The Unknown Gulag
Part V: Another Source: The Survivors’ Testimony
Today we are proud (and a bit sad because it’s over) to present part 5 of Lynne Viola’s piece on her archival research for her book The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements. Check out her previous posts here.
It would have been impossible to write this book without access to the archives. The archives, however, tell only a part of the story. The documentary foundations of this book are reinforced by the voices of the special settlers themselves, some long confined to the archives, most of recent vintage appearing in widely scattered published sources. From the late 1980s, survivors, who were children at the time of the deportations, have come forth to tell their stories.
Ekaterina Sergeevna Lukina was exiled to Narym from Krasnoiarsk. Decades later, she recalled her first days in the special settlement. “In the beginning we lived in shacks made from birch bark, then people began to build wooden huts. [They] gave us meager rations….We children scavenged clay from which our parents built stoves. [They] gave us six kilograms of flour a month….We were weak….People began to swell and die. [They] buried them without coffins, in collective graves, which grew every day….”
Mariia Fedorovna Abramenko was exiled from Ukraine to Siberia. She later remembered “[They] took us to Mogochino. [We] lived on the banks, without any shelter. Mama left to work at a sawmill.” Then one day, “a barge swung into the banks” bringing her father and the other men who had been initially sent elsewhere for work. They traveled on together along the Suiga river, arriving in a place with only three barracks, all without roofs. “[Our] parents began to work, to build the barracks—papa sawed logs into blocks, mama sanded [them], and we children helped when we could. Mosquitos ate us alive. [Our] legs and arms [turned] to bones….”
Another survivor, I. S. Olifier, remembered the famine that struck the special settlements in the early 1930s. He wrote: “1933 began. Famine. Daily undernourishment, difficult work, bad clothing and shoes, frost did its damage. For the people it remained only to die. And [they] died….The local authorities gradually cut the bread rations. People ate grass….The clothing was inadequate, and on our feet were ‘birch boots’—lapti. To avoid freezing, we had to move endlessly, but strength was exhausted and people gradually languished and died.” He continued, “In the summer of 1933, my stepfather died—Aleksei Emel’ianovich, the father of my brother Andrei and sister Galia. He was buried in an inhuman way. Dead from hunger convulsions, without a proper burial, cross, and inscription where one could bring flowers, where one could bow down. [He] was simply hidden in the ground, [half covered] with rocks, as if a buried piece of wood. There was no one to bury him—those who could were at work, and those who remained in the settlement had no strength….”
In order to attempt to make the past real and visceral, I use these voices in The Unknown Gulag, inserting them directly into the narrative. The voices are remarkable, coming as they do from otherwise silent historical actors, the people of the peasantry. These voices serve to supplement, at times to correct, the official picture coming from the archives. As one survivor put it, “I remember a lot and can tell the truth.” These are “truths” that must be incorporated into the range of official “truths” in order to present a semblance of the realities of the unknown gulag.