Gulag Returnees Meet Their Accusers

From The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2007), pp. 583-587:

‘Now those who were arrested will return, and two Russias will look each other in the eye: the one that sent these people to the camps and the one that came back.’ With those words the poet Akhmatova anticipated the drama which unfolded as prisoners returned from the camps to confront colleagues, neighbours, friends who had informed on them….

Ibragim Izmail-Zade was a senior professor of medicine and a departmental head at the Institute of Medicine in Baku at the time of his arrest, in 1938, on charges of belonging to an ‘anti-Soviet group of Azerbaijani nationalists’. After his release from the Kolyma camps, he returned to Baku, where he took up a junior position in the same institute. Instead of the cutting-edge research he had done in the 1930s, he was now employed in routine clinical work. During the trial of M. D. Bagirov, the former Party boss of Azerbaijan, in 1955, Ibragim appeared as a witness for the prosecution, in which capacity he was allowed to look at his own file from 1938, when Bagirov had led the terror campaign in Baku. Ibragim discovered that he had been denounced by his favourite student, who had since gone on to become the head of his department at the institute. While Ibragim was in Kolyma, the former student had often visited his wife and daughter, who treated him as a member of the family. The old student was noticeably cooler in his behaviour after Ibragim’s return, rarely coming to the house, and never in the evening, when he would have been obliged to eat or drink with him. After his discovery of the denunciation, Ibragim and his family were forced to see the former student several times, and while they never spoke to him about his actions, it was clear that the Izmail-Zades now knew of the betrayal. One day the political director of the institute appeared at the Izmail-Zade house. He wanted Ibragim to sign a document stating that his family had no grievance against the former student, and that they would remain on friendly terms. Ibragim refused to sign. He had to be restrained from throwing the official out on the street. According to his daughter, Ibragim was crushed by the betrayal. He felt humiliated at being forced to work beneath someone who, he felt, was hardly qualified. Being asked to sign the document had been the final straw….

Many former prisoners were surprisingly forgiving towards the people who had informed on them. This inclination to forgive was seldom rooted in religious attitudes, … but it was often based on the understanding, which was shared by everyone who had experienced the prisons and the camps of the Gulag system, that virtually any citizen, no matter how good they might be in normal circumstances, could be turned into an informer by pressure from the NKVD.

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