The Great Break (1928–32)


On 2 August 1930, the villagers of Obukhovo celebrated Ilin Day, an old religious holiday to mark the end of the high summer when Russian peasants held a feast and said their prayers for a good harvest. After a service in the church, the villagers assembled at the Golovins, the biggest family in Obukhovo, where they were given home-made pies and beer inside the house while their children played outside. As evening approached, the village dance (gulian’e) began. Led by a band of balalaika players and accordionists, two separate rows of teenage boys and girls, dressed in festive cottons, set off from the house, singing as they danced down the village street.1

That year the holiday was overshadowed by violent arguments. The villagers were bitterly divided about whether they should form a collective farm (kolkhoz), as they had been ordered by the Soviet government. Most of the peasants were reluctant to give up their family farms, on which they had worked for generations, and to share their property, their horses, cows and agricultural equipment in a kolkhoz. In the collective farm all their land, their livestock and their tools would be collectivized; the peasants’ individual plots of land would be grouped together in large fields suitable for tractors; and the peasants would become wage labourers, with only tiny kitchen gardens on which to keep their poultry and grow a few vegetables. The villagers of Obukhovo had a fierce attachment to the principles of family labour and property and they were frightened by the stories they had heard about collectivization in other northern villages. There were terrifying tales of soldiers forcing peasants into the kolkhoz, of mass arrests and deportations, of houses being burned and people killed, and of peasants fleeing from their villages and slaughtering their cattle to avoid collectivization. ‘On our farms we can all work for ourselves,’ Nikolai Golovin had warned a meeting of the commune in July, ‘but on the kolkhoz we will become serfs again.’2 Many of the older peasants in Obukhovo had been born before the abolition of serfdom in 1861.

In 1917, Nikolai had led the peasant revolution on the land. He organized the confiscation of the Church’s land (there were no gentry estates in the area) and through the commune and the Soviet oversaw the redivision of the village land, allocating strips of arable land to the family farms according to their household size. Nikolai was well regarded by the other villagers, whose smallholding family farms, worked with their own labour on communal land, had increased in number as a result of the Revolution, and they often came to him for agricultural advice. They valued his intelligence and honesty, his industry, sobriety and quiet modesty, and trusted his opinions, because he understood and could explain in simple terms the policies of the Soviet government. The old millstone outside his house was an informal meeting place where villagers would gather in the summer evenings, and Nikolai would give his views on local incidents.3

The Golovins were defenders of peasant tradition. Their family farm was organized on patriarchal lines, where all the children worked under the command of their father and were brought up to obey him as an almost god-like figure of authority (‘God is in the sky and father in the house’). Like all peasants, the Golovins believed in the rights of family labour on the land. This had been the guiding principle of the agrarian revolution of 1917–18. In the Civil War, when Nikolai had helped to organize the Red Army in the north, he had given his support to the Soviet regime on the understanding that it would defend these peasant rights (throughout the 1920s he kept a portrait of Kliment Voroshilov, the Soviet Commissar of Military Affairs, next to the icons in the main room of his house). But these rights were increasingly attacked by the Bolsheviks, whose militant young Komsomol activists led the campaign for collectivization in Obukhovo. The Komsomol held meetings in the village school, where violent speeches were made by agitators against the richest peasants in Obukhovo – most of all against the Golovins. The villagers had never heard such propaganda in the past and many were impressed by the long words used by the leaders of the Komsomol. At these meetings the villagers were told that they belonged to three mutually hostile classes: the poor peasants, who were the allies of the proletariat, the middle peasants, who were neutral, and the rich or ‘kulak’ peasants, who were its enemies.* The names of all the peasants in these different classes were listed on a board outside the village school. These divisions were entirely generated by the Komsomol. The villagers had no previous conception of themselves in terms of social class. They had always thought of themselves as one ‘peasant family’, and the poorest peasants were normally respectful, and even deferential, to the most successful peasants like the Golovins. But at the meetings in the village school, when their tongues were loosened by alcohol, the poor would add their voice to the denunciations of the ‘kulak Golovins’.4

Yevdokiia and Nikolai with their son Aleksei Golovin (1940s)

The Komsomol in Obukhovo consisted of a dozen teenagers who went around the village in semi-military uniforms and carried guns. They were intimidating to the villagers. Their leader was Kolia Kuzmin, the eighteen-year-old son of a poor and alcoholic peasant whose squalid house with its broken roof was located at the far end of the village, where the poorest families in Obukhovo lived. As a boy, Kolia had been sent out by his family to beg from the other farms. He would often come to the Golovin household with a ‘neighbourly request for matches, salt, kerosene or flour, which in the Kuzmin household never lasted until the New Year,’ recalls Antonina, the daughter of Nikolai. Her father took pity on the teenager, giving him a job in his leather workshop in the courtyard of his farm; Kolia worked there for several years, until 1927, when he joined the Komsomol and turned against the Golovins.5

In many villages, especially remote ones like Obukhovo, the Bolsheviks depended on the Komsomol to do their agitation in the absence of a Party cell. For every rural Party member there were four rural Komsomol members in the mid-1920s. The nearest Party office to Obukhovo was seven kilometres away in the district town of Ustiuzhna. Since the village Soviet in Obukhovo was dominated by the Golovins, the restless young men of the village who joined the Komsomol were placed in charge of leading the campaign for the kolkhoz. From the autumn of 1928, when the Party leadership began to call for mass collectivization, Kuzmin and his comrades went around the village, inciting the poorest peasants to join them in a battle against the ‘counterrevolutionary’ influence of the ‘kulaks’ and the Church, and sending unsigned letters of denunciation to the district town. In the spring of 1929, Nikolai was expelled from the Obukhovo Soviet and deprived of his civil rights as ‘the capitalist owner of a leather-working enterprise’. Then, in November, his house was searched by the village Komsomol, together with officials from the district town, who imposed a heavy tax of 800 roubles on his ‘kulak’ farm. This tax, part of a nationwide policy to ‘squeeze out’ the ‘kulaks’ and confiscate their property, resulted in the ruination of almost 4,000 peasant households in Vologda alone.6

To pay the tax Nikolai was forced to sell two milking cows, his shoe-making machinery, an iron bed and a trunk of clothes. With two of his four brothers, he even worked that winter on a building site in Leningrad to earn some extra cash. The three brothers were thinking of leaving Obukhovo, where the collectivization of agriculture now seemed unavoidable, and they wanted to find out what life was like in the city. They slept on benches in a dormitory, ate their meals in cafeterias and saved up enough to send several hundred roubles home, but after a few months of living in this way, they decided to return to their village. ‘It is no life for a human being,’ Nikolai explained in a letter to his family, ‘if one has to purchase everything, bread, potatoes and cabbage, from a shop.’7

Nikolai’s return, in the spring of 1930, brought his relations with the Komsomol to a breaking point. One evening, he was having supper at his house with his brother Ivan Golovin, a peasant from the neighbouring village. They were sitting at the kitchen table by the window, and their silhouettes, illuminated by a kerosene lamp, were clearly visible to Kuzmin and his followers, who gathered outside in the dark. The young men were clearly drunk. They shouted at the ‘kulaks’ to ‘come out’, and then shot at the window. Ivan was hit in the head. He lay dead in a pool of blood.

A few weeks later, Kuzmin came again to Nikolai’s house, this time with two Party officials from the district town. There was a gathering at Nikolai’s house that night, and the main room was full of friends and relatives. Kuzmin accused them of holding an illegal assembly. ‘Kulaks, open up, stop conspiring against Soviet power!’ he shouted, banging on the door. He had a gun and shot into the air. Confronting the intruders on the porch, Nikolai refused to let them in. Kuzmin threatened to murder Nikolai (‘I shall shoot you, just as I murdered your brother, and no one will punish me,’ he was heard to say), whereupon a brawl ensued, and Nikolai pushed Kuzmin to the ground. Kuzmin and his comrades went away. A few days later he wrote to the chief of the Ustiuzhna political police (OGPU) denouncing Nikolai as a

kulak exploiter who is spreading anti-Soviet propaganda in our village together with a dozen other kulak elements. They are saying that the Soviet government is robbing the people. Their aim is to sabotage collectivization by turning the people against it.

Kuzmin must have known that this would be enough to get his former patron arrested, especially since his denunciation was supported by the two Bolsheviks, who added for good measure that Nikolai was ‘always drunk’ when he ‘cursed the Soviets’.8

Sure enough, on 2 August, as their guests were readying to leave the Golovins at the end of the Ilin holiday, two officials came to arrest Nikolai. Imprisoned in Ustiuzhna, Nikolai was convicted by a three-man OGPU tribunal of ‘terrorist intent’ (for striking Kuzmin to the ground) and sentenced to three years at the Solovetsky prison complex located on an island in the White Sea. The last time Antonina saw her father was through the bars of the Ustiuzhna jail. She had walked to the district centre with her mother, her brothers and sisters to catch a glimpse of Nikolai before he was dispatched to the Solovetsky camp. For the next three years the image of her father behind bars haunted Antonina’s dreams.9

A few weeks after Nikolai’s arrest, the peasants of Obukhovo were herded to a village meeting, at which they passed a resolution to close down their family farms and, handing over all their land, their tools and livestock, to establish a kolkhoz.

Collectivization was the great turning-point in Soviet history. It destroyed a way of life that had developed over many centuries – a life based on the family farm, the ancient peasant commune, the independent village and its church and the rural market, all of which were seen by the Bolsheviks as obstacles to socialist industrialization. Millions of people were uprooted from their homes and dispersed across the Soviet Union: runaways from the collective farms; victims of the famine that resulted from the over-requisitioning of kolkhoz grain; orphaned children; ‘kulaks’ and their families. This nomadic population became the main labour force of Stalin’s industrial revolution, filling the cities and industrial building sites, the labour camps and ‘special settlements’ of the Gulag (Main Administration of Camps). The First Five Year Plan, which set this pattern of forced development, launched a new type of social revolution (a ‘revolution from above’) that consolidated the Stalinist regime: old ties and loyalties were broken down, morality dissolved, and new (‘Soviet’) values and identities imposed, as the whole population was subordinated to the state and forced to depend on it for almost everything – housing, schooling, jobs and food – controlled by the planned economy.

The eradication of the peasant family farm was the starting-point of this ‘revolution from above’. The Bolsheviks had a fundamental mistrust of the peasantry. In 1917, without influence in the countryside, they had been forced to tolerate the peasant revolution on the land, which they had exploited to undermine the old regime; but they had always made it clear that their long-term goal was to sweep away the peasant smallholding system, replacing it with large-scale mechanized collective farms in which the peasants would be transformed into a ‘rural proletariat’. Marxist ideology had taught the Bolsheviks to regard the peasantry as a ‘petty-bourgeois’ relic of the old society that was ultimately incompatible with the development of a Communist society. It was too closely tied to the patriarchal customs and traditions of Old Russia, too imbued in the principles and habits of free trade and private property and too given over to the ‘egotism’ of the family ever to be fully socialized.

The Bolsheviks believed that the peasants were a potential threat to the Revolution, as long as they controlled the main supply of food. As the Civil War had shown, the peasantry could bring the Soviet regime to the verge of collapse by keeping grain from the market. The grain crisis of 1927–8 renewed fears of a ‘kulak strike’ in Stalinist circles. In response, Stalin reinstituted requistioning of food supplies and engineered an atmosphere of ‘civil war’ against the ‘kulak threat’ to justify the policy. In January 1928, Stalin travelled to Siberia, a key grain-producing area, and urged the local activists to show no mercy to ‘kulaks’ suspected of withholding grain. His battle-cry was backed up by a series of Emergency Measures instructing local organs to use the Criminal Code to arrest any peasants and confiscate their property if they refused to give their grain to the requisitioning brigades (a wild interpretation of the Code that met with some resistance in the government). Hundreds of thousands of ‘malicious kulaks’ (ordinary peasants like Nikolai Golovin) were arrested and sent to labour camps, their property destroyed or confiscated, as the regime sought to break the ‘kulak strike’ and transformed its overcrowded prisons into a network of labour camps (soon to become known as the Gulag).10

As the battle for grain intensified, Stalin and his supporters moved towards a policy of mass collectivization in order to strengthen the state’s control of food production and remove the ‘kulak threat’ once and for all. ‘We must devise a procedure whereby the collective farms will turn over their entire marketable production of grain to the state and co-operative organizations under the threat of withdrawal of state subsidies and credits,’ Stalin said in 1928.11 Stalin spoke with growing optimism about the potential of large-scale mechanized collective farms. Statistics showed that the few such farms already in existence had a much larger marketable surplus than the small agricultural surpluses produced by the vast majority of peasant family farms.

This enthusiasm for collective farms was relatively new. Previously, the Party had not placed much emphasis on collectivization. Under the NEP, the organization of collective farms was encouraged by the state through financial and agronomic aid, yet in Party circles it was generally agreed that collectivization was to be a gradual and voluntary process. During the NEP the peasants showed no sign of coming round to the collective principle, and the growth of the kolkhoz sector was pretty insignificant. After 1927, when the state exerted greater pressure through taxation policies – giving credits to collective farms and imposing heavy fees on ‘kulak’ farms – the kolkhoz sector grew more rapidly. But it was not the large kommuny (where all the land and property was pooled) but the smaller, more informal and ‘peasant-like’ associations called TOZy (where the land was farmed in common but the livestock and the tools were retained by the peasants as their private property) that attracted the most peasant interest. The Five Year Plan gave little indication that the Party was about to change its policies; it projected a moderate increase in the land sown by collective farms, and made no mention of departing from the voluntary principle.

The sudden change in policy was forced through by Stalin in 1929. The volte face was a decisive blow against Bukharin, who was desperately trying to retain the market mechanism of the NEP within the structure of the Five Year Plan, which in its original version (adopted in the spring of 1929 but dated retroactively to 1928) had envisaged optimistic but reasonable targets of socialist industrialization. Stalin pushed for even higher rates of industrial growth and, by the autumn of 1929, the target figures of the Five Year Plan had been raised dramatically. Investment was to triple; coal output was to double; and the production of pig-iron (which had been set to rise by 250 per cent in the original version of the Plan) was now set to quadruple by 1932.In a wave of frenzied optimism, which was widely shared by the Party rank and file, the Soviet press advanced the slogan ‘The Five Year Plan in Four!’12 It was these utopian rates of growth that forced the Party to accept the Stalinist policy of mass collectivization as, it seemed, the only way to obtain a cheap and guaranteed supply of foodstuffs for the rapidly expanding industrial labour force (and for sale abroad to bring in capital).

At the heart of all these policies was the Party’s war against the peasantry. The collectivization of agriculture was a direct assault on the peasantry’s attachment to the village and the Church, to the individual family farm, to private trade and property, which all rooted Russia in the past. On 7 November 1929, Stalin wrote an article in Pravda, ‘The Year of the Great Break’, in which he heralded the Five Year Plan as the start of the last great revolutionary struggle against ‘capitalist elements’ in the USSR, leading to the foundation of a Communist society built by socialist industry. What Stalin meant by the ‘great break’, as he explained to Gorky, was the ‘total breaking up of the old society and the feverish building of the new’.13

From the summer of 1929, thousands of Party activists were sent into the countryside to agitate for the collective farms. Like the villagers of Obukhovo, most of the peasants were afraid to give up a centuries-old way of life to make a leap of faith into the unknown. There were precious few examples of good collective farms to persuade the peasantry. A German agricultural specialist working in Siberia in 1929 described the collective farms as ‘candidates for death’. Very few had tractors or modern implements. They were badly run by people who knew little about agriculture and made ‘crude mistakes’, which ‘discredited the whole process of collectivization’. According to OGPU, the perception of the peasants was that they would ‘lose everything’ – their land and cows, their horses and their tools, their homes and family – if they entered a kolkhoz. As one old peasant said: ‘Lecturer after lecturer is coming and telling us that we ought to forget possessions and have everything in common. Why then is the desire for it in our blood?’14

Unable to persuade the peasantry, the activists began to use coercive measures. From December 1929, when Stalin called for the ‘liquidation of the kulaks as a class’, the campaign to drive the peasants into the collective farms took on the form of a war. The Party and the Komosomol were fully armed and mobilized, reinforced by local militia, special army and OGPU units, urban workers and student volunteers, and sent into the villages with strict instructions not to come back to the district centres without having organized a kolkhoz. ‘It is better to overstep the mark than to fall short,’ they were told by their instructors. ‘Remember that we won’t condemn you for an excess, but if you fall short – watch out!’ One activist recalls a speech by the Bolshevik leader Mendel Khataevich, in which he told a meeting of eighty Party organizers in the Volga region:

You must assume your duties with a feeling of the strictest Party responsibility, without whimpering, without any rotten liberalism. Throw your bourgeois humanitarianism out of the window and act like Bolsheviks worthy of comrade Stalin. Beat down the kulak agent wherever he raises his head. It’s war – it’s them or us. The last decayed remnant of capitalist farming must be wiped out at any cost.15

During just the first two months of 1930, half the Soviet peasantry (about 60 million people in over 100,000 villages) was herded into the collective farms. The activists employed various tactics of intimidation at the village meetings where the decisive vote to join the kolkhoz took place. In one Siberian village, for example, the peasants were reluctant to accept the motion to join the collective farm. When the time came for the vote, the activists brought in armed soldiers and called on those opposed to the motion to speak out: no one dared to raise objections, so it was declared that the motion had been ‘passed unanimously’.In another village, after the peasants had voted against joining the kolkhoz, the activists demanded to know which peasants were opposed to Soviet power, explaining that it was the command of the Soviet government that the peasants join collective farms. When nobody was willing to state their opposition to the government, it was recorded by the activists that the village had ‘voted unanimously’ for collectivization. In other villages only a small minority of the inhabitants (hand-picked by the activists) was allowed to attend the meeting, although the result of the vote was made binding on the population as a whole. In the village of Cheremukhova in the Komi region, for example, there were 437 households, but only 52 had representatives at the village assembly: 18 voted in favour of collectivization and 16 against, yet on this basis the entire village was enrolled in the kolkhoz.16

Peasants who spoke out against collectivization were beaten, tortured, threatened and harassed, until they agreed to join the collective farm. Many were expelled as ‘kulaks’ from their homes and driven out of the village. The herding of the peasants into the collective farms was accompanied by a violent assault against the Church, the focal point of the old way of life in the village, which was regarded by the Bolsheviks as a source of potential opposition to collectivization. Thousands of priests were arrested and churches were looted and destroyed, forcing millions of believers to maintain their faith in the secrecy of their own homes. Rural Communists and Soviet officials who opposed forcible collectivization were expelled from the Party and arrested.

In Stalin’s view, the war against the ‘kulaks’ was inseparable from the collectivization campaign. As he saw it, there was nothing to be gained from trying to neutralize the ‘kulaks’, or from attempting to involve them as farm labourers in the kolkhoz, as some Bolsheviks proposed. ‘When the head is cut off,’ Stalin argued, ‘you do not weep about the hair.’17 To his mind, the persecution of the ‘kulaks’ had two purposes: to remove potential opposition to collectivization; and to serve as an example to the other villagers, encouraging them to join the collective farms in order not to suffer the same fate as the ‘kulaks’.

For all the talk of ‘kulaks’, there was no such objective category. The term was so widely and randomly applied that virtually any peasant could be dispossessed as a ‘kulak’, yet this vagueness only added to the terror which the war against the ‘kulaks’ was intended to create. According to Leninist ideology, the ‘kulaks’ were capitalist farmers who employed hired labour, but this could not be said of more than a handful of the peasants who were actually repressed as ‘kulaks’ after 1929. The NEP had allowed the peasants to enrich themselves through their own labour, and some peasants, like the Golovins, had been able, through hard work, to build up a modest property on their family farms.* But the NEP had kept a tight control on the employment of hired labour, and in any case, after 1927, when taxes on the peasants were increased, most of the richest peasants, like the Golovins, lost much of their private wealth. The idea of a ‘kulak class’ of capitalist peasants was a fantasy. The vast majority of the so-called ‘kulaks’ were hard-working peasants like the Golovins – the most sober, thrifty and progressive farmers in the village – whose modest wealth was often the result of having larger families. The industry of the ‘kulaks’ was recognized by most of the peasantry. As one kolkhoz labourer said in 1931, the campaign against the ‘kulaks’ merely meant that all ‘the best and hardest workers of the land’ were pushed out of the collective farms.18

The destruction of the ‘kulaks’ was an economic catastrophe for the Soviet Union. It deprived the collective farms of the work ethic and expertise of the country’s most industrious peasants, ultimately leading to the terminal decline of the Soviet agricultural sector. But Stalin’s war against the ‘kulaks’ had little to do with economic considerations – and everything to do with the removal of potential opposition to the collectivization of the village. The ‘kulaks’ were peasant individualists, the strongest leaders and supporters of the old rural way of life. They had to disappear.

The ‘liquidation of the kulaks’ followed the same pattern nationwide. In January 1930, a Politburo commission drew up quotas of 60,000 ‘malicious kulaks’ to be sent to labour camps and 150,000 other ‘kulak’ households to be exiled to the North, Siberia, the Urals and Kazakhstan. The figures were part of an overall plan for 1 million ‘kulak’ households (about 6 million people) to be stripped of all their property and sent to labour camps or ‘special settlements’. The implementation of the quotas was assigned to OGPU (which raised the target to 3 to 5 per cent of all peasant households to be liquidated as ‘kulak’) and then handed down to the local OGPU and Party organizations (which in many regions deliberately exceeded the quotas in the belief that this demonstrated the vigilance expected by their superiors).19 Every village had its own quota set by the district authorities. Komsomol and Party activists drew up lists of the ‘kulaks’ in each village to be arrested and exiled. They took inventories of the property to be confiscated from their homes when the ‘kulaks’ were expelled.

There was surprisingly little peasant opposition to the persecution of the ‘kulaks’ – especially in view of Russia’s strong historical traditions of village solidarity (earlier campaigns against the ‘kulaks’, in the Civil War for example, had failed to split the peasantry). Certainly there were places where the villagers resisted the quota, insisting that there were no ‘kulaks’ among them and that all the peasants were similarly poor, and places where they refused to give up their ‘kulaks’, or even tried to defend them against the activists when they came to arrest them. But the majority of the peasantry reacted to the sudden disappearance of their fellow villagers with passive resignation born of fear. In some villages the peasants chose the ‘kulaks’ from their own number. They simply held a village meeting and decided who should go as a ‘kulak’ (isolated farmers, widows and old people were particularly vulnerable). Elsewhere, the ‘kulaks’ were chosen by drawing lots.20

Dmitry Streletsky was born in 1917 to a large peasant family in the Kurgan region of Siberia. He recalls how his parents were selected for deportation from their village as ‘kulaks’:

There was no inspection or calculation. They simply came and said to us: ‘You are going.’ Serkov, the chairman of the village Soviet who deported us, explained: ‘I have received an order [from the district Party committee] to find 17 kulak families for deportation. I formed a Committee of the Poor and we sat through the night to choose the families. There is no one in the village who is rich enough to qualify, and not many old people, so we simply chose the 17 families. You were chosen,’ he explained to us. ‘Please don’t take it personally. What else could I do?’21

It is very difficult to give any accurate statistics for the number of people who were repressed as ‘kulaks’. At the peaks of the ‘anti-kulak campaign’ (during the winter of 1929–30, the early months of 1931, and the autumn of 1932) the country roads were filled with long convoys of deportees, each one carrying the last of their possessions, pathetic bundles of clothes and bedding, or pulling them by cart. One eye-witness in the Sumy region of Ukraine saw lines ‘stretching as far as the eye could see in both directions, with people from new villages continually joining’ as the column marched towards the collecting points on the railway. There they were packed into cattle trucks and transported to ‘special settlements’. Since the railways could not cope with the huge numbers of deportees, many of the ‘kulaks’ were held for months awaiting transportation in primitive detention camps, where children and the elderly died like flies in the appalling conditions. By 1932, there were 1.4 million ‘kulaks’ in the ‘special settlements’, mostly in the Urals and Siberia, and an even larger number in labour camps attached to Gulag factories and construction sites, or simply living on the run. Overall, at least 10 million ‘kulaks’ were expelled from their homes and villages between 1929 and 1932.22

Behind such statistics are countless human tragedies.

In January 1930, Dmitry Streletsky’s family was expelled from the farm in Baraba in the Kurgan region, where they had lived for fifty years. His grandfather’s house was destroyed – the farm tools and the carts, the horses and the cows transferred to the kolkhoz, while smaller items – such as clothes and linen, pots and pans – were distributed to the villagers. The family icons were all smashed and burned. Dmitry’s grandparents, three of their four sons and their families (fourteen people in total) were rehoused in a cattle shed and barred from contact with the other villagers, until the order for their deportation arrived from the district town. Six weeks later, they were all exiled to a lumber camp in the Urals (where the grandparents died within a year). Dmitry’s father, Nikolai, stayed with his family in Baraba. A Red Army veteran of the Civil War, Nikolai had organized the first collective farm (a TOZ) in the village, and his agricultural expertise was desperately needed by the kolkhoz. Nikolai was allowed to keep his house, where he lived with his wife Anna and their six children. But then, one day in the early spring of 1931, they too were informed that they had been ‘chosen’ as ‘kulaks’ for a second wave of deportations from Baraba. They were given just one hour to pack their meagre belongings, before they were escorted from the village under guard, left on their own on the open steppe and told never to return. ‘We lost everything,’ recalls Dmitry.

‘Kulaks’ exiled from the village of Udachne, Khryshyne (Ukraine), early 1930s

What could we hope to pack up in an hour? Father wanted to take his walking-sticks (one of them had a silver top), but the guards would not let him. They also took my mother’s gold chain and ring. It was daylight robbery. Everything was left behind – our home, our barns, our cattle, our linen, clothes and chinaware. All we had was a few scraps of clothing – and of course ourselves – our parents, children, brothers and sisters – the true living wealth of our family.23

Valentina Kropotina was born in 1930 to a poor peasant family in Belarus. They were repressed as ‘kulaks’ in 1932. Valentina’s earliest memory is of running with her parents from their home, which was burned on the orders of the village Communists. They set fire to it in the middle of the night, when the family was asleep inside. Valentina’s parents barely had time to rescue their two daughters before escaping, with severe body burns, from their house engulfed in flames. Valentina’s father was arrested that same night. He was imprisoned and later exiled to the Amur region of Siberia, where he spent the next six years in various labour camps. The family house and barn were burned to the ground; the cow and pigs were confiscated for the collective farm; the fruit trees in their garden were cut down; their crops destroyed. All that was left was a sack of peas. Valentina’s mother, an illiterate peasant woman called Yefimia, was barred from joining the kolkhoz. She was left to live with her two young daughters in the ruins of their house. Yefimia built a shack from the rubble of her former house on the edge of the village. She scraped a living from various cleaning jobs. Valentina and her sister did not go to school – as ‘kulak daughters’ they were banned for several years. They grew up on the streets, following their mother to her cleaning jobs. ‘All my childhood memories are sad,’ reflects Valentina. ‘The main thing I remember is the feeling of hunger, which never went away.’24

Valentina Kropotina (second from left) and her sister (second from right) with three of their cousins, 1939

Klavdiia Rublyova was born in 1913, the third of eleven children in a peasant family in the Irbei region of Krasnoiarsk in Siberia. Her mother died in 1924, while giving birth, leaving her father, Ilia, to bring up all the children on his own. An enterprising man, Ilia took advantage of the NEP to branch out from farming to market gardening. He grew poppy seeds and cucumbers, which could easily be tended by his young children. For this he was branded a ‘kulak’, arrested and imprisoned, and later sent to a labour camp, leaving his children in the care of Klavdiia, who was then aged just seventeen. The children were deprived of all their father’s property: the house, which he had built, was taken over by the village Soviet, while the horses, cows and sheep and the farm tools were transferred to the kolkhoz. For several weeks, the children lived in the bath-house, until officials came to take them all away to an orphanage. Klavdiia ran off with the youngest child to Kansk, near Krasnoiarsk, where her grown-up sister Raisa lived. Before they went they sold their last possessions to the other villagers. ‘We had nothing much to sell, we were just children,’ Klavdiia recalls. ‘There was a fur-lined blanket and an old sheepskin, a feather mattress, and a mirror, which somehow we had rescued from our house. That was all we had to sell.’25

What were the motives of the men and women who carried out this brutal war against the peasantry? Most of the collectivizers were conscripted soldiers and workers – people anxious to carry out orders from above (and in some cases, to line their pockets). Hatred of the ‘kulaks’ had been drummed into them by their commanders and by propaganda which portrayed the ‘kulak parasites’ and ‘bloodsuckers’ as dangerous ‘enemies of the people’. ‘We were trained to see the kulaks, not as human beings, but as vermin, lice, which had to be destroyed,’ recalls one young activist, the leader of a Komsomol brigade in the Kuban. ‘Without the kolkhoz,’ wrote another collectivizer in the 1980s, ‘the kulaks would have grabbed us by the throat and skinned us all alive!’26

Others were carried away by their Communist enthusiasm. Inspired by the romantic revolutionary passions stirred up by the propaganda of the Five Year Plan, they believed with the Bolsheviks that any miracle could be achieved by sheer human will. As one student in those years recalls: ‘We were convinced that we were creating a Communist society, that it would be achieved by the Five Year Plans, and we were ready for any sacrifice.’27 Today, it is easy to underestimate the emotional force of these messianic hopes and the fanaticism that it engendered, particularly in the younger generation, which had been brought up on the ‘cult of struggle’ and the romance of the Civil War. These young people wanted to believe that it was their calling to carry on the fight, in the words of the ‘Internationale’, for a ‘new and better life’. In the words of one of the ‘25,000ers’ – the urban army of enthusiasts sent into the countryside to help carry out the collectivization campaign: ‘Constant struggle, struggle, and more struggle! This was how we had been taught to think – that nothing was achieved without struggle, which was a norm of social life.’28

According to this militant world-view, the creation of a new society would involve and indeed necessitate a bitter struggle with the forces of the old society (a logic reinforced by the propaganda of the Five Year Plan, with its constant talk of ‘campaigns’, ‘battles’ and ‘offensives’ on the social, economic, international and internal ‘fronts’). In this way the Communist idealists reconciled the ‘anti-kulak’ terror with their own utopian beliefs. Some were appalled by the brutal violence. Some were even sickened by their own role in it. But they all knew what they were doing (they could not plead that they were ignorant or that they were simply ‘following orders’). And they all believed that the end justified the means.

Lev Kopelev, a young Communist who took part in some of the worst atrocities against the Ukrainian peasants, explained how he rationalized his actions. Kopelev had volunteered for a Komsomol brigade which requisitioned grain from the ‘kulaks’ in 1932. They took everything, down to the last loaf of bread. Looking back on the experience in the 1970s, Kopelev recalled the children’s screams and the appearance of the peasant men – ‘frightened, pleading, hateful, dully impassive, extinguished with despair or flaring up with half-mad daring ferocity’:

It was excruciating to see and hear all this. And even worse to take part in it… And I persuaded myself, explained to myself. I mustn’t give in to debilitating pity. We were realizing historical necessity. We were performing our revolutionary duty. We were obtaining grain for the socialist fatherland. For the Five Year Plan.29

There was widespread peasant resistance to collectivization, even though most villages acquiesced in the repression of ‘kulaks’.In 1929–30, the police registered 44,779 ‘serious disturbances’. Communists and rural activists were killed in their hundreds, and thousands more attacked. There were peasant demonstrations and riots, assaults against Soviet institutions, acts of arson and attacks on kolkhoz property, protests against closures of churches. It was almost a return to the situation at the end of the Civil War, when peasant wars throughout the land had forced the Bolsheviks to abandon requisitioning and introduce the NEP, only this time round the Soviet regime was strong enough to crush the peasant resistance (indeed, many of the peasant uprisings of 1929–30 were provoked by the police to flush out and suppress the ‘kulak rebels’). Realizing their own impotence, the peasantry adopted the traditional ‘weapons of the weak’ to sabotage collectivization: they slaughtered their own livestock to prevent them being requisitioned by the collective farms. The number of cattle in the Soviet Union fell by 30 per cent in 1929–30, and by half from 1928 to 1933.30

Faced with the ruin of the Soviet countryside, Stalin called for a temporary halt to the collectivization campaign. In an article in Pravda (‘Dizzy with Success’) on 2 March 1930, he accused local officials of excessive zeal for using force against the peasantry and setting up kolkhozes by decree. Millions of peasants saw this as a licence to leave the collective farms, and they voted with their feet. Between March and June 1930 the proportion of Soviet peasant households enrolled in the collectives fell from 58 to 24 per cent (in the central Black Earth region it fell from 83 to just 18 per cent). But leaving the collective farm turned out to be no easy matter. It was almost impossible for the peasants to retrieve their private property, their tools and livestock. For six months there was an uneasy truce. Then, in September 1930, Stalin launched a second wave of collectivization, the stated aim of which was to collectivize at least 80 per cent of the peasant households – up from 50 per cent the first time around – and eliminate all ‘kulaks’ by the end of 1931. The Politburo instructed OGPU to prepare a thousand ‘special settlements’, each to receive up to 300 ‘kulak’ families, in remote regions of the North, Siberia, the Urals and Kazakhstan. Two million people were exiled to these places in 1930–31.31

In September 1930, right at the start of this second wave, the kolkhoz in Obukhovo was established. ‘New Life’ (Novyi byt), the name of the kolkhoz, became the name of the village, which had been in existence as Obukhovo since 1522. Red flags were posted at the village gate to show that it had been collectivized. The old wooden church in the centre of the village was pulled down and broken up for wood, its bells removed and taken off to be melted down, while a group of peasant women watched and cried.

The peasants lost their plots of land, which were reorganized into large collective fields. The kolkhoz took away the work-horses and locked up all the cows in dairy sheds; but the promised new machinery did not arrive, so the cows were returned to their owners for milking, and a milk tax was imposed on every house. Kolia Kuzmin, the leader of the Komsomol, became the chairman of the kolkhoz. He took a bride from a nearby village and moved into the biggest house, which had been confiscated from the exiled ‘kulak’ Vasily Golovin. Kuzmin was responsible for the daily management of the kolkhoz, even though he was perhaps the least experienced farmer in the whole village. He was often drunk and violent. The first winter was a disaster. The kolkhoz delivered a large state quota of grain and milk, but half the horses died, and each kolkhoz worker was paid just 50 grams of bread a day.

Some of the villagers continued to resist. There were angry scenes when Kolia Kuzmin came to take away their property with an armed brigade. Many peasants ran away rather than be forced to join the kolkhoz. The Golovins were scattered as a clan. Of the 120 Golovins living in Obukhovo in 1929, only 71 remained by mid- 1931 (20 had fled to various towns; 13 were exiled as ‘kulaks’; and 16 were moved out to isolated homesteads, having been excluded from the collective farm).

As for Nikolai’s immediate family, it was broken up entirely. Two of his brothers were exiled. His mother fled to the nearest town. His oldest son was arrested and sent to work as a Gulag labourer on the White Sea Canal (Belomorkanal). Two other children, Maria and Ivan, ran away to escape arrest. His wife Yevdokiia and their three youngest children tried to join the collective farm, but they were barred as ‘kulak elements’, and isolated from their fellow villagers. Only the Puzhinin family, their oldest friends, would talk to them. ‘The atmosphere was terrible,’ remembers Antonina. ‘Mama often cried. We stopped playing outside; neighbours did not visit us any more. We grew up overnight.’ Yevdokiia and her children were allowed to stay in their family house and keep a cow and a tiny plot of land, from which they managed to survive for a few months, partly because they were helped in secret by their relatives. But life became unbearable when Kuzmin took away their cow (milk was their main source of food). In January 1931, Kuzmin declared a policy of ‘squeezing out the last of the kulak Golovins’, and the village Soviet imposed a huge tax (1,000 kilograms of grain) on Yevdokiia. ‘Kuzmin and his gang would not give up,’ recalls Antonina: ‘they kept on coming back, taking all we had and demanding more. When all the grain had gone, they confiscated the last household property, farming tools and wagons, furniture and pots and pans, leaving us just one iron bed, some old linen and some clothes.’

Then the order for their deportation came. On 4 May, a cold spring day, Yevdokiia and her children were expelled from their house and sent into exile in Siberia. They were given just an hour to pack their things for the long journey. The Puzhinins took the iron bed for safekeeping. The bed was the last possession of the Golovins, the place where all their children had been born and the last trace of their roots in Obukhovo, where the family had lived for several hundred years. Antonina recalls their leaving:

Mama remained calm. She dressed us in our warmest clothes. There were four of us: Mama; Aleksei, who was then fifteen; Tolia was ten; and I was eight… Mama wrapped me in a woollen shawl, but Kolia Kuzmin, who had come to supervise our expulsion, ordered the shawl removed, saying that it had been confiscated too. He would not listen to Mama’s pleading about the cold weather and the long journey that awaited us. Tolia gave me one of his old caps with ear-flaps, which he had thrown away becaused it was torn, and I wore this on my head instead. I felt ashamed to be wearing a boy’s cap instead of the shawl [traditionally worn by peasant girls]. Mama bowed and crossed herself before the family icons, and led us out the door… I remember the grey wall of silent people who watched us walk towards the cart. No one moved or said anything… No one hugged us, or said a parting word; they were afraid of the soldiers, who walked with us to the cart. It was forbidden to show sympathy towards the kulaks, so they just stood there and stared in silence… Mama said farewell to the crowd. ‘Forgive me, women, if I have offended you,’ she said, bowing and making the sign of the cross. Then she turned and bowed and crossed herself again. She turned and bowed four times to say goodbye to everyone. Then, when she was seated in the cart, we set off. I recall the faces of the people standing there. They were our friends and neighbours – the people I had grown up with. No one approached us. No one said farewell. They stood there silently, like soldiers in a line. They were afraid.32


Returning to his native Belorussian village in June 1931, the writer Maurice Hindus, who had emigrated to the USA almost a quarter of a century before, remarked on what he saw as a ‘fresh slovenliness that had come over the people’ as a result of collectivization. ‘Houses, yards, fences, were in sad need of repair.’ Holy Trinity was approaching,

yet nowhere was there a sign of paint on windows or shutters or a roof with a fresh coating of thatch. Was this neglect a mere accident? That I could not believe. The uncertainties that the kolkhoz had spread abroad were no doubt holding people back from improving their households.33

Hindus might have made his observation in virtually any village that had been collectivized. Dispossessed of their land and livestock, the peasants lost the sense of attachment to their family farms that had been the source of their pride and independence; once reduced to labourers in the kolkhoz, they no longer had the means or even the incentive to keep up their homes.

The peasants worked in kolkhoz brigades, receiving payment in the form of a small food ration (which they were expected to supplement by growing vegetables and keeping pigs and chickens on their private garden plots) and a once-or twice-a-year cash sum (enough on average to buy a pair of shoes). The lion’s share of kolkhoz production was purchased by the state through a system of compulsory ‘contracts’ which kept prices very low, so that kolkhoz managers were forced to squeeze the peasants to retain any funds for running costs. The peasants said that collectivization was a ‘second serfdom’. They were tied down to the land and exploited by the state, just as their ancestors had been enserfed and exploited by the landowners.

Economically, the collective farms were a dismal failure. Few had tractors to replace the horses slaughtered by the peasantry (human draught was used to plough a good deal of their land in the early years). The collective farms were badly run. The managers were people, like Kuzmin, who had been chosen for their loyalty to the Party rather than their agricultural expertise. There was nothing to replace the initiative and energy of the so-called ‘kulaks’, the hardest-working peasants before collectivization. The newly created kolkhoz labourers had no real interest in their work. They focused their attention on their garden plots and pilfered kolkhoz property. Many kolkhoz peasants found it very hard to reconcile themselves to the loss of their private household property. They knew which horse or cow had once belonged to them, and tried to use their former horse to till the land, or to milk their former cow.34

Olga Zapregaeva was born in 1918, the fourth of six children in a peasant family in Krivosheino, a small village in the Tomsk region of Siberia. When Krivosheino was collectivized, in 1931, the kolkhoz took her family’s household property (three cows and three horses, farm tools, carts and two barns full of hay), leaving them with just their chickens and their goats. ‘We were not paid anything in the kolkhoz,’ recalls Olga, who left school to work in the fields at the age of just thirteen. ‘We had to live from what we grew in our garden, from our chickens and our goats.’ There were no tractors on the kolkhoz, so the peasants ploughed the fields with their own horses, which were kept in a special stable near the kolkhoz offices, although Olga’s mother, like many of the villagers, worried that her horses were unhappy there, and often brought them home to make sure that they were groomed and fed. In an effort to eradicate this connection between the peasants and their animals, the kolkhoz chairmen of the area embarked on a policy of sending people away from their villages. Olga’s father was allowed to remain on the kolkhoz in Krivosheino, but Olga and her mother and the other children were sent off to a different kolkhoz, 8 kilometres away, near the village of Sokolovka, where they lived in a rented room. ‘We worked there for two years,’ recalls Olga. ‘We saw our father only once or twice, because we had only one day free from work, and it was rarely the same day as his.’ In 1935, the family was reunited in Tomsk, where Olga’s father worked in the stables of a building site. Olga’s mother got a job in a meat factory, and the family lived together in a dormitory with a dozen other families, all former peasants who had left the land.35

After a good harvest in 1930, the harvests of 1931 and 1932 were disastrously bad. Yet state procurements in 1932–3 were more than twice the level they had been in the bumper years of 1929 and 1930. The Party based its excessive grain levies on the good results of 1930 and on inflated 1931 and 1932 figures submitted by local officials, eager to demonstrate their political success. The actual harvest of 1932 was at least one-third smaller than official figures showed (it was in fact the poorest harvest since the famine year of 1921). The inevitable outcome was widespread famine, beginning in the spring of 1932 and culminating during the next year, when 70 million people (nearly half the Soviet population) were living in the famine area. The number of deaths is impossible to calculate, not least because so many of them were unregistered, but the best demographic estimates suggest that between 4.6 million and 8.5 million people died of starvation or disease between 1930 and 1933. The worst affected areas were in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, where peasant resistance to collectivization was particularly strong, and the grain levies were excessively high. This conjunction has prompted some historians to argue, in the words of Robert Conquest, that the famine was ‘deliberately inflicted’, that it was a ‘massacre of men, women and children’ motivated by Communist ideology. This is not entirely accurate. The regime was undoubtedly to blame for the famine. But its policies did not amount to a campaign of ‘terror-famine’, let alone of genocide, as Conquest and others have implied.36 The regime was taken by surprise by the scale of the famine, and had no reserves to offer its victims. It continued to requisition grain from the worst-affected areas and only reduced its procurements in the autumn of 1932, which was too little and too late. Once the famine raged, the regime tried to conceal the extent of it by stopping people fleeing from the devastated regions to the cities of the north.37

Nonetheless millions of people fled the land. For every thirty peasants who entered the kolkhoz, ten left agriculture altogether, mostly to become wage labourers in industry. By the early months of 1932, there were several million people on the move, crowding railway stations, desperately trying to escape the famine areas.38 The cities could not cope with this human flood. Diseases spread. Pressure grew on housing, food and fuel supplies, which encouraged people to move from town to town in search of better conditions. Frightened that its industrial strongholds would be overrun by famine-stricken and rebellious peasants, the Politburo introduced a system of internal passports to limit immigration to the towns. The new law stated that adults were required to have a passport registered with the police to obtain the residence permit (propiska) necessary for employment in the towns. The system was introduced in seven major cities in November 1932, and then extended to other towns during the next year. It was used by the police, not just to control the movement of the population, but to purge the towns of ‘socially dangerous elements’ (‘kulaks’, traders, disgruntled peasants) who might become a source of opposition to the Soviet regime. As it turned out, the law merely forced millions of homeless peasants to keep moving from town to town, working illegally in factories and construction sites, until the passport system caught up with them.39

Families disintegrated, as younger peasants left their homes for the cities. Millions of children were abandoned in these years. Many peasants left their children when they ran away from the collective farms. ‘Kulaks’ gave their children to other families rather than take them on the long journey to the ‘special settlements’ and other places of exile, where it was said that many children died. ‘Let them exile me,’ explained one Siberian ‘kulak’, ‘but I will not take my children. I don’t want to destroy them.’ Among famine victims, the abandonment of children was a mass phenomenon. Mothers left their children on doorsteps, delivered them to Soviet offices or abandoned them in the nearest town. Orphans lived on building sites. They roamed around the streets, rummaging through rubbish for unwanted food. They scraped a living from begging, petty theft and prostitution, many joining children’s gangs which controlled these activities in railway stations, drinking places and busy shopping streets. Some of these children were rounded up by the police and taken to ‘reception centres’, from which they were then sent on to children’s homes and camps. According to police figures, an astonishing 842,144 homeless children were brought to the reception centres during 1934–5. By the end of 1934, there were 329,663 children registered in orphanages in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus alone, and many more in special homes and labour camps (‘labour-educational colonies’) controlled by the police. From April 1935, when a law was passed lowering the age of criminal responsibility to twelve, the number of children in the Gulag system began to rise steadily, with over 100,000 children between the ages of twelve and sixteen convicted by the courts and tribunals for criminal offences in the next five years.40

When they left Obukhovo, Yevdokiia Golovina and her three young children were taken to the nearest railway station at Pestovo, 56 kilometres away, where they were held in a detention camp. Three days later, they were loaded into cattle trucks for the six-week journey to Kemerovo in Siberia. The trucks were full of families, with children, men and women of all ages. A bucket in each truck served as the toilet, which was emptied once a day, when the doors were opened and a piece of bread was given to each person by the guards. At Kemerovo the Golovins were taken to a distribution centre, where several hundred families were kept under guard in an open field, enclosed by a high barbed-wire fence, with nothing but their baggage to sleep on. A month later, they were transferred to Shaltyr, a ‘special settlement’ for ‘kulaks’ in the remote Altai region of Siberia.

The ‘special settlements’ were primitive and isolated camps. Most of them consisted of a few barracks, built by the exiles on their arrival, in which several hundred people slept on wooden planks, although in many ‘special settlements’ the ‘kulaks’ lived in dug-outs in the ground, or were housed in abandoned churches and buildings, cattle sheds and barns. The overcrowding was appalling. At the Prilutsky Monastery near Vologda there were 7,000 exiles living on the grounds, with just one kitchen, but no proper toilet or washing facilities. In Vologda itself 2,000 people were living in a church. An eye-witness described the living conditions of 25,000 exiles in Kotlas:

In the barracks, which are each meant to house 250 people, it is almost dark, with little window openings here and there that let in light only to the lower bunks. The inhabitants prepare food outside, on camp fires. The latrine – is just a fenced-off area. Water – there is a river below, but it is still frozen. The local residents lock the well (‘You will infect us; your children are dying’) and sell water in bottles.

The ‘special settlements’ were not technically a form of imprisonment (the mass deportations were carried out by administrative directives beyond the jurisdiction of the courts) but from the spring of 1931 they were controlled by the organs of OGPU, which was responsible for the exploitation of their slave labour. The exiles in the ‘special settlements’ had to report once a month to the police. Matvei Berman, the chief of the Gulag system, said that conditions in the settlements were worse than in the labour camps. The men were employed in back-breaking work in logging-camps and mines, the women and the children in lighter work. They were given very little food (a few loaves of bread for a whole month). When they succumbed to illness and disease, they were simply left to die, as they did in their hundreds of thousands during the winter of 1931–2.41

Shaltyr consisted of five two-storeyed wooden barracks built along a river bank. The population (about a thousand peasants) had been sent there from all over the Soviet Union, though Russians, Ukrainians, Volga Germans and Siberians were the largest groups. The men were sent to fell timber at a nearby logging camp, returning on Sundays. Yevdokiia’s son Aleksei Golovin was one of them, although he was just fifteen. On 1 September, her younger son Tolia and her daughter Antonina went to school – a single class for all the children of the settlement housed in one of the barracks. The girls were forced to cut their braids (traditionally worn by peasant girls before they were married) – as if to symbolize their renunciation of the peasant culture into which they had been born. To mark the start of the school year the Commandant of the settlement gave a speech in which he told the children that they should be grateful to Soviet power, which was ‘so good and kind that it allowed even us, the children of the kulaks, to study and become good Soviet citizens’. The ‘reforging’ (perekovka) of human beings who did not fit the mould of the ‘Soviet personality’ was an important ideological feature of the Gulag system in its early years, even in remote and isolated settlements like Shaltyr.

Exiles in a ‘special settlement’ in western Siberia, 1933

The first winter at Shaltyr was very cold. The snowfall was so heavy that it destroyed two of the barracks, forcing many of the boys, including Tolia, then aged ten, to live in dug-outs in the ground. There were no able-bodied men – they spent the winter at the logging-camp – so the schoolchildren were mobilized to clear the snow in the mornings. For several weeks the settlement was stranded by the snow. There were no food deliveries, so people lived off the few supplies which they had brought from home. Several hundred people were struck down by typhus; they were isolated in one of the barracks and left to fend for themselves, since there were no medicines. Yevdokiia was one of the typhus victims. Antonina writes in her memoirs:

Every day we went to see Mama. We stood by the window, through which we could see her lying on her plank. Her head was shaved. Her eyes were wide open and wandering. She had lost her memory and did not recognize us. Tolia knocked on the window. He was in tears. He cried out: ‘Mama, Mama, don’t get ill, get up.’

Yevdokiia survived. But so many of the typhus victims died that winter that the Commandant decided that there was no time to bury all of them. Their corpses were frozen in the snow until the spring thaw, when they were thrown into the river.

The second winter was even worse than the first. The exiles were not given any food, part of a deliberate policy to reduce the population of the settlement by three-quarters, it appears. The exiles ate tree bark and the rotten roots of potato plants, which they mashed up into cakes. Their stomachs swelled, and many of them died. Everyone had dysentery by the spring. The Golovins were saved by a stroke of luck. One day, the Commandant was inspecting the barracks, when he noticed that Yevdokiia was reading the Gospel. He needed someone literate to deliver and collect the post from Tsentralnyi Rudnik, a Gulag mining settlement 12 kilometres away. He selected her. When she went to get the post, Yevdokiia would take a bucket of berries, collected by her children in the nearby woods, and sell them at the market in Tsentralnyi Rudnik to buy food and clothes. ‘The Commandant knew everything, of course, but turned a blind eye,’ recalls Antonina, ‘because there was no one else to collect the post.’ Once, a packet of potato seeds arrived in the mail. Yevdokiia was placed in charge of a work team to sow the seeds. Antonina recalls the joy of that occasion:

It was like a holiday! We were all so happy to be digging potatoes! Adults and children – we all worked so hard. We were true peasants, our ancestors had worked the land for centuries, and now we were allowed to work the land again. Mama was the brigade leader, and the Siberian, Snegirev, was the chairman of our collective. We were not allowed to form a kolkhoz, because we were kulaks. Mama was afraid that the potatoes would not grow without fertilizer – none of us had any experience of growing potatoes. But in the autumn we dug up a huge harvest, and no one died from hunger that winter. The potatoes had saved us.42

Dmitry Streletsky and his family walked in snow for several days to reach their first place of exile, a large abandoned cellar in Kurgan, where several hundred ‘kulak’ families, including many of their distant relatives, were simply left, without food or water, to fend for themselves. They would have starved without the help of relatives and other people in Kurgan who brought them food. They were held in the cellar for a week, people sleeping as best they could on their baggage or on the bare floor, and then loaded into cattle trucks for the long train journey to Usole, north of Perm, from where they were force-marched by armed guards to the factory town of Pozhva, 150 kilometres away. There they were housed in a workshop, everybody sleeping on a cement floor. ‘Father was in agony,’ recalls Dmitry. ‘He aged overnight. He said that his life had been destroyed… Everybody felt the same. But even though they had no choice but to do as they were told, people tried to keep their dignity. They refused to be like slaves to the authorities.’ Dmitry’s father was sent to fell timber and build a ‘special settlement’ near Chermoz. The rest of the family was squeezed into a room above a joiner’s workshop with three other families. Six months later, they joined Dmitry’s father at the ‘special settlement’. There were ten barracks in the settlement, each with space for 500 people to sleep on plank beds. Encircled by a high barbed-wire fence, the settlement was located in the middle of a large pine forest, where the men were sent to cut down trees, returning once a week. With a daily ration of just 200 grams of bread, the death rate in the settlement was very high. But the Streletskys managed to survive through their peasant industry: the children gathered mushrooms and sold them in Chermoz; their mother went at night to steal potatoes from the fields of a kolkhoz; while their father struck a deal with the workers of a nearby slaughter-house, helping them to build their wooden houses in exchange for cattle blood (which, unlike meat and bones, would not be missed by the authorities). In the famine year of 1933, when the daily ration was cut to 50 grams of bread, half the population in the ‘special settlement’ died from hunger and disease, but the Streletskys managed to survive by drinking blood.43

The Streletskys were fortunate in that they were able to remain together as a family. For many other people the experience of exile was synonymous with fragmentation. Klavdiia Rublyova lost touch with seven of her brothers and sisters after the arrest of her father in 1930. They were sent to various children’s homes, and she never heard from them again. Klavdiia and her younger sister Natalia went to live with their grown-up sister Raisa in Kansk, near Krasnoiarsk in Siberia. Klavdiia worked as a nanny in a doctor’s home, but then the passport system arrived in the Siberian town, and as a ‘kulak’ daughter she was forced to flee. Leaving Natalia with Raisa, Klavdiia went to stay with her uncle, a senior inspector of forest work in Cheremkhovo, near Irkutsk, where she was registered by the Soviet in her uncle’s name. In November 1933, her uncle received a letter from Klavdiia’s father, Ilia. Released from jail, Ilia was now living in a ‘special settlement’ somewhere in the region of Tashtyp, 2,000 kilometres away, not far from the border with China. Klavdiia travelled by train before hitching a lift to Tashtyp, which was deep in snow when she arrived in January 1934. For a long time she could not find any work. Without her father’s name on her registration papers, nobody would employ her, but as a ‘kulak’ daughter she was too afraid to reveal her identity. In the end she was taken in by the chairman of the Tashtyp Soviet, who employed her as a nanny and set her up with casual work in a clothing factory. One day, while talking to the chairman’s sister-in-law, Klavdiia showed two photographs, one of her two brothers, Leonid and Aleksandr, the other of herself with her two sisters.

She [the sister-in-law] said immediately: ‘Lenka [Leonid], I know him!’ I was astonished that she knew my brother. ‘Where is he? Where is he?’ I asked, trying to control myself… At that time I was afraid of every word I said, in case I revealed that my father was in exile.

Klavdiia found her brother in Tashtyp. Through him, she discovered that her father was living in a ‘special settlement’ attached to the Kirov mine in Khakasin. He had begun a new life with a second wife, as Klavdiia recalls:

The photographs that Klavdiia showed. Left: Leonid (the older brother) with Aleksandr, 1930. Right: Klavdiia is standing on the right, Natalia in the middle, and Raisa on the left with her husband, Kansk, 1930

I went to visit them. When I arrived in the evening, they were just coming back from their work at the mine. They were bringing in their cow. They were not afraid or surprised to see me. My father greeted me as if he had just seen me the day before. I sat with them for a few minutes outside the barracks where they lived. Then I left.44

That was the last time Klavdiia saw her father. He was rearrested and then shot in August 1938.

Many ‘kulak’ families fled the ‘special settlements’ and took their chances living on the run. According to OGPU sources, by the summer of 1930, escapes from the ‘special settlements’ had become a ‘mass phenomenon’, with tens of thousands of ‘kulak’ runaways. The escapes reached their peak during the famine. In 1932–3, OGPU counted a staggering 422,866 ‘kulaks’ who had fled from the ‘special settlements’, and only 92,189 who had subsequently been caught.45

The Ozemblovskys were a minor noble family of Polish origin. After 1917, they lost their land in Belarus, but remained in their village, Oreshkovichi in the Pukhovichi region of Minsk province, where they continued farming on a level with the peasantry. Aleksandr and Serafima had four children, two boys and two girls, the oldest born in 1917 and the youngest in 1928, the year when the kolkhoz in Oreshkovichi was organized. Aleksandr gave all his livestock and tools to the kolkhoz, keeping just one cow to feed his family, but he refused to enter the kolkhoz. He wanted to emigrate to the USA or France, as many other Poles in the area had done, but Serafima argued: ‘Who will touch us? What have we done wrong? We gave away all our property!’ Aleksandr was arrested in the spring of 1930. A few days later they came for the family. ‘Get your things. You and the children are going into exile,’ the OGPU soldier said. Serafima wrapped some clothes in blankets and managed to conceal some gold items, before she was bundled with her children into carts and taken to a church, where several hundred ‘kulak’ families were already held. A few days later, they were rejoined by their men and were loaded into wagons for the 3,000-kilometre journey to a remote settlement in the Komi region of the North. There they were told to ‘make themselves a home’ in an empty barn. ‘There was nothing for us there – no planks for beds, no knives or spoons,’ recalls Sofia. ‘We made mattresses out of branches we collected in the woods.’

Gradually, the exiles built a settlement of wooden huts, one for every family, as they had once lived in their own villages. With the gold that they had brought with them, the Ozemblovskys bought a cow. Family life began again. But then came the famine, and their existence returned to being unbearable. The Ozemblovskys hatched an escape plan. Because their youngest son was already ill, they decided that the women should escape, leaving Aleksandr to look after the boys and run the risk of rearrest. Serafima and the two girls, Sofia, then aged nine, and Elena, five, walked by night and slept by day in the forest. They lived mainly from berries. Serafima had several gold teeth. She would pull one of them to buy a lift in a peasant cart or to bribe an official. Eventually, she and the girls made it back to Belarus. They hid for a week in the Pukhovichi house of Serafima’s parents, who were so afraid of being arrested for hiding her that they advised their daughter to give herself up to the police. Serafima went to the police in Pukhovichi, who listened to her story of escape and felt so sorry for her that they told her to run away again and offered to give her twenty-four hours before coming after her. Serafima left Elena with her parents and went to the nearby town of Osipovichi, where she and Sofia rented a room from an old couple. She put Sofia into school. Then she returned to the Komi region to try to find her husband and her sons. ‘Mama left without a word – no goodbye, no advice about how I might survive,’ recalls Sofia.

For the next year, Sofia lived with the old couple, who turned out to be very cruel. ‘They cursed me, called me the daughter of an enemy of the people and threatened to kick me out onto the street, if I did not do what they said. I cried all the time. I had no money of my own, and nowhere to go.’ Sofia became so miserable that she ran away to her grandparents, who took her in with Elena, although they themselves had been evicted from their Pukhovichi home and were now living in an old bath-house.

The Ozemblovsky family. Left: Aleksandr and Serafima on their wedding day in 1914. Right: Serafima with Sasha (left) and Anton (right) on their return from exile in 1937

Meanwhile, Serafima had arrived at the Komi settlement, only to find that Aleksandr was no longer there: he had been arrested the day after her escape and sentenced to three years in the nearby Kotlas labour camps. Their elder son, Anton, had been recruited as an informer by the police (he was trained to eavesdrop and report on the conversations of the settlers and was paid in bread for each report). Their younger son, Sasha, still very sick, was being cared for by the schoolteacher. Within days of her arrival, Serafima was arrested and taken to Kotlas. But again she managed to escape, running from the convoy on the way back from work and disappearing deep into the woods. Again she made the 3,000-kilometre trek back to Pukhovichi, where she was reunited with her two daughters. They settled in a small house in Osipovichi, bought for them by relatives, and lived off what they grew in the small garden, where they kept a goat and pigs. In 1937, they were joined by Sasha and Anton (who continued to work for the police in Belarus). Two years later the family reunion was completed by the return of Aleksandr, recently released from the Kotlas camps. Sofia recalls the moment of return:

Mama ran out to meet him and threw herself into his arms. Papa said: ‘Mother, where are the children?’ Mama answered: ‘Don’t worry – the children are alive and well, all four of them.’ Papa collapsed to his knees and began to kiss her hands and feet, thanking her for saving us.46

The story of the Okorokovs is even more remarkable. In May 1931, Aleksei Okorokov was deported as a ‘kulak’ from his village Ilinka in the Kuznetsk region of south-western Siberia. Exiled to the North, he escaped from his convoy, walking for a month to return to his village, 900 kilometres away. When he got there he found out that his wife Yevdokiia and their two daughters, Maria, then aged seven, and Tamara, nine, had been exiled with his parents to a ‘special settlement’ near Narym, 800 kilometres to the north-west. With forged papers, Aleksei travelled day and night to reach the settlement, from which a few days later the family departed with a whole brigade of ‘kulak’ runaways, including children and grandparents, which Aleksei organized. They walked by night – Maria on her mother’s back and Tamara carried by her father – so that they would not be seen by the patrols that searched the taiga for ‘kulak’ runaways. For ten nights they walked, sometimes ending up in the same place from which they had started out, for it was difficult to navigate in this terrain, until they ran out of food and water and the old collapsed from exhaustion. On the eleventh night, they were surrounded by a patrol, which shot at them, wounding Aleksei in the stomach. The soldiers took them off in a large cart with other runaways to a nearby village, where they were held in a bath-house. The runaways were sent back to Narym, although the elderly were left behind, including Aleksei’s parents, who did not see their family again.

Once again the Okorokovs managed to escape. While the convoy to Narym was preparing to depart, Yevdokiia bribed a villager to get the patrol drunk, allowing her to run away with Aleksei and their daughters. They headed towards Tomsk, hiding by day (when they could see the guards and their dogs in the distance on the road) and travelling by night (when bears and wolves were the main danger). After several nights of walking without bread or anything to eat, they came across a settlement of the Kerzhaki tribe that had been struck down by smallpox: all the children were already dead. The headman offered to trade some bread, a jar of honey and a boat in exchange for Tamara, who was old enough to work in the tribe. He threatened to inform the police if Aleksei did not agree. Reluctantly, Aleksei consented. Yevdokiia became hysterical, but he would not give in to her entreaties. ‘We stayed with the Kerzhaki for a week to gather our strength,’ recalls Maria.

Mama would not stop crying, and my sister began to understand that something was wrong. On the day of our departure, Papa took my sister into a separate room and locked her up in it. Then he led away Mama, who was half-dead with grief, and placed her with me and the provisions in the boat. Then we rowed away.

After they had gone a few kilometres, Aleksei moored the boat, hid his wife and daughter in the bushes and walked back to the Kerzhaki settlement to rescue Tamara. Four days later he returned, carrying Tamara on his back.

But their troubles were far from over. A patrol caught up with them, as they were making their way north. They were taken to another camp, a barrack surrounded by a high wire fence, 8 kilometres from Tomsk, where they spent the next six months. Aleksei transported vegetables by horse and cart to Tomsk, while Yevdokiia and the children were put to work with other prisoners in a kolkhoz. In Tomsk Aleksei got to know a town official, who took pity on his family and, as an act of conscience, agreed to help them escape. One day Aleksei covered his daughters with potato sacks and drove them in his cart to Tomsk, where they hid in the official’s house. They were joined by Yevdokiia, who had jumped on to a train as it passed through the field where she was working. Dressed in new clothes bought for them by the official, the Okorokovs returned by train to Kuznetsk (which by this time had been renamed Stalinsk). Aleksei worked in a coal mine and Yevdokiia in a canteen. And family life began again. ‘Father at once set to work building us a wooden house with one window and a clay oven. We lived in our little corner, without hurting anyone, and depending on no one.’

And then a few months later, the passport system arrived in Stalinsk. Aleksei decided to go back to Ilinka, his native village, in the hope of getting registered, but as soon as he arrived he was arrested and imprisoned in a labour camp. Yevdokiia, waiting in Stalinsk, finally received a letter from Aleksei. Because the letter would alert the police to her whereabouts, Yevdokiia fled with her daughters to the nearby town of Tashtagol, where the passport system had not yet been introduced. Aleksei joined them shortly afterwards, having somehow managed to escape from the prison camp. He built a shack in which they lived. Yevdokiia picked up casual jobs. When she realized that she was pregnant, she performed an abortion on herself, smashing her fists against her womb and pulling out the foetus. She nearly died. She lay in bed for several months. None of the doctors in the town would even look at her, because abortion had been declared illegal by the government. Yevdokiia cured herself by eating herbs.

In 1934, the passport system reached Tashtagol. Aleksei was rearrested and sent to the Stalinsk metal works as a penal labourer. Yevdokiia and the girls were arrested too. By sheer coincidence, they were sent off to join him at the metal works. They lived together – one of several hundred families – in a dug-out which ran along the river bank against the outside of the factory wall. The ‘roof’ was made of branches and pine needles packed with mud; the ‘walls’ leaked in the rain. Aleksei made some rudimentary furniture. He carved wooden cups and spoons. Once again the Okorokovs began to piece together a domestic existence. Miraculously, they had survived and managed to remain together as a family, but the traumas of the past three years had left their mark, especially on the girls. Maria and Tamara both suffered from nightmares. They were frightened and withdrawn. ‘After three years of living on the run,’ reflects Maria, ‘my sister and I had grown accustomed to not talking. We had learned to whisper rather than to talk.’47


The promise of the Five Year Plan was the creation of a modern industrial society. ‘We are marching full steam ahead on the road to industrialization, to socialism, leaving behind our age-old Russian backwardness,’ Stalin said in 1929. ‘We are becoming a nation of metal, motors and tractors, and when we have placed the Soviet man in an automobile and the peasant on a tractor, then let the capitalists of the West, who so proudly vaunt their civilization, attempt to catch up with us.’48

The symbols of this progress were the huge construction projects of the First Five Year Plan: industrial cities like Magnitogorsk, a vast complex of steel and iron works built from scratch on the barren slopes of the Urals; railroads and canals, like the Moscow–Volga and the White Sea Canal, which opened up new areas to exploitation and supplied the booming cities with basic goods; and enormous dams like Dneprostroi, the largest hydro-electric installation in the world, whose turbines were turning by 1932. These ‘successes’ had an important propaganda value for the Stalinist regime at a time when there was still considerable opposition – inside and outside the Party – to the policies of forcible collectivization and the over-ambitious industrial targets of the Five Year Plan. They enabled it to foster the belief in ‘socialist progress’, in the imminent arrival of the Soviet utopia, which became the ideological justification for the sacrifices demanded from the people for the plan’s fulfilment. In his memoirs, written in the 1980s, Anatoly Mesunov, a peasant son who became an OGPU guard at the White Sea Canal, sums up the effect of this propaganda on millions of ‘ordinary Stalinists’, as he describes himself:

I had my doubts about the Five Year Plan. I did not understand why we had to drive so many convicts to their deaths to finish the canal. Why did it have to be done so fast? At times it troubled me. But I justified it by the conviction that we were building something great, not just a canal, but a new society that could not have been built by voluntary means. Who would have volunteered to work on that canal? Today, I understand that it was very harsh and perhaps even cruel to build socialism in this way, but I still believe that it was justified.49

Stalin’s industrial revolution was very different from the industrialization of Western societies. As Mesunov suggests, the rates of growth that Stalin had demanded in the Five Year Plan could not have been achieved without the use of forced labour, particularly in the cold and remote regions of the Far North and Siberia, where most of the country’s minerals and fuel supplies were located. The supply of slave labour, beginning with the mass arrest and deportation of the ‘kulaks’ in 1929, was the economic rationale of the Gulag system. Although originally conceived as a prison for the regime’s enemies, the Gulag system soon developed as a form of economic colonization – as a cheap and rapid way of settling the land and exploiting the industrial resources of the Soviet Union’s remote regions, where nobody would want to live – and this rationale was openly acknowledged by Gulag officials among themselves.50 Historians have different views of the Gulag’s origins – some seeing it as a by-product of Stalin’s consolidation of political power, others emphasizing its role as a means of isolating and punishing phantom ‘classes’ like the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘kulaks’, or national and ethnic groups which were deemed dangerous to the state.51 These factors all played their part, but the economic motive was key, growing in importance from the moment the regime began to look for ways to make its prisons pay for themselves.

In the 1920s, the labour camps were basically prisons in which the prisoners were expected to work for their keep. The most important was the Solovetsky Camp of Special Significance (SLON), established by OGPU in a former monastery on the White Sea island of that name in 1923, which was to become the prototype of the Gulag in its use of slave labour. Employed in tsarist times to incarcerate political dissidents, the monastery was turned by the Bolsheviks into a general prison for all its adversaries – members of the outlawed opposition parties, intellectuals, former Whites – as well as ‘speculators’ and common criminals. One of the prisoners was Naftaly Frenkel, a Jewish businessman from Palestine who had become involved in smuggling to Soviet Russia and was arrested by the Soviet police in 1923. Shocked by the prison’s inefficiency, Frenkel wrote a letter setting out his ideas on how to run the camp and put it in the prisoners’ ‘complaints box’. Somehow the letter got to Genrikh Iagoda, the fast-rising OGPU boss. Frenkel was whisked off to Moscow, where he explained his plans for the use of prison labour to Stalin, who was keen on the idea of using prisoners for economic tasks. Frenkel was released in 1927 and placed in charge of turning SLON into a profit-making enterprise. The prison’s population expanded rapidly, from 10,000 in 1927 to 71,000 in 1931, as SLON won contracts to fell timber and build roads and took over factories in Karelia, on the Finnish border. Most of the new arrivals were ‘kulak’ peasants, like Nikolai Golovin, who came to the Solovetsky camp in December 1930. The prisoners were organized according to their physical abilities and given rations according to how much work they did. The strong survived and the weak died.52

In 1928, as the mass arrests of ‘kulaks’, priests and traders, ‘bourgeois specialists’ and engineers, ‘wreckers’, ‘saboteurs’ and other ‘enemies’ of Stalin’s forced industrialization threatened to overwhelm the Soviet prison system, the Politburo established a commission to study the possible use to which the growing prison population could be put. Headed by the Commissar of Justice, N. M. Ianson, the commission included Interior Commissar V. N. Tolmachyov as well as Iagoda, the OGPU chief. The three men were locked in battle for control of the prison population, but Stalin clearly favoured Iagoda, who proposed using it to colonize and exploit the industrial resources of the Far North and Siberia through a new network of labour camps. There was an almost inexhaustible supply of timber in these remote areas; and geologists, like Pavel Vittenburg, were charting rich reserves of gold, tin, nickel, coal, gas and oil, which could be cheaply mined by convict labourers. In April 1929, the commission proposed the creation of a new system of ‘experimental’ camps, each with 50,000 prisoners, controlled by OGPU. The commission underlined that, by concentrating larger numbers in the camps, the costs of maintaining this slave labour force could be reduced from 250 to just 100 roubles per capita per year. Two months later, the Politburo passed a resolution (‘On the Use of Prison Labour’) instructing OGPU to establish a network of ‘correctional-labour camps’ for the ‘colonization of [remote] regions and the exploitation of their natural wealth through the work of prisoners’. From this point on, the political police became one of the main driving forces of Soviet industrialization. It controlled a rapidly expanding empire of penal labour camps, whose population grew from 20,000 prisoners in 1928 to 1 million by 1934, when OGPU merged with the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs); the new authority then took control of the political police and directed all these labour camps through the Gulag.53

The largest of the early penal labour camps, Belbaltlag, with more than 100,000 prisoners by 1932, was used to build the White Sea Canal, 227 kilometres of waterway connecting the Baltic with the White Sea. The idea of the canal had first been advanced in the eighteenth century, but it had proved beyond the technical capabilities of the old regime, so the idea of building it was a vital part of the propaganda mission of the Five Year Plan to demonstrate the superiority of the Soviet system. It was a fantastically ambitious project, given that the planners intended to construct the canal without machines or even proper surveys of the land. Critics of the project (who envisaged building it with free labour) had argued that the huge construction costs could not be justified because there was relatively little shipping on the White Sea. But Stalin was insistent that the canal could be built both cheaply and in record time – a symbol of the Party’s will and power – as long as OGPU supplied sufficient prison labour. Frenkel was put in charge of construction. The methods he had used in SLON were re-employed on the canal, as were many of the prisoners, who were transferred from the Solovetsky camp to the canal. To save time and money, the depth of the canal was soon reduced from 22 feet to just 12, rendering it virtually useless for all but shallow barges and passenger vessels (in some of the southern sections, built in a rush at the end of the project in 1932–3, the canal was only 6 feet deep). Prisoners were given primitive hand tools – crudely fashioned axes, saws and hammers – instead of dynamite and machinery. Everything was done by hand – the digging of the earth, the dragging of the heavy stones, the carting of the earth in wheelbarrows, the construction of the wooden cranes and scaffolding, not to mention the camp sites, which were built by the prisoners themselves along the route of the canal. Worked to exhaustion in the freezing cold, an unknown number of prisoners, but somewhere in the region of 25,000, died in the first winter of 1931–2 alone, although among the survivors the number of dead was rumoured to be much higher. Dmitry Vitkovsky, a former prisoner of the Solovetsky labour camp who worked as a supervisor on the White Sea Canal, recalls the scene:

At the end of the workday there were corpses left on the work site. The snow powdered their faces. One of them was hunched over beneath an overturned wheelbarrow, he had hidden his hands in his sleeves and frozen to death in that position. Someone had frozen with his head bent down between his knees. Two were frozen back to back leaning against each other. They were peasant lads and the best workers one could possibly imagine. They were sent to the canal in tens of thousands at a time, and the authorities tried to work things out so no one got to the same sub-camp as his father; they tried to break up families. And right off they gave them norms of shingle and boulders that you’d be unable to fulfil even in summer. No one was able to teach them anything, to warn them; and in their village simplicity they gave all their strength to their work and weakened very swiftly and then froze to death, embracing in pairs. At night the sledges went out and collected them. The drivers threw the corpses onto the sledges with a dull clonk. And in the summer bones remained from the corpses which had not been removed in time, and together with the shingle they got into the concrete mixer. And in this way they got into the concrete of the last lock at the city of Belomorsk and will be preserved there for ever.54

Apart from the physical destruction of human life, the White Sea Canal brought untold suffering to many families.

Ignatii and Maria Maksimov were childhood sweethearts from the village of Dubrovo in the Valdai region of Novgorod province. They were married in 1924, when Maria turned sixteen, and worked on Ignatii’s family farm until 1927, when they moved to Leningrad, where Ignatii found work as a carpenter. In October 1929, five months after the birth of their daughter Nadezhda, Ignatii was arrested (he had taken part in a peasant uprising against the Bolsheviks in 1919) and was sent first to the Solovetsky camp, and then to the northern sector of the White Sea Canal. Meanwhile, Maria was evicted from their room in Leningrad. She returned with Nadezhda to Dubrovo, only to discover that her parents’ house, like the Maksimovs’, had been destroyed, and both families sent into exile. No one from her family was left in Dubrovo. Maria was advised by an old neighbour to flee the village to avoid arrest herself. Carrying her baby, she walked across the border into the neighbouring province of Tver (hoping this would put her beyond the reach of the Novgorod police) and knocked on the door of the first house of the first village she came across. The door was opened by an old couple. Maria went down on her knees and begged them to take in her daughter, so that she could run away: nobody would give work to a woman with a child. The couple were kind people. They nursed Nadezhda for two years, while Maria got a job as a cook on the Leningrad to Murmansk railway. The railway ran along the northern sector of the White Sea Canal, where Ignatii was working, although Maria did not know that at the time. She knew nothing about her husband until 1932, when she heard from an acquaintance that he was at a labour camp somewhere in the region of Belomorsk, where the canal ran into the White Sea. Maria tried to make contact with her husband by writing notes on little scraps of paper and throwing them from the kitchen-carriage window as the train passed the building works at Belomorsk. Finally, a miracle occurred: she received a letter from Ignatii, who was actually in a camp near Kem, 55 kilometres further north on the railway line towards Murmansk. At the end of 1932, Ignatii was released and sent into exile in Arkhangelsk, where he was reunited with Maria and Nadezhda.55

Maria, Nadezhda and Ignatii Maksimov with Ignatii’s brother Anton (standing), Arkhangelsk, 1934

The Gulag was more than a source of labour for building projects like the White Sea Canal. It was itself a form of industrialization. The first industrial complex of the Gulag system was the integrated pulp-and-paper mill at Vishlag, an OGPU complex of labour camps on the Vishera River in the Urals. The complex began life in 1926 as a vast network of logging camps administered by SLON, but it was not until the summer of 1929, when Eduard Berzin, the Latvian Bolshevik, was placed in charge of building works, that the camp developed its industrial activities. The purity of the Vishera’s waters led the Politburo to choose it as the site for producing the high-quality paper that began to appear in the early 1930s, when prestigious publications like the Large Soviet Encyclopedia were printed on the paper of the Vishlag mill. By 1930, the Vishlag camps had a population of 20,000 prisoners (including the writer Varlam Shalamov): 12,000 were employed in the logging camps; 2,000 in the smaller factories (making bricks and cellulose); while the rest were used to build the pulp-and-paper mill, as well as the barracks settlements at Krasnovishersk and Gorod Sveta (‘Town of Light’), which grew into civilian towns.56 Berzin conceived of these Gulag settlements as an ‘experimental form of industrial development’ whose cultural institutions would re-educate the prisoners to become ‘Soviet workers’. Gorod Sveta boasted film and radio clubs, libraries and canteens, health centres, gardens laid out with fountains, wildlife areas, open-air theatres, debating areas and the ‘main camp club’ in a colonnaded building, which reminded Shalamov of the Parthenon, ‘only it was more frightening’.57

Vishlag was typical of the Gulag system in its early years, when the idea of using prison labour to ‘reforge’ human beings in a Soviet mould was not just propaganda but an article of faith for many Bolsheviks. For all that, the Vishlag camp with its paper-mill was primarily an economic venture. Berzin’s operating principles were based entirely on the projected returns from his investments, which included moral and material incentives to stimulate the prisoners to meet production plans. In November 1931, Berzin moved on to become the first boss of Dalstroi (Far Northern Construction Trust), a vast conglomerate of labour camps (including the infamous Kolyma camps) in the north-east corner of Siberia – an area the size of Western Europe between the Pacific and the Arctic oceans – where the world’s biggest gold reserve lay beneath the frozen ground. Berzin ran the Dalstroi camps on the same economic principles as he had run Vishlag: his job was to get his prisoners to dig as much gold as possible (by the mid-1930s the gold production of the Dalstroi camps exceeded the total gold production of the Soviet Union in 1928).58 During Berzin’s reign (1931–7) conditions in the Dalstroi camps were much better than they would become in later years, when many prisoners would look back with nostalgia to the Berzin period, as Shalamov did in his Kolyma Tales:

Berzin attempted – not without success – to solve the problem of colonizing this severe and isolated region and the allied problem of reforging the souls of the convicts. A man with a ten-year sentence could accumulate enough work credits to be released in two or three years. Under Berzin there was excellent food, a workday of four to six hours in the winter and ten in the summer, and colossal salaries for convicts, which permitted them to help their families and return to the mainland as well-to-do men when their sentences were up… The cemeteries dating back to those days are so few in number that the early residents of Kolyma seemed immortal to those who came later.59

Vishlag itself was dismantled in 1934, but by then the pulp-and-paper mill at Krasnovishersk had become an industrial centre, a major economic power in the northern Urals, drawing many peasants into industry.

The rise of industry required engineers and other technical specialists. Ivan Uglitskikh was born in 1920 to a peasant family in Fyodortsovo, in the Cherdyn region of the Urals. Banned as a ‘kulak’ from the kolkhoz in Fyodortsovo, Ivan’s father fled to Cherdyn and worked on the river barges transporting timber down to the pulp-and-paper mill at Krasnovishersk, where his brother and uncle were both in the labour camp. Ivan grew up with a strong desire to get on in life. His father was always telling him to learn a profession. ‘There was nothing where we lived, no industry at all,’ recalls Ivan. ‘My dream was to go to Perm, but that was far away, and I could not afford the fare… The main thing was to have a profession. Without that there was no future.’ The only place where he could study beyond the age of fourteen was the Factory Apprentice School (FZU) attached to the pulp-and-paper mill. All the teachers were former Vishlag prisoners, as Ivan recalls:

They were engineers, specialists in their professions, brought from the camp to train us in paper production and electrical work. I trained as an electrician, and then worked at the paper mill. I could get work in any town and any factory, because in those years there was a huge demand for skilled workers like myself. I even went to Perm and worked there on the landings for the river-boats… I was proud of my success. My parents were proud of me as well.60

Millions of peasant sons were coming to the towns and forging a new identity for themselves. Between 1928 and 1932 the urban population grew at the extraordinary rate of 50,000 people every week. The population of the cities grew too fast for the state to cope with the rising demand for consumer goods, which were low on the list of Soviet priorities for the Five Year Plan, so after 1928 rationing was introduced for foodstuffs, fuel and various household items. With private trade repressed, the streets turned grey, restaurants and cafés disappeared, shop windows emptied, and people dressed more shabbily. Alexandre Barmine, a Soviet diplomat who returned to Moscow in the summer of 1930, after four years abroad, recalled feeling shocked by the economic hardship he discovered in the capital:

The Uglitskikh family (Ivan standing at the back), Cherdyn, 1938

After the improvements of 1922–28, Moscow showed appalling changes. Every face and every house front was eloquent of misery, exhaustion, and apathy. There were scarcely any stores, and the rare display windows still existing had an air of desolation. Nothing was to be seen in them but cardboard boxes and food tins, upon which the shopkeepers, in a mood of despair rather than rashness, had pasted stickers reading ‘empty’. Everyone’s clothes were worn out, and the quality of the stuff was unspeakable. My Paris suit made me feel embarrassed. There was a shortage of everything – especially of soap, boots, vegetables, meat, butter and all fatty foodstuffs.61

The housing situation was desperate. In 1928, the Soviet city dweller had on average 5.8 square metres of living space, but many of the poorest workers had no more than a couple of square metres they could call their own. An American describes the conditions in which many Moscow workers lived:

Kuznetsov lived with about 550 others, men and women, in a wooden structure about 800 feet long and fifteen feet wide. The room contained approximately 500 narrow beds, covered with mattresses filled with straw or dried leaves. There were no pillows, or blankets… Some of the residents had no beds and slept on the floor or in wooden boxes. In some cases beds were used by one shift and by others at night. There were no screens or walls to give any privacy… There were no closets or wardrobes, because each one owned only the clothing on his back.62

Many workers from peasant families had little expectation of private space. Back in the village, families traditionally ate together from a common bowl and slept together on benches by the stove. Still, for many it must have been a shock to share their living space with other families when they moved into the towns.

Nadezhda Pukhova was born in 1912 to a large peasant family in Pskov province. In 1929, she ran away from the kolkhoz and came to Kolpino, a large industrial suburb of Leningrad, where she found a job at the Izhora machine-building plant. Nadezhda rented the corner of a ground-floor room in a wooden house, not far from the factory. It was a large and draughty room, heated by a primus stove, with a kitchen-toilet and its own side-entrance from the yard. Nadezhda met her husband Aleksandr at the house. He was the eldest son of a peasant family in the Rybinsk region of Iaroslavl province and had recently arrived in Kolpino to take up an apprenticeship as a garage mechanic. The owner of the house was a distant relative, who let Aleksandr rent a corner in the upstairs room. After they were married, Aleksandr moved downstairs to live with Nadezhda on the ground floor. The couple rigged up a curtain round their bed to give them some privacy from the other families. In all there were sixteen people living in the room, including a prostitute, who brought clients back at night, and a fireman, who got up at 4 a.m. to go to work. ‘We slept badly,’ recalls Nadezhda. ‘The fireman, who slept in the next bed to us, would get up in the night and light a match to see what time it was. Men were always coming in and out with Olga [the prostitute]. She said that she would kill us if we reported her. People’s nerves wore very thin.’ During the winter Aleksandr’s relatives from Iaroslavl would stay with them. They came in search of factory work, or to sell felt boots they made to supplement their income from the kolkhoz. ‘They all came – aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers with their wives,’ recalls Nadezhda.

I was shocked by the way they lived – it was so dirty and primitive. It was not like that in Pskov, where my parents’ house was always very clean. Aleksandr’s relatives slept on the floor – the women with blankets, the men with just their tunics to keep them warm. They made the room smell like horses.63

The Golovins also followed the route of migration to town. In February 1933, Nikolai was finally released from the Solovetsky labour camp. Warned not to join Yevdokiia and his children in Shaltyr, where he might be rearrested, he made his way to Pestovo, a small town near Vologda, where he managed to find work as a carpenter on a building site. Like many provincial towns in the early 1930s, Pestovo was full of ‘kulak’ runaways. Among them was Yevdokiia’s brother, Ivan Sobolev, a former priest who had changed his name and begun working as an accountant in the logging industry, after the Bolsheviks closed down his village church. Nikolai became the leader of his work brigade on the construction site and moved into a tiny wooden cabin that had been abandoned by a forester. Gradually, the family was reunited. Nikolai, the son, came to Pestovo from the White Sea Canal – one of the 12,000 prisoners released as a reward for their hard work on the canal’s completion in August 1933 – and joined his father’s work brigade. The other son, Ivan, who had run away from Obukhovo when they came to arrest the Golovins, also came to Pestovo after years of wandering around Siberia. He too joined his father’s work brigade. Maria, the daughter, who had also fled Obukhovo, arrived next, in 1934. She had been so frightened by her three years on the run as a ‘kulak’ daughter that she changed her name and married a Bolshevik worker, who beat her and renounced her when he found out her true identity. Finally, in December 1934, after several months of writing petitions to the NKVD in Ustiuzh, Nikolai was reunited with his wife Yevdokiia and their three other children, Antonina, Tolia and Aleksei, who returned safely from the ‘special settlement’. The woodsman’s cabin, which Nikolai had made into a home, was very small, but to Antonina, who had spent three years in the barracks at Shaltyr, it seemed like a paradise:

There was just one little room. Inside it was an iron bed – the very one that our neighbour Puzhinin had saved for us when we were deported from our home – the bed in which our parents slept and where we, their children, had all been born. It was our bed, unmistakably, it had the same nickel-plated spheres on the bedposts, the same mattress. It was the one thing we had left from our old life.64

The bed from the Golovin household in Obukhovo (photographed in Pestovo in 2005). It is more ordinary than the legendary bed Antonina recalls from her childhood


On 3 September 1932, two boys were found dead in a forest near the village of Gerasimovka in western Siberia. They had been stabbed to death by their own relatives, it was reported in the press, because Pavlik, the older boy, who was fifteen and an active member of the Pioneers, had denounced his father, Trofim Morozov, as a ‘kulak’ to the Soviet police. The rest of the Morozovs had taken their revenge. The true facts of the case are hard to disentangle from the web of lies and political intrigue. From the start of the investigation, the murder was scripted by the Soviet press and the police as a political crime, with Pavlik in the role of a model Pioneer and his killers cast as ‘kulak counter-revolutionaries’.

Gerasimovka was a remote village in the forest near Tavda, 350 kilometres north-east of Sverdlovsk in the Urals. It was surrounded by labour camps and ‘special settlements’. At night the villagers could hear the barking of guard dogs. Gerasimovka was a miserable place. The poorest peasants had one cow, the richest two. Only nine had a samovar. There was just one teacher in a rudimentary school, established as late as 1931, which had only thirteen books. Like much of the peasantry in western Siberia, the villagers of Gerasimovka were fiercely independent. They had moved east from central Russia to win their land and freedom in the nineteenth century and were not about to give that up by joining the collective farms. None of the households in the village had signed up for the kolkhoz in August 1931; little wonder the Soviet press described the place as a ‘kulak nest’.65

Trofim Morozov was a sober and hard-working peasant of average means who had been wounded twice whilst fighting for the Red Army in the Civil War. He commanded respect among his fellow villagers and was serving his third term as chairman of the village Soviet in the autumn of 1931, when it was brought to the attention of OGPU that he was selling false papers to the ‘kulak’ exiles in the ‘special settlements’. His son may have been the informant. Contrary to the propaganda of the Soviet press, Pavlik was not in fact a Pioneer (there was no Pioneer organization in Gerasimovka) but he clearly wanted to be one, and after the opening of the school he became active in agitation work, which brought him close to the police. In Gerasimovka Pavlik had the reputation of someone who informed on neighbours when they did something wrong (years later the villagers recalled him as a ‘rotten kid’). He bore a grudge against his father, who had abandoned the family home for another woman, leaving Pavlik, as the eldest son, to look after his mother Tatiana, an illiterate peasant woman who appears to have been mentally unbalanced by the departure of Trofim and may have encouraged Pavlik to report him in a fit of jealousy. According to the press reports of Trofim’s trial in the village school in November 1931, Pavlik denounced his father’s crimes, and when Trofim shouted out, ‘It’s me, your father,’ the boy told the judge: ‘Yes, he used to be my father, but I no longer consider him my father. I am not acting as a son, but as a Pioneer.’ Trofim was sentenced to a labour camp in the Far North and later shot.66

Emboldened by his appearance in the trial, Pavlik began to inform on villagers who concealed grain or spoke out against the kolkhoz. He was helped by his younger brother Fyodor, who was then aged nine. The villagers were enraged by the boys’ activities. Sergei Morozov, Pavlik’s grandfather, barred them from his house, and other members of the family tried to stop them from reporting to the police. But there is no evidence that the family was involved in the murder of the boys, which was probably the work of teenagers, including Pavlik’s cousin, Danila, following a squabble over a harness and a gun.67

Once the murder was reported in the local press, the investigation was immediately politicized. Danila was leaned upon to denounce Sergei, his own grandfather, as the murderer. The denunciation was supported by two other members of the family: Tatiana, who was ready to blame anyone for the murder of her sons; and Pavlik’s cousin, Ivan Potupchik, an ardent Stalinist and police aide, who was rewarded for his role in the affair by promotion to the Party’s ranks. In the end, five members of the Morozov ‘kulak clan’ were put on trial in November 1932: Pavlik’s uncle and godfather, who were accused of plotting the murder; his grandfather and cousin Danila, who were said to have carried it out; and his grandmother, who was supposed to have lured the boys into the woods. Their guilt was taken as proven from the start of this show trial (the prosecutors cited Stalin’s speeches on the intensification of the class struggle in the countryside to demonstrate the murderers’ political motives). Four of the five – all except Pavlik’s uncle for some incomprehensible reason – were sentenced to ‘the highest measure of punishment’ – execution by a firing squad.68

By this stage, the national press had drawn its own conclusions. In its version Gerasimovka was an emblem of backward peasant Russia, and the Morozovs an archetype of the patriarchal ‘kulak’ family, which collectivization would sweep away. Pavlik soon became the hero of a propaganda cult, launched in the autumn of 1933, when Gorky called for the building of a monument to the young martyr, who, the writer said, had ‘understood that a relative by blood may also be an enemy of the spirit, and that such a person is not to be spared’.69 The cult was everywhere. Stories, films, poems, plays, biographies and songs all portrayed Pavlik as a perfect Pioneer, a loyal vigilante of the Party in the home. His selfless courage, which he had displayed by sacrificing his own father, was promoted as an example for all Soviet schoolchildren. The cult had a huge impact on the moral norms and sensibilities of a whole generation of children, who learned from Pavlik that loyalty to the state was a higher virtue than family love and other personal ties. Through the cult the idea was sown in millions of minds that snitching on one’s friends and relatives was not shameful but public-spirited. It was indeed expected of the Soviet citizen.70

Who was most affected by this lesson of the Morozov tale? Few children in stable families where moral principles were clearly set by the parents, as far as one can tell from interviews, although on this awkward issue, which today is understood in the context of the Terror, memory is unreliable. But Pavlik was, it seems, a positive example for many people who had grown up in unstable or oppressive families, where the influence of the elders was too weak to counteract the ideas of the Soviet regime. The propagandists of the cult were typical in this respect. Pavel Solomein, for example, the Sverdlovsk journalist who first brought Pavlik’s story to the attention of the Soviet public in the press, had run away from his brutal stepfather when he was a child and had grown up in a series of orphanages. Gorky was on his own from the age of nine, when he was expelled from his grandfather’s house – a place of cruelty and backwardness where the men took to the bottle and the women found solace in God – to fend for himself in the industrial towns of the Volga. For many people from unhappy backgrounds such as this, Pavlik was a hero because he had freed himself from the ‘darkness’ of his family’s way of life; by developing his own political consciousness and becoming active in the public sphere, he had found a higher form of ‘family’ in the Pioneers, who were marching with the Party and the Soviet people to a ‘light and radiant future’. Pavlik’s story had a strong appeal for orphans in particular. Untouched by the influence of family life, they could not understand what the boy had done wrong by denouncing his own father. Brought up by the state, they were indoctrinated to be loyal and grateful to it for saving them from destitution, which they were told awaited orphans who had not been lucky enough to have been born in the Soviet Union, the greatest country in the world.

Mikhail Nikolaev was three years old in 1932, when his parents were arrested and he was sent to an orphanage and given a new name. He never found out what his real name was, nor the names of his parents, nor who they were, why they were arrested, or what had happened to them after their arrest. It was a policy in children’s homes to remould children like Mikhail as ‘Soviet citizens’ by erasing their original identity. As a boy, Mikhail was deeply influenced by the tale of Pavlik Morozov, which was drummed into orphans from an early age. He thought of Pavlik as a ‘real hero’, and dreamed of emulating his achievement by ‘discovering a spy’. Looking back on his childhood, Mikhail suspected he would have thought differently about his boyhood hero, had he grown up in a family:

We orphans had an impoverished understanding of life compared with normal children. We were deprived of family events, of conversations around the kitchen table – of all that unofficial and, in my view, most important information that forms a person’s understanding of life and his relation to the world. Our ‘window on the world’ was the classroom, the Pioneers, the radio in the red corner, and [the newspaper] ‘Pioneer’s Truth’ (Pionerskaia Pravda). All the information from these sources was the same, and there was only one way to interpret it.71

The popularity of Pavlik’s story, especially among the young, reinforced a profound cultural and generation gap – between the old world of the patriarchal village and the new urban world of the Soviet regime – which divided many families. The rural population was increasingly young and literate. According to the census of 1926, 39 per cent of the rural population was under fifteen years of age (and more than half aged less than twenty) while peasant sons in their early twenties were more than twice as likely to be literate than their fathers (peasant women of the same age were five times more likely to be literate than their mothers). Educated in Soviet schools, these younger peasants no longer shared the attitudes and beliefs of their parents. Through the Pioneers and the Komsomol many of them found the confidence to break away from their control. They would refuse to go to church, to wear a cross, or to observe religious rituals, often citing Soviet power as the new authority in such matters, which sometimes led to arguments with their parents. They looked increasingly towards the cities for their information and values, and as the popular culture of the towns spread to remote villages in the 1920s and 1930s, more and more rural youth came to prefer the towns to the countryside. Its effect was to encourage rural children to regard the towns as a better and more cultured way of life than the countryside. A survey of the Komsomol in one of the most agricultural districts of Voronezh province during the mid-1920s found that 85 per cent of its members came from peasant families: yet only 3 per cent said that they wanted to work in agriculture. Most rural children wanted to leave the countryside and go off to the city for a shop or office job, to study in colleges and enter the industrial professions, or to join the military.72

The Medvedev family was torn apart by this division between the young and old. Andrei Medvedev was born in 1880 in the village of Oblovka, on the railway line between Tambov and Balashov, 570 kilometres south-east of Moscow. A blacksmith by trade, he made a living in the winter from fixing metal roofs on the houses of the wealthier peasants, but in the summer he worked with his five brothers on the family farm of his father, Fyodor, in whose household all seventeen Medvedevs lived. Fyodor was a peasant patriarch, devoutly Orthodox, with long white hair down to his shoulders, who ruled his household in the old-fashioned way. ‘We lived by the customs of ancient times,’ recalls one of his granddaughters. ‘Everybody ate from the same bowl, and my grandfather gave the sign for all of us to start by knocking with his spoon on the side of the bowl. No one said a word unless he spoke.’

In 1923, Andrei married Alyona, a young woman half his age, who had fled with her relatives from hungry Petrograd to the Tambov countryside in 1917. Alyona came from a poor family of labourers. Her father was a railway porter who was left with seven children when his wife died; in Tambov they had eked out a living doing jobs on peasant farms. Andrei brought his young wife into Fyodor’s home, and in 1924, their daughter Nina was born. From the start Alyona found it hard to submit to the patriarchal customs of the household. Although she had just three years of schooling, Alyona became the village Soviet’s secretary. She organized a school and taught the village children – and many of its adults – how to read. Andrei was not interested in books – there were none in the Medvedev home – so she brought home books and magazines from the local market town from which the children learned to read. In 1928, Alyona’s school became a ‘liquidation point’ (likpunkt) in the Komsomol campaign for the liquidation of illiteracy (likbez), which was part of the Soviet campaign against religion and the patriarchal culture of the countryside. Alyona became an activist in Zhenotdel, the Women’s Department of the Party, which often took her off to conferences in the district town. Appalled by Alyona’s independence, Fyodor threatened to expel her from the house and often argued with his son, one of the leaders of the village Soviet, who supported his wife’s activities, even though he was himself a jealous type and did not like her going on her own to town.

In September 1929, a kolkhoz was formed in Oblovka. Only twenty-nine of the sixty-seven households in the village had agreed to join it, but this was deemed enough to force it through. Andrei was elected the chairman of the kolkhoz. But Fyodor refused to join. His cow had given birth to a new calf, which he did not want to give up. Father and son argued violently. ‘They would have killed each other, if my mother had not intervened,’ recalls Nina. ‘They cursed each other and vowed to go their separate ways.’ The household farm was split. Andrei moved with his share of its property to the kolkhoz, while Fyodor, at the age of eighty-one, continued farming on his own. Four months later, the old man was arrested as a ‘kulak’ – one of twelve ‘kulaks’ arrested in Oblovka, all on the basis of a report by the village Soviet. Fyodor’s house was smashed to bits, and he was exiled to Siberia. But the family drama did not end there. As the chairman of the kolkhoz, Andrei had tied his future to the countryside, but Alyona was drawn towards the towns, largely in the hope of finding a cure for her daughter Nina, who had been blinded by illness and needed special care. In April 1930, Alyona left Andrei and returned with Nina to her family in Leningrad, where they rented a tiny corner in a room owned by friends of relatives. ‘We had only four square metres,’ recalls Nina, ‘just enough for a narrow bed with a bedside table and two little chairs, on which I slept, while Mama occupied the bed.’ For two years the family was split, but then, in October 1932, Andrei, too, came to Leningrad. The pull of family had proved stronger than his commitment to the collective farm. The Medvedevs moved to a larger room in the city centre, Alyona taught at Nina’s school, and Andrei worked as a roofer in the works department of OGPU.73

Many families succumbed to the twin pressures of collectivization and urbanization, as the Medvedevs did. Collectivization was only the last in a whole series of social cataclysms for the Russian peasantry – among them the Great War, the Revolution, the Civil War and the famine, which destroyed millions – but, in a way, it was the most traumatic because it divided families, setting sons against their fathers, over whether to embrace the Soviet way of life. How many sons actually denounced their own fathers is hard to say. There were certainly a few, if not quite as many as one might believe from the Soviet press, which gave the impression in the 1930s that the countryside was full of real-life Pavlik Morozovs. The press reported that a Pioneer called Sorokin had caught his father stealing kolkhoz grain and had him arrested by the police; that a schoolboy called Seryozha Fadeyev had told his headmaster where his father had concealed a store of potatoes; and that a thirteen-year-old boy called Pronia Kolibin had denounced his own mother for stealing grain from the kolkhoz fields (he was rewarded with a trip to Artek, the famous Pioneer holiday camp in the Crimea, while his mother was sent to a labour camp).74

The Pioneers encouraged children to emulate Pavlik Morozov by informing on their parents. Pioneer brigades were commonly employed to watch the kolkhoz fields and report on peasants stealing grain. Pionerskaia Pravda printed names of young informers and listed their accomplishments. At the height of the Pavlik Morozov cult in the 1930s, the true Pioneer was almost expected to prove his worthiness by denouncing his own relatives. One provincial journal warned that Pioneers who failed to inform on their families should be treated with suspicion and, if found to be lacking vigilance, should be denounced themselves. In this climate it is not surprising that parents were afraid to speak in the presence of their own children. As one doctor recalled:

I never spoke against Stalin to my boy. After the story of Pavlik Morozov you were afraid to drop any kind of unguarded word, even in front of your own son, because he might inadvertently mention it in school, the directorate would report it, and they would ask the boy, ‘Where did you hear that?’ and the boy would answer, ‘Papa says so and Papa is always right,’ and before you knew it, you’d be in serious trouble.75

One man who got into serious trouble was the father of Aleksandr Marian. Aleksandr was a leader of the Komsomol in his native village of Malaeshty, near Tiraspol in south-west Ukraine. In 1932, when he was seventeen, he denounced his father Timofei in a letter to the police. Aleksandr was a fanatical supporter of collectivization, welcoming the war against the ‘kulaks’, whom he described in his diary on 8 June 1931 as ‘the last but biggest class of exploiters in the USSR’. Timofei did not agree. He was critical of collectivization, and said so to his son, who promptly denounced him. Timofei was arrested and sent to a labour camp. In his diary, in October 1933, Aleksandr reported an exchange with a comrade in the Komsomol who claimed that he should be deprived of the leadership on account of his father’s ‘counterrevolutionary’ views. Aleksandr wrote:

I had to explain to the comrade that my father was arrested on my demand. The reason for his falling into an anti-Soviet position was his experience in Austria as a prisoner of war [in the First World War]… He returned with a love of Austrian order, convinced that the bourgeois smallholdings which he had seen in Austria were the key to agricultural wealth… The mistakes of the first period of collectivization he saw simply as chaos, not as a temporary complication. If only he had known the laws of the dialectic, if only he had been politically literate, he would have recognized the error of his views and would have recanted them.76

Such fanatically ideological denunciations were probably quite rare. More commonly, young people behaved reactively, renouncing family members rather than denouncing them, and even then, only after their relatives had been exposed as ‘enemies’. Indoctrinated by their schools and the Pioneers, they saw no point perhaps in harming their own prospects by not distancing themselves from family members who had, in any case, already been arrested. There were often complex pressures and considerations that affected such behaviour. People could be threatened with expulsion from the Pioneers and the Komsomol, or barred from colleges and professions, unless they proved their Soviet loyalty and vigilance by renouncing their arrested relatives. This accounts for the formulaic notices printed in their thousands in the Soviet press:

I, Nikolai Ivanov, renounce my father, an ex-priest, because for many years he deceived the people by telling them that God exists, and that is the reason I am severing all my relations with him.77

Some of these renunciations may have been encouraged by the parents themselves, who recognized the need for their children to break from them, if they were to advance in Soviet society. In 1932, for example, a sixteen-year-old boy from a traditional Jewish household near Kremenchug wrote to the local Yiddish-language newspaper renouncing his family’s backward ways:

I refuse to be part of this family any longer. I feel that my real father is the Komsomol, who taught me the important things in life. My real mother is our motherland; the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the people of the USSR are my family now.

According to his younger sister, who was later interviewed, the boy had written this renunciation on his father’s insistence. ‘When I was fourteen,’ the girl recalls,

my father called me and my brother into a room and explained that his way of life was not appropriate for modern times. He did not want us to repeat his mistakes, such as observing Jewish religious traditions. He said we had to go to the editor of a school wall-newspaper and announce there that we were now living a new life and that we did not want to have anything in common with the religious past of our father. My father made us do this. He said it meant nothing to him, but he thought this action would open up a brighter future for us.78

Other factors, too, not least ambition, led young people to renounce their relatives. Many of these public letters of renunciation were written on the eve of leaving home for universities or careers in the towns; they were a declaration of a new identity, a commitment to Soviet dreams and goals. The early 1930s were a period of enormous opportunity and social mobility: workers’ sons and daughters aspired to become professionals; peasant children dreamed of coming to the towns. All these ambitions were purposefully fuelled by Soviet propaganda, which placed the cult of personal success at the centre of the Five Year Plan. Films, books and songs featured the exploits of ‘ordinary heroes’ from the proletariat – engineers and scientists, model workers, aviators and explorers, ballerinas, sportsmen and women – who were all bringing glory to the Soviet Union. Young people were encouraged to believe that they could emulate their achievements, provided they worked hard and proved themselves as worthy Soviet citizens.

Such ambitions were often held most dearly by the children of ‘kulaks’ and other ‘enemies’ of the Soviet regime – a paradox that stands at the centre of the conflict between ‘kulak’ fathers and their sons. Growing up with the stigma of their origins, they wanted to be recognized as equal members of society, which could only be achieved by breaking with the past. Some renounced their ‘kulak’ relatives; others erased them from their biography or claimed that they were ‘dead’, or had ‘run away’. Such acts of denial were often necessary for survival. Yet the memory of them can still evoke feelings of remorse and shame, not because these young people had actually denounced anyone, but because they lived relatively ‘normal’ lives and pursued careers while their parents disappeared in the Gulag. They had reconciled themselves to the Soviet system and had found their place in it, even though they knew that the system had destroyed their own family.

No one expressed these feelings of remorse more powerfully than the poet Aleksandr Tvardovsky. He was born in 1910 in the village of Zagore, in Smolensk province, where his father, Trifon, a blacksmith, made a comfortable but modest living for his wife and seven children. Aleksandr was a teenage Communist. He joined the Komsomol in 1924 and became an activist in the village. He often argued about politics with his father and twice ran away from home, unable to reconcile himself to his family’s peasant way of life. In 1927, he joined the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP), moved to Smolensk, and published his first poem, ‘To a Father and Rich Man’ (‘Ottsu-bogateiu’) in the Komsomol newspaper Young Comrade:

In your home there is no shortage,

You are rich – and I know this,

Of all the five-walled peasant houses,

The best is yours.79

In the spring of 1930, the authorities imposed a heavy tax on Trifon’s family. Fearing arrest, Trifon ran away to the Donbass in search of work, followed in the autumn by his sons Ivan (then aged seventeen) and Konstantin (twenty-two), who reckoned they would ease their mother’s burden by going off in search of their father. Ivan returned that winter, only to discover that he had been barred from the village school as a ‘kulak’ son. In March 1931, the Tvardovsky family – with the exception of Aleksandr – was deported from Zagore. Konstantin (who had been imprisoned in Smolensk) and Trifon (arrested on his return from the Donbass) joined their convoy on its way to the Urals. The family spent the next two years in and out of labour camps and ‘special settlements’, living on the run, picking up odd jobs in factories and mines wherever they could find a loophole in the passport system, splitting up and reuniting, until the autumn of 1932, when Trifon found work as a blacksmith in a factory in the Urals town of Nizhny Tagil.

All this time, Aleksandr was studying at the Pedagogical Institute in Smolensk, where he was making a name for himself as a young poet. In his first long poem, The Road to Socialism (1931), he gave a glowing picture of life on the collective farms. He spoke in favour of the campaign against the ‘kulaks’ at student meetings at the institute. But he clearly felt uneasy about the way in which his family had been treated, because in the spring of 1931, he went to see the regional Party secretary, I. P. Rumiantsev, in the hope that he might intervene to ease their lot. Rumiantsev said, recalled Tvardovsky in 1954, that ‘in life there were moments when one had to choose between one’s family and the Revolution’. After this meeting, Tvardovsky was singled out as a ‘waverer’. His loyalty was tested by the Soviet authorities. At literary meetings he was attacked as a ‘kulak’ son. He only escaped expulsion after a courageous and vigorous defence by the local writer Adrian Makedonov (who was later arrested).80

Afraid for his career, Tvardovsky distanced himself from his family. In the spring of 1931, his parents wrote to him from the ‘special settlement’ at Lialia in the Urals. They did not expect him to help them with money – they knew that he had none, recalled Ivan in 1988: ‘they simply hoped that he might want to keep in touch with his own mother and father, and with his brothers and sisters’. Ivan takes up the story:

Aleksandr wrote back twice. In the first letter he promised to do something. But a second letter soon arrived. It contained these lines, which I cannot forget: ‘My dears! I am neither a barbarian nor an animal. I ask you to fortify yourselves, to be patient and to work. The liquidation of the kulaks as a class does not mean the liquidation of people, even less the liquidation of children…’ Later on there was the phrase: ‘… I cannot write to you… do not write to me.’

When this letter was read to Ivan’s mother, she

bowed her head and sat down on a bench, where she lost herself in thoughts, which she spoke out loud, although what she said was not for us, but for herself, to reassure herself of her son’s love and devotion.

‘I know, I feel, I believe… that it was hard for him,’ she said. ‘My son, surely, had no choice. Life is like a carousel. What can you do?’81

Two months later, in August 1931, Trifon took his youngest son Pavlik and ran away from Lialia, where the rest of the family remained. After a month they reached Smolensk and searched for Aleksandr at the House of Soviets, where they knew that he was working in the editorial offices. Trifon asked the guard to call his son:

I knew what he had written to us at Lialia, but I reasoned: he is my son! He might at least take care of Pavlushka [Pavlik]. What harm had the boy done him, his own brother? Aleksandr came out. God forbid, how can it be that a meeting with a son can be so frightening! I looked at him in a state of near panic: he was all grown up, slender and handsome! His father’s son! He stood there and looked at us in silence. And then he said, not ‘Hello, father’, but ‘How did you get here?’

‘Shura [Aleksandr]! My son!’ I said. ‘We are dying there! From hunger, illness, arbitrary punishments!’

‘So you ran away?’ he asked abruptly, not, it seemed, in his own voice. And his look was different too, it fixed me to the ground.

I remained silent – what could I say? Let it be that way – I was only sorry for Pavlushka. He was just a boy who had come in hope of his brother’s love, and it had turned out so differently!

‘I can only help by sending you back, free of charge, to the place where you came from!’ – those were Aleksandr’s precise words.

I realized that there was no point in asking, begging, any more. I simply asked him to wait while I went to a friend in Stolpovo, who owed me money, and then, when I returned, he could do what he liked with me. He was visibly shaken.

‘All right, go,’ he said.

At Stolpovo Trifon went to see his friend. They drank together, while Pavlik slept. Then at midnight, the police arrived to arrest Trifon. Aleksandr had betrayed him.82

Four years passed before Aleksandr saw or heard from his family again. During this time, Ivan believes, Aleksandr poured his guilt feelings into his unpublished poetry:

What are you, brother?

How are you, brother?

Where are you, brother?

On what Belomorkanal?

(‘Brothers’, 1933)

In 1935, Ivan went to visit Aleksandr in Smolensk. Having fled the ‘special settlement’, Ivan had spent the past three years living on the run, taking casual jobs in Moscow and other industrial towns, but he yearned to see his native town and he felt the time had come to let his brother know what had happened to his family. The brothers had two brief meetings, at which Aleksandr warned his brother to leave Smolensk: ‘There is nothing for you here,’ he told Ivan. ‘You will find nothing but unpleasantness. For me, by contrast, it is important to live here, where people know me well!’83

At the time, Ivan was full of bitterness towards his brother. But in later years he came to understand the pressures on Aleksandr, his need to remain in a place where people knew and respected him, and where his success offered some protection. Reflecting on his brother’s choices, Ivan wrote with compassion:

Aleksandr Tvardovsky, 1940

I dare say that my visit stirred up guilt feelings and remorse in him. He couldn’t have forgotten the letters he wrote to us in exile, nor his meeting with father at the House of Soviets. I felt sorry for my brother. Whether I liked it or not, I had to recognize that he was a sincere member of the Komsomol and had been so since the 1920s. I now think that Aleksandr saw the revolutionary violence that swept away our parents, brothers and sisters, although unjust and mistaken, as a kind of test, to see if he could prove himself as a true member of the Komsomol. Maybe there was nobody he had to prove this to – maybe he just had to prove it to himself. No doubt he rationalized it in this way: ‘Every kulak is somebody’s father, and his children someone’s brothers and sisters. What makes my family any different? Be brave and strong, don’t give in to abstract humanitarianism and other feelings outside class interests.’ This was his logic: if you support collectivization, that means you support the liquidation of the kulaks as a class, and you do not have the moral right to ask for an exception for your own father. It is possible that in his heart Aleksandr mourned for his family, but it was just one of many kulak families.84


The ‘great break’ of 1928–32 destroyed old ties and loyalties uniting families and communities. It gave birth to a new kind of society in which people were defined by their relation to the state. In this system social class was everything; the state promoted ‘proletarians’ and repressed the ‘bourgeoisie’. But class was not a fixed or rigid category. As millions of people left their homes, changed their jobs or moved around the country, it was relatively easy to change or reinvent one’s social class. People learned to fashion for themselves a class identity that would help them advance. They became clever at concealing or disguising impure social origins, and at dressing up their own biographies to make them seem more ‘proletarian’.

The notion of ‘working on the self’ was commonplace among the Bolsheviks. It was central to the Bolshevik idea of creating a higher type of human personality (the New Soviet Man) by purging from oneself the ‘petty-bourgeois’ and individualistic impulses inherited from the old society. As one Party leader wrote in 1929: ‘We are all people of the past with all the drawbacks from the past, and a great deal of work should be done on all of us. We must all work on ourselves.’85 At the same time, the ability of people to change and manipulate their class identity was a cause of great concern to the Party leadership.86 It was widely feared that the ‘proletariat’ – the imagined social base of the dictatorship – would become ‘diluted’ by the mass influx of the ruined peasantry and other ‘petty-bourgeois types’ (‘kulaks’, traders, priests, etc.) into the towns; that the Party would be swamped by ‘self-seekers’ and adventurers who had managed to conceal their impure social origins.

There were lots of stories about such impostors in the Soviet press. The most famous was Vladimir Gromov, who in 1935 was sentenced to ten years of penal labour on the White Sea Canal for assuming the identity of a skilled engineer and prize-winning architect. Gromov had used forged papers to get high-paid jobs and a prestigious Moscow flat. He even managed to persuade the People’s Commissar for Supply, Anastas Mikoian, to give him an advance of a million roubles.87 The concern with impostors betrayed a profound anxiety within the Party leadership. It influenced the culture of the purge, whose violent rhetoric of denunication was based on the rationale of exposing the true identity of ‘hidden enemies’. Throughout the 1930s the Party leadership encouraged the popular belief that colleagues, neighbours, even friends and relatives, might not be what they appeared to be – a belief that did much to poison personal relationships and fuel the mass terror of 1937–8. ‘Look at what those enemies of the people are like,’ Elena Bonner’s younger brother said on the arrest of their father. ‘Some of them even pretend to be fathers.’88

As with collectivization, the launching of the Five Year Plan was accompanied by a massive social purge of ‘class enemies’ and other ‘alien elements’ to remove all potential opposition and dissent. With the introduction of the passport system, the police was instructed to step up its campaign to exclude from the towns the ‘socially impure’ – ‘kulaks’, priests, merchants, criminals, ‘parasites’ and prostitutes, gypsies and other ethnic groups (Finns, Koreans, Volga Germans, and so on).89 Fear of social exclusion drove millions of people to conceal their origins. For while the ideology theoretically allowed for self-transformation, the process could be long and uncertain. Concealment could seem the more reliable, certainly the shorter, path toward social acceptance. In the chaos of the early 1930s it was relatively easy to change one’s identity by simply moving to another town, or by getting new papers. False papers could be easily obtained through bribery, or bought from forgers, who were found in every market town. But it was not even necessary to pay for a clean biography. Many people simply threw away their old papers and applied for new ones from a different Soviet, giving different information about their background and sometimes even changing their names and place of birth.90 In the provinces Soviet officials and police were notoriously inefficient and corrupt.

For women, marriage was another way to cover up their social origins. Anna Dubova was born in 1916 to a large peasant family in Smolensk province. Her father was arrested as a ‘kulak’ in 1929 and later sent to work on a construction site in Podolsk, just south of Moscow, where his wife and children moved with him. Anna’s mother got a job at a rabbit farm, while Anna enrolled at a factory school (FZU) attached to a bakery. Just when they thought that they were on their way to becoming ‘normal’ people once again, the family was denounced for concealing its ‘kulak’ origins by a friend of Anna’s sister from the Komsomol. The Dubovs were deported. They lost all their possessions and rights of residence. Anna’s parents went with their younger children to Rzhev, 200 kilometres east of Moscow, where they lived in ‘some kind of shed’ belonging to her father’s relatives. Anna fled to Moscow, where another sister, who was married to a Muscovite, gave her a place to sleep on the floor of their tiny room. Without a residence permit, living illegally, Anna nevertheless pursued her ambitions. After graduating from the FZU, she became a pastry cook at the Bolshevik Cake Factory, where she specialized in decorating cakes. Her future began to seem bright. But there was always the danger that she would lose everything if her ‘kulak’ origins and illegal status were exposed. ‘All this time,’ she said in interviews in the 1990s:

I was afraid whenever I saw a policeman, because it seemed to me that he could tell that something about me wasn’t right. And I got married just so that I could cover up my background… My husband was from the bednota [the poor peasantry]. He was a member of the Komsomol and the secretary of a village Soviet not far from Moscow. As a member of the Komsomol it was his job to identify and dispossess kulaks… My marriage was a kind of camouflage. I had no place to live, but once I was married we had a little room to ourselves. And when I went to bed, I would think to myself, Dear Lord, I’m in my very own bed.

Anna’s husband was a kind man but he drank a lot. ‘I kept dreaming, “Lord, if only I could marry a decent sort of fellow.” I lived with him, but I dreamed about a decent husband, even though I had already given birth to our daughter.’91

People forced to live this double life were haunted by the threat of exposure. ‘I was in a constant state of fear,’ recalls a former secret police colonel, an exemplary Communist, who concealed his noble origins throughout his life. ‘I thought all the time, “Suppose it is suddenly discovered who I really am.” Then all I have worked for, all I have built for myself and my family, my life, my career will suddenly collapse.’ But fear was only one of a number of contradictory impulses and emotions – passivity, the desire to withdraw, shame, inferiority – which could give rise in the same person to both a secret hatred of the Soviet regime and a will to overcome one’s stigma by demonstrating devotion to the Soviet cause. People lost themselves in this duality. The inner self was swallowed up in the public personality. As one man recalled, ‘I began to feel that I was the man I had pretended to be.’92

The young Simonov experienced something similar. Concealing his noble origins, he enrolled as a ‘proletarian’ in the factory school (FZU) in Saratov, where he studied to become a lathe-turner. Simonov had joined the factory school, against the wishes of his stepfather, who had wanted him to study at a higher institute or university – the educational trajectory typical of the old-world service class from which his parents came. But the teenage Simonov was excited by the vision of the new industrial society. He saw the proletariat as the new ruling class and wanted to join it. ‘It was the beginning of the Five Year Plan,’ recalls Simonov, ‘and I was swept along by its romantic spirit. I joined a club to discuss the Plan and its variants, which interested me far more than my studies at the secondary school. My stepfather was so cross that he barely spoke to me during my first year at the factory school.’93

The atmosphere at the factory school was militantly proletarian. Half the students came from workers’ families and the other half from children’s homes. As the son of a princess, Simonov was dangerously out of place, but he did his best to look the part, giving up the shorts and sandals of his early teenage years and donning a worker’s tunic and peaked cap in an effort to fit in. At the core of Simonov’s attraction to the proletariat was the notion of the independence of the working man: ‘The life of a fully grown man, as I saw it, only started on the day he began to work and bring money home. I wanted to be independent and earn my own living as soon as possible.’94 Of course, by joining the army of industrial workers, Simonov would also become independent from his family, whose noble background was sure to hold him back.

To support his studies at the factory school in Saratov, Simonov worked as an apprentice at the Universal Factory in the evenings. He assembled cartridges for the assault rifles produced by the huge munitions plant. By the spring of 1931, he was earning 15 roubles, a modest monthly wage, but an important contribution to the household budget, particularly after April, when his stepfather Aleksandr was arrested and Simonov became, at the age of fifteen, the sole breadwinner in the family.

Simonov ‘the proletarian’, 1933

The arrest was an orderly affair. The knock on the door came at ten o’clock in the evening. The family had already gone to bed, because Aleksandra had been feeling ill. Aleksandr would not let the police come into their barracks apartment until he had dressed. Konstantin awoke to find his stepfather reading the search warrant with a magnifying glass:

The search went on for a long time; they conducted it properly, going methodically through everything in both rooms, even looking at my factory school notebook on the technology of metals, at my notebooks from the seventh class, and leafing through my mother’s huge trove of letters – she loved to write a lot and liked all her relatives and friends to write a lot to her… When the men finished the search, tidied up the papers and letters and, it seems to me – though I may be mistaken – made some sort of list of the confiscated things, I thought that was the end of it. But then one of them took a paper from his pocket and handed it to Father. It was a warrant for his arrest. At that moment I did not think, though I later realized, that the arrest had been planned from the very start, regardless of the results of the search. It was hard to look at Mother. Although she had a strong character, it was clear that she was ill, she’d sat up all night with a high temperature and she was shaking all over. Father was calm. Having read the paper – again inspecting it with his magnifying glass, which he took out from the pocket of his vest – and having made quite sure that it really was an order for arrest, he briefly kissed mother, and told her that he would return when the misunderstanding had been sorted out. Without saying a word, he shook my hand firmly and left with the men who had arrested him.95

Like Aleksandr, Simonov believed that a misunderstanding had occurred. He must have known that many specialists had been arrested in Saratov, including several officers from the military school where his stepfather taught. But like most people who had lost a relative in the arrests, Simonov assumed that his stepfather had been arrested by mistake. ‘I thought that the others must be guilty of something, that they were enemies, but I did not connect them with my stepfather.’96 This distinction helped him to maintain his confidence in the Soviet system of justice, which was reinforced by the orderly behaviour of the OGPU officers, not just during the arrest of Aleksandr, but also during the arrest of his stepfather’s relative, Yevgeny Lebedev in Kremenchug, which Simonov had witnessed four years earlier.

On Aleksandra’s orders, Simonov informed his teachers at the factory school about the arrest. Not to report it would be cowardly, she said. Simonov was not expelled from the school, but he was advised to postpone his application to the Komsomol until his stepfather was released. Aleksandra and her son were evicted from their small apartment in the barracks. All their belongings were thrown on to the street – a table with some stools, two bookcases, a wardrobe, a bed and a trunk for officers from the First World War with a hammock in which Simonov had slept. It was pouring with rain. Neighbours took in Aleksandra, who was running a fever, while her son walked around the outskirts of Saratov, looking for a place for them to live. Having found a room to rent, he got a lorry-driver to help them move their things. All his life he would recall this day – when he took charge of his family – as the moment when he came of age.

I remember it without resentment, even with some measure of self-satisfaction, because I had proved that I could cope with anything. I had a sense of injury, but it was mainly for my mother… She could not forgive the people who were responsible for our eviction. No doubt it is because I felt her injury, when I was just a boy, that I still remember their names…97

Simonov’s response to his stepfather’s arrest was not to blame or question the Soviet regime, but to work even harder to support his family. Perhaps the arrest of his stepfather also reinforced his conviction that he needed to protect himself by strengthening his proletarian identity. Throughout that summer, Simonov continued to study in the day and to work by night at the factory. He was promoted to the second grade of apprentice workers and received a doubling of his wage, which was enough to support his mother and send two parcels every week to his stepfather in prison. Aleksandra earned some extra cash by teaching French and German at a secondary school. In the autumn Aleksandr was released from jail. ‘He hugged and kissed my mother. He even kissed me too, which was unusual,’ remembers Simonov. ‘Something in him had altered. At first I did not notice. But then I understood: his face was cold and white, not his usual sunburnt look.’98

Aleksandr did not speak about the tortures he had suffered in the jail. The only thing he would say was that all the charges against him had been withdrawn, because he had refused to confess, even under ‘severe pressure’. As Simonov recalls, the lesson that he learned from this affair was all about the need to remain firm:

Today [in 1978] I ask myself: did the events of that summer in Saratov leave any trace on my general approach to life, on my psychology as a fifteen– sixteen-year-old boy? Yes and no! With my stepfather things turned out as they should. He remained what he had always been – a model of clarity and conscientiousness – and the people who knew him were all convinced that he was innocent. And in those awful months, almost everybody with whom we had to deal was good to us – and that too was right, just what we would expect. Still, the story of my stepfather’s interrogation, which had ended as it should, because he was a very strong and solid person, left me with a feeling of unease, the feeling that a weaker person would have come out differently from this situation, because he would not have been able to withstand what he did. This alarming thought stayed in my mind… But above all, I sensed, perhaps unconsciously, that I had grown up, for I too had proved that I could cope in a crisis.99

The children of ‘kulaks’, no less than those of bourgeois or noble families, felt the pressure to conceal their social origins. They were widely banned from Soviet schools and universities, from the Pioneers and the Komsomol, from the Red Army and from many jobs. Their fear of exclusion was frequently reflected in a desperate urge to prove themselves as ‘Soviet citizens’ by distancing themselves from their families. In 1942, Wolfgang Leonhard, the twenty-year-old son of a German Communist who had come to Moscow in 1935, was deported to the Karaganda region of Kazakhstan. He studied at a teacher-training college, where most of the students were ‘kulak’ children, who had been exiled to this semi-desert region in the early 1930s. They had suffered terribly as young children but had since been allowed to go to school. They were now about to become teachers. As Leonhard notes, this brought about a complete change in their political identity:

Most of my fellow-students used to go home at the weekends. That is to say, they used to go to one of the [special] settlements which lay in the inner or outer environs of Karaganda. When they came back, they often spoke indignantly about their parents. ‘They still don’t understand anything at all!’ I often heard them say. ‘I’ve tried so often to explain to them why collectivization is justified, but the old people just never will understand it!’

These sons and daughters of the kulaks who had been exiled here as small children had in fact become Stalinists with the passage of time.100

Many ‘kulak’ children ended up as ardent Stalinists (and even made careers for themselves by joining the repressive organs of the state). For some the transformation involved a long and conscious process of ‘working on themselves’ that was not without its psychic costs. Stepan Podlubny is an example. Born in 1914 to a peasant family in the Vinnitsa region of western Ukraine, Stepan and his mother fled to Moscow in 1929, after his father had been exiled as a ‘kulak’ to Arkhangelsk. Stepan found a job as an apprentice in the factory school of the Pravda printing plant. He joined the Komsomol, headed a brigade of shock workers, edited a wall-newspaper (a form of agitprop), became a member of the factory board, and at some point it seems he was recruited as an informer by the police. All this time he carefully concealed his ‘kulak’ origins. He kept a diary which charted his own struggle to purge the ‘sick psychology’ of his peasant ancestors and reconstruct himself as a Soviet citizen. He tried to read the correct books, to adopt all the correct attitudes, to cultivate himself by dressing neatly and learning how to dance, and to develop in himself the Soviet public virtues of activity and vigilance. He drew up a ‘balance sheet’ of his ‘cultural progress’ at the end of every year (just as the state’s own planning agencies drew up annual balances of economic progress in the Five Year Plan). His ‘kulak’ background was a constant source of self-loathing and self-doubt. He saw it as an explanation for his own shortcomings, and wondered whether he was capable of ever really becoming a fully equal member of society:

13.9.1932: Several times already I have thought about my production work. Why can’t I cope with it painlessly? And in general, why is it so hard for me?… A thought that I can never seem to shake off, that saps my blood from me like sap from a birch tree – is the question of my psychology. Can it really be that I will be different from the others? This question makes my hair stand on end, and I break out in shivers. Right now, I am a person in the middle, not belonging to one side nor to the other, but who could easily slide to either.

Podlubny was constantly afraid that his origins would be exposed, that he would be denounced at work (a ‘snake pit’ filled with ‘enemies’), leading to his sacking and possible arrest. Eventually his ‘kulak’ origins were indeed discovered by OGPU, which told him it would not take action, provided he ‘continued to do good work for them’. It seems likely that Podlubny began to inform on his work colleagues. In his diary he confessed to feeling trapped – he was repulsed by his public persona and he clearly longed to ‘be himself’.

8.12.1932: My daily secretiveness, the secret of my inside – they don’t allow me to become a person with an independent character. I can’t come out openly or sharply, with any free thoughts. Instead I have to say only what everyone [else] says. I have to walk on an uneven surface, along the path of least resistance. This is very bad. Unwittingly I’m acquiring the character of a lickspittle, of a cunning dog: soft, cowardly, and always giving in.

The news that a fellow student had not been punished after he had been exposed as the son of a ‘kulak’ was greeted by Podlubny as a ‘historical moment’, suggesting as it did that he no longer needed to feel so stigmatized by his social origins. He embraced this personal liberation with joy and gratitude towards the Soviet government.

2.3.1935: The thought that I too can be a citizen of the common family of the USSR obliges me to respond with love to those who have done this. I am no longer among enemies, whom I fear all the time, at every moment, wherever I am. I no longer fear my environment. I am just like everybody else, free to be interested in various things, a master interested in his lands, not a hireling kowtowing to his master.

Six months later, Podlubny was accepted as a student at Moscow’s Second Medical Institute. He had always dreamed of studying at a higher institute, but knew his ‘kulak’ origins would be a stumbling block. The fact that the Komsomol at the Pravda plant had supported his application was for him the final affirmation of his new Soviet identity.101

For many ‘kulak’ children, the urge to be recognized as Soviet, to become a valued member of society, had less to do with politics or personal identity than with drive and industry.

Antonina Golovina was a bright girl, full of energy and initiative, with a strong sense of individuality which she took from her father, Nikolai. At Shaltyr, she was the leader of the school brigade. She taught the other children how to read. On her way back to Pestovo, where she joined her father in 1934, the eleven-year-old girl made a firm resolution to ‘study hard and prove myself’.102 At her new school she was taunted and abused by the older boys as a ‘kulak daughter’ (there were many ‘kulak’ children in the school in Pestovo) and picked on by the teachers. One day, when the children were told off for misbehaving, Antonina was called up to the front of the class for a special reprimand by one of the senior teachers, who shouted that she and ‘her sort’ were ‘enemies of the people, wretched kulaks! You certainly deserved to be deported, I hope you’re all exterminated here!’ In her ‘Memoirs’ (2001) Antonina recalls the incident as the defining moment in her life. She felt a deep injustice and anger that made her want to shout back at the teacher in protest. Yet she was silenced by an even deeper fear about her ‘kulak’ origins.

Suddenly, I had this feeling in my gut that we [kulaks] were different from the rest, that we were criminals, and that many things were not allowed for us. Basically, as I now understand, I had an inferiority complex, which possessed me as a kind of fear that the regime might do anything to us, because we were kulaks, that we had no rights, and we had to suffer in silence.

After the incident with the teacher, a classmate called Maria, whose father had been arrested as a ‘kulak’, whispered to Antonina: ‘Listen, let’s write a letter of complaint about the old witch for calling us all these things!’ Antonina was afraid, so Maria wrote the letter for them both. She wrote that as children they were not to blame that their parents had been kulaks, and pleaded for the chance to prove themselves by studying hard. The two girls decorated the letter by drawing a New Year’s tree.* Antonina hid the letter in a bundle of laundry (her mother did the cleaning and washing for the school) and delivered it to the headmaster’s door. The headmaster sympathized with the two girls. He called them to his office and told them that ‘in secret he agreed with us, but that we were not to say a word to anyone’. Evidently, the teacher who had been so harsh to them was spoken to by him, because she later softened her approach. She even gave the girls parts to play in the school drama, which was all about the suffering of a peasant nanny (played by Antonina) in the home of a ‘kulak’ (Maria). Antonina writes in her memoirs:

At the end of my final monologue I had to say the words: ‘You have sucked the life from me, I now see, and I do not want to stay with you. I am leaving you to go to school!’ – and with these words I left the stage. There was thunderous applause. I had stepped into the role to such an extent that my indignation appeared genuine.103

Antonina threw herself into her studies. She loved school and did very well, appearing several times in the list of outstanding students (otlichniki) displayed in the school hall. It meant that she was chosen to march in the school parades on Soviet holidays. Antonina loved these demonstrations – not because she was political (she thought it was demeaning to carry a banner) but because she was proud to represent her school. She yearned to join the Pioneers and was so heartbroken when she was excluded because of her ‘kulak’ origins that she wore a home-made version of their scarf and went to the club-house when they assembled in the desperate hope that they might include her in their games.104 Gradually, she made a place for herself. In 1939, she was admitted to the Komsomol, despite her ‘kulak’ past (possibly the Komsomol Committee had turned a blind eye to her past, because it valued her initiative and energy). Emboldened by this success, Antonina summoned up the courage to travel incognito to her native village – by then known as the ‘New Life’ kolkhoz – in the summer of 1939. There she discovered that her old home had been turned into an office for the kolkhoz.105

The otlichniki (outstanding students) of Class B, Pestovo School, 1936. The thirteen-year-old Antonina (the only child without the uniform of the Pioneers) is standing on the left.

As she grew in confidence and ambition, Antonina decided to stop trying to get accepted for who she was and simply make up a new identity. She began to lie about her origins whenever she was asked to fill out questionnaires. ‘I knew what I was doing,’ she recalls. ‘I had decided to write a new biography for myself.’ From the end of her teenage years, Antonina lived a secret life. She did not speak about her family to any of her friends. She did not tell her first serious boyfriend, whom she met in 1940, because she was afraid that he might leave her if he found out about her past. For the next fifty years, she hid her identity from her family, because she was afraid, for them and for herself. Looking back, she remembers:

I had to be alert all the time, not to slip up and give myself away. When I spoke I had to think: did I forget something? Did I say anything that might make people suspicious? It was like that all the time… I was afraid, and I would remain silent. This fear lasted all my life. It never went away… Mama always said, ‘When you live with wolves, you must learn to live like wolves!’106

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