SACRED DARKNESS: THE LAST DAYS OF THE GULAG
by Levan Berdzenishvili
translated from the Russian by Brian James Baer and Ellen Vayner
Europa editions, 240 pages
reviewed by Ryan K. Strader
“As with any book, my book had its own special fate—it was born by mistake,” claims Levan Berdzenishvili, in the opening chapter of Sacred Darkness. Levan wakes up in a hospital, sick and disoriented, with a high fever. He realizes he has some debts to pay before he can jaunt off to Hades. Levan is a specialist in Greek literature, so he doesn’t talk of “dying.” He refers to “my departure to Hades.”
Fortunately, Levan recovers from his fever and decides he has to deal with those debts. His debts have names: Misha, Borya, Vadim, and many others Levan knew when he was a political prisoner in the Soviet Gulag in 1983-1987. (The “Gulag” is a Soviet system of forced labor camps, where people convicted of everything from petty theft to political crimes were sent.)
The first person Levan wants to write about is Arkady Dudkin: “I set pen to paper (or rather, glued myself to a keyboard) not to write a great work of literature or to search for ‘lost time’ (Ah, Proust!) but to rescue a character who was about to disappear. I was fighting to rescue Arkady Dudkin. If it weren’t for me, Arkady would be lost, and no one would ever know that he’d existed and that his life had meaning.” Levan “rescues” fifteen people in Sacred Darkness. Each individual gets their own chapter. While Levan is always the narrator, his recollections of his incarceration are organized around the personalities and stories of these individuals, which he fears will disappear if he does not record what he knows about them. Of course, we learn much about Levan when he writes about others—he is witty, literary, and philosophical. We also learn about the complex—and sometimes comical—web of relationships that formed in the Dubravny prison in the mid-eighties.
Levan is Georgian, a non-Slavic ethnic and linguistic group in the Caucasus region by the Black Sea. Sacred Darkness was originally published in the Georgian language, in 2010. It made its way into Russian, and now appears in English for the first time, translated from the Russian by Brian James Baer and Ellen Vayner. Thanks to the Soviet penchant for prisons, there are many extant Gulag memoirs, the most famous being Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, and many of them waiting to be translated. Levan’s book, however, is of special interest. Like many Soviet prison memoirs, it testifies to the power of language and humor as a survival skill and illustrates the prisoners’ determination to survive and the lengths to which they went to cope with the extreme conditions. Levan’s use of humor is especially witty; he employs humor to touch on themes of language and identity. The memoir as a whole poses questions about nationalism and independence, especially for the minority ethnic and linguistic groups that were subsumed by the Soviet Union.
Levan’s use of humor is especially witty; he employs humor to touch on themes of language and identity. The memoir as a whole poses questions about nationalism and independence, especially for the minority ethnic and linguistic groups that were subsumed by the Soviet Union.
It might seem strange to say that a Gulag memoir is funny, but Levan’s writing is full of paradoxical descriptions that are both comical and reveal the sad absurdity of the Soviet prison system. Given the subject matter, much of his humor is situational irony that serves to lighten his descriptions of prison life while piquing the reader’s interest. Startlingly, he describes his three years in prison as “the best three years of my life.” He explains: “When I say ‘the best years,’ I mean that in two ways: they were the best years of my life because at that time I was young—and what can be more beautiful than youth—but also because of the people that surrounded me, people the KGB had so zealously brought together.” An important aspect of Soviet incarceration by the mid-80s was that Soviet prisons differentiated between political prisoners and others. Hence, political prisoners were housed with other political prisoners. Levan, a linguist and specialist in classical literature, was imprisoned with other intellectuals. Prison life was no less harsh, but the company was different, and that made the intellectual and spiritual experience of prison qualitatively unique. Levan’s prison acquaintances include linguists, scholars, scientists, psychologists, writers, professional military officers, and teachers. They all represent the intelligentsia, the educated, intellectual class that influences cultural direction.
But the intelligentsia for the Soviet Union was “a bit of a problem,” explains Stephen James, Slavic language specialist at Mt. Holyoke College, who became friends with Levan in the 1990s and who I tracked down to shed light on Levan’s experience. “You educate people like Levan and then you expect them to just keep their heads down and be subservient,” James told me. “Sometimes that worked, of course. But then, in cases like Levan, you’ve got someone who actually believes what he reads and thinks he should act on what he believes.”
Levan was arrested in 1983 for “anti-Soviet agitation,” a charge that made him a “political prisoner.” These kinds of political charges arose from any behavior that challenged the sovereignty of the Soviet state. Levan had founded a secret Georgian Republican Party. Competing political parties were illegal. Moreover, advocating for Georgian independence from the Soviet Union was considered “anti-Soviet agitation,” a criminal charge that could carry up to twelve years in a labor camp.
Often times political charges were trumped up in order to get troublesome intellectuals out of the way, but in Levan’s case, James says with a laugh, “It was relatively honest!” in the sense that Levan was fighting for the liberation of his country from the dominant Soviet culture. In James’ mock amazement at the stunning honesty of the KGB, I could see how he would be friends with the dryly humorous writer of Sacred Darkness.
Levan writes that people who had been incarcerated during earlier eras describe the camps as “especially unbearable,” but he doesn’t mean that in the 80s it had become prosaic. Prisoners worked long days at labor-intensive jobs, were barely provided clothing or food, and were only allowed to write a certain number of letters home. Family visits were allowed once a year for two hours. The prison guards (who, Levan says, liked referring to themselves as “controllers”) could rescind any privileges at any time, for any reason, and often did so. In earlier eras, it was more common for people to simply be executed by firing squad, as the writer Gogol was.
Levan describes the 80s Gulag as having “one very distinct feature. We weren’t serving time in the scary 1930s, during the war or at the height of the dissident movement, or even during the Brezhnev period of stagnation, but in the era of Soviet democracy, glasnost, and perestroika […] one day the TV would offer us the typical Soviet news hogwash, then the next day, Ronald Reagan would be wishing us Happy New Year from the same screen.”
This seems funny, but again, it points out an ugly inconsistency: While Ronald Reagan is on the screen, and while the newspapers print previously outlawed texts like Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Heart of a Dog (a satire of the “new Soviet man”), Levan sits in prison with Misha Polyakov, who was sentenced to five years in prison for making copies of The Heart of a Dog. Under these circumstances, it takes a peculiar amount of grace to maintain good humor. But Levan and his friends often do, spending their free moments debating whether or not the Soviet Union should stay together or break up, whether Lenin is the true heir to Marx, and whether or not it is okay to eat doves in prison, since doves are a symbol of peace. Clearly, one should be careful about eating symbols.
After his release from prison, Levan became active in politics, helping re-create Georgia’s Republican Party and serving as a member of Parliament. Several of the people he met in prison went on to have political careers as well, especially in nationalistic movements that took hold as the Soviet Union broke up. One of these was Henrikh Altunyan, a Major in the Soviet Air Force that Levan seems to recall with particular affection. Henrikh was arrested on charges of anti-Soviet agitation. After 1987, when political prisoners were released, Henrikh went on to figure in Ukrainian politics and published his own memoir.
At the time of Sacred Darkness, one of Levan’s favorite stories about Henrikh seems to be the story of his arrest. The KGB knocked several times on his apartment door and threatened to break it down. Finally, Henrikh opened the door to reveal that the apartment behind him was full of smoke. Smiling kindly and gesturing to his “guests,” he said: “I saw you from the window, my dear guests. So sorry I kept you waiting. I had a few extra papers at home, so it took me some time to burn them. My sincere apologies. But now, please, come in, good people, search as much as you like!” Comical story-telling like this is the way that Levan memorializes Henrikh’s bravery, but he also can’t resist switching point of view if it will allow him to make a joke at the KGB’s expense. Levan says that the chief investigator is only concerned that Henrikh has used the phrase “good people,” a clear “anti-Soviet” idiom from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita. “That’s not a good sign,” thinks the investigator as he enters the smoke-filled apartment. The perspicacity of KGB investigators is generally comical too, but in an entirely different way.
Perhaps because of Levan’s literary range, Amazon presents Sacred Darkness as a novel. The website says the book is “based on true events […] a thrilling marriage of reportage and fiction.” This sells Levan short. This is, after all, a prison memoir. The fact that he is witty and comedic, or that the work is literary in many ways, does not warrant a description which implies that the characters were not necessarily real people or that Levan’s narration itself is potentially less credible and “fictionalized.”
Once the idea that Sacred Darkness is “fiction” is introduced, the subversive strength and power of Levan’s—and the other prisoners’—humor and wit is dramatically reduced.
And here is my real complaint about that: Once the idea that Sacred Darkness is “fiction” is introduced, the subversive strength and power of Levan’s—and the other prisoners’—humor and wit is dramatically reduced. The humor is powerful not because it makes me chuckle, but because of its use as a survival mechanism and as a way for the prisoners to highlight the paradoxes and absurdities of a system that is denying their human rights. Humor is hope. It keeps despondency at bay and allows the men in this memoir (prisons were segregated by sex) to assert their identity in the face of a controlling totalitarian state. For this reason, I hope that the book does not end up being misunderstood as a novel or taken less seriously by readers.
Apart from the book’s historical value and comedic intelligence, Sacred Darkness also maintains an internal debate about national independence and national identity for the minority nations of the Soviet Union. It is not a Western view of the problems of the Soviet 80s. Interestingly, Levan seems to feel that at one time, he had as naïve a view of the West as we sometimes have of non-Western countries like Georgia.
One scene powerfully illustrates this. The prisoners find an old news reel, which shows British soldiers at the end of WWII returning their Soviet prisoners to Soviet territory. The British soldiers force the crowd across a bridge; if they turn back to the British, they will be shot. If they go ahead, they will walk back home into Soviet territory. Many of them choose to jump off the bridge and die.
This news footage alters the way that Levan understands the West. It is not that the problems of the Soviet system seem less problematic, but the reality of “democracy” and the collective imperfections of any regime, democratic or not, coming alive to him: “The West, which had seemed so picture perfect and flawless, became alive and real, and I realized that it had always had its own shortcomings.” Levan didn’t change his belief that democracy was preferable to the Soviet government or that Georgia should be independent, but he seems to think that the West suffers some naiveté when it comes to the Soviet world.
It might be that we still suffer some naivete about non-Western contexts in general, and that part of the value of memoirs like Levan’s is that it provides a little window into the world that we are missing when we consider present-day Russia. When I asked the memoir’s translator, Brian Baer, what drew him to this memoir, he said it was the text’s internal debate about the future of the Soviet Union. He explained that one of the reasons to keep the Union together “was out of fear that the Soviet republics would devolve into hard-right nationalism,” a fear that did become a reality. “Overall,” said Baer, “the memoir offers a look at late-Soviet dissident politics that cannot be simply mapped onto our Western political positions.” James, of Mount Holyoke College, would likely agree; he pointed out that Levan comes from a place that Western audiences know virtually nothing about, with Georgian writers, their complex history with Russia, and their perspective of the West being mysteries to us.
I have a strange fondness for Gulag memoirs whose authors writers often argue for a life perspective that is divergent from what we are used to. This perspective is epitomized by the paradox of Levan’s title, Sacred Darkness. Stephen James, one of the few Westerners who speaks Georgian, explained to me that the first word of the title can be translated as “pure, holy, or clean,” and the second word means “pitch black darkness.” To describe prison as a time of “absolute darkness” makes sense to us: the physical privation, privation of liberty, and the moral darkness of a system that uses imprisonment to repress subversive ideas.
But Levan also describes prison as “holy” or “sacred,” and the darkness as “cleansing,” an idea that doesn’t always make sense right away and can even seem ludicrous. He means that his prison experiences emphasized what was important in life, that he built unique relationships that changed who he was and helped him to re-formulate his understanding of personhood and politics. The “aesthetic of suffering” as it is sometimes called in Gulag memoirs, argues for hope and a renewed vision of truth from the trials of prison.
This isn’t a new aesthetic, or a new way of describing “dark” experiences; similar themes are overt in the prison memoirs of writers from other backgrounds and traditions. For example, the work of Viktor Frankl, the Austrian survivor of the Nazi camps, or Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who led Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution after spending more than four years in a Soviet prison. What all of these writers have in common is that they argue for a specific view of intrinsic human value and identity: we are a someone. And we know what we are partly by knowing what we are not. By refusing to collude with powers that would silence our one, or our nationality, or our political orientation, we assert that we are. Levan writes that when the KGB was in his apartment going through his books and preparing to arrest him and his brother, his fear slowly left him, and his “courage and sense of self-esteem returned and increased gradually in the presence of those people who, in carrying out their jobs, were so far from truth and honor simply because the very business they were in was so disgraceful.” These elements of Levan’s perspective on dignity and identity can certainly map from East to West and back again.
Ryan K. Strader earned a B.A. in Russian Literature from George Mason University and an M.A.T. from Clayton State University. She is currently an instructional designer and researcher. Her most recent instructional design project is the development of a class in writing and qualitative research methods at Georgia State University, where she is also a doctoral student. Her most recent publication is an upcoming book chapter on populism in young adult novels. She lives and works in the Atlanta area.