European Memories

of the Gulag





Elena Petrovna was born in a little village in the Ternopol region, then in Poland, later in Ukraine, in 1937, to a family with a German-looking name. Her father was a descendant of Germans who had settled in the Russian Empire at the end of the 18th century on the invitation of Catherine the Great, but he could not speak German. Her mother was Ukrainian.

However, in 1944 or 1945, the Soviets arrested her father because their surname was enough to have them considered as Bandera partisans. Her father was sent to a camp in the far north of Siberia, while she and her mother were deported first to Zima in the Irkutsk region. Only her brother escaped deportation because he was away when the soldiers came.

Elena stayed a year in Zima and then moved to another village nearby. Her mother worked in a lumber camp, like many of the deportees in those areas. During the early years, her mother’s skills as a seamstress earned her enough for them to live rather better than most deportees.

One day, she came home from school in tears. Village children had called her a Bandera partisan, an enemy of the people. Many at that school had had fathers who had died at the front. So they considered her to be a Fascist and responsible for their deaths. She did not understand, especially since her mother got on well with the other villagers. Some Russian children defended her; the Ukrainian children were afraid.

She remembers Japanese prisoners working nearby, Uzbeks who arrived later, many of whom died, a soldier from the Vlasov Army, who said nothing about his war experience, and other ex-soldiers. And the Lithuanians, who arrived in 1949, like her history teacher, who went back when they were rehabilitated in 1956.

She has carefully kept, in a cloth containing all she has left from that time, the letters her father regularly wrote her mother, and those from her brother back in their native village. Some of the letters end “Glory to great Stalin”.

Her father died a few weeks after Stalin’s death in early May 1953. At that time, many men came back from the camps to the village where she was living. One of these ex-prisoners had known her father in Norilsk, but told her nothing about him.

One day, her mother simply said to her, “We’re free”. She learnt no details. She joined the Komsomol youth movement and does not remember any restrictions on her. Most of her friends came from deportee families, and the girls did not call each other Bandera partisans. No one spoke about deportation.

Silence, imposed by persistent fear, dominated her whole life until now. She has not told her children her story. Her daughter set out alone to research her origins, her life, her family’s history. She is still looking, travelling to Ukraine, finding traces of the story, but her mother still will not talk about it to her. She asked us to respect her anonymity.