When 55-year-old Stephen Pasceri walked into a Boston hospital last January and fatally shot Michael Davidson, a 44-year-old heart surgeon who had taken care of Pasceri’s late mother, his futile rage deprived others of a superb physician and changed in an instant the lives of Dr. Davidson’s three young children. They are fortunate to be growing up with their mother in upper-middle-class America, where their trauma will gradually heal.
Eighty years ago, during the Great Purge from 1935 to 1940, millions of fathers were arrested in Joseph Stalin’s empire as “enemies of the people” or “traitors of the motherland.” They were interrogated, tried, and executed, or sent to Siberian gulags. Shortly afterwards their wives would be taken, sentenced to exile or internment in a special camp for wives of traitors to the motherland (known by its acronym AlZhIR) in Akmolinsk in present-day Kazakhstan.
Some 10 million children, from just past the nursing stage to the age of 16, became collateral victims of Stalin’s regime of deliberate terror. When not claimed by relatives, these children entered the horrendous world of state orphanages for warehousing and reeducation. Until Stalin’s death in 1953 they were saddled with the stigma of descent from “enemies of the people.”
We first learned about their fate in Semyon S. Vilensky’s blood-curdling documentary compilation Deti GULAGA, 1918-1956 (2002) and its English-language equivalent, Children of the Gulag, published (together with Cathy A. Frierson) by Yale University Press in its Annals of Communism series. Under the title Silence Was Salvation, Frierson has now published 10 detailed interviews she conducted with children who had managed to survive and build families and careers for themselves in the Soviet Union.
Between 2003 and 2005, five men and five women, then in their early to late seventies, and ranging from a busy physician to a retired metal worker, sat down with Frierson in tiny kitchens or offices to be guided by her questions back to their childhoods in the years 1936-1953. The result is a heart-stopping journey through displacement, deep loneliness, abject poverty, hunger and dirt, through betrayal, icy silence, and all the hell that was Stalin’s regime. We get to see its underbelly from the perspective of its most vulnerable subjects.
One example will stand for all. Inna Aronovna Gaister was born in Moscow in 1925. Her parents were Jews who had joined the Bolsheviks during the civil war that followed the 1917 revolution. As part of the Soviet elite, the family lived in the prestigious Government House in Moscow. But both parents were arrested in 1937, the father executed the day after his 12-minute trial, the mother sentenced to eight years in Akmolinsk, leaving 12-year-old Inna with the responsibility of taking care of her two younger sisters, age 7 and 1.
Their housekeeper fought tooth and nail to keep the girls out of the orphanages, moving with them to a dark hallway until their final eviction, when all of them moved in with the grandparents—who had, meanwhile, collected two other children of arrested parents. From 1938 to 1941, seven adults and six children lived in an apartment of 280 square feet. This was not unusual at the time: The only place to do homework was on a shallow plank in the bathroom, and the kids fought over the space. All excelled in school.
In 1940, Inna’s mother petitioned to receive a visit from a family member; a 24-hour visit was granted. For one year, Inna gave mathematics lessons after school to earn the money for the trip to Akmolinsk, a three-day train ride, third-class. She left in June 1941, and remembers this:
The camp is forty kilometers from Akmolinsk. And there was this kind of mud hut where drivers who drove back and forth stopped. We walked into that little house and they told us that the truck had left that morning. We would have to wait a couple of days. And we eagerly went out into the steppe, to look around, to see what the steppe was . . . after all, we were city people.
Soon they got the news that war had broken out between Germany and the Soviet Union, and the allotted visiting time was cut in half.
So there was this little mud hut, it stood directly in the middle of the field right behind the barbed wire. They brought our mothers there. It was impossible to visit with each other outside, because it was so hot. Kazakhstan! We sat like this shoulder-to-shoulder on the bed. Mama, and next to her sat Yasha with his mama. It was completely difficult for the boys. Because they aren’t very affectionate and here, right in front of everybody, they had to be affectionate with their mama. That’s how we were granted our visit.