European Memories

of the Gulag

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Death  OF STALIN

On 5 March 1953, Stalin dies at the age of 74.

Millions of Soviet citizens and Communists throughout the world are in mourning.

For prisoners in the Gulag camps there is at last some hope of liberation. All of them recall that memorable day when the news of his death is announced at morning appel.

In the remote villages of Siberia and Central Asia, where hundreds of thousands of families have been exiled for life, reactions are mixed. Some children come home from school upset by the anguish and despair of their teachers and friends; some cry, others are relieved. At home, their parents are full of hope and their eyes shine in a new way, but they remain discreet for fear of the consequences if they display their joy too openly. 

Stalin’s death is followed by various amnesties, major reforms and the end of the mass concentration camp system. But liberation and return sometimes take long years..

See MEDIA
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Testimony of Anna Kovalchuk-Tarasova

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Life after the death of Stalin

“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, others 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.”

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Juliana Zarchi recalls the day of Stalin’s death

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Frost, radio and tears

The death of Stalin, and especially its announcement, remains an extremely clear event in Kasimirs Gendels’s memory, even if in practice the dictator’s death did not bring any immediate radical changes; liberation came later.

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Antanas Seikalis recalls the day of Stalin’s death

“The day of Stalin’s funeral, we were not taken out to work. They brought us all together on the central square in the camp and at noon on the dot they ordered us to take off our hats. The weather was still cold.

And among us there were some Poles. They were hidden by other prisoners. They took off their hats and started throwing them into the air.

But they didn’t know there was a KGB captain watching everyone from the watchtower. He saw what happened but didn’t know who had done it.

For a long time no one was punished, but a fortnight later they interrogated us one by one. No one told on the Poles. Anyway we had a good laugh when they started to throw their hats into the air to celebrate the event. I’ll always remember Stalin’s funeral. In the end, these are good memories.”

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"Especially us, the young ones, we couldn’t care less about all that "

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A radio programme: Was Stalin’s death the death of the Gulag?

A radio programme in the “ La Marche du Monde” series on RFI with the historians Oleg Khlevniuk and Catherine Gousseff, in which this world event is analysed via many testimonies and INA archives from the period.

Fermer

A radio programme: Was Stalin’s death the death of the Gulag?

A radio programme in the “ La Marche du Monde” series on RFI with the historians Oleg Khlevniuk and Catherine Gousseff, in which this world event is analysed via many testimonies and INA archives from the period.