Today, 31st of May, is the annual Memorial Day for Victims of Political Repression in Kazakhstan, a country that hosted a large part of the network of labour camps, colonies and special settlements that made up the Soviet Gulag.
In the former Soviet Union, the meaning of victimhood and, correspondingly, the number of victims of the Gulag is a subject of intense debate.
The number of people who claim today to have family members who were repressed in Russia and Kazakhstan during the Stalinist period are in a clear minority.
Nationally representative 2019 surveys of households in Russia and Kazakhstan as part of the In the Gulag’s Shadow project show that 34% of Russian respondents and 21% of Kazakhstani respondents claim to have had one relative or more who was sent to prison camps during the Stalinist period. These figures drop to only 26% and 17% respectively when only looking at the youngest cohorts of respondents in the two countries (18-25).
Younger cohorts also report hearing stories about the Gulag in the family less frequently than older ones. It seems that as relatives die off the communication of family history dries up.
Yet, survey statistics tell only part of the story. The stories that families and friends share with each other about the Gulag often do not involve interrogation, arrest, exile or execution. But they do involve other forms of suffering that are not easily picked up by survey questions.
Focus groups conducted at Gulag museums and exhibitions in St Petersburg, Moscow, Ukhta and Tomsk in Russia in 2019 and 2020 provided a more exploratory format that allowed family histories of repression to emerge. These histories often involve ‘victimless’ stories. These are accounts where participants’ relatives took evasive action or experienced a near miss. Below some examples of these accounts are provided (all names are pseudonyms).
Evasive Action: Sacrificing Status and Property
In recounting stories of repression, participants highlighted how the fear and foreboding of the era led to evasive action of different types.
One form of evasive action involved sacrificing status, as in the examples below, where clashes of class ideologies and social identity were foreseen and deliberately avoided:
On my father’s side, my grandmother, she had to, her parents [intended] matchmaking her with a priest…but in order to avoid repression, they gave up their daughter for marriage to a peasant [instead].
(Konstantin, Tomsk, FG cohort 45-50)
The father of my mother’s friend was a military commander, a general…when it all started, he intentionally divorced [his wife] because, well, maybe he felt something, that they would get to him – so he got divorced so they would leave the family alone.
(Irina, Moscow FG cohort 45-50)
A second form of evasive action involved sacrificing property:
One of my great, great grandfathers…when collectivization began, [he] took a decision to give up a couple of cows, well, and give up a part of his property, well, to the kolkhoz [state farm], because he foresaw that things would turn bad…his son fought in the Winter War in Finland, he was injured and when he came back he became the director of that kolkhoz, three years on, that is, imagine that, one generation and everything’s changed.
(Maxim, Moscow, FG cohort 30-35)
Then there is the simplest form of evasive action – participants told stories of relatives moving house or hiding:
With us it seems that, on my mother’s side, we just headed off into the forest onto unsettled land [na zaimku], that is, collectivization came, and in order not to fall into that meat-grinder two families just settled in the forest, ran off and life carried on…only afterwards we moved to Tomsk.
(Elena, Tomsk, FG cohort 45-50)
My great granddad was a clergyman, when he realised that the whole thing could blow up [delo pakhnet kerosinom], he just moved to another part of the country where nobody knew him and became a labourer. Thanks to that, we have no repression [in my family].
(Semen, St Petersburg, FG cohort 45-50)
Another aspect of story-telling about repression, an aspect that is not picked up easily by survey data, is that of the near miss. Focus group participants told detailed stories of close shaves and situations where relatives avoided what seemed like their certain fate. Karina recounted the following story with dry humour:
My grandma…told me how her dad was the kolkhoz director during the war…an order comes through – collect this amount from the harvest! But there had been terrible rain. The workers strapped the combine harvester to two tractors but the tractors got stuck in the mud… So how to collect the harvest? It was the war, [great grandpa] was the only bloke in the place, everyone else were women. But everyone jumped to it…If you don’t collect the harvest on time and at the right quantity, they’ll take you to the headquarters and…she [grandma] was saying that…the Party member is in front of your nose shaking a pistol ‘I’ll, yeah, I’ll have you shot’…And he [great grandpa] was like ‘better to be shot than to have to go through this every year.’
(Karina, Tomsk, FG cohort 30-35)
More poignantly, Ekaterina recounted how her mother had been born of a near miss suffered by her grandmother:
Well, the Gulag also didn’t directly intersect with us either…My grandma…had been made the director of a local school in one of the villages in Tyumen region…a rumour goes around that some sort of audit is incoming…The head of the NKVD there, his deputies, they gathered everyone in the school assembly hall – this is what grandma told me – and said: ‘a complaint against the director has come to our attention. The history classrooms have not been decorated and a bust of Lenin has been placed out in the shed.’ Clearly that was something, a serious charge. But nothing happened to grandma because she started seeing the NKVD boss, and from that romance my mother was born, then of course they broke up…if it hadn’t been for that romance who knows what could have happened to grandma.
(Ekaterina, Ukhta FG 45-50)
What was the essence of the relationship that Ekaterina’s grandmother fostered with the NKVD boss who was to become Ekaterina’s grandfather? The story has elements of a near miss, but perhaps also of evasive action.
Rethinking the Remembering of Repression
Respondents recounted these stories to show how Stalinist repressions had not touched their families. In many cases the stories are tinged with a sense of pride. These respondents would answer ‘none’ to a survey question about the number of repressed relatives. Yet, in many ways the people recounted in the memories of the respondents above are also victims of repression. No, they were not arrested, exiled, or executed – but they gave up settled livelihoods, social status, lifepaths, friendships, property, their dignity, to avoid ‘the meatgrinder’.
Everyday vernacular memory recalls these people and their actions. Yet, it is largely missing in the official memory we find in museums, memoirs, history books and films. In remembering the victims of political repression, we should try to broaden how we think about victimhood and find the appropriate questions and methods to understand the broad brush of repression and the multitude of ways it intrudes into people’s lives.