Simeon Vilensky (1928-2016) ended his long life, nationally and internationally recognised, and an honoured member of Alexander Yakovlev’s Commission for the Victims of Political Repression. Yet he could so easily have disappeared into one of the many thousands of unmarked graves in the Gulag.
He first became widely known during the late 1980s and went on to publish dozens of books about the Captives of Totalitarianism (not just those of Red Fascism but of the Nazi regime, and of the Stasi) and to organise four extraordinary conferences on “Resistance in the Gulag”. Few can have waited longer for such a moment.
Denounced by a fellow student in post-war Lviv (west Ukraine), Simeon passed through several circles of the hell on earth known as the Gulag. Imprisoned first at Sukhanovka, a former nunnery that was Lavrenty Beria’s favourite torture centre, his tormentors thought they had driven Simeon insane. For some months he enjoyed a dubious respite at the Serbsky Institute in Moscow before being declared fit to make the long journey eastwards to Kolyma, the most remote and inhospitable part of the Gulag Archipelago. He survived and was released in the mid-1950s.
For a short period, Simeon, like others, nursed hopes that his recent plight would be fully acknowledged. He alarmed Varlam Shalamov with a proposal to compile an anthology about the camps. The brief Thaw ended.
Back in Moscow from the Soviet Far East, Simeon joined in the literary life of the Soviet capital, attending the Saturday soirées of Eudoxia Nikitina, and getting acquainted with Yuly Daniel and Yury Dombrovsky. Yet rather than leave his experiences of Kolyma behind and get on with life, for the next forty years, while he worked as a commentator and journalist, Simeon privately became a trusted custodian of others’ written testimony about the Gulag.
An older generation died, leaving Simeon the keeper of the memories they had recorded. Finally, in 1989, he was able to publish his most famous and influential work, Till My Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag, in a print-run of 100,000 copies. (I have given the anthology its English title; it was published in the USA and the UK in 1999.) The book consisted of excerpts from the memoirs of 23 women, some famous, most not, each with a brief introduction by another Gulag survivor.
The memoirs of camp inmates Olga Sliozberg and Vaclav Dvorzhetsky, the recollections of East German spymaster Markus Wolff’s years in the USSR, and of Dombrovsky’s time behind the barbed wire (They wanted to kill me, those bastards) – the variety of texts published during the 1990s as individual books or excerpts in the Volya almanacs were testimony to Simeon’s insatiable curiosity and to the varied output of the Vozvrashchenie “izdatelskaya kvartira”. The 1994 conference on Resistance in the Gulag brought together survivors of the Forty Days of Kengir from all over the former Soviet Union, and was addressed, on behalf of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, by his wife Natalia. More recently Vilensky was regularly interviewed by Novaya gazeta for its Gulag supplement.
Other organisations and individuals collected and preserved similar memoirs. Simeon was able to select the texts that said something new about Russia’s brutal 20th century and to edit them accordingly since it was a formative part of his own life’s experience. “Senechka” to his seniors in the Kolyma Sorority (Berta Babina, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Olga Sliozberg), Vilensky ended his life a patriarch, always keen to make new acquaintances and with a ready twinkle in his expressive eyes.
“Do not say with sadness, ‘He is no more’. Rather rejoice and say, ‘I knew him’.”
John Crowfoot first visited the USSR as a schoolboy in August 1968. He returned to Moscow in 1986 and lived and worked there as a translator and editor until 1999.
The English edition of Simeon Vilensky’s anthology was finally published in 1999. Two of his subsequent major book projects were the compilation, translation and editing of Anna Politkovskaya's A Dirty War (2001), a first volume of her despatches from the second Chechen War, and a translation of the nonagenarian Emma Gerstein's Moscow Memoirs (2004), her painfully honest account of the Mandelstams, Akhmatova and Lev Gumilyov.
Following Anna Politkovskaya’s murder in 2006, he worked with media monitors in Russia to document violations of the rights of journalists and the media there and to challenge the climate of impunity prevailing under Putin.
More recently he has created (or upgraded) websites, documenting the dissident movement of the 1960s to 1980s -- A Chronicle of Current Events (1968-1982) and USSR News Update («Вести из СССР», 1978-1987) – and currently runs the Dmitriev Affair website, recording the ordeals of Yury Dmitriev in Petrozavodsk and the artificial “Memory War” over the killing fields of Sandarmokh.