European Memories

of the Gulag


Unknown land

The old Kalmuk woman


“I was all alone in the cowshed in the cold, with a freezing nose, when an old Kalmuk woman came in, unwashed and toothless. Kalmuk women are not very attractive anyway, and old Kalmuk women even less. And in those days I didn’t know that there were people with yellow skin. I didn’t know. I was afraid.

I still remember. I was rooted to the spot. I couldn’t stop staring at her, I’d never seen anyone like it, I didn’t know there were such people.

She looked at me and smiled. I could see that she had something in her hand. I was starving and she held out to me what she had in her hand. Then I realised that it was a small piece of cake, you know, the sort made from what’s left of the grain, that’s what she had. I was so afraid of that Kalmuk woman, I’ll never forget her.”


His first birch trees


“In April there was still a lot of snow in that part of the country. It was an area of forests and steppes. A dense forest with white birch trees and black branches. That’s the picture I see when I shut my eyes.

White birch trees, I’d never seen anything like it. Back home in western Ukraine, there are none. I didn’t know there were trees that had white bark.”