By Right of Memory

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By Right of Memory

Poem excerpt

By: Alexander Tvardovsky

Date: Date unknown; between 1968 and 1991

Source: Applebaum, Anne, ed. By Right of Memory. New York: Penguin, 2003.

About the Author: Alexander Tvardovsky was a Russian poet who received several official prizes from the Soviet regime, but late in his career assisted dissenters such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn.


This scrap of poetry, which is an English translation of a Russian original, was found in the remains of the Soviet prison system known as the Gulag. The original text was an autobiographical poem by Alexander Tvardovsky (1910–1971), a Russian Soviet poet who received the Stalin Prize and Lenin Prize for works that praised the Soviet government but who supported dissent in the 1970s.

The word "Gulag" was originally an acronym for Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, Russian for "Main Camp Administration." The Gulag was a system of geographically isolated prisons, camps, colonies, and villages in which a total of about twenty million persons were imprisoned throughout much of the Soviet era (early 1920s through 1991). Many thousands of persons were tortured and killed in the Gulag system; over a million died. Prisoners were expected to do hard work but were inadequately fed, leading to a high rate of death by disease. Families and children of persons accused of counterrevolutionary activity were also imprisoned, often in separate camps or colonies. Intellectuals were often assigned to forced psychiatric treatment designed not to cure mental disorders but to break down resistance. During World War II, many Gulag prisoners were drafted into penal battalions that were placed at the most dangerous parts of the front. (Russia suffered about ten million military dead and eleven million civilian dead in World War II, by far the greatest losses of any group or country in that period.).

Mass releases from the Gulag system occurred in the 1950s under Nikita Khruschev (1894–1971). The Gulag system was officially terminated in 1960, but many people remained imprisoned in parts of the system for years afterward.


[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


The preservation by an inmate of a Soviet prison camp of a protest poem written by an official Soviet poet is a peculiar event. It reflects the complex personal story of the poem's original author, Alexander Tvardovsky, and hints at the slow-growing discontent that eventually brought about the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991.

The Soviet government was formally established in 1922. Although founded on a Communist ideology that originally appealed to the idea of universal fairness, it was a harshly repressive regime. Its vast secret-police apparatus sent millions of peasants, intellectuals, religious believers, and dissidents to the Gulag. The first major wave of Soviet forced-labor camps was engineered in the early 1930s to "liquidate" (the official Soviet term) the class of relatively well-to-do peasant farmers known in Russia as kulaks. Kulaks were considered "class enemies"—that is, government officials assumed that they would be less loyal to the new Soviet regime than poorer classes of farmers. It was decided by the Soviet government that the kulaks would be "liquidated as a class," that is, not necessarily massacred but forced to take up a lower social status. Those who resisted were shot. Forced movement of kulaks to collective farms resulted in many thousands of deaths and greatly expanded the incipient Gulag system.

The young poet Alexander Tvardovsky had been a fervent member of the Communist Youth League from age fifteen. When he was twenty-one and living away from home, his parents and brother were designated as kulaks and deported to forced labor in the Urals. Tvardovsky learned of their deportation in 1931 when they contacted him to plead for help. He responded in a letter that they should "be strong, be patient, and work" and later denounced his family as "enemies of the people." During World War II, his brother Ivan was drafted into the Soviet army; after the war, Ivan was sent to the Gulag (which he survived).

Tvardovsky, having renounced his family in favor of Soviet ideology, went on to become one of the most famous Soviet poets during World War II. Yet in the ideological thaw that began when Khrushchev denounced Stalin's crimes in a famous 1956 speech to Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party, Tvardovsky—by then editor of the literary journal Novyi Mir ("New World")—renounced Stalinism and helped to expose the Gulag. In his journal, he published what is still one of the most famous pieces of literature about the Gulag, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918–).

In 1968, Tvardovsky wrote a long autobiographical poem, "By Right of Memory," in which he confesses his guilt for renouncing family. This is the poem quoted in translation in this primary source. Tvardovsky was not allowed to publish the poem in Novyi Mir and was forced out of the editorship by the government. By the time he died in 1971, Tvardovsky had fallen definitively from official grace. He remained estranged from his brother, however, until his death.

The story of Tvardovsky reflects the larger arc of twentieth-century Russian history: early enthusiasm of large segments of the population for the Soviet project, followed by disillusionment and embitterment over decades of government oppression, corruption, and inefficiency. Increased political openness or glasnost under Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–) allowed discontent a louder voice. Solzhenitsyn's classic The Gulag Archipelago was finally published in Russia in 1989, sixteen years after it first appeared in translation in the West. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.



Applebaum, Anne. Gulag, A History. New York: Doubleday, 2003.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. The Gulag Archipelago. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.


McFaul, Michael. "Camps of Terror, Often Overlooked." The New York Times. June 11, 2003.