Leena Kurvet-Käosaar:TheTraumatic Impact of the Penal Frameworks of the Soviet Regime: Pathways of Female Remembering

The Traumatic Impact of the Penal Frameworks of the Soviet Regime: Pathways of Female Remembering1
Leena Kurvet-Käosaar
Figure 6: Photograph by Leena Kurvet-Kaosaar, inset drawing by Evi Tallo, an Estonian woman deported in 1941 and again in 1950.
The impact of political regimes of a totalitarian nature does not pass with their coming to an end but forms complicated grids of memory, often attended
by specific and limited perspectives, under the new socio-political and ideological
frameworks. One of the common limitations of the construction of memory
frames in formerly occupied/colonized countries is the underrepresentation
or misrepresentation of women’s experience. Viewing the Soviet regime as colonial
in nature, including its means of securing the domination of the regime
via extensive
penal frameworks, I wish to highlight Baltic women’s modes
of remembering
of the repressions of the regime, focusing in particular on the possibilities of representing the traumatic quality of that experience. My discussion relates to the key concepts of the book, those of gender and empire by, on the one hand, elaborating why women’s (full) experience of colonialism
1 I would like to thank the Estonian Science Foundation for the ETF grant “Positioning Life-Writing on Estonian Literary Landscapes”, which has supported my research.
can remain unmediated and how, in turn, such a process significantly alters and impoverishes the overall perception and conceptualization of a totalitarian colonizing regime. Further, I outline some possibilities of filling the gender gaps in such conceptualization processes with the help of flexible and nuanced
interpretation strategies that contribute to making the pathways of female remembering
visible alongside those of men.
Penal frameworks of a colonial regime
In the wider postcolonial critical framework, the Soviet regime has been regarded
as colonial in terms of its rationale, ideological rhetoric and operational
2 As Violeta Kelertas, a Lithuanian cultural critic and the editor of a recent collection of articles titled Baltic Postcolonialism, points out, “
Russia never acknowledged its goal of communist world domination. Instead, when speaking of foreign diplomacy it employed rhetorical terms to speak of the ‘brotherhood of nations’.”3 The trope of the friendship of nations was also employed
within the Soviet Union as part of the rhetoric of ideology; the regime,
however, was secured via different means, among which an intricate penal system conceived and put into practice by the Soviet authorities played an important role. The purpose of a system that included a wide array of tools of repression, such as extensive surveillance mechanisms, social stigmatisation
and labelling, arrests, labour camps, deportations, and executions, was to guarantee the subjugation of the occupied nations to the Soviet regime, to make them part of the Soviet Empire. The penal system, including an extensive
prison camp and relocation framework sometimes also referred to as the Gulag, was used throughout the Soviet Union to ensure the domination of the regime. With seven million prisoners in the period 1934-41 alone,4 the Gulag system has sometimes metaphorically been viewed as “a microcosm of life in the Soviet Union”.5
2 See David Chioni Moore, “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique”,
PMLA 116 (January 2001): 111-12; Violeta Kelertas, “Introduction: Baltic Postcolonialism and its Critics”,
in Baltic Postcolonialism, ed. Violeta Kelertas (Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi, 2006), 1-10.
3 Kelertas, “Introduction”, 1.
4 Jura Avizienis, “Learning to Curse in Russian: Mimicry in Siberian Exile notes”, in Baltic Postcolonialism, 188.
5 Ibid., 188.
Baltic narratives of the repressions of the regime
Reflections on surviving the various repressions of the Soviet regime (including
the Gulag) form the core of thousands of personal narratives of the Baltic peoples, most of which were written or recorded during and after the period of regaining independence. Although the number of women’s narratives is very high,6 the possibilities of articulation of the female experience of the regime and its repressions have to be carefully weighed in relation to the normative testimonial and commemorative framework within which the narratives have emerged. Such a framework capitalizes on individuals’ successful survival of the harsh and inhuman means of the repressions of the regime, highlighting that the objective of this penal framework of the Soviet regime – to extinguish
identity and culture and a belief in democratic values – was not realized.
the experience as traumatic and as having a long-lasting hurtful effect
would mean at least partially acknowledging that the regime did succeed, that the penal measures left damaging traces. Especially for women, in asserting
such an impact, there is much at stake. As both making history and writing history have traditionally been male activities in which women have had little or no part, the overt problematization of accepted historical paradigms entails risking one’s foothold in the historical discourse both as an individual and as a group. Depending on the exact nature of why a given repression experience is perceived as traumatic and particularly in cases where taboo subjects such as sexual violence against women are involved, mediating the experience can also result in social stigmatisation.
In the light of women’s position in relation to the canon of memory and history,
it is noteworthy that the issue of the traumatic nature of the repression experience has been raised in the Baltics by women, for example, in the 1995 award-winning novel A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile7
by Latvian American author Agate Nesaule and ten years later by Estonian
6 The number of narratives by women in particular in the genre of the deportation story is high for various reasons. First, the phenomenon referred to as deportation includes roughly two types of repositioning of large numbers of Baltic peoples: labour camps and resettlement to thinly populated (partially inhabitable) areas of the Soviet Union. Women and children were mainly subjected to the latter type of penal relocation, where living conditions, although varying in harshness, made survival more likely than in labour camps. Second, deportation was an event (contrary to, for example, the experience of forced military engagement) that centrally involved women, in latter processes of the re-evaluation of history becoming a topic area to which women could significantly contribute. It was importantly within the framework of the deportation narrative that everyday experience relating to the repressive nature of the Soviet regime emerged as a relevant aspect of collective memory and national history-building processes. This makes the deportation narrative an important site for voicing the female experience of the repressions of the regime.
7 New York: Penguin, 1995.
journalist Imbi Paju in her documentary Memories Denied (2005) and in a book bearing a similar title. Both authors relate the traumatic quality of the experience of the regime to its gendered nature, arguing that it is crucial to account
for gendered differences in experiences of the Second World War and the Soviet regime and that such a process is bound to bring with it a re-evaluation
of several generally accepted truths about that experience, including those relating to resistance or subjugation to the regime.
The theoretical framework of trauma
Over the past 10-15 years, trauma has become a central conceptual framework in history, the social sciences, psychology, medicine, and literary studies when tackling the individual and cultural implications of phenomena that have caused
long-term suffering manifested in the life of an individual or a group. Primary among the historical events that have been interpreted within the framework of trauma is the Holocaust.8 More recent research in the field of trauma studies indicates a widening of the concept to include, on a more general
level, events in history that can be characterized by the long-term presence of “political terror, systematic oppression, and genocide in former totalitarian and authoritative
regimes”.9 At the heart of the concept of trauma, traced back to Freud, is a hurtful, overwhelming and life-threatening (often catastrophic) event or situation that cannot be fully perceived at the moment of its occurrence. Of this event or situation there is no (proper) memory; it only manifests itself later via “traumatic re-experiencing”10 that often appears in the form of involuntary recurring intrusive thoughts, images, backlashes, and nightmares11 and which owes its disturbing and destructive impact largely to the fact that the trauma victim has no access to the primary experience that caused the trauma. Trauma symptoms also include a re-experiencing of the horrors of the past through internal shifts back in time and space (a failure to distinguish between the
8 Katharine Hodgkin and Susannah Radstone, “Remembering Suffering: Trauma and History”, in Contested Pasts. The Politics of Memory, ed. Katharine Hodgkin and Susannah Radstone (New York and London: Routledge, 2003), 98.
9 Selma Leyersdorf et al, “Introduction. Trauma and life stories”, in Trauma. Life Stories of Survivors, ed. Kim Lacy Rodgers, Selma Leyersdorf and Graham Dawson (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2004),10.
10 Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins UP, 1996), 10.
11 Cathy Caruth, “Trauma and Experience. Introduction”, in Trauma. Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 4.
past and the present),12 “the numbing of general responsiveness to the external world and a hyper-alertness to certain stimuli”13 and “the loss of various motor skills and a general closing off of the spirit as the mind tries to insulate itself from further harm”.14 Trauma narratives are often characterized by loss of agency,
the failure of the authors to be in control of their narrative and difficulties in communicating the experience (silence, simultaneous knowledge and denial, dissociation, resistance, repression).15 Trauma signals in oral narratives include a loss of emotional control, emotional detachment or numbness, repetitive reporting, and losing oneself in the traumatic event and intrusive images.16
Women and trauma: Imbi Paju’s Memories Denied
I have chosen, as the basis of discussion of the narrative possibilities and limits
of trauma in Baltic women’s narratives of the repressions of the Soviet regime, a 2005 documentary titled Memories Denied by an Estonian journalist, Imbi Paju. One objective of the film, which was first released in Finland, is to explain
and outline to wider international audiences the horrendous and inhuman
of the Soviet regime and the hurt it inflicted on Estonians. Another is to facilitate
a discussion of the traumatic impact of the penal frameworks
of the Soviet regime from a gendered point of view. In 2006, the author also published
a book of the same title that continues the discussion of the themes and issues raised in the documentary. The film starts with a childhood memory of the director, whose mother was arrested in 1948 at the age of 18 together with her twin sister. Both girls were labelled as ‘bandits’, enemies of the Soviet regime, and deported to Siberia. Since her childhood, Imbi Paju has been haunted by the memory of her mother’s nightmares “of Stalin’s forced
labour camps and the Soviet soldiers who threatened her life [where] she was never able to return home to her mother”.17 Imbi Paju adds: “Those dreams
of my mother caused me great distress. /…/ the forced labour camps and death camps filtered into my subconscious through my mother’s dreams.”18
12 Shosana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York: Routledge, 1991), 14-15.
13 Leyersdorf et al, “Introduction. Trauma and life stories”, 5.
14 Kai Erikson, “Notes on Trauma and Community”, in Trauma. Explorations of Memory, 184.
15 Laurie Vickroy, Trauma and Survival in Contemporary Fiction (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2002), 3, 5.
16 Gadi Benezer, “Trauma Signals in Life Stories”, in Trauma. Life Stories of Survivors, 34-35.
17 Imbi Paju, Memories Denied (Tallinn: Allfilm, 2005).
18 Ibid.
Although not exclusively, Paju’s documentary (where she is also present throughout
as the narrating voice and as the interviewer) focuses on her mother’s and aunt’s experiences of the repressions of the Soviet regime.
In addition, the documentary includes various Estonian women’s narratives
of their arrest, prolonged psychological and physical violence, and deportation.
Yet the author claims at the beginning of the film featuring almost exclusively women’s stories that “this … is the untold story of all Estonian society,
a story of sadness, arbitrary power, images of violence – a puzzle”.19 Paju’s emphasis
on women’s narratives and her firm belief that despite the thousands
of narratives focusing on the repressions of the Soviet regime in the archives and their publications in various monumental volumes it is still justified to speak of a crucial body of “untold stories” in relation to the regime,
makes her documentary a good basis for a discussion of the effects of the penal
of the Soviet regime from gendered point of view. However, although
mediating women’s experience of the repressions of the regime has clearly been one of the main objectives of the documentary, the author addresses
the issue of the gendering of the (traumatic) experience of the repressions only on the very last pages of her book. Here, she asserts that “women had to be exterminated [by the regime as] the bearers of life, and under patriarchal principles, as the property of the enemy”, [yet n]ot a single historian has compiled a complete
list of the women exterminated during the Soviet occupation”.20
Paju’s documentary as well as her book places the discussion of (women’s) experience of the repressions of the Soviet regime quite clearly in the framework
of trauma. Paju argues that the hurtfulness of the past, unless it is properly
to, can be transmitted to future generations, and it is for the sake of “more peaceful and happier memory”21 that it is necessary to attempt an articulation
of the experience. Such a position runs against the usual manner of tackling the repressions in several significant ways.
Firstly, the experience of the repressions of the Soviet regime is not usually
tackled in personal narratives as constituting long-lasting damage to the lives of the victims of repressions. Presenting oneself as a successful survivor of the regime is a vital feature of such kinds of personal narratives, emphasizing that despite the horrendous and extensive nature of the repressions, the goal of the penal practices of the Soviet regime – to extinguish national identity, culture,
19 Ibid., my italics.
20 Imbi Paju, Tõrjutud mälestused (Tallinn: Eesti Entsükloüpeediakirjastus, 2007), 268.
21 Ibid., 270.
community and a belief in democratic values – was not realized. Representing the experience of the repressions of the regime as traumatic would mean to admit to being victimized by the experience, to being (at least partially) unable to cope with it. In her documentary, Imbi Paju seeks to initiate the process of coming to terms with such an experience – one which could not be successfully coped with earlier on, due to the absence of emphatic space where hurtful experience could be unravelled, made sense of and overcome. Using her own family experience as a case study, Paju shows how behind an apparently more or less smoothly proceeding
everyday life the hurtfulness of the past is still looming, finding its way into her mother’s dreams, making the daughter as a child insecure and bringing about a feeling of helplessness. For Paju, getting her mother and her aunt to finally try to narrate their painful experience is a crucial step in the process of overcoming it and being able to leave the past behind.
Secondly, when it comes to women’s experience of the repressions of the regime, mediating it can become problematic when it concerns taboo subject areas, such as, for example, sexual violence or even physical violence with an implication of accompanying sexual violence or the threat of it. Paju’s position on the extermination of women as “under patriarchal principles, the property of the enemy”22 coincides with that of Vesna Nikolić-Ristanović who, focusing on wartime rape, views it as “a means for achieving aims which have nothing in common with sexuality” as the patriarchal value system sees women as the property of the male enemy who “should be used as an instrument to defeat the enemy [whom] the victim symbolizes”.23 Sexual violence against women as a repressive measure or as part of war activities has been viewed as serving the purposes of ethnic cleansing,24 forced exile,25 and a means of extorting a testimony
or certain information after imprisonment.26
In her documentary and in her book, Imbi Paju strives to create a space where experiences of such nature could be mediated. However, although the subject is implied, Paju never confronts anyone she interviews with a question
22 Ibid., 268.
23 Vesna Nikolić-Ristanović, “War and Violence Against Women,” in The Gendered New World Order: Militarism, Development, and the Environment, ed. J. Turpin and A. Lorntzen (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), 197; see also Leena Kurvet-Käosaar, “‘Other Things Happened to Women’: World War II, Violence and Discourses of National Identity in A Sound of the Past by Käbi Laretei and A Woman In Amber by Agate Nesaule,” Journal of Baltic Studies 34 (Fall 2003), 313-331.
24 Nikolić-Ristanović, “War and Violence Against Women”, 200-202.
25 Katherine C. MacKinnon, “Comment: Theory is not a Luxury”, in Dorina G. Dallmeyer, Reconceiving Reality: Women and International Law (New York: Asil, 1993), 88.
26 Katherine Jolluck, Gender, Identity and the Polish Experience of War 1939-1945 (UMI Dissertation Services, Ann Arbor: A Bell & Howell Company, 1995), 148.
directly concerning this issue. The film contains interviews of several women who were brought for interrogation to the infamous Patarei prison in Tallinn and subjected to psychological and sometimes also physical violence. The testimonies
sometimes imply the possibility of sexual violence but this thematic
thread is not pursued further in the documentary, and it is tackled in the book in a somewhat evasive manner. The testimonies of the author’s mother
and her aunt occasionally mention physical violence but do not touch upon the subject of sexual violence. There are, however, several instances in their testimonies
when the narrative breaks down without the viewer of the documentary ever learning the reason for the difficulty or obstacle formediating
a certain experience
as detailed information about the incident or situation in question is never revealed to the viewer. In the book Paju contends that although
she has “unearthed the events of this period, [she] often feel[s] that [she does] not want to ask [her] mother about everything that happened; it is easier to deceive oneself with the hope that they were spared from the worst”.27
In another interview with a woman who was severely beaten in prison with the aim of extorting a testimony, the victim appears to block off questions that could possibly concern the presence of sexual violence with irony toward the interrogators by humming a song parodying the Soviet authorities and making jokes about them. For example, she recounts an episode when, being beaten by the interrogating Soviet officials, she needed to go to the toilet and was accompanied there by one of the executive officers who also ordered her to leave the toilet door open. When recounting this doubtless painful and also humiliating episode the woman says that such behaviour by the official made her think of him as a “toilet general”.28
How should one regard Paju’s documentary strategy concerning repression-
related sexual violence against women? One the one hand, Paju’s oeuvre may be criticised for merely implying a subject area that may be of crucial importance for a full discussion of Estonian (and Baltic) women’s experience
of the Soviet repressions. One could argue that as long as women’s experience of repression-related sexual violence is not publicly recognized as a relevant negative heritage of the regime and as long as there is no proper space for the mediation of such experience, it also cannot be overcome. On the other hand, avoidance of direct confrontation of the interviewed women with
27 Paju, Tõrjutud mälestused, 235.
28 Paju, Memories Denied.
these issues is doubtless grounded on the author’s wish to tackle the subject of hurtful repression experience without causing further harm or placing the interviewees in even more vulnerable positions by having them disclose their experiences. Just as Tiina Kirss reminds researchers of personal narratives of the ethical necessity of showing “a reverence for individual experience as it has been told and recorded”,29 Imbi Paju’s texts are evidence of following similar ethical obligations in her interviewing strategies and ways of mediating the narratives in cinematographic format.
However, even if Paju’s Memories Denied does not create a space for mediation
of repression-related sexual violence against women as such, it manages
to present the repression experience of women (often involving
and frequently also physical violence with an implication of sexual
violence) as traumatic, both strongly gendering and refiguring the (
popular) mode of treating the impact of the Soviet regime.30 The characteristic features of trauma narratives, such as loss of agency, failure to be in control of the narrative, difficulties in communicating the experience,31 loss of emotional
control, emotional detachment or numbness, repetitive reporting, losing oneself
in the traumatic event and intrusive images,32 are present in most of the women’s narratives presented in the film. However, Paju’s main achievement is not presenting the narratives as traumatic, but her strong conviction that the hurtfulness of the repression experience needs to be made visible and that, for the sake of what she views as a healthy frame of memory, both painful and happy
memories need to be facilitated. Within this framework, Paju emphasizes the need to pay attention to women’s experiences, in particular the articulation of experiences – for which even today there is no proper space. Although Paju does not create such space visibly in her film, she certainly lays the foundations for its emergence. Most importantly, Paju’s documentary oeuvre
reconfigures the terms of survival, resistance and subjugation to the Soviet regime. Paju emphasizes
that in order to recover from the nightmares of the past, it is crucial
29 Tiina Kirss, “Three Generations of Estonian Lives”, in She Who Remembers Survives, ed. Tiina Kirss et al (Tartu: Tartu University Press), 114.
30 For scholarly considerations of women’s experience of the Second World War and the Soviet regime, including questions of trauma, see Kirss, “Three Generations of Estonian Lives”, 112-143; Kurvet-Käosaar, “‘Other Things Happened to Women’”, 313-331; Leena Kurvet-Käosaar, “Imagining a hospitable community in the deportation and emigration narratives of Baltic women”, in Women’s Life-Writing and Imagined Communities, ed. Cynthia Huff (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), 59-72; Vieda Skultans, The Testimony of Lives: Narrative and Memory in Post-Soviet Latvia (New York: Routledge, 1997).
31 Vickroy, Trauma and Survival in Contemporary Fiction, 3, 5.
32 Benezer, “Trauma Signals in Life Stories”, 34-35.
to be able to openly recognize their existence. The pathways of female remembering
that she unearths do not bypass the hurtfulness of the repression experience
but rather seek to come to terms with it by articulation and the creation of reflective distance.
Questions and Assignments
• Can you think of any examples of the underrepresentation or misrepresentation of women’s experience of a colonizing or totalitarian regime in formerly occupied/colonized countries? How is this manifested?
• Within the body of texts where women’s experience is articulated, is it possible to speak of ‘pathways of female remembering’? What are the characteristic features of such pathways?
• Does women’s experience need facilitation similar to what Imbi Paju offers in her documentary, so that it will properly emerge? Examples could include projects of collecting women’s life- stories, fiction, films, fine arts, exhibition projects, radio and TV programmes.
• Find an articulation of woman’s experience of colonization and/ or totalitarian regimes that can be regarded as traumatic, using the list of the characteristic features of trauma narratives included in my article and pursuing the provided references further if necessary. Make a list of narrative difficulties in your chosen material (the term ‘narrative’ is to be interpreted very flexibly). How does your chosen material reflect on the articulation of the traumatic experience as a step toward overcoming a hurtful past?
• For an alternative assignment that stays closer to the subject area of my article, repressions of the Soviet regime, read one Baltic woman’s personal narrative concerning the repressions of the Soviet regime. (Collections of narratives in English include
We Sang Through Tears: stories of survival in Siberia (Riga, Janis
Roze publishers, 1999), She Who Remembers Survives (Tartu UP,
2004), Carrying Linda’s stones: an anthology of Estonian women’s life
stories (Tallinn: Tallinn UP Press, 2006), Estonian Life-Stories
(Forthcoming in 2009 from CEU UP)). How can you characterize
the repressions of the regime? Do you think the experience may
have been traumatic? How is the experience that you think was
traumatic for the author conveyed in the narrative? Does the
narrative make visible a process of healing from the painful past
and show how this process unfolded?
• Another assignment could include Imbi Paju’s documentary
Memories Denied. Watch the documentary, paying particular
attention to the narrative of the director’s mother and aunt.
Make a list of narrative gaps, incoherencies, moments of silence, breaking off from the story. Make a list of events and phenomena
that the director’s mother and her aunt are able to narrate in a smooth and coherent way. Comparing the lists, make a diagram of
the life span of the two women in relation to happy and painful events and their impact on their life. Use different colour pens or
pencils. What is the dominating colour of their life? What does such a colour scheme tell us about the possibilities of healing from
the wounds of the past

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