Leta Hong Fincher writes in Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China.  Although this book focuses on ‘The Feminist Five’ as they have come to be known, young female activists bravely campaigning for gender equality in modern China.  Even a campaign to highlight systemic sexism in the provision of public lavatories (a situation which exists in many other countries and which has been written about by Caroline Criado Perez) is somehow seen as anti-communist.

How does that work? What are they so afraid of?   What is it about gender equality that some 21st century governments find so scary? As Hong Fincher points out,  this is particularly ironic in the case of China where the Mao era Communist Party promoted and celebrated female equality as one of its policies.  From the 1950s to the l970s however, gender inequality deepened.

Authoritarian regimes feed on fear and submission.  That’s how they operate. Although this book is about China, its lessons are for all of us.


Finally, something nearer home for me.  The battle between the Welsh and English.  No I do not speak of Owain Glyndwr, the last Prince of Wales who wasn’t actually English (or German),  although we sang songs about him and still do, Marwnad yr Ehedydd the skylark who has died up on the mountain.

I have come across this delightful collection of essays published by indie press Parthian Books called ‘Just so you Know’.  These essays deal with a range of human experience from young people growing up and living with the feeling of being different whether in gender, in race, in language.

What is now loosely termed ‘identity’ politics will hopefully benefit those young enough to be part of a discussion and a change from the ground up, rather than an institutional (or military) enforcement as has happened throughout history and is still happening in many parts of the globe.

We are as we speak.   Our language defines us, the language of the nursery, of mother’s songs, our first known comforts.  We wouldn’t wish those things taken away from us, yet for many, in 20th century Wales this is what happened.

Isabel Adonis writes in her excellent essay*  at school in Llandudno in the 1970s :

“I learnt prayers, songs and much more.  I could only speak a little Welsh but I could understand a good deal.  For me there was no ‘English’ or ‘Welsh’ just this mix of language without borders.”

This all changed by the time she got to Bangor University..

“Linguistic frontier lines between Welsh and English were being drawn… despite my Welsh upbringing, I was no longer Welsh enough.  I was now ‘other’.

In the 21st century there is change in Wales, a real chance for youngsters not to be submerged by colonial thinking and to learn their Welsh language and ways.  Although as the writer points out defence of a native culture – or what is imagined to be such –  sadly tends  to  ‘marginalisation and not the Welsh that ordinary people speak.’



* “Colonial Thinking, Education, Politics, Language and Race…From the Personal to the Political”

4 thoughts on “When Books Save your Life

  1. What an incredible review. I was also moved by the fact that they gave this impression as well, that their lives wouldn’t have been complete without the experience of the camps. And I agree, the most depressing part is how history repeats. Great to read your take on this.