Sacred Darkness, Levan Berdzenishvili’s semi-autobiographical novel begins at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington DC. Levan is a Georgian-Soviet politician who had landed in the hospital en route to Cancun, Mexico due to an infection, and after learning that Levan had been a prisoner in Soviet Gulag in the 1980s, his attending physician agrees to treat him for free in exchange for Levan’s life stories from that time.
Now if you (like me, before I came across this book) have no idea about the Gulag, let me help you by sharing what I found on the internet. The Gulag refers to forced-labor camps in the Soviet Union that operated under Stalin’s rule from the early 1920s until his death in 1953. From common criminals to political prisoners, Gulag camps housed a large number of convicts. Even though most of the prisoners were released upon Stalin’s death, the Gulag was reconstructed once again in the 1970s to serve as prisons for criminals and political activists, which is how Levan had ended up in the Dubravny camp in Barashevo for the crime of founding an underground Georgian Republican Party advocating for Georgian independence. Under the Soviet Union one-party political system, the formation of any non-Communist party was a punishable offence at the time.
Unlike spies and war criminals who were imprisoned in the Dubravny camp, I feel that Levan and his contemporaries were in there for ludicrous reasons. Although I don’t think the time Levan spent in the Gulag was nearly as harsh as it was for its occupants in the early 20th century (you can find out more about their living situation here), Levan and other political prisoners too had to face certain austere conditions. These inmates were expected to sew from 7AM-4PM to meet a daily quota of 92 mittens, for which they were paid with ‘virtual money’ on paper. And not meeting the quota meant that the prison administrators could either put them in solitary confinement or bar family members from visiting.
Despite all this, according to Levan, the three years he spent in the Gulag were his best!
When I say “the best years,” I mean that in two ways: they were the best years of my life because at the time I was young – and what can be more beautiful than youth – but also because of people that surrounded me, people the KGB had so zealously brought together.
People Levan met the Dubravny camp were mostly geniuses who had landed in jail for their political ideologies. Most of Levan’s friends were mathematicians, scientists, writers, linguists and philosophers (Levan himself is a Greek and Roman scholar and a specialist in classical literature), and more than a few of them held doctorates. Whatever their accomplishments were, in the eyes of the KGB, even the murderers and robbers in the neighboring maximum security prison were “decent people” compared to these political prisoners who had betrayed their country! So Sacred Darkness is Levan’s attempt to keep the memories of fifteen of those “traitors” alive.
As you can imagine, the years Levan spent in prison can be hardly described as ordinary (at least that’s what putting many hours to watch Orange is the New Black has taught me!). They held literary “soirées,” philosophical debates, and weekly lecture series on science, national cultures, and political theories. Reading about them is both fascinating and sad, but Levan recounts his time there with such a sense of humor which makes the readers forget the absurdity of his situation at times!
Similar to the previous two Europa novels I’ve read, the characters appearing in this book are utterly unforgettable – and this time it’s even better because these are real people. From Zohra who “smothered the entire prison camp with his calculations,” to Rafik, “a devoted hoarder” who was always “saving, storing, hiding, conserving, and slicing thin,” and Fred who penned angry letters to the Prosecutor General of the USSR once he found out one of his fellow inmates had eaten a pigeon – “a close relative of the dove” and the symbol of peace – and another a yellow dog – “a man’s best friend,” I grew fond of each and every one of them.
I also learnt a few interesting tidbits about the Soviet Union (and now Russia). For instance, if one wants to get rid of an incarcerated spouse, as far as I can tell, it can be done hassle-free and pretty fast. You only have to express your heart’s desire – a simple message to the spouse would do – and your wish will come true instantly in the form of a marriage annulment!
I do have one complaint about Sacred Darkness though. Since it deals with a part of history which I don’t think is well known, I wish the publishers had included an Introduction to this – it would have been nice to have some background context and Levan’s account in one place. But other than that, this is a remarkably humorous book for a prison memoir which is promoted as being “the only book on the Soviet Gulags that’s impossible to read without laughing.” While I can’t attest to the first part of that statement as Sacred Darkness is the first book I read on the Gulags, I can promise that I chuckled quite a lot while reading this! 4 stars.
Note: Many thanks to Europa Editions for sending me a review copy of Sacred Darkness.