Gender and Sexuality Gulag Kazakhstan Soviet Era 1917-1991

What’s in a Strikethrough?

Can a simple manuscript strikethrough be a sign of deep affection?

I’m currently writing a book on Alzhir, a special Gulag camp division designed to hold women arrested during the so-called Great Terror of 1937-1938 as “family members of traitors to the motherland.” These women largely came from families of the political and cultural elite of Soviet society and were arrested for no crime other than being the spouses of men arrested and usually executed during the terror.

My book will be based in part on careful readings of a sizable corpus of Alzhir survivor memoirs. Mostly unpublished, the memoir typescripts often contain handwritten additions, deletions, and corrections. Mostly, the edits are minor, focused on typos and other proofreading minutia. At times, though, they ooze potential, if not easily discernible, meaning.

First, a little background. Tamara Tanina was married to one of Nikita Khrushchev’s assistants in 1937. (Khrushchev was then Party boss in Moscow.) Her husband was arrested and executed in mid-1937, and she was arrested in early 1938 as a “family member of a traitor to the motherland.” Initially sent to Alzhir, Tamara survived her Gulag experience and in the early 1960s wrote In Those Years, a memoir that like many others was sent to the Communist Party’s Central Committee during Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization. [1. These memoirs, including Tamara Tanina’s, are discussed in Nanci Adler’s Keeping Faith With the Party: Communist Believers Return from the Gulag.]

The two-volume unpublished typescript memoir found in the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History tells an engaging, often moving story about her experience in the camps, personal relationships, conditions, work, etc. [1. Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI), fond 560, opis 1, delo 37. The memoir consists of two volumes. All parenthetical citations here refer to the handwritten archival page number in the first volume.] Of particular interest given the widespread taboos of Russian Gulag memoirs, Tamara describes what she calls her “unusual friendship” in Alzhir with Pavla (Pavlusha) Eletskaia. Tamara is at times reticent to describe this relationship as romantic, and at other times easily recalls how Pavlusha “tenderly kissed me.” (148) Same-sex relationships in the Gulag are uncommonly discussed in Gulag memoirs, and when they are it is particularly rare that they are first-person told with a tone of tender remembrance rather than third-person accounts told with a tone of moral revulsion. [1. Adi Kuntsman describes memoirists’ “lack of sympathy for–and often an active disgust and scorn towards–same sex relations in the camps.” Figurations of Violence and Belonging: Queerness, Migranthood, and Nationalism in Cyberspace and Beyond, Peter Lang, 2009, p. 54.] Tamara’s recollections of Pavlusha are decidedly in the tender mode, at times moving in their description of brief, warm, summer moments when they could “luxuriate…hugging each other…under the low Kazakhstani skies full of especially bright and large stars.” (152) It is clear that Tamara really loved Pavlusha. Although they were soon separated to different camp divisions, they stayed friends even in the years after they were released from the camps. (Nothing indicates that their post-Gulag relationship was still of a romantic nature.)

It is at the moment of their separation that the fascinating strikethrough appears in the manuscript. Tamara writes that she was suddenly transferred from the Alzhir subdivision of the Karlag labor camp to the Dolinka division. She had been diagnosed with an unspecified gynecological medical condition and was presumably shipped to Dolinka to see a gynecologist there for emergency surgery. When she arrived in Dolinka, the doctor told her that she had no problem requiring surgery. This led Tamara to suspect there might have been other motives for her transfer. She wrote:

Was it possible that the camp leadership perceived something unnatural in the type of friendship that I had with Pavlusha? And perhaps they were right. Later, recalling our affection for one another, I felt that my feelings for her bore the seeds of an unhealthy attraction. (155)

Had Tamara Tanina’s memoir been published, the latter two sentences may have been left on the cutting room floor, and we would not even know about them. In the typescript, the sentences absent presence is fascinating.

Page from Tamara Tanina's Typescript Memoir with Strikethrough
Page from Tamara Tanina’s Typescript Memoir with Strikethrough

In fact, it is tempting as a historian to read a great deal into the strikethrough, but what exactly? The romantic in me wants to tell the story that Tamara wrote the lines with an eye toward the Party’s expectations at a moment when she was trying to get her life back in the midst of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization. Then, when rereading the typed manuscript, the passionate memory of her tenderest and most affectionate relationship drove her to strike the offending sentences with gusto and submit the memoir to the Central Committee without remorse.[1. Although she continually professes her love for her executed husband in the memoir, it is also clear that he was abusive toward her.]

Of course, this may not at all be the proper reading of something so inscrutable as a strikethrough. If Tamara wrote these lines just for Party consumption–just to express her condemnation of a taboo relationship–why did she write at such length about her relationship with Pavlusha in the first place? How do we even know it was even Tamara who crossed out the sentences?

Gender and Sexuality Russian Space History Soviet and Russian Space Flight Soviet Science

Russian Space History — Soviet Women in STEM Fields

Ogenek, June 1963

In a comment to my last posting, Asif noted that in “group photos of Soviet engineering teams from the 1950s and 1960s involved in the space program, there are a surprisingly high number of women in the pictures, surprising given their near-absence in the cosmonaut corps.” He wondered how many women in the 1950s and 1960s were, in fact, involved in science and engineering fields.

Pionerskaia Pravda March 1963
Pionerskaia Pravda, March 1963

As I noted in previous publications, the 1970 all-union census reported that more Soviet women than ever before were engineering-technical workers, their number more than doubling in ten years from 1.63 to 3.75 million.[i] Women’s influence in science and technology was evidenced, too, by increases in the number of higher degrees they earned in science, engineering, and technology fields. Official statistics published in 1975 confirmed that the number of female researchers among science personnel in the USSR had increased dramatically in the post-war period, from 59,000 in 1950 to just shy of 129,000 in 1960 to nearly 465,000 in 1974.[ii] That said, a 1971 study that broke down female accomplishment by branch of science showed that women in physics and math still lagged considerably behind men in the attainment of advanced degrees.[iii] And yet, it is significant to note that three out of four women awarded candidate and doctoral degrees in the 1971-73 period were in the natural and applied sciences.[iv]

Cold War Gender and Sexuality Russian Space History Soviet and Russian Space Flight

Russian Space History — Dreams in Orbit

Murzilka_Jan65In an oft-quoted remark, Svetlana Boym asserted that “Soviet children of the 1960s did not dream of becoming doctors and lawyers, but cosmonauts (or, if worse came to worst, geologists.” [1. Svetlana Boym, “Kosmos: Rememberences of the Future, in Kosmos: A Portrait of the Russian Space Age, Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001, 83.] This illustration from a December 1960 issue of the children’s magazine, Murzilka, suggests that even before Yuri Gagarin’s leap into the cosmos, Soviet children’s culture was compelling the USSR’s youngest citizens to commit their dreams to the stars.

As Monica Rüthers pointed out in a recent article, in the aftermath of Sputnik and Gagarin, the twin catapults of celebrity and propaganda bombarded children with irresistible images of success and personal possibility: “The strong and meaningful motifs of ‘childhood’ and ‘cosmos’ were used in combination,” Rüthers argues. “In their symbolic meaning, these iconographic motifs signified the belief in the country’s leading role in the future of mankind.” [2. Monica Rüthers, “Children and the Cosmos as Projects of the Future and Ambassadors of Soviet Leadership,” in Eva Maurer, et. al., eds., Soviet Space Culture: Cosmic Enthusiasm in Socialist Societies, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 206.]


In his initial posting to this conversation, Asif Siddiqi asked us to consider (among other things) “the co-production of imagination and engineering in Soviet space culture” and, more specifically, “the challenges of drawing connections between popular discourse and real world changes.” When it came to imagining their future selves, at least some among the first generation of space age children believed that they were living in a time and place where their dreams would come true. Consider the following excerpt from a letter written to Valentina Tereshkova by a girl in Irkutsk oblast:

I just finished the 4th grade, so at the moment I can’t think about a flight to the cosmos. Your deed made me very glad. I hope that when I grow up the success of our science and technology will stride far beyond the limits of outer space and in time no doubt there will be a flight for tourists to other planets. How fortunate that I live in this century, when my native people are capable of space flight and I know that my dream will also come true. [3. RGAE, f. 9453, op. 2, ed. khr. 151, p. 46-46ob]

Films Gender and Sexuality Nostalgia and Memory Post-Soviet Russia

Miss Gulag

Our university is holding a Russian documentary film series. We showed one of the films that I reviewed here earlier ( Our next film is called Miss Gulag, produced in 2007 and directed by Maria Yatskova (for an interview with the director see Sean Guillory’s

This fascinating documentary tells the improbable tale of a beauty pageant set in a modern-day Russian prison, one of 35 women’s prisons across the Russian Federation. The story of this documentary is simple enough. A group of young women in a Siberian prison – all of whom have come of age in post-Soviet Russia – stage a beauty pageant.

Gender and Sexuality Imperial Russia Medieval Russia Teaching Russian History

Policing Sexuality in Medieval Russia

The Center for Medieval Studies has a very visible presence at Fordham University where I teach. In the history department alone, medievalist faculty and graduate students maintain a healthy and vibrant intellectual life. Although I am a historian of modern Russia—most of my work has focused on the 19th and 20th centuries—I have found myself drawn into broader historical debates relevant to Medievalists that may be unfamiliar to modernists. Recently I’ve been preparing a lecture for a pedagogical series run by the Medieval Studies Program on “Teaching Medieval Russia.” I was motivated to do this partly out of curiosity to excavate some of my training in graduate school (where one of my fields was medieval Russia) but also to prepare myself to teach such a course next year. As I got deeper into preparing for both the lecture and the course, I found myself faced with two pedagogical challenges. First, what strategies can historians of modern Russia who are less comfortable with premodern times use to effectively cover medieval Russia? And second, how can teaching about medieval Russia benefit from the concerns of medievalists writ large? There’s no way to do justice to both of these topics in a short blog post, but I thought I would look at one particular facet of social history that may serve to highlight some of the challenges—gender and sexuality.

Early on I realized that there was a seeming disconnect between the concerns of the majority of Medievalists (loosely defined as those who focus on the remnants of the Roman Empire in the West) and those who study the vibrant Greek and Slavic cultures connected to the eastern Byzantine Empire. At the same time, historians who tend to look at social issues (such as gender and sexuality) ask similar questions and draw upon analogous records, especially those pertaining to canon law (patristics, legislation from ecumenical councils, penitentials, etc.). As a starting point, there was no better source to highlight both these contrasts and commonalities than Eve Levin’s classic 1989 tome Sex and Society in the World of Orthodox Slavs, 900-1700. Levin’s work is ambitious in scope and scale, deploying types of sources that most medieval historian of gender or of (Western) canon law would find familiar, even though the specific contexts of such sources may be entirely foreign.