Gulag Love

In chapter 15 of her book Gulag: A History, Anne Applebaum writes about prisoners who sought love in the camps, and sometimes found it, albeit via unconventional means.

So desperately did people deprived of everything long for sentimental relationships that some became deeply involved in Platonic love affairs, conducted by letter. This was particularly the case in the late 1940s, in the special camps for political prisoners, where male and female prisoners were kept strictly apart. In Minlag, one such camp, men and women prisoners sent notes to one another via their colleagues in the camp hospital, which was shared by both sexes. Prisoners also organized a secret "mailbox" in the railway work zone where the women's brigades labored. Every few days, a
woman working on the railroad would pretend to have forgotten a coat, or other object, go to the mailbox, pick up what letters had been sent, and leave letters in return. One of the men would pick them up later. There were other methods too: "At a specific time, a chosen person in one of the zones would throw letters from men to women or women to men. This was the 'postal service.' "

Such letters, remembered Leonid Sitko, were written on tiny pieces of paper, with tiny letters. Everyone signed them with false names: his was "Hamlet," his girlfriend's was "Marsianka." They had been "introduced" through other women, who had told him she was extremely depressed, having had her small baby taken away from her after her arrest. He began to write to her, and they even managed to meet once, inside an abandoned mine.

Others developed even more surreal methods in their quest for some kind of intimacy. In the Kengir special camp, there were prisoners--almost all politicals, deprived of all contact with their families, their friends, and the wives and husbands they had left back home--who developed elaborate relationships with people they had never met. Some actually married one another across the wall that divided the men's and women's camps, without ever meeting in person. The woman stood on one side, the man on the other; vows were said, and a prisoner priest recorded the ceremony on a
piece of paper.

This kind of love persisted, even when the camp administration raised the wall, covered it with barbed wire, and forbade prisoners to go near it. In describing these blind marriages even Solzhenitsyn momentarily drops the cynicism he applies to almost all other camp relationships: "In this marriage with an unknown person on the other side of a wall ... I hear a choir of angels. It is like the unselfish, pure contemplation of heavenly bodies, It is too lofty for this age of self-interested calculation and hopping-up-and-down jazz..."

Each year, we publish articles detailing the darkside of human nature that asserted itself in communist societies. Yet prisoners somehow managed to find moments of joy in slave labor camps. Their platonic love stories are a testament to the strength of the human spirit.

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