European Memories

of the Gulag

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Silva  LINARTE

 

Silva Linarte was born in Latgale, a poor region in south-east Latvia, in 1939. Her family was relatively well-off and placed great importance on education and culture. In June 1941, her father was arrested for having refused to denounce fellow schoolteachers and sentenced to hard labour in the Vyatka camps (Vyatlag), where he died in 1942. Silva, her mother and sisters were deported to the Krasnoyarsk region in Siberia. In 1947, Silva and her sisters, as half-orphans, were allowed to return to Latvia. After a long train journey they were placed in an orphanage in Riga and then with foster families. Their mother then managed to escape from the special settlement and joined them secretly in Latvia. During the second mass deportation in 1950, the mother and her three daughters were sent back to Siberia. Although living conditions were gradually improving, Silva’s mother died of cancer. Silva finally returned to Latvia in 1956, managed to resume her education and became a designer and painter. She now lives in her childhood home, with her own daughters, among the miraculously preserved memories of the family’s past.

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Silva’s childhood photos

 

Members of Silva’s family who were not deported kept photographs from the 1930s. Silva, now living again in her childhood home, has also found family mementos that have miraculously escaped decades of loss.

 

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Resettlement in June 1941

 1. The NKVD found it hard to keep the operation confidential. Silva Linarte’s family heard of the resettlement some days before 14 June 1941 from her father’s sister. But her father refused to believe it.

2. Expecting to be deported to Siberia and choosing warm coverings when arrested turned out to be an essential factor for survival. Some people took winter clothing. Others, harried by the soldiers, left crucial bundles behind. This happened to Silva Linarte’s mother, who left her youngest child’s things – the baby died on the train. 

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The cold and the wolves

1. Meeting with wolves!

“I remember the school was 18 km away, we had to walk there, not every day, of course, but all the same. We had to walk through the taiga in winter with snowstorms, the cold and the wolves.

And one day, we were not far from the village of Ulyukol [Улюкол]. We children, Lithuanians and Latvians, were walking along. And then we saw some little lights in the distance. They were a long way a way and all round us. We didn’t realise what they were. We saw that the circle was closing in. And when it was near us, we saw that it was wolves. Everyone was very afraid. We started screaming, not to make them go away, but because we were terrified. We screamed with fear and the wolves began to move back. The circle became wider again. They didn’t go away immediately. That was their system: they widened the circle before they went.

Gosh, we were afraid!”

2. The cold and frozen feet

Silva nearly lost her frostbitten legs.

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Return to Latvia: the orphanage

In 1946, following an initiative of the Latvian ministry of education, the “orphans and half-orphans” in the special settlements were allowed to return to Latvia. Many children had indeed lost one of their parents during the war years and their surviving mothers realised that despite the pain of separation sending them back to Latvia would increase their chances of survival.

So some 1,300 children, mostly Latvian and some Estonians, returned to the Baltic republics in 1946-1947. Often the escapees could not believe that their return was legal, although it is documented in Soviet archives, and attributed it to a combination of luck and heroic individual initiative. For Silva and her sisters, the orphanage in Riga meant (relative) affluence. After their exhausting journey from Siberia, the children were suspicious of the food they were offered. Only the orphanage doctor understood and said they should be given cooked potatoes, the only food they knew. For these children their early return, compared with other categories of deportee, was a shock that remains in their memories, the rediscovery of their homeland. Austra Zalcmane, her sister Lilia Kaione and Peep Varju received the same exceptional permission. 

1. In the first extract, Silva describes her journey by train with her sisters back to Latvia in 1947.

2. “They took us straight to the orphanage. First the shower, a sort of collective bath, we’d never seen anything like it, we didn’t know what it was, why the water was running down from above.

I remember we were crying, we didn’t know where to stand. Anyway, the staff came and washed us all.

And then they started to give out the clothes. For me as a girl, this was a great moment.

There was a lady sitting there issuing dresses.

So I stood in front of the lady and she said, ‘Look, little girl. Choose the dress you want.’ So I chose a dress with flowers and edging of a different colour, dark red.

Oh my, I remember, I put it on and looked at myself. I was so happy to have that wonderful dress.

You know, in Siberia we had skirts of oilcloth. The oilcloth from the bags the horses were fed from! My mother had cut some out to make me a little skirt that I fastened with a shoelace. That’s what I wore in Siberia.

And suddenly I was given a dress with flowers on it!”

3. The first meal

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Music and dance

“Imagine, at our age, we had come back from the terrible taiga and we were off dancing. We went dancing and the Lithuanians played the accordion. Youth is something incomprehensible, something that helps people survive. I can tell you that the Lithuanians saved a generation of Latvians with their love for music, they did!”

Often, despite the restrictions and difficulties of daily life, the young deportees managed to set time aside for relaxation and fun.

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Siberia: a place of enchantment and deportation

The ambivalence of Siberia, at the same time a magnificent territory and a site of repression, is expressed by Silva Linarte. As a little girl she watched her mother pulling the plough like a beast of burden. Sitting on a tree stump, she thought about this forest she so loved. Why did this “most beautiful place in the world” stand for the suffering of deported peoples?

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A radio portrait

A portrait of Silva Linarte, in Valérie Nivelon’s “La Marche du Monde” on RFI on 7 April 2012.
Silva Linarte was invited to Paris to tell her story at the University Library for Languages and Civilisations Studies (BULAC) during a research conference on the project “Sound archives of the Gulag”.