The Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies

Tell the West: Witness Literature from the Gulag Archipelago 1925-2012

Project leader: Lovisa Andén
Starting year: 2019

The aim of my investigation is to examine Gulag memoirs in their double role as, on one hand, historical testimony and, on the other, literature. My theoretical framework is a phenomenological understanding of literature, experience and reality. My thesis is that phenomenology, due to its examination of the relation between first hand experience and objective reality, can provide us with a philosophical understanding of witness literature. I will study 33 Gulag memoirs published between 1925 and 2012, and written in English, German, French, Swedish and Norwegian. I will focus especially on the Swedish memoirs. Whereas the Holocaust survivors described a reality that no longer existed, most of the Gulag-survivors describe an ongoing reality, which, due to the secrecy around it was only known through their writings. Whereas witness literature in general is met with trust, the Gulag survivors were often challenged. This is especially the case in Sweden, where testimonies were met with defamation campaigns. One aim of my investigation is to look particularly into the Swedish Gulag memoirs and their reception. These testimonies have not been studied before and I also want to highlight the historical documentation they provide us with. Most of them are written by survivors who belonged to the emigration from Sweden to Karelia in the inter-war period. At the time, the ”Russian-fever” spread over Norrbotten, and although the number is not certain, at least 400 Swedes emigrated in the 1920s and 1930s. In the Great Purge when NKVD targeted foreigners, many of the Swedish workers were executed and their families deported to forced labor settlements. Despite the fact that survivors were returned and could bear witness to executions and deportations, the recruitment campaign continued during the Great Purge. Witnesses who spoke about the real conditions were libeled and stigmatized. I will look at both the existing memoirs and the silence around them. The fact that these testimonies are little known today contrasts to their explicit aim to reach out, in order to speak for those who could not, as for example Hilda Tautvaisa puts it: ”I hold it my duty to testify and tell people about persons, women and children, for the most part, who have suffered unjust privations, who fell victim to misfortunes and a terrible fate. What I have written down should be made known to our Baltic neighbors and to the women of the free world.