Jour­ney into the Land of the Zeks and Back: A Mem­oir of the Gulag

Julius Mar­golin, Ste­fani Hoff­man (trans.)

  • Review
By – October 16, 2020

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 was a reporter for near­ly 20 years, much of it as a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent for NBC News and Unit­ed Press Inter­na­tion­al cov­er­ing the Mid­dle East. He holds Mas­ter’s degrees from both Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty’s School of Jour­nal­ism and its School of Inter­na­tion­al Affairs, and was award­ed a pres­ti­gious Knight-Bage­hot Fel­low­ship in Busi­ness and Eco­nom­ic Journalism.

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