European Memories

of the Gulag

ToPics

06
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Daily  LIFE

 

The day was filled up with work on the kolkhoz and various household tasks, made more tiring because this was a world with a minimum of artefacts. Most of the object were made by the peasants from local materials: wood, linen, hemp, leather, and plant roots used as soap or onion skin to dye cloth. The deportees recount their exile through a few key objects that represented their poverty or, in some cases, a source of hope: the pigs that were reared some years after the war revealed an important improvement in the living conditions of those who owned them.

This restricted, tiring daily life became a basis for reconstruction. This was the central element in community life: national attachment was maintained by taking part in festivals and religious rites, the language spoken at home, traditional songs, some articles kept or copied, like Ukrainian embroidery, but this did not prevent local integration via exchanges of services and skills, and shared leisure and social events.

Daily life was an area where different worlds could meet: collective work and private activities, various traditions within the general background imposed by the Soviet world, where customs and objects imported from the homeland existed alongside, ignored or encountered the local world.

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Antanas Panava recalls his daily life on the kolkhoz

 

“I was a student and suddenly, two weeks later, I was already working on a kolkhoz. And they said, ‘You’re going to work here, shifting the straw, etc.’ Since I knew about land work, I thought there was nothing for it, we would do it if we had to, and that’s how we lived. Out there we met some Lithuanians who had been taken there earlier. They had given a particularly good image of Lithuanians, the Russians knew that the people being brought were not enemies, bandits and so on as the authorities had said. The people there said, “We know you people already”. The good thing for us was that they offered us somewhere to stay at the outset, because the local Russians were leaving the kolkhoz for towns, but they were afraid of leaving their houses to just anyone, it was difficult. So they wanted to find reliable people who would look after the houses, and wouldn’t burn the fences or break the windows. They wanted to live somewhere else and said that they were leaving the place for a while. 1951, 1952 and 1953 were hard years, because they paid very little for the work. We were short of bread… bread was essential. Potatoes, people had, they planted them themselves, but getting food was hard. But there was nothing for it, people got used to it. We worked in the fields from very early in the morning. In the spring, we sowed, then there was hay-making, then harvesting until the snow fell.”

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Daily life

Daily life is central for the deportees and their recollections. It was first of all a burden of cold, hunger, constraints and privation. This daily life represented deportation, because it continually reminded them that they’d been uprooted, torn from the world they knew and forced to make a new life. Each day was full of work of many sorts that never ended. After spending the day ploughing the kolkhoz fields, they had to tend their vegetable gardens, if they were lucky enough to have one, chop wood, fetch water from the well, and try to get food. These household tasks took up a large part of their lives and the recollections of those who as children had to do them in the absence of adults.

In deportation, the material side of daily life, the world of household objects, was reduced to a minimum. Despite this, or rather because of it, objects took on a special place. They were extremely simple and at the same time precious, rare and present in all the recollections, because they represented memories and links with the world where people were born, the hopes for a better life and the possibility of just surviving. A quilt that saves someone’s life at least twice, first in a frozen railway wagon, then in a Siberian village, where it could be bartered on arrival for a sack of potatoes the family could immediately plant so as to get through the first winter, the hardest of all… A sewing machine, an invaluable resource, so as to help out the neighbours, earn a few roubles (or sacks of wheat), clothe the children or just look pretty, by introducing townsfolk’s’ fashions that had never been seen here before, which female witnesses still remember.

A dress made by a Lithuanian woman was all the more memorable because all the other objects were so poor and rudimentary. In that subsistence economy, suffering not only from the chronic shortages typical of the Soviet economy but also from the virtual absence of money among the kolkhoz workers, paid in kind, the deportees had rapidly to learn how to use plant roots instead of soap, to pick and dry berries to eke out their meagre rations, to make their own tools, kitchen utensils and shoes.

All this left its mark on the minds of the deportees who recount their exile around a few key objects: black skirts patched with white material stand out for Elena Talanina-Paulauskaite as a symbol of the extreme poverty of her neighbours in a village in the Krasnoyarsk region. The presence or appearance of a particular object is also significant, because it could become a source of hope, a promise of survival or a better life, like the pigs that began to be reared in the homes of the Siberian deportees some years after the war. Over and above their practical significance, the pigs reveal an improvement in people’s living conditions, since they had leftovers of food or flour to feed them.

This restricted, tiring daily life became a basis for reconstruction. This was the central element in community life: national attachment was maintained and asserted mainly in daily life (festivals and religious rites, the language spoken at home, national recipes and traditional songs, some articles kept or copied in exile, like Ukrainian or Lithuanian embroidery), but this did not prevent local integration via exchanges of services and shared skills, and also leisure, celebrations and social events shared by the deportees and the locals.

 

Daily life was an area where different worlds could meet: collective work and private activities, from work in the vegetable gardens to relaxation and celebrations. A meeting of various traditions within the general framework imposed by the ideological, penal and material constraints of the Soviet world, where customs and objects imported from the homeland existed alongside, ignored or encountered the local world.

Emilia Koustova and Jurgita Mačiulytė

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Ruzgys Rimgaudas remembers life after Stalin died

 

“Then, after Stalin died, things got a bit better. The young Lithuanians started buying bikes… Our family bought a small K125 motorbike. While I was still a youngster, we went to Ulan-Ude, the capital, 150 km away, to buy that motorbike. I came back on it, with no licence or experience in riding one, through the fields and the forest… we were four or five mates who bought the bikes and rode them back. 

Later, when we were 15 or 16, after Stalin died, we started organising activities, dancing traditional dances, and the girls made national costumes. Everyone did what they could, as well as they could. We put on shows in our village, because a lot of people had lived there for quite a time. Some people managed to get instruments and began to play them; little bands were formed. There were older people and younger ones, some with accordions, other with violins, percussion, and girls playing the guitar. We would gather near the huts in the evening and dance on the bare earth. We even took part in an outside event, a regional festival; it was an excursion. Life changed a little.”