It’s hardly your typical cheerful and easy holiday read, but while in France I finished off The Long Bridge, a memoir of a Polish woman’s experiences in Soviet gulags.
I probably wouldn’t have known about it were it not for the fact that it was published by my publisher, Sandstone Press, nor have bought it had I not happened to be in Edinburgh and have a free evening when it was launched a few months ago. Though I have enjoyed (if that is the right word) other books in that genre, including by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Arthur Koestler and – not strictly the same but nonetheless related – another Sandstone title, Shadow Behind The Sun.
Such books are inevitably dark and horror-filled, but the small lights of hope we find in the key characters burn strongly and hopefully, making all the more powerful comments about the strength of human nature and the importance of hanging on to what good there is in the world.
The Long Bridge is written by the late Urszula Muskus and brought to life by the efforts of her grandson Peter who lives in the Highlands, and is her account of her life in prison and labour camps in the 1940s and 1950s under Stalin. Like most people in that extensive, hellish network of Siberian prisons, Muskus was no true criminal nor deserving her decade or so’s sentence – merely she was one of the many middle class professionals (or family members thereof) imprisoned for entirely spurious reasons by the paranoid Soviet leader Stalin from throughout the Soviet Union itself and its emerging central European empire.
The book starts with an evocative description of life in an ordinary Polish (though today Ukranian) village, over-run at the outbreak of World War 2 firstly by the Nazis and then by the Soviets, followed by the latter’s arrest of Muskus’s husband and the author’s own subsequent incarceration.
We then follow her from camp to camp, spending often years in one place, and Muskus is very selfless in her descriptions – she describes her multinational fellow inmates in great detail, not least their suffering, life stories (she appears to be someone others open up to easily) and hopes. The work in the camps is invariably gruelling, the treatment by guards brutal, and the food awful, but the author’s stoic approach throughout demonstrates a real strength of character. She was clearly a strong, determined, intelligent woman, with a mother’s compassion and a voice very similar to that of Remzije Sherifi, author of Shadow Behind The Sun mentioned above.
While a certain degree of restraint and selflessness is entirely admirable, and is probably part of what helped her survive, it does lead to the occasional moment where you feel the book dulls the horrors of the story, and because she is so dispassionate about her own afflictions we only truly connect to the evil of the gulags when she describes others’ endurances. But the strength of character of Muskus shines through the book, not least in the introduction, explanatory footnotes and postscript provided by her grandson. The conclusion is suitably moving, with a marvellous reflection on human nature that belies the horrors she has experienced.
It’s a beautifully written book about an entirely unbeautiful period of history – which is, scarily, still within the lifetimes of people alive today. Stalin’s gulags were one of the last century’s great evils, and this book is a good way of hearing from those that experienced them.