European Memories

of the Gulag


image description

Becoming  SOVIET?

After the repeated violence they suffered while they were being deported, many special resettlers, once they had arrived in Siberia or Central Asia, discovered a world that was harsh but offered some chances of integrating. The living conditions of the local people were surprisingly similar to their own. They shared the same experience of manual labour on the kolkhoz collective farms and in the forestry industry.

The socialisation and integration of the new arrivals occurred mainly through work, which included supervised and ordered collective work and outside activities (such as a private vegetable garden). Collective work forced them to adopt Soviet forms of organisation and social values: the importance of the work team, the acquisition of technical skills as work was mechanised, seen as upward mobility, rewards based on career progress and the quantity of work supplied. Some of them gradually made their own a discourse that glorified work and emphasised the domination of man over nature by the construction of major industrial and urban complexes.

Integration into this Soviet world also required the adoption of survival strategies typical of the system, such as bartering services. Many witnesses recall the sewing machines that helped many resettled Lithuanian families to survive. Bartering services could open the doors to integration into the local community, whose practices were Soviet in nature, with all the avoidance and evasion that involved.

These forms of integration and upward mobility were all the more important because other more political avenues, such as the komsomol or the Party, were largely or completely closed to the resettlers.

Text: Emilia Koustova


Vocational training


In this film, taken from an Eastern Siberian newsreel, we can perceive a typical Soviet atmosphere, in the trainer’s manner of teaching and the technical aims of the course chosen as a news item.

This film was shown in a newsreel in Eastern Siberia in 1953.


Abram Lešč: «Becoming Soviet»


The importance of mechanisation

The glorification of mechanised work and the domination of man over nature were part of the Soviet discourse, and some witnesses adopted them. These photographs show the importance of machines and mechanical power, whether at work (particularly farm and forestry tractors) or in private life (the motorbike as a symbol of social success, especially for men).


Rafail Rozental describes Sovietisation


Juozas Milautskas – technical progress


“My brother went to school here. He was a very good pupil. Then he worked on the tractor trailer. It wasn’t until he got back to Lithuania that he learnt to drive the tractor.

Then there was diesel… After the war there were ‘Natik’ tractors with iron cabins! Those diesel tractors were unbelievable.

I drove those tractors, and the combine harvesters! I was a driver. I even went to fetch combine harvesters from Irkutsk. That was 500km away. You had to cross the river on the rocks. The combine harvesters often toppled over. But I had no trouble!”



Young Pioneer then Komsomol member

In Lithuania, Marite Kontrimaite joined the Young Pioneers during the Khrushchev Thaw and then the Komsomol. Her mother was angry and her father wept. She thought they didn’t realise that now they were really going to control their future.


Andrei and his attachment to 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!”