The Women of Stalin's Gulag

By Paul Gregory

A remark often attributed to Stalin is, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” This is the story of five such tragedies. They are stories about women because, as in so many cases, it was the wives and daughters who survived to tell what happened.

These five women put a human face on the terror of Stalin’s purges and the Gulag in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. They show how the impersonal orders emanating from the Kremlin office of “the Master” brought tragedy to their lives. They cover the gamut of victims. Two are wives and daughters in ordinary families unable to comprehend why such misfortune has overtaken them. A third is a young bride living in the household of a high party official. The last two are wives of the Master’s executioners. These stories are based on their memoirs—some written by themselves, others by close friends or by their children.

Together, they put a human face on what author Robert Conquest termed The Great Terror.


Agnessa Argipopulo was born in 1903 in the small town of Maikop, in far southern Russia, near the Black Sea port city of Novorossiysk. She and her older sister, Lena, exemplified the mixed heritage of the people of the Russian “South”: a blend of Greek, Russian and Mongol blood which made them the acknowledged beauties of Maikop. The Red and White armies traded control of the town during the Russian Revolution. While the sisters were both still in their teens, Lena married a White Guard officer … Agnessa a Red. But Agnessa’s fate was settled when she left her first husband for a rising star in the NKVD, the Soviet secret police force that carried out Stalin’s purges in the 1930s.


Maria Senotrusova was born in 1904 in the isolated village of Tolbaga, in Eastern Siberia. This former czarist dumping ground for exiles and revolutionaries was opening up to the world thanks to the Trans-Siberian Railway. When a spur line was built to nearby coal deposits, Maria joined the local work force and met her future husband, the engineer in charge of the work. They married and raised three children in a hard-working, well-educated family that exemplified everything the USSR wanted and needed in the New Soviet People who would build the socialist paradise. But Stalin’s purge destroyed their lives as it did the lives of hundreds of thousands of other innocents.    


Evgenia Feigenberg, born in 1904, had no intention of remaining in her hometown of Gomel, Belorussia, close to Poland and Ukraine but far from the European capitals where she was sure she belonged. Nor did she intend to follow the normal life course for the daughter of a rabbi: an early marriage and many children. Her first marriage took her to Odessa. She left her husband for a better catch, who took her to Moscow and to the Soviet Embassy in London. But it was her third partner who took her with him as he climbed ruthlessly to the highest levels of Soviet power—only to doom them both to destruction when Stalin tired of his purges and looked for a scapegoat for the Great Terror.


Adile Abbasogly, born in 1920, was only fifteen when she was literally swept away by a handsome older man who was a member of the Lakoba clan, the leading family in Sukhumi, in the Abkhazian portion of the Soviet Union. Adile’s father was Persian, and her family, while Muslim, celebrated the Christian holidays. Her choice of a husband appeared inspired: his brother-in-law was Nestor Lakoba, the head of the powerful Lakoba clan and a close associate and personal friend of Stalin. Nestor had led the Bolshevik takeover of the region and appeared solidly in charge. But Lavrenty Beria, his rival for power, set out to destroy the Lakobas and everyone associated with them.


Fekla Andreeva was born in 1926 in Suvory Village in the Ural Mountains. Her pleasant childhood ended early in 1930 when Stalin ordered the “dekulakization” of the Soviet countryside. Her family’s relative prosperity–they owned a small farm and some livestock and could afford to hire help to bring in the harvest each year–put them into a group which Stalin wanted “liquidated as a class.” Stripped of all belongings, the family was eventually sent to a nearby settlement, where they and other kulaks built crude barracks and worked in mines and fields on starvation rations. Fekla and her sisters went to school where they strived to be good Soviet citizens and learned to revere Stalin. But far worse was yet to come at the hands of “the Master.”

Stalin’s Struggles & Successes

Who was this man of diminutive stature but outsized ambition who had clawed, bullied, and assassinated his way to the pinnacle of power in the new nation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics?

Joseph Stalin was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in 1879 in the mountains of Georgia, in the Caucasus region of the Russian Empire. An early convert to the Bolshevik cause, he assumed the name Stalin, “man of steel.” He took on a series of low-level leadership positions under Vladimir Lenin after the Russian Revolution, quietly finding ways to gain power. When Lenin, the “Old Man,” died in 1924, few of the Old Guard expected Stalin to come out on top in the power struggle that followed. However, the man who would become “the Master” had a game plan and would do anything to win.

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Paul Gregory is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He holds an endowed professorship in the Department of Economics at the University of Houston, Texas, is a research professor at the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin, and is chair of the International Advisory Board of the Kiev School of Economics. His most recent book is Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin's Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina (Hoover Institution Press, 2010).

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