Urszula Muskus

Urszula Muskus, Rawa Ruska, Poland – 1938.

Urszula was arrested with her two children aged 11 and 14 by Stalin’s Secret Police in Poland in 1940. They were locked in a cattle wagon and spent 13 days traveling to Kazakhstan. Urszula survived 2 years forced labour on the collective farms, 10 years hard labour in the gulags and 4 years eternal exile in Siberia. She came home from this without a shred of bitterness and a love of the many nationalities with whom she had been locked up. She wrote her story over the next 15 years, the rest of her life, keeping alive the memory of all her friends, many of whom had died, or as they said in the camps – ‘released themselves’.

This memoir is an inspiration to us all. She was a woman with an indomitable spirit, who was modest and kind, but strong enough to stand in harm’s way to defend others, and always saw the light at the end of the tunnel.

Read some of the 101 REVIEWS


The Long BridgeOver the years I’ve assessed quite a few memoirs in manuscript by elderly European émigrés who survived the Second World War. Naturally, I can’t remember them all, but I’m pretty sure that this one is the best I’ve ever read – in many ways the most informative, the most gripping, the most harrowing, the most poignant and, despite some grammatical lapses and a few obscurities, the best written.

I gather from a statement that the memoir was written as long ago as 1960, three years after the author found sanctuary at last in England with her long-lost children and twelve years before she died. One can’t help wondering: why hasn’t anything been done with it before now? I don’t think I exaggerate if I reckon that had this book been published during the 1960s, among other books about the Gulag published in the wake of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s pioneering One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), it might have become an instant classic: a middle-class Polish woman’s remarkably detailed and literate account of 16 years in Soviet forced labour camps. Since then, of course, there have been quite a few books about this subject, including Solzhenitsyn’s own The First Circle and The Gulag Archipeligo and Anatoly Marchenko’s My Testimony (about the camps of the 1960s). The vile interrogation scenes recall the ordeals of Artur London, as described in L’Aveu  (1968), about the Czech show trials. But the book that The Long Bridge probably most closely resembles – I have it before me now, alongside Marchenko’s and London’s – is Eugenia S. Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind, first published in Milan in 1967. It covers a similar period, her years in forced labour camps from 1937 until 1955, when, like Urszula, she became one of the thousands released during the ‘thaw’ following Stalin’s death. Also like Urszula, she never saw her husband again.

It is possible that a publisher or two might be as gobsmacked as I am to realize that here, coming out of nowhere, is a fully-formed, full-length, never-seen-before, first-hand true-life story of the Soviet labour camps written by a woman of truly noble spirit and humanity, with the fine eye of a novelist – in other words, a genuinely exciting ‘find’ that deserves an honourable place in the existing canon of Gulag literature.

In other words, the central issue is: has this book missed the boat or would it be warmly welcomed as a remarkable late addition to the genre? I don’t know the answer to that. But with the latter possibility in mind, let’s now take a closer look at this exceptional memoir and offer some ideas about how best to proceed with it.

One of the things that make this book different from other émigré war memoirs I’ve read is the breadth of its sympathies. Whereas most of the others tend – understandably, I suppose – to be very self-centred, to the point of recording every scrap of trivia, Urszula Muskus takes as much interest in the lives of her fellow-victims – and their captors – as she does in her own ordeal. She writes of her own privations and sufferings with dispassion; of the sufferings of others with compassion. She spends little – perhaps too little – time telling of her former life and upbringing but plunges straight into the outbreak of war and the occupation of Poland. The book is full of extraordinary character studies and anecdotes – for instance, one illiterate prisoner was given a ten-year sentence for recounting a dream that war would come, and her husband received a similar sentence for listening to it!

There are lots of fascinating details. Thus, many of the criminal prisoners – ‘bandit molls’, as they were nicknamed – were epileptic, and they also loved to dress up as Charlie Chaplin! The climate in Kazakhstan actually improved the health of many of the prisoners and gave them the energy to endure.  I was also intrigued to learn that ‘just-in-case’ bags were as much in use during the 1940s as they were – still – when I visited Russia during the1990s.

Sociological detail abounds – some of it reminiscent of Britain’s legendary Mass Observation studies – on the difference between criminal, political and religious prisoners, on smoking, on sex and on sects. There’s no shortage of drama either, with vivid descriptions of beatings, snowstorms, forest fires, malaria outbreaks, howling wolves, scenes of utter pandemonium, and a passage about the Soviet régime’s persecution of an entire people – the Chechyans, no less. Such harsh experiences are tempered by gentler scenes involving a successful knitting enterprise, the grateful adoption of a stray cat, and a stay on a farm where Urszula milks cows and learns to distinguish between their personalities.

Urszula never boasts, but from her refusal to buckle under or to indulge in self-pity, her concern for the welfare of her fellow-prisoners (activity that led to her becoming an official relief officer for Polish political prisoners and deportees), her love of nature (there are wonderful descriptions of sunrises and landscapes), and a spirituality that is entirely without grating piety, one gains an impression of a woman of exemplary humanity and fortitude, at once sensitive, caring, resourceful and tough. There’s no flab in her writing. She can distil a story into its essentials in just a few lines – as witness a complete appalling family tragedy conveyed in a mere five sentences.  It takes a lot to make this veteran professional reader blub, but the few lines at the end in which Urszula describes her reunion with her daughter in England certainly succeeded.

All of this is conveyed in an English which at times is technically faulty (now corrected) but, on the whole, has a remarkably good feel for the internal rhythms and stresses of the language, so that her prose never lapses into monotony of syntax and seldom into repetition.

My only major regret is that she hasn’t told us just a little more about her background and the years leading up to her arrest and deportation. It’s not the middle of the book, when she describes her childhood Christmases, that we gain some insight into her earlier life. In this respect, a published version would benefit from a brief introduction putting the story in a broader family context.

I hope by now it’s obvious that I think highly of this book and believe not only that it’s publishable but that it ought to be published.

Robert Lambolle, 23rd May 2005.


2 thoughts on “GULAG SURVIVOR

  1. Sue Northedge

    I finished reading this superb book last night and I agree that although I have read countless WW11 & oppressive regime books this one will stay with me forever. The spirit of this brave selfless woman rises above the brutality & cruelty of that time. To think she settled in my own county of Leicestershire after her release in 1955 is an honour and I wish we knew exactly where she lived and that the local people could raise money for an everlasting memorial.

    1. Urszula Muskus Post author

      Thanks Sue. Babusia would appreciate your kind thoughts, but I am sure that she would want any money raised to go to those in need today, not a memorial to her. All royalties from the book have gone to Amnesty International. Best wishes, Peter.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s