A Diary From Inside the Gulag Meets Evil with Lightness

But attitudes toward Stalin and his terror have become far more tolerant, not least because the Kremlin has recast his time as head of the Soviet Union with a certain nostalgia. President Vladimir V. Putin does not deny Stalin’s repressions, but there has been a new emphasis on his legacy as an “efficient manager.”

Organizers of the exhibition consider the diary so important because it puts a human face on past crimes.

Getting caught with a pen and paper in the Gulag was sufficient grounds for execution. Keeping a diary was “particularly impossible,” said Irina S. Ostrovskaya, the senior archivist at Memorial, the Russian civil rights organization founded to establish a record of the victims of Soviet political repression.

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Olga Ranitskaya snakeskin-bound diary is believed to be the only surviving account of the Gulag to be written from inside a camp.

Credit
James Hill for The New York Times

Ms. Ranitskaya persevered for almost two years, across 115 pages, drawing the small, spunky figure mostly in black and white.

The author began the diary in 1941 — the date written on the first page — while she was working at a weather station that served the farming operations of the sprawling Karlag labor camp in Kazakhstan.

The diary features the misadventures of camp life experienced by the stick figure called the “Little Weather Devil.” Drawn in the style of pre-revolutionary comics, each page depicts a theme, like hunger or fear, or illustrates specific, often emotional moments, from the tragedy of losing a coat in a harsh climate to the joy of finding a she-wolf for a pet. On some pages, the figure contemplates existential questions or the vagaries of fate.

The diary frequently references Russian literature, including the poets Pushkin and Lermontov, as well as Latin axioms. The title of the diary, “Work and Days,” came from the epic poem of Hesiod, a Greek poet, from around 700 BC, which discussed corruption, honesty and justice.

The couplets are difficult to translate, particularly the more philosophical musings. They are often word plays or otherwise ambiguous.

“It reveals a very good knowledge of the language and literature, but it is often hard to tell what she means,” said Dmitri A. Belanovsky, who translated parts of the diary into English. He thinks the ambiguity was insurance in case the…

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