Human dignity and a kiss: a story from the Gulag

Ion Moraru spent years in the Gulag. You can read here one of his stories, published in Do Not Avenge Us.
Ion Moraru, recollecting the stories of his life.

During all this time, the thought to escape had not left me at all, and I thought that the theater that started in the camp could help me because they left periodically to travel to concerts in other camps. It helped that Mr. Beresnevich, a Russian director who was the leader of the group, noticed me and insisted that I join them. He saw in me some feminine aspect and gave me the role of Manea from V. Shcvarkin’s[1]play Foreign Child. Manea was supposed to be a beautiful little Russian, slender, and I did my best to play my role as best as I could. We played the piece in our camp, and now we had to go to the women’s camp for a performance there as well.

The women’s zone was 100 meters away, separated from us with barbed wire. Between the two camps there was a neutral strip, and anyone stepping on it was shot without warning by sentinels. Now, with Khrushchev’s relaxing of the regulations they allowed us at times in the women’s zone because they thought we might get attached to one another and thus remain there even after liberation.

We left the camps in two cars: one was loaded with the props and everything that we needed, and the other full of actors. Beyond the barbed wire, the women waited for us all crowded in the club. They had yellow-earthly faces and faded overalls. We followed the director like a flock would follow its master, and we then started to look around.

Backstage, Mr. Beresnevich took me straight to Lidia  Monastâriova, the leader of the women’s theater. She had been an actress in Ukraine. During the Fascist occupation, she had worked as a translator for an administrative institution, and the Bolsheviks accused her of espionage for the Germans and so sentenced her to forced labor in the camp.

Mr. Beresnevich knew her well, and he left me in her care:

“Lidia, take care of him and make a woman out of him!”

Monastâriova was seven-eight years my senior and was of a rare beauty, spiritual and physical. She was very refined, and she spoke well and properly. She had black, bright eyes, and her whole being was surrounded by a mystery that one cannot describe.

She stayed with me to help me get ready. She took my shirt off and gave me a spotted long dress, that went down to my knees. She gave me a pair of sandals, arranged my wig, my wrap, and perfumed me slightly behind the ears. During all this time, I had the sensation that I was next to a mysterious pyre. At one moment, we no longer found anything else to say to each other, and we remained like this, looking at one another.

She was the first to shake off the spell. She turned to one side, then to the other, looked at me, content with her work, and there was nothing else between us.

The show ended, we received applauses, congratulations, and a small bouquet of artificial flowers made by the prisoners. Monastâriova came to accompany us to the gate of the camp. On the way to the gate, as I was slowly walking next to her, my sinful heart could no longer bear it, I took her next to me and kissed her, in a passionate and masculine way.

This gesture was very bewildering for her, but I found this out only later. For the moment, after we separated, we continued to exchange letters. I told her a few things about me, about Bessarabia, and, with Mr. Beresnievich’s help, I sent her a small album that I made with pictures of my loved ones from back home. She was very joyful and moved by this. Then, I found out that she was liberated, and I lost track of her.

After a while, it happened that I was called to the parlor by a woman. It was Sunday, the day of rest, and I had just returned from my shift. I had not shaved yet and I was dirty because I had not managed to wash the coal off me yet.

They took me to the meeting room, and I saw a distinguished woman, dressed with a long overcoat, with a small hat and a shawl over her shoulders. I thought that it was a mistake or that she may have been one of the researchers that sometimes were conducting studies about the prisoners.

She looked at me for a long while, and then she told me:

“Vaniusha, you do not recognize me?”

At that moment, I saw her black, bright eyes, and I realized that she was the actress Monastâriova. She opened her arms and embraced me. I was very uncomfortable: I was so dirty, and she was so clean and frail…

I asked her how she reached me, and she told me that she was helped by Mr. Leandr, who was respected by administration and who had recommended her, saying she was a relative of mine.

Then she told me:

“Vanea, I am older than you are, and I have my world, from which I come. You are young, you must do your studies and move on with your life. There is no chasm between us, but there is a distance… I came only to tell you that when you kissed me, you brought me back my feminine dignity, my human dignity. You did not kiss me, but you kissed my cross that I have carried up to here with so much pain. You kissed the lips that the executioners burned with cigarettes, that they hit so many times, the lips that were nourished with all the rubbish and rottenness just so that I would remain alive…”

She then told me about the most horrible tortures to which she was subjected. They tied her hair to the doorknob, stabbing her with a needle all over and mocking her body. She also told me how she was thrown naked in a cold dungeon, then taken out to interrogation, kicked and cursed…

Two tears trickled from her great, round eyes, and it seemed that her entire suffering was contained in them.

Then she told me again with sadness:

“There was no stone in the camp that I have not wet with my tears; there was no corner in the barrack where I have not cried for all things that I suffered… I do not know whether you will be able to understand now the entire tragedy that I have experienced. Years will pass, and if God gives you to be a wise man, you will realize what I have suffered… Vanea, I chose you as my confessor, but I am asking you to break the law and to not keep my confession secret, but tell the entire world what you have heard from me…”

She then stood up, ready to go. She took two pictures from her purse, one of hers and one of Leandr Aleksandrovich, and she gave them to me as souvenirs. At the door, she turned around once more and whispered:

“Farewell, Vaniusha!”

After her departure, I did not manage to hide the two pictures, and the guards asked to see them.

“Who’s this old man with his pipe between his teeth?”

Knowing their cultural level, I answered:

‘What do you mean who’s he? He is the grandson of Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Deva from Nepal!”

“And who’s the woman?”

“She is his granddaughter, the goddess of patience and suffering!” I said.

The guard gave me the pictures back with disdain:

“You, the sectarians, are a bit lost! Come, get lost!”

I have not heard anything from Monastâriova since then, and I have never seen her, but I cherish her memory as one of the most beautiful in my life. I also keep the last letter I received from her in the camps, as one would keep a gem. She wrote me these verses in Russian:

Walk on the path without falling with your soul,

And give a hand to the fallen, so that you would save them.

In the name of science and of light, raise your candle,

So that you may give light to the darkness that surrounds us…

P.S. If you know Romanian, here is a video with Ion Moraru. It’s worth watching:

[1] I am not certain of the transliteration of the name. In Romanian, it appears as Scvarkin. It may also be Chichvarkin.

About Tavi's Corner

Blogging on ancient philosophy, communist persecution in Romania (including deportation to Siberia), and Orthodox Christianity. I've translated books from Romanian to English, and I also write about them from time to time.
This entry was posted in Bessarabia, Deportations to Siberia. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Human dignity and a kiss: a story from the Gulag

  1. Pingback: Tales of beauty and love from the darkness of the Siberian Gulag | Tavi's Corner

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