"[T]his book is a story about monstrous crimes and people who survived them," noted Stephen F. Cohen, Professor of Russian Studies and History, New York University, at a 29 November 2010 Kennan Institute discussion. Cohen expounded on his research for his latest book, The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag after Stalin, which is based on interviews with returnees from the Soviet prison camp system whom he knew personally in Moscow in the 1970s and 1980s.

The question of Stalin's legacy is, Cohen explained, an "open wound that Russia cannot yet heal." The timing of the publication of The Victims Return was notable, according to the author, because its release occurred during a third wave of national debate about Stalin's reign. The first debate occurred as a result of decreased censorship during the Khrushchev-era "thaw." The second, Cohen noted, transpired during Gorbachev's rule in light of his glasnost initiative.

Cohen's inspiration for writing The Victims Return began over thirty years ago with his friendship with the family of Nikolai Bukharin, a Soviet founder who had been executed in 1938, and whose widow spent the next twenty years in the Gulag. Bukharin's family had a network of friends who were also survivors of the Gulag or relatives of other victims, an entire "subterranean world of people," noted Cohen. The author understood that these survivors had their own rules of conduct based on their experiences during the Stalinist terror-era. Gorbachev's reform policies subsequently allowed many more survivors to publicly recount their experiences during the Stalinist terror, people with whom Cohen later met.

Although Stalin's terror is usually equated with the Great Terror of 1936-1938, Cohen emphasized that mass terror was in fact a 25-year-old "institutionalized and centralized part of Stalin's Soviet Union." The evolution of Stalin's persecution of the Soviet population began with the collectivization of the peasantry, the author noted, and continued with acts of urban terror. Nor did the terror end during or after World War II, which, according to Cohen, led to the development of additional repressive campaigns that were not realized before Stalin's death in 1953. A major component of the waves of terror in Stalin's Soviet Union was the Gulag system of prisons, labor camps, and remote exile.

Stalin's campaigns of repression and persecution against the Soviet population "was a mass terror with mass victims," according to Cohen. In researching for The Victims Return, Cohen calculated that the total number of deaths during the Stalin era ranged between 12 and 20 million people, excluding Soviet citizens who died as a result of World War II. Moreover, based on archival information only recently made available to the public, Cohen asserted that approximately 5.5 million persons survived their sentences in the Gulag, retired, and returned home.

In order to examine the experiences of those affected by Stalin's terror, Cohen understood that counting the number of actual returnees from the Gulags was insufficient; the author considered it essential to consider the family members of those survivors as well. Considering the figure of 5.5 million returnees, Cohen posited that, in actuality, there were likely around 15 million persons directly affected by their release. The author underscored that the Gulag experience did not merely affect just former prisoners: indeed, their relatives were also targeted by the government. Family members of returnees were "so stigmatized" by the Gulag experience, Cohen explained, that the Soviet government denied social services to victims' relatives merely based on association.

Although The Victims Return examines a particular period of Soviet history using information Cohen collected over three decades, its contemporary relevance in the third national debate on Stalin's legacy is significant. Particularly, Cohen noted that no Russian-language book about Gulag survivors existed at the time of the publication of The Victims Return.

Understanding the true legacy of Stalin's campaign of terror is important not only to Gulag survivors, but to Russian society overall. Russia needs to modernize, Cohen asserted, but there are polar views on how to approach modernization that are present in the current debate on Stalin. Much of the Soviet-era modernization that was successful was achieved during Stalin's reign—thus, one side of the national debate supports the idea of "doing according to Stalin." By celebrating Stalin-era achievements, Cohen argued, the legitimacy of the legacy of survivors of Stalin's terror is compromised. Conversely, some argue that modernization of Russian society must be done democratically, which requires acknowledging the terror campaigns of the Stalin era.

By Amy Shannon Liedy
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute


  • Stephen F. Cohen

    Professor of Russian Studies and History, New York University