Tuesday, 10 February 2015

75th anniversary of Stalin's Deportations

Seventy five years ago today, on 10 February 1940, my mother - aged 12, her elder sisters (14 and 16), their mother and their father heard that dreaded knock on the door - it was the NKVD - the precursor of the KGB and today's FSB. The family, which lived in Horodziec, in the eastern province of Wołyń (then Poland, today in Ukraine) was given an hour to pack their things before being taken to the railway station in Sarny. There, they were forced into cattle wagons with scores of other local families and taken 1,500km in the depths of winter to a labour camp, Spetspos'yolok 17, located 20km from the nearest railway station, in place called Punduga, north of Kharovsk in the Vologda Oblast. [Google Earth:  60° 7'40.99"N,  40°12'17.24"E].

Hundreds of thousands of Poles were arrested and deported that day 75 years ago. My mother's family were classed as 'enemies of the people' because my grandfather worked in forestry, and to the NKVD the forests were potential partisan bases. By eliminating those with knowledge of the forests (and their entire families), it would be harder for partisans to conduct armed operations against the new Soviet order. Their skills were put to good use, as slave labour in Soviet lumber camps.

From Wikipedia: "In 1940 and the first half of 1941, the Soviets deported a total of more than 1,200,000 Poles in four waves of mass deportations from the Soviet-occupied Polish territories... The first major operation took place on February 10, 1940, with more than 220,000 people sent to northern European Russia. The second wave of 13 April 1940, consisted of 320,000 people sent primarily to Kazakhstan. The third wave of June–July 1940 totaled more than 240,000. The fourth and final wave occurred in June 1941, deporting 300,000." The exact numbers are for historians to determine, difficult when the Kremlin has once again locked the archives.

Below is a letter that my mother sent to her friend from exile in Russia. Dated July 1940, the letter tells of daily life of a 12-year-old girl on a Soviet labour camp.

My mother writes that everyone over the age of 13 was working at the lumber camp chopping down trees, while she, as a junior, would rise at 5:00, join the queue for food, buy bread (brown loaf - 1 rouble 20 kopeks, white loaf - 2 roubles 10 kopeks), and oily, watery soup with noodles (41 kopeks a bowl). At 12:00 there'd be another queue - for lunch, then washing and mending clothes, and yet more queuing for food at 6:00 pm.

The camp, she writes, was surrounded by endless forest; it consisted of four barracks, a mess hut, offices, bakery, baths and a de-lousing hut. There's kipyatok (hot drinking water), a place for sharpening saws and axes, a well, a summer club; a school and a nursery is being built for children from the age of three months to three years so that their mothers can go to work. There were 400 people at the camp. My mother writes that she weighed 38 kilo, and as thin as a mosquito. She signs off apologising for her handwriting, as she's slowly forgetting to write in Polish (the schooling in the camp being in Russian).

Many had it much harder - sent to the depths of Siberia, to Kolyma, to the deserts of Central Asia.

Following the amnesty accorded to Poles in the wake of the Nazi invasion of the USSR, the family was allowed to make its way to join General Anders' nascent Polish army. My mother and middle sister Irena managed to leave the Soviet Union with the army, via Persia and Palestine; oldest sister Dżunia and their parents didn't - my grandfather died of typhoid fever in Kazakhstan. Ciocia Dziunia and my grandmother returned to Poland after the war, to the re-claimed territories of western Poland, while my mother and Ciocia Irena found themselves in Britain, safely under the dominion of King George VI rather than Stalin.

Stalin, the very epitome of evil in human form, cared not a jot whether the peoples he was murdering wholesale were Poles, kulaks, Ukrainians, the bourgeoisie, Georgians, Cossacks, the intelligentsia, Belarusians, Balts, the Orthodox clergy, 'rootless cosmopolitans' or Tatars. Or indeed Russians - his largest national group of victims.

My aunt on my father's side survived Auschwitz; now in her nineties, she receives a monthly pension from the German government. German Chancellors over the decades have wept openly at Warsaw's Umschlagplatz. German textbooks are unequivocal about Germany's role in the War. Germany has atoned for - and is paying for - its sins. But Russia?

Not a bit of it. Kicking off WW2 in unison with Hitler, invading as many countries between September 1939 and June 1941 as Nazi Germany did, Russia still claims to be the victim. And my grandfather, a Polish citizen, is no doubt claimed as one of the "26 million Russian war dead". Alongside millions of Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Moldovans, Transcarpathian Ruthenians and Karelian Finns forcibly turned into Soviet citizens after the start of WW2.

But for my mother, her family, and the millions of deportees from central Europe to the Gulags and labour camps of the USSR, there's never been a word of apology from either Soviet or Russian leaders.

When Russia finally accepts that in 1939, it was ruled by a murderous despot, who'd risen to power by slaughtering the rest of the terrorist gang with whom he'd stolen an entire country in 1917, when it comes to accept that the invasions in 1939 and 1940 of eastern Poland, the Baltic States and parts of Finland, Czechoslovakia and Romania were naked acts of territorial aggression; when it accepts that millions of citizens of those countries, forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, were wrongly deported, imprisoned and murdered - then - and only then - can Russia be looked on by Poland and the rest of the civilised world as a great country; a majestic nation with a proud culture that has spawned so much great literature, music and art, a country of unimaginable natural beauty, a friendly neighbour. Until such a time, Russia can only be associated in the minds of the peoples of central Europe with the image of a boot stamping down repeatedly on their faces. Which is what's going on to this day in Eastern Ukraine.

If Russia is ever to be accepted as a good country, rather than 'file along with ISIS and North Korea', the Russian state needs to win the trust of its neighbours, and its own citizens. The best way to do this is to come clean about its 20th Century past.

Incidentally, I find it a bit odd that Poland - which put on such a splendid commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, as well as the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising - has not even noted the significance of today's anniversary.

This time last year:
'Peak car' - in Western Europe, at least

This time two years ago:
Pavement for Karczunkowska NOW!
[We still don't have one... I walk home in fear of my life.]

This time three years ago:
Until the Vistula freezes over

This time four year:
Of sunshine, birdsong and wet socks

This time six years ago:
Dziadzio Tadeusz at 90


AndrzejK said...

For a very long time after WWII the British authorties would show on official documents issue to Poles born in that part of Poland annexed by the Soviets and who settled in the UK their place of birth as the Soviet Union.

Let us not forget that this same mentality drives Ed Milliband to this day!

Sigismundo said...

Ehh, let's not bring petty party politics into this!

Ed Miliband is himself of Polish Jewish extraction. Until the war his paternal grandparents lived in the Jewish quarter of Warsaw, and his mother's life was saved by a Polish family.

student SGH said...

Russia to admit it is a heir of felonious Soviet Union, gulity of millions deaths? Daydream?

Putin's rule and any other subsequent rule is to be founded on myth of mighty Russia. The return to the might from the period of the Soviet Empire is the ambition and wish of majority of Russians. The nation hankers after the Soviet Union. Pleading guilty to WW2 crimes falls out of line with what Russian people expect from its rulers!

Many historians would call into question whether Soviets along with Nazi Germany sparked off WW2. The beginning date of WW2 varies across countries. For most people in the world 1 September 1939 marked only the onset of local war in Europe, not WW2...

adthelad said...

"Incidentally, I find it a bit odd that Poland ...has not even noted the significance of today's anniversary."
Makes you want to weep. But then again we should remember the party knows best, after all, there's even an article about it in wybiórcza, isn't that enough? Also, don't the hoi polloi commemorate these sort of things on 17.09 anyway? We shouldn't be ungrateful. We have a delightful rainbow in plac Zbawiciela to remind us of where our priorities should lie.

My Dad apparently escaped a couple of times from transport wagons here and there but eventually ended up in Kołyma where he said another few months and he would have been a goner.

pavolk said...

What a fascinating social document, thanks for posting. As my parents' generation says about mine: "We don't know we're born."

I'm in Rīga today and travelling to Estonia later, and these places had the same experience, as you mention. If you haven't yet seen it, I strongly recommend the Estonian film In The Crosswind ('Risttuules'). Technically unique and impressive, a spellbinding film.

Anonymous said...


Your information about Miliband's paternal grandparents is not correct. Milibands father was Adolphe (Ralph) a Marxist born in Belgium. His grandfather Samuel left Poland following the Polish Soviet war of 1920.

see http://www.lipman-miliband.org.uk/about/ralphmilibandbiography.html

Janusz said...

Michael, a very relevant reminder of these little known deportations.

Are you aware of the various reports of the deported, stored in the Hoover Archives? I have copies of documents written by my father and grandparents, soon after their evacuation from the "Soviet Paradise" to Persia.