‘An Era of Maximum Foment’: How Reading My Great-Great-Grandfather’s Prison Diary Initiated Me into the World of Gulag Literature
In 1944 the Soviet Occupation of Romania led to the imposition of a communist regime in the country. My grandmother’s grandfather, Onisifor Ghibu, an independent politician who played a role in the creation of Greater Romania in 1918 and co-founded the first Romanian university in Transylvania, was the first professor at the university he taught at to be ‘purged’ and interned in a provisional prison for his ‘anti-Soviet’ activity. Carted to a prison camp in a wasteland on the other side of the country from his home, Ghibu was able to take an empty notebook with him.
A lucid and energetic account, Prison Journal: Caracal 1945 (Albatros Press, 1991) is unique as the only account written in the Romanian communist gulag and not after, due to the comparatively relaxed conditions in camps in 1945, in contrast to what would come (until Ceausescu’s general amnesty in 1964). However, the seed of future draconian measures was already planted: corrupt and indolent authorities made no secret of the fact that the purpose of this internment was ‘to re-educate the bourgeoisie’. Ghibu writes of a mass anarchy that renders the gulag a limbo of sorts, complaining of the lack of an attempt towards re-education, and suggests the creation of ‘The Free University of Caracal Camp’ to educate peasants in the gulag.
Of course, the proposal is rejected: Ruxandra Cesereanu writes, ‘communism functions through deceit, so that only those who are initiated into its practices are able to identify its hypocrisy’ (The Gulag Reflected in the Romanian Consciousness. The Memories and Literature of Communist Prisons and Camps, Polirom Publishing House, 2005). Ghibu, in turn, considers this ‘disappointing human cosmos’ deeply alarming not only from a personal but also from a national standpoint after participating in the creation of a democratic state from provinces previously under the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires, only to see Romania (one of Europe’s wealthiest countries between the two world wars) in what was effectively vassal status to the non-European USSR. Judging that ‘a state which produces such a camp carries within the symptoms of decomposition’, he draws the following caustic conclusion: ‘I who in my career as an educator didn’t succeed in raising humanists, will dedicate myself to raising veritable pigs, an activity in which, I believe, I will have better results under every aspect’.
In his diary Ghibu demonstrates a preoccupation with the idea of the nation in decomposition. He resounds as a man trapped between a rapid speed-up of violent modern history and the Old World tradition with which he identifies (comparable to Stefan Zweig in The World of Yesterday). To some degree, he lives the drama of a character who become redundant in a perfidious context which accuses him of falsehoods and imprisons him without a trial: ‘I’ve been definitely kicked out of the university, whose inception I contributed to. Hurraaay! Now nobody will poison the university, which I ruined for a quarter of a century with my sinful fascism’, he notes, alluding sarcastically to the Communist Party’s habit of calling everything that wasn’t communist fascist (Ghibu was an independent). This sardonic note struck me as being surprisingly contemporary but in fact dark humour is a spice that detention memoirists used time and time again.
In the year that Ghibu spends in the camp access to the outside world wanes. A fellow prisoner, also incarcerated without a trial, is barred from leaving the camp to see his dying adolescent son. Food becomes scarce (‘The golden age of polenta continues without interruption’, quips Ghibu halfway through his notebook). Ghibu writes with discernment about the ways in which notable figures he met in the camp reacted to the extreme conditions they were faced with; each of them emerged a new type of individual, the opposite of the intended Homo sovieticus. Of a famous author he meets in prison, Ghibu writes, ‘The poor writer has found his refuge in other worlds, in order to forget this one’. When a young prisoner goes on hunger strike, Ghibu writes that his body has begun to smell of a corpse despite still being alive, in a demonic reversal of the uncorrupted flesh of the saint. The gothic notion of the ‘living dead’, in a twentieth-century context, refers to the unnatural social status of heroes who fight against modern society, through self-induced, partial or discarnate death.
If the gulag is ‘moral hell’, as Ghibu calls it, then a rebirth is necessary in this subterranean school of life, which is an essentialisation of human fauna, in the sense of a return to the power dynamics of violence in the primitive community. The ‘reborn’ individual who descends into this inferno makes a decision to return to light – this becomes the dramatic trope of gulag literature. Onisifor Ghibu is determined to master the gulag himself and not have it master him, coping with the situation both by remaining active in external social concerns and turning towards myth and divine signs in equal measure – another attribute of the gulag writer. For instance, he writes of his wife: ‘The fact that I am here alone in Caracal and she sits alone, in this too we must see a more noble symbol, whose significance I am unable to discern’.
Some gulag authors relive their pleasant memories of freedom through contemplation, others compose poems which they memorise or pass on orally and then transcribe after prison, with poetry taking on a talismanic significance since prisoners have only their minds as armour in this dystopia. For Ghibu, who sleeps outside on a straw mat to avoid the cockroaches in his shack, the trope of the North Star (which he sees as a redoubtable character in its daily fight against the sun) reappears as a comforting sign for the desperate:
How wonderful last night was, with its light and serene sky, that lifted me to philosophical meditations I’m seldom capable of. The myriad of stars, great and small, can they only be light for our Earth? Why not jewels for man created by God’s hands? “The making of the world”, or rather the creation of Earth could have been the centre and finality of the creation of the universe. All that is beyond our planet, God made for our sake…Our entire planetary system – a geocentric system? Does it lack life, is it comparable to that on Earth, different from it or superior? Do we know what lies in the stars? From when to where will they endure? And what is the value of Earth in rapport with immensity, infinity, eternity? And what is God, in rapport with our individual, national existence? Surely it must be for a reason that He turned his attention to the earthling, leaving as His second priority the myriads of heavenly spheres He created, certainly, for a reason?
Thus, for Ghibu and for many gulag authors, happiness is a choice, if an ironic one: ‘Thank God for the blessed barbed wire fence, which I grabbed onto, in order to avoid falling’. He travels with the mind, peering in at the camp from the inside out and from the outside in, seeing himself from beyond the barbed wire fence, which has almost grown dear to him, while at the same time envisioning himself visiting his aged mother and his childhood home.
With these psycho-epic interventions, Ghibu participates in another of the hallmarks of gulag literature: the cathartic effect of writing. He reads a great deal of gulag literature – already published and in the making, expressing a desire to see more ‘lived events’ in the press – and spends the majority of his time attempting to retain a semblance of normality by way of routine. Writing is his most important activity and priority, his salvation, even as he pokes nihilistic fun at the endeavour of gulag writing: ‘Prisoners should read the Bible, the holy books, science books, books on war. Absolutely no novels’.
Ghibu is released from the camp at the age of 62. He writes:
Finally, after 222 days of psychological and physical suffering, I have been released from the prison camp, on the 30th of October. Now I am on my way home. It is an admirable autumn day. The notch of the Olt River, embroidered with the bald crags of the Carpathians and with woods bronzed by the autumn sun, enchants the eyes and the spirit. Still, they cannot compensate for the impatience I feel at finally arriving, at last, in the arms of my wife, whom I have missed so dearly. Why do I not have the aerodynamic aeroplane at my disposal, to arrive sooner still?
The mountains are covered with thick snow, white as silver in the splendid autumn sun. So it seems I am not the only one whose hair has become white, as it is now as I returned aged from prison.
At home, I shall write down some of my impressions of the cursed Caracal camp, a place I will never forget.
Prison Journal, written during the year of his incarceration, was published in 1991 after the Romanian Revolution of 1989. Adam J. Sorkin, titan translator of Romanian, tells me that that there was an interest for dissident literature in the West immediately before and after the Eastern European revolutions. In Romania, meanwhile, people queued outside of bookstores for poetry books with ambiguous political content (poetry in particular allows direct meaning to slip through the cracks), while those which were downright resistant blazed through the black market.
In recent years interest in dissident literature has waned considerably, despite the continued existence of similar forms of repression in the modern world, such as Uyghur internment in China. Carceral literature, however, is a topic of continued importance as a warning against ongoing oppressive practices. Diving deep into the catacombs of the communist detention system offers us perspective, given that it is our destiny to ‘keep the direction of our compass’, as the Romanian would say, while adapting to ever-changing realities. Why then, isn’t the paranoiac inheritance of gulag literature currently of interest for the contemporary Western reader, who is often concerned with notions of accountability, trauma studies, and political gaslighting, to name a few? Are we simply too accustomed to our own liberty?
Something we speak less of is civic consciousness, though awakening to the horrors of the past is both an individual and collective aspect of the modern epic dilemma. Under the spell of this diary’s unique pertinency (despite its equally unusual publication history), I felt myself intrigued by the notion of initiation – initiation into a parallel world that was once real, and which now haunts us through ritual and beginning. So the cosmos of disgust becomes, after all, a cosmos of transcendence in Eastern European dissident literature, which certainly deserves renewed attention in the Anglophone world.
Andreea Iulia Scridon is a poet and translator. She studied Comparative Literature at King’s College London and Creative Writing at the University of Oxford. She has a poetry pamphlet forthcoming with Broken Sleep Books and a poetry book forthcoming with MadHat Press in 2022.
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