European Memories

of the Gulag

BioGraphie

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Irina  TARNAVSKA

 

Irina Tarnavska was born to a peasant family in Lvov (Lviv) in Galicia in March 1940, recently annexed to Soviet Ukraine. When the land was collectivised, in order to cut off supplies to the armed resistance in the Carpathians, thousands of peasant families were deported. Irina and her family were forcibly settled on 31 December 1948 in a hamlet in the Tomsk region in Siberia. Food shortages, her schoolmates’ malnutrition —“thin as skeletons”— and waiting hungrily for her mother to return from work are major elements in Irina’s account, together with the meticulous description of anything edible in the forests and the wealth and beauty of Siberian nature, which saved them from death.

In 1958, she was allowed to return to Ukraine, first to Kiev, where she studied while working in a hospital and then at the post office. Her dream was to return to her native land, Galicia, but when she got to Lvov she had trouble gaining a residence permit and lived at the station, harassed by the police. Finally, with some help from a friend of her father’s, she found accommodation and began a normal life working in a photographic equipment factory and starting a family.

Her parents managed to return in the early 1960s, and settled near the town of Chernobyl. Shortly after the explosion at the nuclear plant, her father died of cancer.

 

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Arrest

Arrest

 

“Someone knocked at the door. Mother asked, “Who’s there?” They said, “Open up! We’re friends.” Mother opened the door. Armed men, soldiers, came in and said to Mother, “Get ready, we’re taking you where the polar bears live!”

Mother began crying and did not get ready. She had long braids. He caught Mother by the hair and pulled her. Mother fell down and he dragged her to the sledge. There was a lot of snow, probably more than 50 centimetres. So they dragged us away with Mother, we were aged 10, 7 and the youngest 5, and we got ourselves ready.”

 

 

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Hunger

At a number of points in her interview, Irina Tarnavska mentions the hunger she suffered with her family and the difficulty in obtaining the slightest commodity. In this extract, she tells how, when potatoes were cooking in a saucepan, she would sniff the smell to have the illusion of tasting them.

“We would wait for Mother, when she came back from work to eat together… [tears]. I went to site over the cooking pot and tried to breathe in the smell of the potatoes [tears]. That’s how I filled myself! And when Mother came back from work, we ate the potatoes and that was that.”

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By boat along the River Ob and arrival

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Living conditions in exile

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The wealth of Siberian nature

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A difficult return

In this extract, Irina Tarnavska describes the difficulties she faced when she returned to Ukraine.

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Games, dancing and singing in exile

With these children, your neighbours, did you and your sisters play? What games did you play when you had free time?

There was nowhere to play. Perhaps in the forest. In the summer, we were very tired, we didn’t feel like playing. And in winter when we went to school, yes, I used to ski. And later, when we got older, we played. We played tag. When we were 11 or 13, perhaps older, I don’t remember so well. In the evening, it didn’t get dark till midnight, there was almost no night, and so about 10 or 11 o’clock we would go and play a bit. I could still remember our Ukrainian games and we played them. Otherwise, there weren’t any other games. It was the time when there were girls and boys, we were young, you know, we felt things.

And were there dances, or parties?

When I finished 7th class, we went dancing. They’d built a clubhouse and someone would play the accordion. So they held dances, sometimes there were films.

Did you sing? For example, was there a choir?

Yes, there was a choir at school. I’ve even got a photo of it. I can’t remember what holiday it was, New Year or in May, and I remember that on the photo we were dressed in Russian costume, singing.

With these children, your neighbours, did you and your sisters play? What games did you play when you had free time?

There was nowhere to play. Perhaps in the forest. In the summer, we were very tired, we didn’t feel like playing. And in winter when we went to school, yes, I used to ski. And later, when we got older, we played. We played tag. When we were 11 or 13, perhaps older, I don’t remember so well. In the evening, it didn’t get dark till midnight, there was almost no night, and so about 10 or 11 o’clock we would go and play a bit. I could still remember our Ukrainian games and we played them. Otherwise, there weren’t any other games. It was the time when there were girls and boys, we were young, you know, we felt things.

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Death of Stalin