Inside Stalin's terror
By Stefan Wagstyl
Financial Times February 28, 2003
ещё один текст из ft, про сталина - причем интересен не он сам, а его факт появления в это время. у меня такое чувство, что "они" считают днем смерти сталина 1 марта (и в этом году - 50 лет со дня), поэтому и вал статей. как мне кажется, преждевременных - сталин умер 5 марта. или нет?
я вот и в жж нашел схожую путаницу в датах...
Inside Stalin's terror
By Stefan Wagstyl
Financial Times February 28, 2003
The derelict mine tower stands guard over the surrounding slag heaps and snow drifts. Around its base lie ruined workshops, their empty windows staring bleakly at the frozen landscape. I close my eyes and try to imagine what the mine was like 60 years ago, when among the people passing through its gates was my mother.
This is the town of Karabash in the Ural mountains, in the heart of Russia. Today it is known as one of the country’s most polluted places, poisoned by the sulphurous fumes of its decrepit copper smelter. But for decades, this was also a labour camp, a place where thousands were sent to work and many died.
I went to Karabash to find out about life during the second world war when my Polish-born mother Sabina was deported to the labour camp at the age of 15, along with her parents, Franciszek and Pelagia Dmuchowski, her younger sister and brother Rozia and Wacek. I also wondered how today’s Russians would react to my inquiries and what, on the 50th anniversary of Stalin’s death, they would think of his legacy.
My mother’s journey to Karabash began 3,000 kilometres away in eastern Poland. In 1939, her village was included in the large swathe of territory incorporated by Stalin into the Soviet Union when he divided Poland with Hitler. Soviet officials quickly set about making the annexation permanent with the mass arrests of Polish soldiers and others who might resist the new order. By the end of the war, about 550,000 had been imprisoned or deported, according to Soviet archives. Polish historians cite figures of up to 2m.
Those regarded as particularly dangerous were executed, including thousands of army officers killed at Katyn. The rest were distributed by the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB and today’s FSB, across the gulag network of labour camps, where tens of thousands died of cold, hunger and disease.
My mother and her family were among the fortunate few who managed to escape to the west. When Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, Stalin was so desperate for help from the western Allies that he agreed to release Polish prisoners in return for military supplies. About 115,000 people were allowed to leave. Most travelled south to Persia (now Iran), where British officials welcomed the emaciated refugees. The men, including my grandfather, were formed into an army, which fought with the British in North Africa and Italy. Women and children were transported to safe British colonies, in my mother’s case southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). After the war, most settled in Britain and north America.
My mother talked little about the war when I was growing up. She did not see anything extraordinary in her experiences in a conflict that had cost so many lives. But a few years ago, she finally wrote a short memoir and has since found it much easier to discuss her past.
The family was seized in the depths of winter in February 1940, in a huge operation which swept up tens of thousands in a single day. My mother remembers how a Red Army officer came to the door at six in the morning and ordered the family to be ready to leave in an hour. He warned them to take food and warm clothes for a long journey. My mother says: “We were shocked. But there was no time to think. My mother cried and cried and cried.”
With the temperature 20 degrees below zero, the family were taken by sleigh to the nearest railway station, where, with about 1,700 others, they were herded on to cattle trucks, 20 or 30 people in each. The soldiers shut and bolted the doors, leaving the prisoners in the dark except for the light coming through cracks in the wooden panels. As the train pulled away they tried to catch a last glimpse of a homeland most would never see again. “It was terrible. We started singing hymns to give ourselves some strength,” says my mother.
For about two weeks they travelled east without knowing where they were going. They were given water every day, but no food except some thin soup two or three times on the whole journey. The toilet was a hole in the floor. It was so cold the bedding froze solid. My mother remembers: “ A baby was born in our truck and died almost immediately. It was so sad.”
Finally, the train reached Karabash. The exhausted deportees were hauled out of the cattle trucks. The NKVD seized papers, photographs and religious books and pictures. When a woman protested at the loss of an icon, the officer who had removed it tossed into a latrine. “You can’t imagine how shocking that was for us, as Catholics,” says my mother.
The Poles were not allowed to live among the town’s 4,000 people, but were housed in specially built wooden huts, with their own NKVD commandant and guards. There was no barbed wire, but the deportees were not allowed to leave the compound without permission.
Each family was given one room, with a stove and two wooden beds. My grandfather and my uncle shared a bed. My grandmother and my aunt the other. My mother slept on top of a wooden trunk. There was a stove. The water had to be drawn from pumps which stood outside, with latrines beyond.
The adults had to work in the mining complex, 12 hours a day, six days a week. The lucky ones, including my grandparents, were assigned to the underground mine. The rest were taken to the smelter, where many soon developed lung diseases from breathing the terrible fumes.
The children, including my mother, were obliged to attend Russian schools, where they were encouraged to forget for ever their Polish past. But the main preoccupation was scavenging for food, trading clothes for bits of bacon fat. My mother says: “We worried all the time about having enough to eat.”
My mother’s memories of Karabash are not all grim. Young Poles played with local children and went to the woods to gather wood, berries and mushrooms. But people were careful about what they said. The authorities had informers everywhere. Once, two men from their huts were arrested and disappeared. Nobody knew why. But they were educated people and may have been seen as a threat.
When the “amnesty” came in mid-1941, people immediately stopped work. Some moved to nearby farms, but most dreamt only of leaving the Soviet Union. In October, the authorities finally provided a train to take the deportees out of Karabash. The grateful Poles clambered aboard, worn out by work and strain, leaving behind their dead buried in the Karabash cemetery. It was to be another half-year before my mother and her family finally left the Soviet Union. But the worst was over. They had escaped the gulag.
It is with my mother’s words in my mind that I travel to Karabash. Anna Murtazina, a kindly woman with a ready smile who edits the local newspaper, shows me around. The place where the Polish huts stood is now an empty snow-covered field. But leading away from it in the direction of the mine is a track – in exactly the place where my mother said it would be. I walk along it through the birch trees, imagining how my grandparents had tramped along it six days a week for 18 months.
At the top of the track is the derelict mine. From the hill on which the shaft stands, I look across the valley at the belching smelter as it covers the sun with its grey fumes. In the 1990s, the smelter closed temporarily. But it re-opened under pressure from workers, desperate for money. Murtazina says: “We are poisoning ourselves. But we have no choice here.” I feel, more than ever before, how fortunate my mother was to escape from Karabash. Perhaps, Murtazina thinks so too.
Through Murtazina, I find Porphiry Firsov, a 74-year-old ex-miner, who recalls playing with Polish boys in the street. I also speak to 81-year-old Anna Karpova, who worked as a nurse on the Polish settlement. She says: “I had to check on their conditions. They were clean but they were so cramped. There was 10 people in one room. It was bad.”
To learn more I ask about documents, as the highly bureaucratic NKVD kept extensive records. Murtazina explains the camp files were removed to the local regional centre of Chelyabinsk. But she suggests trying the local register of births, marriages and deaths. The sun is setting and there is little time. But it is worth the effort. The registrar listens to my story and locates the death registers for 1940 and 1941. I carefully turn the yellowing pages, afraid that I might tear the fragile paper. There in black and white is evidence of the Poles’ existence in Karabash. There are also signs that life had been much harder than my mother remembers. There were about 30 deaths in the first month alone, mostly from pneumonia and other cold-related illnesses possibly contracted on the train. The death rate then fell. But in early 1941 it picked up quickly, with more and more people dying from lung diseases. Clearly, the amnesty had come just in time.
Fired by this success with Russian bureaucracy, I drive to Chelyabinsk and the ministry of internal affairs, the keeper in Russia today of local NKVD archives. They should contain individual reports on all prisoners. But can I see them? I telephone in advance. Bad news. Foreigners can only seek access by a written request with a supporting letter from their embassy in Moscow. Pause. Good news. A consulate will do and, incredibly, there is a British consulate in the city of Ekaterinburg, some three hours from Chelyabinsk. After a six-hour round trip, I am back in Chelyabinsk, armed with the consul’s endorsement. But it is still not easy. I go to the internal affairs ministry, but nobody from archives will accept my letter. Nor will the receptionist, nor the guard, nor the press officer. Eventually, a friendly secretary explains I can use the ministry’s post box. But not at this entrance. That is for official use only. I must go to a side door. So I walk around and post my letter. But nobody can tell me when I might receive an answer. Nikolai Shur, a Chelyabinsk human rights activist, says: “It’s stupid. They could do this in two hours. But they want to keep their secrets and their jobs and their power.”
Frustrated, I fly to Moscow to seek out one more potential source of information on Karabash – the central government files. Housed in a grey Stalinist-era building, there are kilometres of reports from throughout the former Soviet Union, including the former labour camps. Archival gold. Access is uncomplicated, but searching this material for reports from a particular gulag is the work of weeks, not a few hours. Fortunately, Alexander Gurianov, a historian specialising in the Polish deportations, gives me some help. He says that one of the NKVD’s biggest concerns was the fear of “anti-Soviet and pro-Polish sentiments”. And here in the files is a report from Karabash. It describes how three young men one day broke into the party propaganda room, trashed the portraits of Stalin and Karl Marx and threw Communist literature out into the field. For this, says the report, they were punished, but it did not say how.
While in Moscow, I try to establish what Stalin means for Russians today. There is very little public activity to mark the 50th anniversary of his death. The biggest Stalin exhibition in Moscow is contained in three modest rooms in the Museum of Contemporary History. The largest display is a collection of gifts to Stalin sent by artists and craftsmen from all over the Soviet Union, including wooden boats, embroidery, and model planes. The Gulag is squeezed into one corner.
Can this possibly be enough? A similar exhibition on Hitler would be inconceivable. Yet the scale of the Great Leader’s crimes against humanity are comparable to the Führer’s. Karabash was only one of hundreds of Soviet labour camps, one small island in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. Stalin’s terror machine was altogether responsible for over 15m deaths, including teachers, doctors, peasants, army officers and most of his closest Communist party comrades. As well as Poles, Ukrainians, Cossacks, Balts, Georgians and Jews went through the mincer. But the greatest victims were Russians themselves – just as Russians were the principal perpetrators, even if Stalin himself was Georgian. There is hardly a family in Russia untouched by the terror. And yet, there is little public debate.
For many Russians, the image of Stalin the mass murderer pales in comparison with the picture of Stalin as a powerful leader who turned the Soviet Union into a great power. President Vladimir Putin himself said in an interview last year: “Stalin was of course a dictator... the problem is that it was under his leadership that the country won the second world war and that victory is to a significant extent associated with his name.”
By winning the war, Russia ensured that, unlike Germany, it was never forced by outside powers to open its files or bring its executioners to justice. Indeed, within Russia, open debate was impossible until 1990, by when the survivors of Stalin’s crimes were already old. After 1990, there was a brief flurry of intensive discussion: the Communist party was found guilty of wrongdoing in a highly-publicised trial. But public interest waned amid everyday concerns about growing poverty, unemployment and crime. People began to yearn for their former stability. In public opinion polls, liking for Stalin jumped from 8 per cent in 1990 to 22 per cent.
Moreover, the secret police survived the fall of Communism. Yevgenia Albats, author of KGB: State within a State, argues that today’s FSB is the unreformed successor of Lenin’s Cheka. It retains about 500,000 staff, proportionately more than the 720,000 who served the Soviet Union as a whole in 1990.
Russian liberals argue that the former KGB has adapted to democracy by infiltrating institutions, starting with the Kremlin, where president Putin himself is a former KGB officer. Five of the seven presidential representatives appointed to control Russia’s rebellious regions are former military or secret service generals. Ex-KGB men are also prominent in the government, in parliament and in business.
This process is not necessarily sinister. Under Communism, KGB officers saw themselves as an elite. Unsurprisingly, they are now spreading their wings, taking advantage of the greater choice of careers available in a democracy. But, whatever their individual merits, these influential people are unlikely to head demands for an examination of the Stalinist past.
Solzhenitsyn writes that without bringing the perpetrators of Stalinism to account, Russia cannot develop a healthy democracy. “Young people are acquiring the conviction that foul deeds are never punished on earth, that they always bring prosperity. It is going to be horrible to live in such a country.”
Arseny Roginsky, director of Memorial, a charity dedicated to preserving memories of Stalinism, is less apocalyptic. For him, the real danger is the continuing belief in Russia in the strong state as the answer to everything, ranging from crime to Russia’s role in the world. This was Stalin’s guiding principle and it is Putin’s, according to Mr Roginsky.
Anatoly Pristavkin, a friendly 71-year-old writer who is Mr Putin’s counsellor on human rights, denies that Mr Putin is any threat to Russian liberties. But he acknowledges that until Russian people themselves throw off their Stalinist past, they cannot really be free. He says: "In the film Born Free, the lioness who is reared in captivity is returned to the wild. But in real life, the attempt to free the lioness failed. She went back into her cage and refused to come out."
Stefan Wagstyl is the FT’s East Europe editor.