European Memories

of the Gulag

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Andrei  OZEROVSKI

 

Andrei Ozerovski was born in 1914 in Lutsk, the administrative capital of Volhynia, then in the east of Russian Poland. During his life he crossed the continent of Eurasia to find himself in Karaganda, Kazakhstan, where he then enjoyed his retirement. He was a primary school teacher and during the war became a sympathising witness of Polish and Ukrainian resistance to the Nazi occupants and the troops of the Red Army. He was arrested in 1944 on a charge of “anti-Soviet activism” and sent first to the Bryansk penal colony near Belarus, where he survived an extremely harsh regime. He was then sent to Arzamas 16 (now Sarov), where he helped build the closed town at the heart of Soviet research on the atomic bomb. In 1947 he was deported to Kazakhstan, to the vast farm camp of Karaganda, the Karlag, cutting him off from his native region. Some months after arriving at the Karlag he was sent to complete his sentence in the Steplag camp, out in the remote arid steppes. Like the other prisoners he worked at mining copper from the deposits of the mineral-rich region. Released in 1954, he returned to Karaganda, a coal town, where he settled and went back to mining, a world he liked and where he made his career. He integrated into Soviet society in Karaganda, alongside a population of displaced persons of all sorts, those expelled by Stalinist society and workers attracted by incentives to advance the prosperity of the town built from scratch in the 1930s. He kept some contact with his native region, part of Ukraine since 1939, by regularly going back but said that his main roots were not there.

 

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Complexity of conflict

After the farmers’ property was looted, they joined the resistance. It was extremely hard to take up a position, between the Germans, the Ukrainian nationalist partisans and the Soviet partisans.

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Mobilisation

Mobilisation into the army and disappearance of young conscripts. He was arrested and nearly executed.

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Children in the Gulag camps

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The Karlag

“I’m very grateful to the Karlag. If it hadn’t been for the Karlag, I wouldn’t have lasted long on this earth. It was nothing like Bryansk.

First of all, we were given clothes... trousers, overcoats, the felt boots called valenki. In fact that was the first time I’d ever worn any. There was all we needed and even proper bread. True, we went out to work, but when we came back, we had mattresses, pillows, blankets, our beds were proper ones. I suffered from night blindness...

I had scurvy, chronic bronchitis, I was in an advanced state of exhaustion. I could have died. I kept falling ill... I also had myocarditis: four illnesses in all. But I wasn’t written off as invalid, I was given individual work to do three to four hours a day. That was my quota, whereas for the others it was 11 hours and they did 12.

That’s what bloody farm work is like! But we lived all right in the Karlag, it was no worse than outside!”

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Reception at the sovkhoz after release

 

We were very poorly received at the sovkhoz. There were the young komsomols sent out to open up the virgin lands. They avoided us like the plague. One of our lot found a wallet on a path. It contained papers: a komsomol membership card, a travel voucher and 180 roubles. He was a shy fellow, but I went directly to the club where the young people were dancing, watching films. They looked at us suspiciously. I looked at the papers, there was the komsomol boy’s photo on his card. I recognised him. “Are you Sebriuk?” “Yes, why?” The poor lad was frightened. “You’re pretty careless, you don’t look after your belongings. Are these your papers? – Oh, thank you, uncle, but please keep the money. – I’m not penniless. Why would I need your money? Keep it, you’ll make better use of it and don’t lose it again. – Uncle, come and see us from time to time.”

There were two Chechen girls. “Hey, girls, aren’t you afraid of us? – No, why should we be? – Because everyone here in the sovkhoz is afraid of us, they all think we’re wild animals. – They’re the ones who are wild animals. We know you’re human beings.” That’s what the Chechen girls were like! So they began to look at us differently. They realised.

 

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Work in the mine, in freedom

“I arrived in Karaganda in 1960, I got married in 1955 and our daughter was born in 1956. So in 1960 I arrived here and got a job at the mine. I already knew about mining after my years at the Zheskazgan camp. But here I was free and there was no gas, it wasn’t as dangerous. If I had to start again today, I’d go back to work in the mine. Yes, there are explosions, people can lose their lives, yes, it’s hard. But today, I’d really be happy to see the mine again, even for half an hour. I love watching miners work. I’m deeply attached to mining!”