European Memories

of the Gulag

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The  OTHERS

For most witnesses, resettlement, life in the distant camps and special settlements in Siberia and Central Asia were their first experience of living with people of different national and social origins, speaking other languages, having different beliefs and customs, and having in some cases fought on opposite sides.

The railway wagons, camp huts and work brigades continually mixing prisoners, the queues for rations, appels, rare periods of rest or leisure activities, school for the children, all these were occasions when forced contacts and cooperation turned to camaraderie or friendship or degenerated into fierce conflict. These confrontations always caused surprise and challenged prejudices, turning them into love or hatred towards entire national groups.

Lithuanians, Latvians, Poles, Estonians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Romanians, Germans, Czechs and Finns shared the same misfortunes but reacted using their different cultural and religious resources. All of them discovered the contradictions of the Soviet social world, which was the most fearful alien element of all: political police, guards, the Russian common criminals who ruled the camps, komandants of special settlements, plus fellow prisoners, often helpful, and the poverty-stricken peasants of the kolkhoz, the workmates of the special resettlers.

Exposure to this variety of origins, life stories and relationships appears in the testimonies as the most complex and lasting trace of the experience of resettlement.

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The Georgians resettled in Stalinabad

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Antanas Seikalis’s memories

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Antanas Panava tells his story

“We got used to it, but at the beginning Siberia seemed so dismal, grey and inhospitable. Then, in the spring, the same fields became so green and beautiful, and we had also got to know the people. You get used to things… the locals… our Russian neighbours… and there was more than one nationality. You see, the Russians were a minority in the village. The village was large. When a son left for the army, he never came back, but settled in town and did his best to help his mother, brothers, etc. to leave. And all who could moved to the towns. The Volga Germans were the majority in the village. They were very friendly to us and we got to know them well. They were Catholic too. Then… in town… until 1953… There were also the Kalmuks who were friendly. Very friendly. They were decent people, not bad. There were other peoples too, Chuvash, Ukrainians… but most were Lithuanians and Germans. The Lithuanians lived and got on well together.”

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Smilingis sees the death of the “Persians”

At “Second section” village, there was such a mixture of people that Lithuanians, Poles, Chinese, Iranians and Germans got along well together. The Iranians, who the Lithuanian women romantically called “Persians”, came from the upper classes and stood out for their elegance and outspokenness. But they could not, or would not, adapt to the harsh conditions of exile. Anatoly tells the tragic story of their death, adding that it haunted his nights long afterwards:
One December morning, four “Caucasian Persians”, skinny and ragged, were sent out to work in the forest. They were given tools. Anatoly’s job was to lead them to the worksite and come back later and count how much timber had been cut. They trudged about one kilometre in the icy cold, and the Persians found it hard to keep up. At the worksite, Anatoly explained to them what they had to do in a mixture of Russian, Chinese and Lithuanian. The Persians were only interested in one thing: keeping warm. So Anatoly made a fire and left them a few logs. At nightfall Anatoly came back for them, but, seeing no smoke, began to get worried. He thought they might have run off. When he got to the place, he found them sitting frozen stiff. They had all died of cold.
In exile, death was a daily occurrence and you had to learn to cope with it, whatever the season. Several times Anatoly had to transport bodies in the depths of winter for the exhausting ritual of burial. He describes one of these “operations”: the corpses were drawn by horses to the cemetery in Postkeros. This happened twice a day. In the cemetery, the snow had to be cleared, then holes dug with axes, hard work in permafrost conditions. He would dig, then cover the corpses with snow. The complications came with the spring, when the snow thawed. Starving stray dogs came and ate at the bodies, before the Chinese came hunting the dogs, which they ate. So farm workers from the kolkhoz were called to help bury a second time the corpses gnawed at by the dogs.

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Klara Hartmann tells her story

The aggressiveness there was between us there! The camp was mixed. So the Russian women felt they were in a strong position, they could do anything… they showed that they came first. If they wanted my bread, they didn’t say anything, they took it, just like that.

And I couldn’t say anything because they would have hit me, and it all went on like that.

And the women who weren’t Russian, what nationality were they?

From all over. Every Baltic country, Lithuanians, Estonians, Finns too… and then masses of Ukrainians. They were friendlier and more tolerant, they liked contact with people but they had nothing either.

They were like all the others… But the Russian women got what they wanted. They’d go to the kitchen with containers and fill them to the brim. If the cook gave them nothing, they hit her. Everyone was afraid of them. They’d get the food in their big containers, take it back to their huts, and they were the ones who had enough to eat. Or they would go to where the bread was being cut up and bring back all the bread they needed. There was a big difference between us.