Films Gulag Soviet Era 1917-1991

The Way Back: Cold War Emotions Revived?


Just before Christmas I saw the newly released The Way Back, in many ways a typical escape story. Directed by Peter Weir, the film tells the incredible story of how a young Polish officer, arrested in 1939 and sent to the Siberian Gulag, plots his escape – and with a small band of fellow inmates – manages not only to make it out of the camp, but also through Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, and the Himalayas to India. Along the way they face many of the knotty moral issues characteristic of the genre: Should they wait for weakened members of the group? When must they rest, and when battle on? And can they risk letting a newcomer – in this case, a young girl Polish also on the run – join them? There are some nice touches: I particularly like the way the girl acts as a go-between, passing on information about the men which they are too buttoned-up to share amongst themselves. 

Historical films always, inevitably, raise questions of authenticity, particularly when they relate to such politically sensitive topics as the Gulag and the Second World War. Watching the film I had mixed responses. In terms of the depiction of the labour camp itself the makers have done an excellent job. The crowded barracks, the prisoners’ brutal exertion in the mines, their desperate attitude towards food all seemed to ring true with many survivors’ memoirs.  The domination of camp life by the tattooed, card-playing “professional criminals” – who are nonetheless hungry for stories from the better-educated political prisoners – is particularly well done. These hellish early scenes are strikingly similar to some of Danzig Baldaev’s sketches (pictured here) which have recently come out in an excellent volume from Fuel.

Drawing by Danzig Baldaev. On the left, an 'enemy of the people', killed after trying to escape, is delivered back to the Gulag prison camp by a group of convicts and guards. On the right, a criminal kills a "calf" during a prison escape.

But the question of authenticity for many viewers will go deeper. Was it possible for prisoners to escape? And could they survive? Archival records show that escape attempts did happen; and the Gulag authorities were concerned about the increase in escape attempts in 1941.[1. See Vladimir Kozlov’s introduction in V. A. Kozlov, ed., Istoriia Stalinskogo Gulaga: Konets 1920-kh–pervaia polovina 1950-kh godov, vol. 6: Vosstaniia, bunty i zabastovki zakliuchennykh (Moscow, 2004), 25–100, p. 50; Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (London and New York, 2003), p.359.] As the film effectively demonstrates, it was not just the guards who kept the prisoners in check, but also the harsh environment. Whether or not they could have made the long and treacherous journey which makes up the bulk of the film is questionable. The movie is based on the memoirs of Slavomir Rawicz, a Polish survivor, whose story has been challenged. The book sold over half a million copies and has been translated into 25 languages.[2. Hugh Levinson, “Walking The Talk?,” 30 October 2006.] After his memoirs came out in 1956 Rawicz was both accused of fabricating an impossible story, and championed as a hero. In an early review, a geographer took him to task for writing an account of his journey which, he claimed, was contradicted by the topographical realities of the region.[3. E. Shipton, “Fact- Or Fantasy?,” The Geographical Journal, 122, 3 (1956), 370-372.] In 2006, archival research for a Radio 4 documentary suggested that Rawicz had in fact been released as part of a 1942 amnesty for Polish prisoners, and the producer concluded that “[t]hese papers make it almost impossible to believe that Rawicz escaped, unless there is a case of mistaken identity.”[4. Levinson, “Walking The Talk?.”] Rawicz’s defenders are still vocal however, particularly in the wake of the film. On a “Slavomir Rawicz message board,” one contributor writes: “I too have a copy of The Long Walk Slav sent to me inscribed with his message: Never forget the precious heritage of freedom. I corresponded sporadically with him for two decades – from the early 70s when I first read his book and was so gripped by his story to some time just before he died. I still have (and cherish) all his correspondence […] I never for one minute have doubted his story.”

My purpose here is not to argue whether it was true or not, but a slightly different one. Why does this survival story appeal so much, despite all the doubts? Why did Rawicz’s memoir produce such a loyal following during his lifetime? And what does the need to make a film of his story now, seventy years on, suggest?

In many ways the original memoir fitted into Cold War mentalities: it not only gave an unremitting picture of the cruelty of the Soviet prison camp system, but also documented the power of individuals to overcome the brutality of a “totalitarian” state. In the memoir, the escapees are Poles, Balts, and an American. It is certainly possible that foreign prisoners, cherishing a clear sense of homeland to which they could aim, were more likely to try escape, but the ethnic composition of the groups also helps create a powerful narrative: representatives of small, vanquished countries (and accompanied by an American) ultimately triumph over the Russian goliath.

Although the film-makers gave themselves some licence to adapt the plot and the characters this aspect of the narrative is preserved in The Way Back. In the film, a Russian prisoner is added to the band of escapees, but unlike the others he is not an innocent victim, instead a hardened criminal with no qualms about wielding his knife. One of the few sympathetic Russian characters in the original memoir, the wife of a camp commander, who helps Rawicz with the escape plan, is removed entirely from the film version.

The Russian government is sensitive about the country’s history, as Medvedev’s creation of a “commission against historical falsity” two years ago showed. The seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War led to a bitter polemic over Stalin’s role, in which Medvedev accused the Baltic and Ukrainian governments, and also the EU organizations which backed them, of revisionism, saying that there could be no debate at all over “who started the war, which country killed people, and which country saved people, millions of people, and which country, ultimately, saved Europe.”[5. Luke Harding, “The war? Nothing to do with Stalin, says Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev,” The Guardian, 31 August 2009.] However inadvertently, this film will perhaps revive Russian concerns that an outside world wants to see them only as aggressors, never as victims. It will be interesting to chart responses to The Way Back which was released in Moscow on 3 February.

6 replies on “The Way Back: Cold War Emotions Revived?”

I just discovered the Russian History Blog and your review of Weir’s
The way back and its reception in Russia. Great initiative and very
interesting comments on the film. I haven’t seen it, as it is still
not in the theaters here in Germany, but I certainly will as soon as
it is out.

The question of the authenticity of Rawicz’s story reminds me of other
Gulag (and Soviet) memoirs’. You say you are not primarily interested
in this question in your paper, so I don’t want to bother you with it.
But I wonder if it’s not possible to look into it. Classically, Gulag
memoirs are seen in the context of European leftists denying their
accuracy (think of Kravchenko’s account of prisoners working in his
fabric in I chose freedom and of several processes around the question
in France in the 1940s-1950s), and then repenting in the 1970s in
front of the self-imposing genuineness of Solzhenitsyn’s Archipelago.
You may remember Judt’s book Past imperfect on French intellectuals.

But maybe there is more to the authenticity issue as this usual
narrative gives to believe? Maybe it could bear some analytical fruits
to look at the sometimes enduring debates about credibility,
truthfulness, and authenticity of some of the well-known first-person
accounts of the Soviet Union? One way to do that is to analyze how the
Cold War culture frames the debate: The penal system becomes an
important feature in East-West competition in the 1950s (who has the
most progressive prison system?). Revelation about the Gulag after the
war plays here a propaganda role, as in Germany and Austria accounts
of late-Stalinist camps appeared with the release of prisoners of war.
Another way would be to consider Gulag narratives as ego narratives,
not as documentary accounts of reality and understand why the claim of
authenticity made by publishers, authors, and enthusiastic readers is
so central in the debates over the value of those narratives (value as
literary work, value as account of Soviet reality). Here is Rawicz’s
story quite amazing: not sure if this escape is real, but why bother?
It’s such a nice tale of freedom.

Maybe you have seen <a href=" ” title=”Anne Applebaum’s comment”>Anne Applebaum’s comment on the film?
I don’t feel convinced by her argumentation about why there are so few films
on the Gulag and why one of the first fictions on the Gulag comes out
only in 2010 (hard to imagine Hollywood influenced
by European leftists). But the question of authenticity may give a
hint: the authenticity debate paralyzed creation. Now it is gone, no
one expresses that there was no Gulag. The necessity to denounce the
Gulag is gone. And the necessity to document the Gulag in documentary films recessed, too. That’s why film makers can take over the Gulag world as
a field for creation and fiction. So whether Rawicz’s account is real
or not became irrelevant.

The funny thing, however: The producers still advertise the film as a
“real” story (though in a mild form: “inspired by real events” is
written on the poster). The fascination with authenticity may not be
to an end.

I just saw a film on Amazon about Joseph Stalin’s daughter, “Svetlana About Svetlana” and it gives an interesting point of view from Svetlana Alliluyeva on her father as a man and the time. Apparently, her defection to the West was a big victory in the Cold War and her memoir book “20 Letters to a Friend” became a bestseller in the late 60s. If you look at the way Governments dealt and still dealing with each other, it is a PR war that everyone wants to win.

I’ve been interested for a while in the way that survivors construct their
narratives about the Gulag i.e. how they make sense of it as an experience,
what kind of language they use, how they fit it into their wider life story,
but I’ve not thought about this much in terms of reader response, nor at all in
terms of the effect of the publishing industry and the market. It would be
worthwhile to explore why certain memoirs have become ‘classics’ in the West
and others not. Now you mention it I think it’s odd that there isn’t much
written on the question of western reception to memoirs.

Until I looked into it I hadn’t realised what a following Rawicz had. After I
posted the blog, one of my (mature) undergraduates emailed me and said that
he had recently been on a course where participants were asked to name the book which had had the most effect them and he said The Long Walk. Some of the chatrooms devoted to discussion of the The Long Walk / The Way Back are fascinasting: for lots of people this particular memoir seems to have been a transformational text. I think the reason is that compared to other Gulag memoirs there is real sense of hope; not just hope provided by the Soviet government in the form of release after Stalin’s death, but hope which comes from the power of the individual human will to overcome evil (communist) regimes.

In terms of the authenticity question. I know that there is quite a lot of
theoretical literature on Holocaust memoirs which have been denounced as fakes
but I don’t know of any work on Soviet equivalents. But then apart from Rawicz, have any accounts which have been challenged in quite the same way?
I guess in the blog when I said I wanted to avoid the question of authenticity
it was more that I find it impossible to judge whether it was true or not. More easy to tackle is the question of reception and the ongoing need for their accounts to be true. You said that the necessity to denounce the Gulag is gone but I’m not entirely convinced of that. I’m thinking about people like Martin Amis denounce Stalin, and claim that no one has done this sufficiently. And with the case of the
film The Way Back, Applebaum and the director – and also one of the actors I
saw interviewed – admit that there are important fictional elements to the
story but, as you say, the film’s producers then market is as a true
story (as far as they can). Why this is the case is a big question. It could be
outside the realm of politics – stories of survival and human forbearance are
simply more powerful if they are believed to be the truth; or it could be (and
I guess I would argue this) that cold war antipathy to communist regimes
remains, even now long after they’re gone.

What do you think?

Hi Miriam,
I’ve just found the blog. Thank you for your interesting post. I watched this film and to tell the truth I found it outdated with its obvious cold war dichotomy – “Russians” vs. others. It seems PC did not reach Siberia or rather Bulgaria where were shot the “Siberian” scenes.
In general it’s a nice story of a human victory over the relentless system but I am afraid for Russian viewers it might be just one more foreign made “клюква”.
I am personally ready to ignore some usual Hollywood blunders: a chief of the labour camp speaking in Russian with some heavy foreign accent, unskilled swearing of the criminals and labour camp guards etc. What troubles me more is the projection of the Soviet Union as synonym of Russia (and Soviets as Russians) what was again confirmed in your text where you often use “USSR” and “Russia” interchangeably.

I’m currently tweeting Slavomir Rawicz’s The Long Walk as part of a literature project and finding images to accompany tweets which is how I came across your fantastic blog (@SlavomirRawicz). Would you mind if I reblogged this post in April to coincide with the launch of a graphic novel called Dawn of the Unread? The first chapter (8 April) is all about The Long Walk? Best, James

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