European Memories

of the Gulag

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Grigori  KOVALCHUK

Grigori Kovalchuk was born in western Ukraine in 1944. At the end of the war, the family was denounced by a neighbour and he was deported, along with his mother, brothers and sister, to the Arkhangelsk region. His father was accused of having belonged to the banderovtsi, although he had been shot dead by the banderovtsi for being pro-Soviet.

After two years in exile, his mother decided to escape with her children and return to her village. She bartered her shawl for a train ticket and set off on the long journey, via Moscow, where she took a lorry from one station to the other, and Kyiv.

They all lived for a while in their village and then were denounced again by a neighbour and deported to the same place. Then they were sent to Siberia, perhaps to stop the mother escaping again. They went by train to Bratsk, then a small village in Siberia, and then to a village where a large number of Ukrainians were living, near Kaltuk. His sister, Anna Kovalchuk-Tarasova, started work very young; Grigori went on to higher education with great success.

Grigori now teaches geography in Kaltuk. He worked at the school for forty years. He retired but was recalled to teach again. He is also a musician.

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Grigori Kovalchuk remembers the absence of grown men

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Escape

 

“Mother found life hard and she decided to escape. She had some belongings, a Ukrainian shawl that she bartered, and she put us in a sleigh, my sister and my brother, and we went to the railway station. There she bartered something with the ticket woman to have a ticket, we got on the train and came home.”

 

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Birth and deportation

“In those days, my village was called Boriskovich, that was in 1944, in the middle of the war.

I never knew my father, at least I have no memory of him. When western Ukraine was occupied by the Nazis…

Yes, my father was a firefighter and my mother a housewife. At that time, before 1940, western Ukraine belonged to Poland and my mother was a farm labourer for a rich Polish landowner. Then she married my father, a long time ago, of course, long before I was born.

All I can tell you is that my father did not take part in the war. He would go back and forth between the village and the forest where other farmers were hiding. From time to time he would come home and I suppose that it was on one of those occasions that I was made, so to speak, during a visit. Then, what I do know is that he was denounced and killed.

He was killed by those they later called the Banderovci, Bandera partisans, and a month and a half later I was born, that was 1944. It was in this village that we lived until it was liberated by the Red Army, and in 1949, or 1948, I don’t remember that either, there was another denunciation and all our family, except our father, of course, my mother had five children, I was the youngest, all the family were arrested and exiled to the north in the Arkhangelsk region near the large town of Kotlas. We lived there for 18 months, I was very ill, the climate was sub-Arctic. My mother had five children, but only three of them were exiled: me, my sister who looked after me and one of my brothers. The other two brothers stayed in Ukraine with relatives.

 

Do you know why your father hid in the forest with other men? 
No, no, I couldn’t tell you. Of course, we asked our mother and she told me that my father did not want to fight in the war, he didn’t want to take sides. He hid so as not to be called up, either by the Soviets or by the Germans.

So he was denounced as a deserter?
Yes, that’s it: my mother said that when the Soviets arrived he even hung a red flag from his house.”

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Childhood, social relations and languages

 

“And the staff of the sawmill were deportees, people like my mother, with children. There weren’t only little children like us. There were families with adolescents of 16 or 17. They were there waiting till they were called up. There were Gypsies and Lithuanians. One of the Lithuanians called Yuzik became my school mate. We were all in the same school, the primary school, where we were taught for the first four years, then we moved to Bolshaya Koda, where there was a school for the older pupils. We were boarders. We went there for the whole week, taking our own food, otherwise we wouldn’t have been fed. Some people rented rooms from the locals. That happened for my brothers. I was a full boarder.

 

Did you mother speak Ukrainian to you?

Yes, always, she always spoke to me in Ukrainian. I had never been to Ukraine but I learnt Ukrainian from my mother. It isn’t literary Ukrainian, but colloquial Ukrainian. I speak it very well. In 1964, when I first went to Ukraine, I could communicate very well with people. I remember one episode, there was a newspaper on the table and my uncle asked me to read something. I had never learnt Ukrainian but I managed to translate the article from Ukrainian to Russian. Perhaps by intuition, but with no problem. It’s true that I don’t speak literary Ukrainian, but colloquial Ukrainian.

 

Was it strange to be speaking Ukrainian at home and Russian at school?
Oui je l’ai ressenti quand je suis allé à l’école, mais il y avait très peu de familles russes “de souche” (chisto russkie), je ne me souviens que d’une seule, Yes, I felt it when I went to school, but there were very few “pure” Russian families (chisto russkie), I can only remember one, the foreman’s family, and all the others were exiles.

Who were your friends?

First of all, we were a very close family. I was very close to my brothers and my sister and I was friends with all our neighbours’ children. The others were Ukrainians and in the school yard I spoke a sort of mixed language. I learnt a lot of Lithuanian words. Since then I can remember how to say hello, “labadene [laba diena]”, that’s “hello” in Lithuanian. You know, children always manage to learn and communicate with signs and gestures, one word of Russian, one word of Lithuanian, one word of Ukrainian. We always got on well, there were never any conflicts.

 

Since you mention conflicts, some respondents have told us of persecutions suffered by the Lithuanians, for example, Lithuanian kids attacked by other villagers...

 

No, that’s not my experience at all, because all the people around us were exiles like us, there were hardly any locals.

 

And the adults?

The adults had perfectly ordinary contacts. There were Tatars, not just Ukrainians and Lithuanians. One was called Khakim, another Abrinit, but they were already grown up. We were all together and we would invite each other to each other’s houses for religious festivals. At Easter, in particular, we would hide eggs and look for them together. Among the adults, there were sometimes conflicts, there were two or three murders, but that was mainly because of alcohol. But between kids there were none.

 

Which festivals did you celebrate?

My mother was very religious, a true believer. She came from western Ukraine and the Orthodox faith was very important for her.”