Long before we fully appreciated that the gulag was a vast archipelago of death and despair, there was the Land of the Zeks.
“The country of the zek does not appear on a Soviet map nor is it in any atlas,” Julius Margolin writes in his searing memoir. “It is the sole country in the world where there are no disputes about the Soviet Union, no delusions, and no illusions.”
A professional journalist with a doctorate in philosophy, Margolin combines heart-rending self-reflection with cogent, at times polemical, insight into the netherworld of the zek — Russian slang for convict — and the Stalinist system that created it.
Bad timing victimized Margolin — twice. Margolin moved his family to Palestine in 1936. Visiting Poland in 1939, he had been scheduled to leave on September 3rd. Unfortunately, Germany invaded on September 1st. When the Red Army marched in and annexed 52 percent of Poland under terms of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Margolin found himself on the Soviet side of the new border.
To Moscow, Poland ceased to exist as a country, and the Soviets no longer recognized Margolin’s Polish passport. Because Margolin had declined a Soviet passport — he had actually requested to be repatriated to the German-occupied Poland, as did thousands of other Polish Christians and Jews in 1940 — he was judged a criminal and sentenced to five years hard labor chopping down trees in Siberia, while the world was preoccupied with defeating Nazi Germany.
Close to death several times from starvation, exhaustion, and exposure, Margolin survived mostly because of timely help by camp doctors. After his release from prison in 1945, he made it back to Palestine the following year and finished writing his book in 1947.
That’s when bad timing struck a second time: in 1947, much of the intelligentsia of the Left refused to accept Margolin’s uncompromising condemnation of Stalin and the Soviet Union, especially so soon after the Red Army had helped crush Hitler. Ultimately, Margolin was out of sync with the intellectual persuasions of the time. As a result, his memoir never received the attention or wide distribution it deserved.
This is the first English publication of Margolin’s book, translated from original Russian texts and abridged versions by Stefani Hoffman. While Margolin’s bitter ideological attacks of the Left of his day may seem dated, Hoffman’s translation makes for a compelling read. Additionally, Katherine Jolluck’s excellent Introduction is key to appreciating Margolin’s life and the context of his work. As Timothy Snyder observes in his Forward, had Margolin been published in 1947, the world might be referring to Stalin’s forced labor system as the Land of the Zeks instead of the Gulag Archipelago, named by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Therein lies the rub: the power of Margolin’s story is overshadowed by what we have learned since from Solzhenitsyn and others. Today, online testimonials from the Shoah Foundation illuminate and confirm Margolin’s vivid accounts of hard labor and easy death.
The power of Margolin’s memoir is not in its revelations, but in its value as a powerfully written testament to analysis, memory, and humanity.
Mel Laytner is former foreign correspondent for NBC News and United Press International and author of the forthcoming memoir, What They Didn’t Burn, How Hidden Nazi Documents Proved A Survivor’s Holocaust Story.