European Memories

of the Gulag


Childhood, social relations and languages


“And the staff of the sawmill were deportees, people like my mother, with children. There weren’t only little children like us. There were families with adolescents of 16 or 17. They were there waiting till they were called up. There were Gypsies and Lithuanians. One of the Lithuanians called Yuzik became my school mate. We were all in the same school, the primary school, where we were taught for the first four years, then we moved to Bolshaya Koda, where there was a school for the older pupils. We were boarders. We went there for the whole week, taking our own food, otherwise we wouldn’t have been fed. Some people rented rooms from the locals. That happened for my brothers. I was a full boarder.


Did you mother speak Ukrainian to you?

Yes, always, she always spoke to me in Ukrainian. I had never been to Ukraine but I learnt Ukrainian from my mother. It isn’t literary Ukrainian, but colloquial Ukrainian. I speak it very well. In 1964, when I first went to Ukraine, I could communicate very well with people. I remember one episode, there was a newspaper on the table and my uncle asked me to read something. I had never learnt Ukrainian but I managed to translate the article from Ukrainian to Russian. Perhaps by intuition, but with no problem. It’s true that I don’t speak literary Ukrainian, but colloquial Ukrainian.


Was it strange to be speaking Ukrainian at home and Russian at school?
Oui je l’ai ressenti quand je suis allé à l’école, mais il y avait très peu de familles russes “de souche” (chisto russkie), je ne me souviens que d’une seule, Yes, I felt it when I went to school, but there were very few “pure” Russian families (chisto russkie), I can only remember one, the foreman’s family, and all the others were exiles.

Who were your friends?

First of all, we were a very close family. I was very close to my brothers and my sister and I was friends with all our neighbours’ children. The others were Ukrainians and in the school yard I spoke a sort of mixed language. I learnt a lot of Lithuanian words. Since then I can remember how to say hello, “labadene [laba diena]”, that’s “hello” in Lithuanian. You know, children always manage to learn and communicate with signs and gestures, one word of Russian, one word of Lithuanian, one word of Ukrainian. We always got on well, there were never any conflicts.


Since you mention conflicts, some respondents have told us of persecutions suffered by the Lithuanians, for example, Lithuanian kids attacked by other villagers...


No, that’s not my experience at all, because all the people around us were exiles like us, there were hardly any locals.


And the adults?

The adults had perfectly ordinary contacts. There were Tatars, not just Ukrainians and Lithuanians. One was called Khakim, another Abrinit, but they were already grown up. We were all together and we would invite each other to each other’s houses for religious festivals. At Easter, in particular, we would hide eggs and look for them together. Among the adults, there were sometimes conflicts, there were two or three murders, but that was mainly because of alcohol. But between kids there were none.


Which festivals did you celebrate?

My mother was very religious, a true believer. She came from western Ukraine and the Orthodox faith was very important for her.”