Remnants of Terror (1938–41)


It was a warm summer evening, 28 July 1938, and Nelly’s grandmother had gone to pick the raspberries in the garden, leaving her in charge of her sister Angelina while her mother, Zinaida Bushueva, nursed her baby brother and prepared the meal. Since the arrest of her father, nine months earlier, Nelly had grown used to helping in the house, although she was only four years old. Zinaida was breast-feeding Slava when the front door opened and two NKVD soldiers appeared. They told her to get dressed, and took her with the children to the NKVD headquarters in the centre of Perm. A few minutes later, Nelly’s grandmother returned with the raspberries: the house was empty, her family had gone.

At the NKVD building the interrogator arranged for the two girls to be sent to children’s homes. ‘Your mama is going away on a long work trip,’ he explained to Nelly. ‘You will not see her again.’ Zinaida became hysterical. When two guards came to take away the girls she began to scream and bite the other guards who held her down. As Nelly was led away, she looked back to see her mother being hit across the face. The two sisters were sent to different homes – Nelly to a Jewish orphanage (on account of her darker looks), Angelina to a nearby children’s home. It was NKVD policy to break up the families of ‘enemies of the people’ and to give the children a new identity.

Zinaida was allowed to keep Slava – he had pneumonia and needed to be nursed by her. For three weeks, the mother and her baby son were held in a crowded prison cell. Zinaida was charged with failing to denounce her husband and sentenced to eight years in the Akmolinsk Labour Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland (ALZhIR), part of the Karaganda camp complex in Kazakhstan. She was in a large

Angelina and Nelly Bushueva, 1937

convoy of female prisoners transferred from Perm to Akmolinsk in September 1938. On the day of their departure, they were made to kneel for several hours in one of the city’s squares while they awaited transportation in small groups by horse and cart to the station. The residents of Perm stood around and watched the spectacle, but no one tried to help the prisoners, though Zinaida’s mother, who had spotted her with Slava in the middle of the square, tried to get one of the guards to take a pullover for her. ‘Get away, old woman,’ the guard said, pushing her away with the point of his gun. At the station the convoy was loaded into cattle trucks. It took ten days for the train to get to Akmolinsk, a journey of 1,500 kilometres. Zinaida was in a truck with common criminals. At first they harassed her and tried to take her baby, believing it would get them released early from the camp, but after a few days, as Slava became sicker, they took pity on the mother and shouted for the guards to bring milk for her baby. On their arrival at the camp, Zinaida was forced to give up Slava to the orphanage at Dolinka, the administrative centre of the Karaganda camps. She did not see him for the next five years. A qualified accountant, Zinaida was offered work in the camp offices, a privileged position for a prisoner, but she begged to be employed in the heaviest agricultural work instead. ‘I will lose my mind if I have time to think,’ Zinaida explained to the camp commandant. ‘I have lost my three children. Let me forget myself in manual labour.’

After she had seen her daughter kneeling with Slava in the square, Zinaida’s mother went in search of Angelina and Nelly. With the help of her two sons, she found Nelly after a few weeks. But it was not until the spring of 1940 that she found Angelina, who by then, at the age of four, was old enough to recall something of the incident:

My cousin Gera, the son of uncle Vitia, lived near the orphanage. One day the orphanage children were out walking by the river, we walked in pairs in a long column, and I was at the very end. Gera and his parents were also out by the river. He recognized me immediately. He shouted, ‘Look, there’s our Aka!’ Everybody stopped. There was quite a scene. The women from the orphanage would not let my relatives come near me, but uncle Vitia spoke to one of them, who said that I was called Alei, or Angelina, they were not sure…

Granny began to write appeals to the orphanage and then one day she came to get me… I remember the day. She brought a pair of red shoes with sparkly buckles and put them on my feet. I lifted up my feet and looked at the soles of the shoes – they were so smooth and clean and red. I would brush the dust from them. I wanted to take off the shoes and lick their soles, because they were such a bright colour, but Granny said: ‘Enough, leave your shoes alone, let’s go and find your sister Nelly.’ I still recall my confusion – what was a sister? Who was Nelly? I had no idea. When we left the orphanage there was a girl waiting by the entrance. Granny said, ‘This is Nelly, your sister.’ I said, ‘So?’ The only thing I understood was that she was called Nelly, but not what a sister was. The girl came up to me. She had short black hair. She wore a grey raincoat. She was chewing the end of the collar. And I said: ‘Why is she eating the collar?’ And Granny scolded her: ‘Again chewing your collar!’1

Angelina’s childhood memories are dominated by the feeling of hunger. The daily fare in the orphanage had been so poor (dry brown bread and a thin grey gruel) that Angelina’s first reaction to her bright red shoes was to try to eat them like a tomato. Things were not much better when she went to live with Nelly and her grandmother, who was too old and sick to work and lived in desperate poverty in a small room in a communal apartment, having been evicted from the family home following the arrest of Zinaida in 1938. By 1941 there were near-famine conditions in Perm (from 1940 known as Molotov). Many of the central avenues had been converted into vegetable allotments for selected residents, but Angelina’s grandmother was not one of these. ‘We learned to eat all sorts of things,’ recalls Angelina: ‘the spring leaves of linden trees; grass and moss; potato peelings which we collected at night from the rubbish bins of people who were better off than us.’ Angelina was conscious of her hunger as a source of shame and degradation. It was hunger that defined her as a lower class of human being rather than the arrest of her parents as ‘enemies of the people’ – a concept which in any case she was too young to understand. Angelina was bullied by a gang of boys from the house across the street where factory workers lived. The boys knew that Angelina took the peelings from their bins, and they always mocked her about it when she passed them on the street. Angelina learned to hold her tongue and not answer back. But one day the leader of the gang, the biggest of the boys who came from a family of factory officials, gave a piece of buttered bread to a beggar on the street. ‘He did it just for me to see,’ recalls Angelina, ‘he wanted to humiliate me, and I could not help myself; the sight of buttered bread was just too much, I would have given anything to have it for myself and could not bear to see it go to a beggar. I shouted at the boys: “What are you doing? There is butter on that bread!” They all laughed at me.’2

Like many children who had lost their parents in the Great Terror, Angelina was not fully aware of her loss. She could not remember her parents – she was only two when they were arrested – so unlike Nelly, who was old enough to recall them, she had no sense of having suffered when they disappeared. Once she learned to read, Angelina made up fantasies about her parents’ death which she derived from books, especially from her favourite stories about Napoleon and the fire of Moscow. She recalls a conversation from the post-war years, when she was about ten:

A friend of my grandmother’s came to visit us. She talked about my mother and father. My grandmother had pictures of all her children on the walls of our room. The woman pointed to each photograph and asked me who it was.

‘Who is that?’

‘Auntie Nina,’ I replied.

‘And that?’

‘Uncle Sanya’

‘And that?’

I said: ‘That is Nelly’s mother.’

‘What do you mean Nelly’s mother? She is your mother too.’

And I said: ‘No, that is not my mother, but Nelly’s mother.’

‘So where is your mother?’

‘My mother died in the fire of Moscow.’3

The real maternal figure in Angelina’s life was her grandmother. It was she who rescued Angelina and Nelly from children’s homes and eventually reunited them with their mother. Tales of children being saved by their grandmothers are commonplace from that time. From the beginning of the Great Terror, it often fell to grandmothers to try to keep together the scattered remnants of repressed families. Their untold acts of heroism deserve to be counted among the finest deeds in Soviet history.

Natalia Konstantinova and her sister Elena lost their parents in the Great Terror. Their father was arrested in October 1936 and executed in May 1937. Their mother, Liudmila, was arrested the following September and sentenced to eight years in a labour camp near Magadan as the wife of an ‘enemy of the people’. Natalia, who was ten, and her sister, twelve, were both sent to an orphanage. They were rescued by their grandmother, a kind and gentle woman with nerves of steel, who struck a deal with the NKVD. Elena Lebedeva was born in Moscow in 1879 to a family of prominent merchants. She had four years of schooling before getting married, at the age of seventeen, and gave birth to seven children, the fourth of them Liudmila in 1903. When she appealed to the NKVD headquarters for the release of her granddaughters, Elena was told that she could only take the girls if she went to live with them in exile, but that she could stay in Leningrad if she left them in the orphanage. Elena did not hesitate. She took the girls, sold off her property and bought train tickets for the three of them to go to Ak-Bulak, a remote town on the steppeland between Orenburg and Kazakhstan (it was only after they arrived that she discovered that the NKVD paid the outbound fares of all exiles).

Ak-Bulak was a small dusty railway stop on the main line connecting Russia with Central Asia. The railway employed many of the 7,000 people who lived there, mainly Russians and Kazakhs, although there was also a sizeable community of political exiles who were unemployed. There was certainly no work for a fifty-eight-year-old grandmother. But relatives in Leningrad regularly sent Elena small amounts of cash and goods to sell at the market or trade with local women, whose friendship she worked hard to cultivate. Elena could not find a room to rent, so she lived with her granddaughters in a shack she bought and then divided with another exiled family. It was one of the oldest buildings in the town, dating back to the nineteenth century, and made from bricks of camel dung with a clay roof. They heated it in winter by burning dung in a clay oven. During the first year, in 1938–9, when there was famine in the area, it was a real struggle to survive. The girls had no shoes to wear. They went barefoot to the tin-shed school for exiled children, separated from the brick-made school for the children of the railway workers. But the girls did well at school and in the second year they were allowed to transfer to the other school. They even joined the Pioneers. Relations between the exiles and the railwaymen were good. ‘No one called us exiles,’ Natalia recalls. It was not until 1942, when both girls applied to join the Komsomol, that anybody pointed to the fact that their father was an ‘enemy of the people’, and even then, it was not one of the local children, but an evacuee from Moscow, who brought this up as an obstacle to their inclusion in the Komsomol.4

The house in Ak-Bulak where Elena lived with her granddaughters, 1940s

Looking back on the years she spent in Ak-Bulak, from 1938 to 1945, Natalia believes that she and her sister had a happy childhood, despite all the hardships they endured. ‘We were very lucky to grow up in our grandmothers’ little world. We never had enough to eat, we barely had a thing to call our own, but we were happy because we were loved by our grandmother. No one could steal that from us.’ Friends at school would often ask Natalia where her parents were. She tried to avoid their questions. She never talked about her parents, afraid that people would assume that ‘they must have been guilty of something if they had been arrested’. Their arrest was a source of shame and confusion for Natalia. She did not understand what they had done or why they had disappeared. But never for a moment did she doubt their innocence. Natalia believes that her grandmother played a crucial role in sustaining this belief: without her she would have given in to the pressures she encountered later on from the Pioneers and the Komsomol to renounce her parents as ‘enemies of the people’. ‘My grandmother had seen it all,’ Natalia recalls. ‘She understood what Soviet power was about, and was not taken in by anything: she was nearly forty when the Revolution came.’

Elena Lebedeva with her granddaughters, Natalia (left) and Elena Konstantinova, Ak-Bulak, 1940

Elena’s values had been formed in a different century and social milieu, but she understood that her granddaughters needed to survive in the Soviet world, and did not try to impose on them her own antiSoviet views. She told them that their parents were good people who had been arrested by mistake, and that one day they would both return. She told them stories about their mother when she had been their age: about how she was so beautiful; how she loved to play tennis; how she had so many handsome young admirers; how she met their father; and how they were so happy as a family. She told the girls that their mother had been just like them. Through these stories the two girls came to know their mother, and to feel her presence in their lives. According to Elena, ‘Our grandmother was the most important person in our lives, even more important than our mother… She took the place of our mother, even after we returned to Leningrad [in 1946] and were reunited with our real mother [in 1951].’5

Caring for grandchildren could be a heavy burden for grandparents, who were frequently deprived of housing, jobs, savings, pensions and rations after the arrest of their own children as ‘enemies of the people’. And not all grandchildren could be saved. Veronika Nevskaia’s father was arrested in August 1936, three years after the death of her mother in 1933, and sent to the Vorkuta labour camps. The six-year-old Veronika and her younger brother Valentin were sent to an orphanage. Veronika was adopted by her father’s aunt Maria, who took her in the knowledge, as she had been warned by the NKVD, that, if she did, they would all be sent to live in exile in the Kirov region, 1,200 kilometres east of Maria’s native Leningrad. A devoutly religious woman in her early seventies, Maria saw it as her Christian duty to care for all the children in her family: she lived on her own, her husband having died many years before, and she had no children of her own. Maria found her nephew’s children in the orphanage. She had always had a soft spot for Veronika. She bought her gifts and liked to read to her from the classics. But she was too old and weak to cope with Valentin, a difficult, unruly boy, who needed special care (he had been born with a malformed bladder that left him incontinent). Maria took Veronika but left her younger brother in the orphanage. They never heard from him again. In 1941 they received a telegram telling them that Valentin had died – he was then only seven – in the hospital of the orphanage. Looking back on these events, Veronika believes that her grandmother (as she calls her father’s aunt) could not have coped with Valentin. But she also thinks that she was filled with feelings of remorse. A few days after they received the telegram, Maria died. Veronika was taken in by distant relatives, but she was soon passed by them to other relatives, and by them to others: no one was interested in an extra mouth to feed. Thus she lived for the next five years, an unwanted guest in the homes of distant family, until 1946, when she travelled to Vorkuta to be reunited with her father.6

Veronika and Maria, Slobodskoi, Kirov region, 1939

The arrest of a parent turned many children into adults overnight. The eldest child, in particular, was suddenly expected to perform an adult role, helping with the household chores and caring for the younger children.7 Inna Gaister was twelve years old when her parents were arrested in the summer of 1937. Together with her younger sisters, Natalia (seven) and Valeriia (one), and her cousin Igor (nine), Inna lived with her grandmother in the family apartment in the House on the Embankment in Moscow. Inna was charged with a large number of new responsibilities that cast her in the role of an auxiliary, if not the main, parent in the household. Inna wrote to the NKVD to ask for the return of their property sealed up in the family flat. She organized the parcels for her parents, and queued all night to hand them in at the Butyrki jail. When she discovered that her mother had been sent to the Akmolinsk labour camp (ALZhIR), Inna took an evening job, teaching younger children after school, so that she could save some money for the monthly parcels they were allowed to send to Akmolinsk from the summer of 1939. Shortly after the arrest of their parents, the Gaister children were evicted from their apartment. With their grandmother the four children moved into a rented room shared with eight other Gaister relatives – all children who had lost their parents in the Great Terror. There were thirteen people (twelve children and one grandmother) living in a room of 20 square metres. As the eldest child, Inna had to do the washing and help with the cleaning and cooking. It took at least an hour for Inna to travel by tram from her new home to her school; returning in the evening, she struggled to get the washing done and have it dried for the next day. She was physically exhausted (in photographs she appears with large dark rings around her eyes). Looking back on this period of her life, Inna thinks that it helped her to develop necessary survival skills:

It was a life that trained me for struggle. I was always fighting to survive – not just for myself but for the sake of Valiushka [Valeriia] and Natalka [Natalia]. I was only twelve when my parents were arrested. But with their arrest I grew up overnight. I understood that my childhood had come to an end. The first thing that happened is that our nanny left – she could not get on with granny. It was my job to look after Valeriia, who was still only a baby. I remember the last thing our nanny said before she left: ‘You must wash her every evening!’ I was horrified. ‘Her nappy will be very soiled,’ she said… I found myself in a completely new situation. I had to do the washing for the whole family, which was very large. And I had to study hard if my life was not to be ruined completely. I had Igor to support and Natalka too. Natalka would ask why everybody had a mother and a father except us. I told her that we had a grandmother who loved us very much.

Inna Gaister (aged thirteen) with her sisters Valeriia (three) and Natalia (eight), Moscow, 1939. The photograph was taken to send to their mother in the Akmolinsk labour camp (ALZhIR)

In many ways I was like a mother to Natalka and Valiushka, even though, in other ways, I was still a child myself.8

Inna’s grandmother, like Elena Lebedeva, often spoke to the children about their parents. She wanted them to know that their parents had not abandoned them, that they loved them and would return to them. But other grandmothers took a different view.

The parents of Iraida Faivisovich were hairdressers in Osa, a small town in the Urals, south of Perm. They were arrested in the spring of 1939, supposedly for organizing a political conspiracy against the Soviet government, following reports by clients from their salon that they had heard the Faivisoviches complain about shortages. The four-year-old Iraida was taken in by neighbours and then passed around to various relatives, none of whom was keen to take her in, until at last she was rescued by her maternal grandmother, Marfa Briukhova. A simple peasant woman, devoutly Orthodox, Marfa had brought up sixteen children, including five who were not her own. Blaming her son-in-law for his arrest, and for the arrest of her daughter, she said that he had talked too much and told Iraida that she should learn to hold her tongue. Iraida grew up in an ‘atmosphere of enforced silence’ in which she was forbidden to talk or ask about her mother and father. Her feelings of inferiority, rooted in her status as an orphan child at school, were strengthened by this silence, which forced her to internalize her fears and longings for her parents. She heard their voices in her dreams. Imprisoned in a labour camp near Arkhangelsk, Iraida’s mother wrote to her in Osa once a week, but Marfa burned the letters without even opening them. Marfa hid the photographs of Iraida’s parents so that she would forget them. ‘We will survive, the two of us, together,’ she said to her granddaughter.9

Grandmothers played a crucial role as correspondents between the home and the labour camp. As writers and readers they sustained that crucial link between a parent and a child by which millions of families survived the separation of the Gulag.

When their parents were arrested, in 1936 and 1937, Oleg Vorobyov and his sister Natasha were rescued by their grandmother. Nadezhda Mikhailovna was a brave, intelligent woman, one of the first to qualify as a doctor in Tbilisi before the Revolution of 1905. Warned that the NKVD would take the children to an orphanage, she hurried them away to the Tula countryside, where she concealed them with their godparents for several months, before returning to Moscow, where she lived with the children and their grandfather in a series of rented rooms in a working-class suburb of the city. She believed that it would be safer there than in the centre of the capital where they had lived previously. It was generally the case that workers were less interested in the political background of their neighbours (they were more likely to be hostile towards them on class or ethnic grounds).10 To protect her grandchildren Nadezhda adopted them and changed their names. Every week she wrote long letters to their father (in the Solovetsky labour camp) and their mother (in the Temnikovsky camps) with details of their everyday routines:

25 January 1939.

… Oleg is eager to go to school. Grandpa gets him up at half past seven in the morning – he only has to say it’s time and he gets up. We put on the electric kettle and make fresh sandwiches with egg, fish, salami, and he washes it all down with a hot chocolate, coffee, tea or milk before he goes to school. He is very fussy with his food and does not eat a lot: half a roll and a glass of milk and he’s full. He wants only half a roll to take to school.11

Few of the details were actually true (there was no egg, fish or salami, as far as Oleg can recall, only bread and sometimes butter) but the letters gave his parents the comforting idea that family life was continuing as normal in their absence and would be there for them when they returned.

Oleg’s father Mikhail was a senior engineer. Before his arrest he had worked in the Ministry of Defence in Moscow. In 1940, he was transferred from Solovetsky to the Norilsk labour camp in the Arctic Circle, where expertise like his was badly needed for the building of the huge industrial complex, which would soon become the country’s main producer of nickel and platinum. As a specialist, Mikhail was allowed to receive parcels and write home once a week. By corresponding with Nadezhda, Mikhail had a good idea of Oleg’s state of mind, so that he could write to him with advice on his studies, reading, hobbies and his friends. ‘His letters were a profound influence on me,’ Oleg recalls.

I was guided by these letters perhaps even more than I would have been guided by my father if he had actually been there while I was growing up. Because I longed for a father, I tried to behave in a way that I imagined he would have approved of, at least as I knew him from his letters.

Oleg was fortunate to have this connection with his father. Letters were written proof of a parent’s love, something in which children could believe and which they could read as a sign of their parents’ innocence. Sometimes they contained a drawing or a line of poetry, a dried flower or even fragments of embroidery, which expressed feelings and emotions that could not be conveyed by censored words. Relationships were built on these fragments.12

In all his letters Mikhail pressed upon Oleg the need to be a ‘little man’.

25 August 1940.

My dear son, why have you not written to me for so long? I understand that you are on holiday… but I urge you to write at least one letter every five days… Put your drawings in with the letter and let Natasha write a little too… Never forget you are her protector. She is still very little and sometimes capricious, but you should talk sense to her. I have written many times that it is your duty as a man to protect Natasha, Granny and Grandpa, to make sure that they are safe, until my return. You are my second-in-command. You are the head of our little family. All my hopes depend on you.

Oleg and Natasha, 1940. The photograph was taken to send to Mikhail in Norilsk

Although only ten, Oleg felt that he became an adult when he received this letter. He felt responsible for Natasha, which made him view the world no longer as a child. In his own words, ‘I grew up overnight.’13


The Bushuevs, the Gaisters and the Vorobyovs were the lucky ones – they were rescued by their relatives. But the arrest of their parents left millions of other children on their own. Many ended up in orphanages – intended for those under the age of sixteen – but others roamed the streets begging or joined the children’s gangs, which controlled much of the petty crime and prostitution at railway stations, markets and other busy places in the big cities. It was largely to combat the mounting problem of child criminality that a law was passed in 1935 to lower the age of criminal responsibility to twelve. Between 1935 and 1940, the Soviet courts convicted of petty crimes 102,000 children between the ages of twelve and sixteen. Many ended up in the children’s labour colonies administered by the NKVD.14

Some children slipped through the system and were left to fend for themselves. Mikhail Mironov was ten years old when his parents were arrested in 1936. They were both factory workers from the Ukraine, Red partisans in the Civil War, who had risen through the ranks of the Party, first in Moscow and then in Leningrad, before their arrests. Mikhail’s sister Lilia had already left the family home in Leningrad to study medicine in Moscow. So Mikhail was alone. For a while, he lived with various relatives, but he was a burden to them all, factory workers struggling to survive with large families of their own. In September 1937, Mikhail was accepted as a student at the drawing school established by the House of Pioneers in Leningrad. His aunt Bela, who had taken care of Mikhail in the previous months, saw it as an opportunity to be rid of him, and sent him off to live in the student dormitory attached to the House of Pioneers. Mikhail lost all track of his father (who was shot in 1938) and never heard from his sister, who was afraid that she would be expelled from medical school if she revealed her spoilt biography by writing to her relatives. His only contact was with his mother, and he wrote to her often in the labour camps of Vorkuta. He was isolated and lonely, without friends or family, and in desperate need of a mother’s love (his letters often end with such sentiments as ‘I kiss you 1000000000 times’). In the spring of 1941, Mikhail was excluded from the drawing school – for lack of talent – and enrolled instead in a factory school. Expelled from the dormitory in the House of Pioneers, he found a room in a barracks. ‘It is very boring for me,’ the fifteen-year-old boy wrote to his mother in July. ‘There is no one here. Everyone has gone, and I am on my own.’ In September, as the German troops encircled Leningrad, Mikhail escaped to Moscow, but by the time he arrived there, his sister had already been evacuated to Central Asia with her medical institute. None of his other Moscow relatives would take him in, so Mikhail ended up by living on the street. He was killed in the battle for Moscow in October 1941.15

Mikhail Mironov and his drawings (extract from a letter to his mother)

Maia Norkina was thirteen when her father was arrested in June 1937. A year later, when the NKVD took her mother too, Maia was expelled from her school in Leningrad. Maia had a number of aunts and uncles in Leningrad, but none would take her in. ‘They were all afraid to lose their jobs,’ Maia explains. ‘Some were Party members – they were the most afraid and refused outright.’ Everyone expected that Maia would be taken to an orphanage. But no one came for her. So she continued living in the three rooms that belonged to her family in a communal apartment conveniently situated in the centre of the city. Her relatives, eager to hang on to the precious living space, moved in one of her uncles and registered him as a resident, although in fact he was never there, because he lived with his wife and children in another part of the city. ‘I was living on my own, completely independently,’ recalls Maia. The fourteen-year-old girl would borrow books from her old school-friends. She’d travel for an hour to her aunt’s for meals, or buy food with pocket money from her relatives; neighbours in the communal apartment sometimes gave her scraps of food. Every day she would stand in queues at the NKVD headquarters in Leningrad, hoping to hand in a parcel for her father; the officials took the parcels for a while and then told her that her father had been sentenced to ‘ten years without rights of correspondence’ (meaning – though she did not find this out for years – that he had been shot). To get a parcel to her mother, in the Potma labour camps, was even more onerous: it required her to stand in queues for two whole days and nights. Maia went on living this way until August 1941, when she turned eighteen and joined the People’s Volunteers for the defence of Leningrad. She had no formal schooling and had little other choice.16

Zoia Arsenteva was born in 1923 in Vladivostok. Her father, the captain of a steamship, was arrested on a trip to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on 25 November 1937; her mother was arrested in her home in Vladivostok on the same day. Zoia was not taken to an orphanage: although only fourteen, she looked older than her years. She was left to fend for herself in the communal apartment where her family had lived since 1926. She had no other relatives to whom she could turn. Her mother’s sister lived in Khabarovsk, but only came to Vladivostok, where she had a dacha, in the summertime; her father’s family was in Leningrad. Zoia had enjoyed a sheltered childhood. Her mother did not work and had devoted herself to her only child. But now Zoia was forced to do everything for herself. She went to school. She cooked her meals on the little primus stove in the corridor of the communal apartment. With the help of her neighbours she sold off bits of the family inheritance (a gold watch, her mother’s silver ring, her father’s old binoculars and a camera, books and sculptures) to buy food and canteen meals in the factory near her house. Much of the money she raised this way was used to launch the appeal for the release of her father (accused of belonging to a ‘Trans-Pacific Counter-revolutionary Organization’), who sent her weekly letters from his jail in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky with complex instructions about obscure points of law and the recovery of bank accounts. Once a week she wrote back to her father with a report on his case; once a week she queued up overnight outside the jail in Vladivostok to hand in a parcel for her mother. Her father was impressed with the way she had grown up and responded to the family crisis. In May 1940, he wrote to his wife, who was by then in a labour camp near Iaia in Siberia:

I have received two letters from Zizika [Zoia]. I feel so bad for her but rejoice too over her success; she is flourishing and healthy – soon she will be seventeen, and she is completely independent. She is a clever girl and deserves praise for her bravery – she was not afraid to live entirely on her own at the age of fourteen. She has even come to enjoy it. I imagine her as a little mistress of the house, fully in command of her domestic and school affairs.17

Zoia Arsenteva, Khabarovsk, 1941

From Zoia’s perspective, coping on her own was not at all enjoyable. As she said years later, ‘One day Mama was arrested, the next day I began my adult life.’ In her letters to her parents she did not trouble them with the problems she faced. People posing as her parents’ friends tried to take advantage of her, offering to help her sell her precious items and keeping half the profits for themselves. In the spring of 1939, a genuine acquaintance of her mother, a secretary in the city Soviet, moved her things into Zoia’s room. She claimed that she was trying to protect her from having to share her living space with another family. But in fact, a few weeks later, the woman called for the police to arrest Zoia and take her to an orphanage, thus getting the room for herself. In the orphanage Zoia went on a hunger strike to protest against having been sent there. Eventually, through one of the workers in the orphanage, she made contact with her aunt from Khabarovsk, who had recently arrived to spend the summer at her dacha. Zoia stayed in the orphanage for three months, until her aunt managed to reclaim her room in the communal apartment and, on her sixteenth birthday, Zoia was allowed to return to it. She worked her way through the last year at school, studying at evening classes, and then attended the Railway Institute in Khabarovsk. In the winter of 1940, her father was sentenced to five years in a labour camp in Siberia, where he died in 1942. Her mother was released in 1944.18

Marksena Karpitskaia was thirteen when her parents, senior Party officials in Leningrad, were arrested on 5 July 1937. Marksena’s younger brothers were sent to different orphanages – the older Aleksei (who was ten) to a children’s home near Kirov, the younger Vladimir (who was five) to one in the Tatar Republic. Marksena was not taken to an orphanage because, like Zoia, she looked older than she was. Instead, she moved into a room in a communal apartment with her nanny, Milia, a simple peasant woman, who helped her and exploited her in equal measure. Like many children raised in Communist households in the 1920s, Marksena was brought up to be responsible from an early age. Her parents treated her as a ‘small comrade’ and put her in charge of her younger brothers. Now this training stood her in good stead:

Milia was with me, but I was in charge of everything, including the money. I paid Milia her salary, but then she began to steal from me, so I told her that I did not need her services any more. Still, I let her go on sleeping in my room, because she had nowhere else to stay.19

For a thirteen-year-old, Marksena was amazingly resourceful. She managed to survive by salvaging her parents’ personal possessions, which were sealed up in their flat on their arrest, and selling them through Milia in a commission shop, the last official remnant of the private market, where Soviet citizens could buy and sell their household goods. The key to this complex operation was the assistance of senior party official and family friend Boris Pozern (‘Uncle Boria’), at that time the Prosecutor for Leningrad Oblast, who had known Marksena since she was a little girl. Pozern sent a soldier to open up the flat so that Marksena could retrieve some money and take out things to sell: her father’s suit and shoes; her mother’s dress and a fur jacket; towels and sheets. ‘Uncle Boria’, who had risked his life to help the orphan girl, was arrested and shot in 1939.

Marksena, Leningrad, 1941

Marksena stored these items in her room in the communal apartment. Piece by piece, if not sold off, they were gradually stolen by the neighbours in the other rooms. Then Milia moved her boyfriend into the room, until Marksena found the courage to kick the couple out and put a lock on the door. For the next three years, Marksena lived in the communal apartment on her own. She sold her last possessions through an aunt, who had barely dared to talk to her after the arrest of her parents, but who now jumped at the opportunity to help Marksena sell her property. The communal apartment where Marksena lived was situated in a deeply proletarian area of Leningrad; all her neighbours were factory workers. They knew that she was living on her own – an illegal situation for a minor to be in – but none reported her to the police (apparently, they were more interested in keeping her near so they could steal from her). Bullied at school by one of the teachers as the daughter of an ‘enemy of the people’, Marksena transferred to a different school, where the headteacher was more sympathetic and helped her to conceal her spoilt biography. In 1941, at the age of seventeen, Marksena graduated with top marks in all subjects. She enrolled as a student in the Faculty of Languages at Leningrad University. When the university was evacuated, in February 1942, she remained in Leningrad, working in the Public Library. Until the city was cut off by the German troops, she kept writing to her brother Aleksei in his orphanage. Aleksei returned to Leningrad, deeply damaged by the orphanage, in 1946. Her younger brother Vladimir disappeared without a trace.20

The Great Terror swelled the orphan population. From 1935 to 1941 the number of children living in the children’s homes of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine alone grew from 329,000 to approximately 610,000 (a number which excludes the children ‘lent out’ by the orphanages to Soviet farms and factories).21 Most children’s homes were little more than detention centres for homeless juveniles and runaways, young ‘hooligans’ and petty criminals, and the ‘strange orphans’ (as the writer Ilia Ehrenburg described them), who had lost their parents in the mass arrests of 1937–8. Conditions in these homes were so appalling that dozens of officials were moved to write to the authorities to express their personal distress at the overcrowding and the dirt, the cold and hunger, the cruelty and neglect, to which the children were systematically subjected. Children of ‘enemies of the people’ were singled out for harsh treatment. Like Marksena’s younger brothers, they were often sent to different children’s homes as part of a policy of breaking up the families of ‘enemies’. They were told to forget their parents and, if young enough, were given different names to forge a new identity. They often suffered bullying and exclusion, sometimes at the hands of the teachers and caretakers, who were afraid to show them tenderness, in case they were accused of sympathizing with ‘enemies’.22

After the arrest of their parents, Inessa Bulat and her sister Mella were sent to different children’s homes. Inessa, who was three, was taken to a home in Leningrad, while Mella, eleven, was sent to one near Smolensk. Both girls were constantly reminded that they were the daughters of ‘enemies of the people’ – their parents having been arrested in connection with the trial of Piatakov and other ‘Trotskyists’ in January 1937.* Inessa has no recollection of her childhood prior to the orphanage. But what she recalls from the two years she spent there left a deep scar on her consciousness:

Conditions there were terrible – I could not even go into the toilet: the floors were covered ankle-deep in liquid shit… The building faced a big red-brick wall. It felt like being trapped in a kind of hell… The head of the home would always say to me: ‘Just remember who your parents are. Don’t make any trouble: just sit quietly and don’t stick your spy’s nose into anything.’… I became withdrawn. I shut myself away. Later, I found it very difficult to lead a normal life. I had spent too long in the orphanage, where I had learned to feel nothing.

In Mella’s orphanage there were ‘several dozen’ children of politicals. As she recalls:

None of us whose parents had been arrested ever dared to speak about our families. They called us ‘Trotskyists’ and always lumped us together, so we formed a sort of group. There was no particular friendship between us, but we tried to stick together… The other children would throw stones at us and call us names, so we kept together to protect ourselves.

Mella wrote to her grandmother in Leningrad. When her parents were arrested, her grandmother had refused to look after her and Inessa. Recently divorced from an alcoholic husband who had beaten her, she was living in terrible conditions in a basement room and working as an inspector at the Leningrad Tobacco Factory. She was afraid that she might lose her job if she gave shelter to children of ‘enemies of the people’. She also thought that her grandchildren would be better off in a children’s home. But Mella’s letters shocked her. She had no idea of the appalling conditions in which her granddaughters had been living. In 1939, she rescued both girls from the children’s homes and brought them back to live with her in her basement room in Leningrad.23

When Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko and his wife Sofia were arrested, in October 1937, their daughter Valentina was aged fifteen. Sofia and Vladimir were both shot on the same day, 8 February 1938. Vladimir was Valentina’s stepfather. Her real father was Aleksandr Tikhanov, a printer from a large working-class family in Moscow who became an editor at the Young Guard publishing house in Moscow and then moved to International Books in Prague, where Sofia had met Vladimir, the Soviet ambassador. Valentina had seen her father before 1934, but then they lost contact. ‘He did not come to see us when we returned to Moscow. I did not ask my mother why,’ Valentina says, ‘and she did not explain it. No doubt my father did not want to intrude on our life.’ When Sofia and Vladimir were arrested, Valentina was taken to the NKVD detention centre in the grounds of the old Danilov Monastery, from which the children of the ‘enemies of the people’ were sent to orphanages across the Soviet Union. Immediately on her arrival Valentina became ill. Her father, Aleksandr, knew where she was but did not try to rescue her. Recently remarried, perhaps he was afraid of endangering relations with his new wife, who was herself arrested in 1938. From the Danilov Monastery, Valentina was transferred to a children’s home in Dnepropetrovsk, where she remained until 1941, when she returned to Moscow. Reflecting on her life in this period, Valentina says:

The orphanage was a trauma that I never overcame. This is the first time I have spoken about it to anyone. These were the years when I was growing up, I needed a mother, a mother and a father, and when I began to understand that they were dead, a sense of loss cut into everything. At the orphanage they used to give us sweets for the New Year, sometimes the teachers made a fuss of us. But the only thing I felt was this awful sense of loss, of being on my own, without anyone. I was the only girl who had no mother to contact, who had no letters. I was all alone. The only one in the whole group whose mother had been shot [long silence]. And I felt that bitterly.24

Girls from Orphanage No. 1, Dnepropetrovsk, 1940. Valentina is in the centre of the second row from the top

The one redeeming feature of the orphanage – it saved her from despair – was the strength of the friendships she formed there with the other orphan girls.

There are countless horror stories about growing up in orphanages. But there also examples of children finding love and ‘family’ there.

Galina Kosheleva was nine years old when she was taken to an orphanage, following the arrest and execution of her father, a peasant from the Podporozhe region, north-east of Leningrad, during the ‘kulak operation’ of 1937. The family dispersed. Galina and her brother were taken to Kirov, from where he was sent to an orphanage in the nearby town of Zuevka, and she northwards to Oparino, between Kirov and Kotlas. As soon as she arrived, Galina caught pneumonia. ‘I had travelled all the way from Leningrad in a summer dress, with a white pelerine, nothing else, and just a pair of light sandals; it was summer when we left but November by the time we reached Kirov.’ Throughout that winter Galina was very sick. She was nursed by the director of the orphanage, a young Siberian woman called Elizaveta Ivanova, who gave Galina her own winter coat and bought her milk with her own money from the neighbouring collective farm. The relationship between Elizaveta and Galina resembled one between mother and child. Without children of her own, Elizaveta doted on the nine-year-old girl: she read to her at night and helped her with her studies when she could not go to school. She wanted to adopt her but did not have the living space to qualify for adoption rights. Then, in 1945, Galina’s mother suddenly appeared. In 1937, she had fled the NKVD and lived in hiding with a new-born baby. She had worked as an ice-breaker on the Murmansk Railway, until her capture by the German army, when she was sent to a Finnish concentration camp in Petrozavodsk. Liberated by Soviet troops in 1944, she went in search of her children. Galina was very sad to leave Elizaveta and the orphanage. She moved to Podporozhe with her mother and brother, and then to Leningrad in 1952. Throughout these years she kept on writing to Elizaveta at the orphanage. ‘I loved her so much that it made my mother envious,’ she recalls. ‘I did not love my mother half as much, and relations between us in any case were not so good.’25

Nikolai Kovach was born in 1936 in the Solovetsky labour camp. Both his parents had been sentenced to ten years in the White Sea island prison in 1933. Because his mother was then pregnant with his older sister Elena, they were allowed to live together as a family within the prison. But then, in January 1937, the NKVD prohibited cohabitation in all labour camps. Nikolai’s mother was sent to a camp in Karelia (where she was shot in November 1937); his father was dispatched to Magadan (where he was shot in 1938). Elena was sick with TB at the time, so she was sent to an orphanage in Tolmachyovo, south of Leningrad, where medical provision was part of the regime; but Nikolai was taken north to Olgino, the resort on the Gulf of Finland favoured by the Petersburg elite before 1917, where the NKVD had set up an orphanage for children of ‘enemies of the people’ in a wing of the old white palace of Prince Oldenburg.

Like Nikolai, many of the children in the orphanage had no recollection of their family. But they forged a special bond with the kitchen workers, who gave them love and affection, and perhaps the feeling of a family. ‘There was a back staircase down to the kitchen area,’ recalls Nikolai.

I would go that way and the cooks would say: ‘Here comes Kolia!’ They would stroke my hair and give me a piece of bread. I would sit there at the bottom of the stairs and eat the piece of bread, so that no one else saw me with it. Everyone was hungry then – I was afraid to lose my piece of bread… The cooks, ordinary women from the local area, felt sorry for us orphans and tried to help us.

The children also visited the old people in the area and helped them on their allotments. ‘That was very good for us,’ Nikolai recalls:

If we helped an old grandpa he would be pleased and would do something nice for us. He might be affectionate and stroke our hair. We needed warmth and affection, we needed all the things a family would have given us – although we didn’t know what those things were. It didn’t bother us that we didn’t have a family, because we didn’t know what a family was, or that there was such a thing. We simply needed love.

Often, they found it in their relationships with animals and pets. ‘We had dogs, rabbits, horses,’ Nikolai recalls.

Behind the fence at the orphanage there was a horse farm. We loved it there, we felt free. Sometimes in the summer the stable workers let us take the horses to the river. We rode bareback, swam in the river with the horses and rode back with squeals and cries of joy. On the meadow by the town there were horse races in the summertime. We were always there. No one knew the horses better than we did. We were in love with them.

Among the orphans, small informal groups of mutual support performed many of the basic functions of a family: boys of the same age would join together to protect themselves from the boys who called them ‘enemies of the people’ and tried to beat them up; older children would protect the younger ones, help them with their lessons and their chores and comfort them when they cried at night or wet their bed. All the children were united in their opposition to the teachers at the orphanage, who were strict and often cruel.26

Nikolai had no idea what his parents looked like. He did not even know that they were dead. But he saw his mother in his dreams:

I often dreamed of Mama. I think it was Mama. I did not see her face, or even her figure. They were very happy dreams. I was flying in the sky with Mama. She was hugging me and helping me to fly. But I could not see her – somehow she had her back to me, or we were side by side. We weren’t flying high – just over the meadows and marshes near the orphanage. It was summertime. She would speak to me: ‘Don’t be afraid, we won’t fly too high or too far away.’ And we were smiling, we were always smiling in my dreams. I felt happiness – the physical sensation of happiness – only in those dreams. Still, today, when I think of happiness, I recall those dreams, that feeling of pure happiness.

Nikolai built up an imaginary picture of his parents, as did many other orphans. He never dreamed of his father but he pictured him as a pilot – a hero-figure in the Soviet Union in the late 1930s and 1940s. In his dreams he yearned for a family, even though, as Nikolai reflects, he had no idea what a family was. He did not see an actual family, not even a mother with her child, until he was thirteen.27

Without the influence of a family, Nikolai and his fellow orphans grew up with very particular ideas of right and wrong; their moral sense was shaped by what he calls the ‘laws of the jungle’ in the orphanage. These laws obliged every child to sacrifice himself for the collective interest. Nikolai explains:

If a person had done something wrong, for which we could all be punished, then that person was made to confess to the authorities. We would make him take the punishment rather than be punished as a group. If we could not persuade him verbally, we would use physical methods to make him own up to his crime. We would not denounce him – it was forbidden to betray one’s own – but we made sure that he confessed.

But if it was forbidden to betray one’s own, a different law applied to the relations between children and adults. The orphans all admired Pavlik Morozov. ‘He was our hero,’ Nikolai recalls.

Since we had no understanding of a family, and no idea what a father was, the fact that Pavlik had betrayed his father was of no significance to us. All that mattered was that he had caught a kulak, a member of the bourgeoisie, which made him a hero in our eyes. For us the story was all about the class struggle, not a family tragedy.28

The moral system of the orphanage – with its strong collective and weak familial links – made it one of the main recruiting grounds for the NKVD and the Red Army. There were millions of children from the 1930s who spent their lives in Soviet institutions – the orphanage, the army and the labour camp – without ever knowing family life. Orphan children were especially susceptible to the propaganda of the Soviet regime because they had no parents to guide them or give them any alternative system of values. Mikhail Nikolaev, who grew up in a series of children’s homes in the 1930s, recalls that he and his fellow orphans were indoctrinated to believe that the Soviet Union was the best country in the world, and that they were the most fortunate children in the world, because everything had been given to them by the state, headed by the father of the country, Stalin, who cared for all children:

If we had lived in any other country, we would have died from hunger and from cold – that is what we were told… And of course we believed every word. We discovered life, we learned to think and feel – or rather learned not to think or feel but to accept everything that we were told – in the orphanage. All our ideas about the world we received from Soviet power.29

Mikhail, too, was very struck by the legend of Pavlik Morozov. He dreamed of emulating his achievement – of exposing someone as an enemy or spy – and was very proud when he became a Pioneer. Like many orphans, Mikhail saw his acceptance by the Pioneers as the moment he fully entered Soviet society. Until then, he had always been ashamed about his parentage. He had only fragmentary recollections of his mother and father: a memory of riding with his father on a horse; a mental picture of his mother sitting by a lamp and cleaning a pistol (which made him think that she must have been a Party official). He did not know who his parents were; nor did he know their names (Mikhail Nikolaev was the name he had been given when he first came to the orphanage). He recounted an incident from when he had been four or five years old: his former nanny had come to visit him in the children’s home and had told him that his parents had been shot as ‘enemies of the people’. Then she said: ‘They should shoot you too, just as they shot your mother and father.’ Throughout his childhood Mikhail felt ashamed on this account. But this shame was lifted when he joined the Pioneers: it was the first time he was recognized and valued by the Soviet system. As a Pioneer, Mikhail looked to Stalin as a figure of paternal authority and care. He believed all goodness came from him: ‘The fact that we were fed and clothed, that we could study, that we could go to the Pioneers Camp, even that there was a New Year’s tree – all of it was down to comrade Stalin,’ in his view.30

The children at Mikhail’s orphanage were put to work at an early age. They washed the dishes and cleared the yard from the age of four, worked in the fields of a collective farm from the age of seven, and, when they reached the age of eleven, they were sent to work in a textiles factory in the nearby town of Orekhovo-Zuevo, 50 kilometres east of Moscow. In the summer of 1941, Mikhail was assigned to a metal factory in one of the industrial suburbs of Orekhovo-Zuevo. Although he was only twelve, the doctors at the orphanage had declared him to be fifteen on the basis of a medical examination (Mikhail was big for his age) and had given him a new set of documents which stated – incorrectly – that he was born in 1926. There was a policy of declaring orphaned children to be older than their age so that they would become eligible for military service or industrial work. For the next two years Mikhail worked in the steel plant in a brigade of children from the orphanage. ‘We worked in shifts – one week twelve hours every night, the next twelve hours every day. The working week was seven days.’ The terrible conditions in the factory were a long way from the propaganda image of industrial work that Mikhail had received through books and films, and for the first time in his life he began to doubt what he had been taught. The children slept in their work clothes on the floor of the factory club and took their meals in the canteen. They were not paid. In the autumn of 1943, Mikhail ran away from the factory and volunteered for the Red Army – he did so out of hunger, not patriotism – and became a tank driver. He was just fourteen.31

Like Mikhail, Nikolai Kovach was extremely proud when he joined the Pioneers. It gave him a sense of inclusion in the world outside the orphanage and put him on a par with other children his age. Kovach went on to join the Komsomol and become a Party activist; The History of the CPSUwas his ‘favourite book’. He joined the Red Army as a teenager and served in the Far East. When he was demobilized he could not settle into civilian life – he had lived too long in Soviet institutions – so he went to work for the NKVD: it enabled him to study in the evening at its elite military academy. Kovach served in a special unit of the NKVD. Its main task was to catch the children who had run away from children’s homes.32


Maria Budkevich, the fourteen-year-old girl who had been trained by her parents to survive on her own in the event of their arrest, was able to do so for the better part of a year after they were taken by the NKVD in July 1937. She lived by herself in the family’s apartment in Moscow until the summer of 1938, when the NKVD took her to the detention centre in the Danilov Monastery. While she had been living on her own, Maria had been helped by an old friend of her parents, Militsa Yevgenevna, who felt sorry for the child. Militsa’s husband, a Bolshevik official, had been arrested shortly before Maria’s parents, so Militsa presumed that they had been arrested on account of him. She soon became frightened of the consequences for herself if she continued to assist the daughter of an ‘enemy’, and called the NKVD. When they came for Maria, Militsa said to her: ‘Don’t be cross with me… It will be better for you in a children’s home. Afterwards it will be easier, you will no longer be the child of an enemy of the people.’33

From the Danilov Monastery Maria was transferred to an orphanage near Gorkii with twenty-five other children of ‘enemies of the people’. The director of the orphanage was a paternal type who encouraged Maria to study hard and make a career for herself, despite her spoilt biography. She joined the Komsomol, though she was warned that she would be forced to renounce her parents before she was admitted, and took part in its activities, which mainly involved shrill denunciations of ‘enemies of the people’ and singing songs of thanks to Stalin and the Party in mass meetings and marches. As she recalls, she joined the Komsomol in the belief that this was what her parents would have wanted her to do: ‘How could I have not joined? Mama always said that I had to become a Pioneer and then a Young Communist. It would have been shameful not to join.’ Yet at the same time – without quite grasping the political events that led to the arrest of her parents – she felt that it was somehow wrong to join. She remembers feeling a sense of guilt towards her parents, as if she had betrayed them, although, as it turned out, she was not called upon to renounce them. Still, she felt awkward about taking part in Komsomol propaganda, and, as she recounts, ‘only made a show of singing in praise of Stalin, mouthing words I did not quite believe’. At the root of her discomfort was her instinctive sense that her parents had been wrongly arrested (she even wrote to Stalin to protest in 1939), a conviction that conflicted with the political identity she had to adopt to survive and advance. As a member of the Komsomol, Maria was able to enroll at the Polytechnic Institute of Leningrad, a leading science university seldom attended by children of the ‘enemies of the people’.34

Millions of children grew up in the grey area between the Soviet system and its ‘enemies’, constantly torn by competing loyalties and contradictory impulses. On the one hand, the stigma of a tainted biography reinforced their need to prove themselves as fully equal members of society, which meant conforming to Soviet ideals, joining the Komsomol and perhaps the Party too. On the other, these children could not help but feel alienated from the system that had brought such suffering on their families.

Zhenia Yevangulova had mixed emotions following the arrest of her parents in the summer of 1937. She was nineteen years old, she had just finished school, and now her chance of going on to study in Moscow was dashed. Instead she went to live with her father’s uncle, a retired professor of metallurgy in Leningrad, who helped her to get into the Workers’ Faculty (rabfak), from which she hoped to transfer to the Polytechnic Institute. As the day of her application to the institute approached, Zhenia became more fearful, knowing she would have to reveal the arrest of her parents in the anketa. She felt like a ‘leper’ and feared that she would be disqualified from joining the institute, even though she had got top marks in the entrance examinations. In 1938, she was admitted, albeit to the Metallurgical Department, where competition for places was not as acute as in other departments. Throughout her first year there, Zhenia confessed in her diary to a feeling of depression, even to thoughts of suicide. Reflecting on this sadness, she explained it to herself as the ‘shutting down’ of her personality that followed her parents’ disappearance. At the Workers’ Faculty, their arrest had been a source of constant shame; her fellow students had bullied her mercilessly, calling her the daughter of a ‘traitor to the motherland’. At the institute, Zhenia tried to overcome this stigma by proving herself a model student.

There were moments when she struggled to break free of her parents, to enjoy herself with the other students, to move on with her life. But these brief moments of happiness were always followed by feelings of guilt when she recalled her parents in the camps. Shortly after the arrest of her father, Zhenia had had a dream in which her father reappeared as an aggressor. It continued to haunt her:

My father appeared from the mist of an adjoining room, pressed his pistol to my heart and shot. There was no physical pain, only the sensation that I had failed to stop him… And then I noticed that my chest was soaked in blood.

While at the institute, she went skating with her friends one evening and felt happy for the first time in many months. But that night she again saw her father in the dream and the next morning she awoke with a ‘heavy feeling of depression’.35

Looking back on their teenage years, many of these ‘strange orphans’ recall that there was a moment – a moment they had all hoped for – when the stigma of repression was at last lifted and they were recognized as ‘Soviet citizens’. This desire for social acceptance was felt by nearly all the children of the ‘enemies of the people’. There were few who turned their backs on the Soviet system or became opposed to it.

For Ida Slavina, that moment of acceptance came in the summer of 1938, shortly after the arrest of her mother (her father was taken in 1937). She was invited by her physical education teacher to take part in a school parade. Ida was an athlete, tall and fit. She had participated in school marches as an athlete and gymnast since the age of fourteen, but after the arrest of her father she had been excluded from the parade team. In her memoirs (1995) she recalls her joy on being readmitted to the parade team as a gymnast-parachutist for a demonstration on the theme ‘On Land and Sea and in the Sky’ to celebrate the achievements of Soviet sport:

‘On Land and Sea and in the Sky’ gymnastic demonstration, 1938: Ida is in the middle of the back row

I remember the surprise of my interviewers,* when they recognized me in a photograph among a group of athletes at the parade. How, they asked, could I bring myself to go on a parade when my mother had only just been sent to a labour camp? Thinking back, I recognize the egoism of youth, of course; I was sixteen, I couldn’t stand to be unhappy, I longed for happiness and love. But there was more to it than that. Joining the parade was also an expression of my deep desire to feel whole again in my shattered world. To feel again the sensation of being part of an enormous ‘We’. Marching in columns, with everybody else, singing the proud song, ‘We Have No Borders’, it seemed to me that I was indeed a fully equal representative of my Motherland. I was filled with the belief [in the words of the song] that we would ‘carry our Soviet banner over worlds and centuries’. I was with everyone! My friends and teachers once again believed in me – and that meant, or so I thought, that they must also believe in my parents’ innocence.36

For most teenagers it was their admission to the Komsomol that symbolized their transition from children of an ‘enemy of the people’ to ‘Soviet citizens’. Galina Adasinskaia was seventeen when her father was arrested in February 1938. Galina’s parents were active oppositionists and there was no expectation that she would become a member of the Communist youth organization. Exiled with her mother from her native Leningrad to Iaroslavl, Galina felt acutely the stigma of repression and tried to overcome it by applying to the Komsomol nonetheless. She wrote to the Komsomol committee at her school, asking them, as she put it, to ‘look into my case’ (i.e. to examine her appeal to join in the light of her father’s arrest). There was in this, as she admits, a conscious element of self-purging, an open declaration of her ‘spoilt biography’ in the hope of forgiveness and salvation by the collective. At the Komsomol meeting to discuss her appeal, the leaders ruled that Galina ‘should be disqualified from membership as an enemy of the people’. But one of her classmates protested, and threatened that all the students would leave if Adasinskaia was excluded. ‘The Party instructor became red with rage,’ recalls Galina:

He sat there on his stool and began to shout: ‘What is this? A provocation! Lack of vigilance!’ But I was allowed to join the Komsomol. I was even elected as the class organizer and our organization took first place [in the socialist competition] at school.

For Galina this was the moment she was brought back into the collective fold. When she herself was arrested in 1941, she recalls, ‘my investigator’s eyes practically fell out when he saw my Komsomol record’.37

The renunciation of family traditions and beliefs was usually the sacrifice required for entry into Soviet society. Liuba Tetiueva was born in 1923, the fourth child in the family of an Orthodox priest in the town of Cherdyn, in the northern Urals. Liuba’s father, Aleksandr, was arrested in 1922 and held in prison for the best part of a year. After his release he was put under pressure by OGPU to become an informer and write reports on his own parishioners, but he refused. When his church was taken over by the obnovlentsy, church reformers supported by the regime, Aleksandr was arrested for a second time but released a few months later in the autumn of 1929. Liuba’s mother, Klavdiia, was subsequently dismissed from her job in the Cherdyn Museum, and her brother Viktor was expelled from school as the son of a ‘class enemy’. In 1930, Aleksandr, eager to protect his family by distancing himself, took his son and moved to the town of Chermoz. In the hope of improving the boy’s prospects Aleksandr gave Viktor up for adoption to a family of workers active in the Church; as a ‘workers’ son’ Viktor finished seventh class at school and qualified as a teacher. The rest of the family also left Cherdyn, where they faced ruination, and went to live with Klavdiia’s mother in Solikamsk, a new industrial town 100 kilometres to the south.

Growing up in Solikamsk, Liuba was brought up to ‘know her place’.

Mama constantly reminded me that I was the daughter of a priest, that I should be careful not to mix with people, not to trust them, or to speak with them about my family. My place was to be modest. She used to say: ‘Others are allowed but you are not.’

The family was very poor. Klavdiia worked as an instructor in likbez (an organization established to end illiteracy among adults) but her pay was not enough to feed the family without a ration card. They managed to survive thanks to small sums from Aleksandr, who worked in Chermoz as a priest. Then, in August 1937, Aleksandr was arrested yet again. In October he was shot. Klavdiia and the children kept going by selling their last possessions and growing vegetables. Help finally came in the form of money sent by some of Aleksandr’s old parishioners – peasants helped by the Church during collectivization.

Liuba had seen her father only once after he moved to Chermoz. She visited him there in June 1937, a few weeks before his arrest. ‘Papa was upset by my ignorance of religion,’ recalls Liuba. ‘He tried to teach me Old Church Slavonic, and I resisted. It was the first and last religious lesson in my life.’ Years of repression had made Liuba want to break away from her family background. During the first year at her new school in Solikamsk she had been the target of an anti-religious propaganda campaign: the teacher would point to Liuba and tell the other children that they would all turn out as badly as she had, if they were exposed to religion. Bullied by the other children, Liuba was reduced to ‘such a state of fear and hysteria’, as she herself recalls, that

I was afraid to go to school. Eventually my mother and grandmother decided not to take me to church any longer; they told me it was best to have one education, and that I was to believe everything I was told about religion at my school.

Liuba joined the Pioneers. She was proud to wear the scarf, a sign of her inclusion, and became an activist, even taking part in demonstrations against the Church in 1938, when banners called for ‘Death to all the priests!’ Liuba became a teacher – the chosen profession of three of Aleksandr’s four children. For nearly fifty years she taught the Party line against the Church. Looking back, Liuba is filled with remorse for having turned her back on her family’s traditions and beliefs.* ‘I always thought: how much easier it would have been for me if my father had been a teacher rather than a priest, if I had had a father, just like every other girl.’38 Compared with her brother Viktor, who formally renounced his father at a meeting of the Komsomol, it could be said that Liuba only did what was absolutely necessary to survive in Soviet society.

Becoming a Soviet activist was a common survival strategy among children of ‘enemies of the people’. It both deflected political suspicions from their vulnerability and enabled them to overcome their fear.

Elizaveta Delibash was born in 1928 in Minusinsk, Siberia, where her parents were then living in exile. Her father, Aleksandr Iosilevich, was the son of a Leningrad printer, a veteran Bolshevik and Cheka official from the beginning of the Soviet regime and the partner of Elizaveta Drabkina (the teenager who had found her father in the Smolny Institute in October 1917), until he fell in love with Nina Delibash, the daughter of a minor Georgian official, and married her in 1925. Two years later, Aleksandr was arrested after falling out with his former OGPU employers (he had left the police to study economics in Moscow in 1926). Exiled to Siberia, he was followed there by Nina, who was pregnant with their daughter. In 1928, Nina and her baby went back to the Soviet capital, followed after his release by Aleksandr, who found a job in the Ministry of Foreign Trade. In 1930, Aleksandr was rearrested and sentenced to ten years in the labour camp at Sukhobezvodny, part of the Vetlag Gulag complex near Gorkii. Nina was arrested at the same time and sent to a series of ‘special settlements’ in Siberia, from which she returned to Moscow in 1932. Elizaveta stayed with her father’s family in Leningrad, occasionally visiting her mother in exile or in Moscow, until 1935, when she and Nina rejoined Aleksandr in the Sukhobezvodny camp. Nina worked as a volunteer, and the family lived together in the barracks of the camp, where Elizaveta went to school. But then, in April 1936, Elizaveta’s parents were both rearrested. Aleksandr was executed in May 1937; Nina was sentenced to ten years in the Solovetsky labour camp, where she was shot in November 1937.

After the arrest of her parents, Elizaveta was saved from being sent to an orphanage by one of the other prisoners at Sukhobezvodny who brought her back to Leningrad after her release in 1936. Elizaveta stayed with various relatives – first with an uncle Grigorii (who was arrested in April 1937); then with an aunt Margo (who was arrested in July); and then with an aunt Raia (who was arrested in August) – whereupon some distant relatives rescued her from Leningrad and took her off to their dacha near Moscow, where they concealed her from the NKVD, before sending her to her mother’s family in Tbilisi. Passed between these relatives, unaware of their concern to get her out of the police’s way, she began to feel like an unwanted child.

Elizaveta’s grandparents were plain folk – her grandfather was of peasant origin and her grandmother the daughter of a trader – but they had both been educated and they had imbibed the liberal-Christian values of the intelligentsia in Tbilisi. Elizaveta did not go to school but was taught at home by her grandmother, who had been a teacher in the Tbilisi Gymnasium before 1917. Her grandparents had no illusions about the purges. They told her that her parents were innocent and decent people who had been punished unjustly. Nina wrote twice to her parents from the Solovetsky camp. She added a few words of comfort and encouragement for her daughter. Her last letter was written just before her execution on 2 November 1937 and passed to one of her executioners, who sent it on illegally. ‘Papa, Mama, I am going to die. Save my daughter,’ Nina wrote. She told Elizaveta that she could always find her by the Great Bear in the night sky. ‘When you see that, think of me,’ she wrote, ‘because I will be up there.’ Nina’s letters and all her photographs were destroyed after the arrest of her brother in Tbilisi in December 1937.*

But the memory of that final letter, which her grandmother read to her a dozen times, remained close to Elizaveta’s heart: ‘I was always waiting, always waiting for my mother,’ she recalls. ‘Even as an adult, when I went out at night, I would always look for the Great Bear and think about my mother. Until 1958 [when she found out that her mother had been shot] I saw it as a sign that one day she would return.’

Elizaveta Delibash, 1949

The arrest of her uncle made it dangerous for Elizaveta to remain in Tbilisi, as mass arrests swept through the Georgian capital. Although she was nearly ten, Elizaveta had not been to school, but none in Tbilisi would accept the daughter of an ‘enemy of the people’. In January 1938, her grandparents put her on a train for Leningrad, where she lived with her mother’s sister Sonia. A trade-union official at the Kirov Factory, a senior Party activist and an ardent Stalinist, Sonia was the only one of all her aunts and uncles not to be arrested in the Great Terror. Looking back on these traumatic years, Elizaveta thinks she did not really feel or understand the impact of the Terror on her life. Her relatives had not told her very much. By the time she was ten, she had already lived through such extraordinary things – growing up in exile and in labour camps, losing both her parents, finding salvation in a dozen different homes – that she had little sense of where ‘normal’ ended and ‘abnormal’ began. What she felt, she now recalls, was a rather vague and general feeling of disorientation and despondency rooted in the sense that she was ‘unwanted and unloved’. This sense was exacerbated by the atmosphere in her aunt’s apartment which, by comparison with the friendly cheer of her grandparents’ house, was cold, severe and tense after the arrest of Sonia’s husband in January 1938. Expelled from the Party shortly afterwards, Sonia kept a bag packed with some clothes and a few bits of dried bread in readiness for her own arrest, which she expected every night. Elizaveta became increasingly withdrawn. She developed a ‘fear of people’, she recalls. ‘I was afraid of everyone.’ She recounts an incident when her aunt had sent her out to buy some things from the local store. The shop assistant had mistakenly given her an extra 5 kopeks in change. When she returned home, her aunt told her to return the money to the shop and apologize. Elizaveta was terrified, not because of any shame that might have been attached to taking the extra change, but because she was afraid to approach the shop assistant (a stranger) and speak to her in a personal way.

Despite the arrest of her husband, the repression of virtually all her other relatives, and her own expulsion from the Party, Sonia remained a firm supporter of Stalin. She taught her niece to believe everything in the Soviet press and to accept the possibility that her parents had been guilty of some crime. She told her that her father had belonged to an opposition group and had therefore been arrested as an ‘enemy of the people’, although she also said that Nina had probably been innocent. ‘Sonia rarely mentioned my parents,’ recalls Elizaveta. ‘I was afraid to ask her about them in case she said something disapproving about them. I understood that conversations on this theme were forbidden.’ Perhaps Sonia thought her niece would be held back or become alienated from the Soviet system if she thought too much about her family’s fate. Encouraged by her aunt, Elizaveta enrolled in the Pioneers and then the Komsomol. On each occasion she disguised the truth about her parents, as Sonia had advised her, by claiming that they had been arrested in 1935 (before the general purge of ‘enemies of the people’). Elizaveta recalls entering the Komsomol:

I was overwhelmed with fear – it went back to the arrest of my parents when I was left all alone – fear of the outside world, fear of everything and everyone. I was afraid to make contact with anyone in case they asked about my family. Nothing was more frightening than a meeting of the Komsomol, where questions about origins were always asked.

Gradually she overcame her fears. Having been accepted by the Komsomol, Elizaveta gained confidence. ‘For the first time in my life, I no longer felt like a black sheep,’ she recalls. She excelled in her studies, which gave her genuine authority among her schoolmates. She became an activist – the elected secretary of her Komsomol at school and then the secretary of the Komsomol in the district where she lived in Leningrad. Looking back, Elizaveta thinks that her activism saved her, granting her some measure of control:

When I joined the Komsomol and became one of ‘us’, when I mixed with my contemporaries and became their leader, I was no longer so afraid. I could go and fight their cause, negotiate for them with the authorities. Of course, I was also fighting for myself, because, by appearing strong, I could keep my own fear in check.39

For ‘kulak’ children, who grew up in ‘special settlements’ and other places of exile, embracing the Soviet cause was the only way to overcome the stigma of their birth. By the late 1930s, many of the children exiled with their ‘kulak’ parents had reached the age of adulthood. The NKVD was inundated with petitions from these teenagers asking to be released from exile and rehabilitated into Soviet society. Some wrote official statements renouncing their families. During the early 1930s, only a very few appeals were successful: some ‘kulak’ daughters were allowed to leave their places of exile to marry men with the full rights of a Soviet citizen, but otherwise the view of the government was that the return of ‘kulak’ children would contaminate and demoralize society. However, from the end of 1938 there was a change of policy, with a new emphasis on the reforging and rehabilitation of ‘kulak’ children. At the age of sixteen they were now allowed to leave their places of exile and regain their civil rights – provided they renounced their family.40

Dmitry Streletsky was one such ‘kulak’ child. Born in 1917, in the Kurgan region, he was exiled with his family to a ‘special settlement’ near Chermoz in the northern Urals during collectivization. Growing up in the settlement, Dmitry felt the stigma of his ‘kulak’ origins acutely. ‘I felt like an outcast,’ he recalls. ‘I felt that I was not a complete human being, that I was somehow blemished and made bad because my father was exiled… I did not feel guilty, like an enemy, but I did feel second-rate.’ Education was his way out: ‘“Study, study, children!”, Father always said. “Education is the one good thing that Soviet power can give you.”’ And Dmitry studied. He was the first boy from the settlement to complete the tenth class at the school and was rewarded for his industry by being admitted to the Komsomol in 1937. ‘Proud and happy’ to be recognized at last as an equal, he soon became an activist. Dmitry identified his own progress with the ideals of the Party. He saw the Party as a higher form of community, a ‘comradeship of fair-minded, first-rate people’, in which he could find his salvation. On his father’s advice, Dmitry paid a visit to the NKVD commandant of the ‘special settlement’ and asked for help to continue his studies at a university. Commandant Nevolin was a decent type. He felt sorry for the bright young man, whose success at school was already known to him, and he clearly saw him as someone worth helping. Nevolin gave Dmitry a passport and 100 roubles, more than twice the monthly wage in the ‘special settlement’, and sent him to Perm with a letter of recommendation from the NKVD, which enabled him to enrol as a physics student at the university.

Dmitry never tried to hide his ‘kulak’ origins. He declared them in the questionnaire he filled out on entering the university and as a result he was bullied by the other students. He finally left, thinking that the farther he ran the more likely he was to find a place where he could study without being held back by his past. First he enrolled at the Sverdlovsk Mining Institute; then he moved even further east to Omsk, where he became a student at the Agricultural Institute. But here too his origins came back to haunt him. Six weeks into the first term, Dmitry was called in by the dean and told he had to leave the institute: they had received orders to expel the children of ‘kulaks’, priests and other ‘alien social elements’. Despondently, he resolved to return to the Kurgan region, where he still had some relatives. Other than returning to the ‘special settlement’, he had nowhere else to go. Dmitry went to see his old teacher in the village school where he had studied as a boy, before being sent into exile. The teacher remembered him and invited him to work as a physics tutor in the school. Dmitry had no degree from a higher institute, but in truth the only qualification he really required was a sound knowledge of Stalin’s history of the Party, the Short Course, and that was Dmitry’s favourite book. He taught in the school for a year. In the summer of 1939, he went to visit his parents in Chermoz, who had written to tell him that conditions had improved in the ‘special settlement’. In fact, when he arrived, the new commandant of the settlement, a less forgiving type than Nevolin, arrested him, confiscated his passport and threatened to send him to a labour camp. Once again, Dmitry was saved by his outstanding record as a student. The director of the Chermoz school, who recalled his star pupil, appealed to the NKVD, claiming that he desperately needed teaching staff. And so Dmitry was allowed to stay. He taught at the settlement’s school for the next two years, until the outbreak of the war, when he was conscripted by the Labour Army and sent to a lumber camp (‘kulak’ sons were banned from front-line service in the army until April 1942).

Physics teacher Dmitry Streletsky (seated far right) with schoolboys of the seventh class in the Chermoz ‘special settlement’, September 1939. The director of the school, Viktor Bezgodov, is standing on the right

Despite all his suffering at the hands of the Soviet regime, Dmitry was a Soviet patriot, he believed fervently in the justice of the Party’s cause, and wanted desperately to become a part of it. ‘I dreamed of joining the Party,’ he explains.

I wanted to be recognized as an equal human being, that is all I wanted from the Party. I did not want to join for my career. For me the Party was a symbol of honesty and dedication. There were honest, decent people who were Communists, and I thought I deserved to be counted among them.

It was a huge disappointment when he was turned down for Party membership in 1945 (recounting the episode sixty years later, his hands shake and he finds it hard to speak from emotion). But after 1956, when the Party tried to attract members from the groups which Stalin had repressed, he was at last admitted to the comradeship of equals he had yearned to join for over twenty years.41


Zinaida Bushueva was sentenced to eight years in the ALZhIR Labour Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland near Akmolinsk in Kazakhstan. After five years in the camp she was transferred from the inner prison zone to the surrounding settlement, where conditions were better, and families could sometimes join the prisoners. Zinaida wrote to her mother in Molotov. Although she was desperate to be reunited with her two daughters, Angelina and Nelly, Zinaida did not want to ‘spoil their lives’ by subjecting them to the hardships of camp life. In Molotov, however, there were chronic shortages of food. It was a city overcrowded by evacuees from the war-torn Soviet territories, and families like the Bushuevs, ‘enemies of the people’ who had no food ration or allotment, were in dire straits. Zinaida’s mother decided it was best to reunite the girls with their mother. She could not imagine that conditions in the camp could be any worse than they were in Molotov.

To get the children to ALZhIR they first had to be given to an orphanage: once they had been made wards of the state, Zinaida could appeal for their transfer to the labour camp. After three months at the orphanage, Angelina and Nelly were collected by their grandmother and taken on the train journey from Molotov to Kazakhstan, arriving in Akmolinsk late one January evening. Zinaida came to meet them at the station, where she found them sitting on the platform sheltering themselves from a snowstorm. She was dressed in a quilted jacket, trousers and felt boots, the standard winter clothes of a prisoner. When Nelly, who was nine, saw her mother, she ran up to her and flung her arms around her neck. But Angelina, who was only two when she had last seen her mother, was too young to remember her. She recoiled in fear. ‘That’s not my mama,’ Angelina said. ‘That’s just a peasant uncle (diaden’ka muzhik) in his winter clothes.’ After five years of hard labour, Zinaida had lost her feminine appearance; she no longer looked like the ideal image of a mother Angelina had seen in family photographs and built up in her mind.42

Left: Zinaida with her brothers, 1936. Right: Zinaida (centre) in ALZhIR, 1942. A rare private photograph of Gulag prisoners, it was taken to send to relatives. The three women were photographed together to reduce the costs

ALZhIR was the largest of the three labour camps in the Gulag system exclusively for female prisoners (the others being the Tomsk labour camp and the Temnikovsky camp in the Republic of Mordovia). Built in a hurry to meet the regime’s urgent demand for prisons for the wives of ‘enemies of the people’, it received its first convoys of female convicts in January 1938. Most of them were housed in the barracks of a former colony for orphan children under the control of the NKVD. By 1941, there were an estimated 10,000 women in the camp, most of them employed in agriculture, like Bushueva, or in the textiles factory, which made uniforms for the Red Army. Conditions in the camps of Kazakhstan were relatively good compared to those in the Far North or Siberia. But for the women of ALZhIR – especially for those who had grown accustomed to the comfortable lifestyle of the Soviet elite – camp life was very difficult, particularly during the first years. Initially categorized as a high-security penal institution, ALZhIR imposed an extremely punitive ‘special regime’ (spets-rezhim) on its prisoners, as part of the campaign of repression against the ‘wives of traitors’. The inner prison zone, distinct from the barracks settlement, was enclosed by a wire fence with observation towers and patrolled by guards with dogs. The women were awoken at 4 a.m. for work; the last roll-call before they were allowed to sleep was at midnight, although, as many prisoners recall, the guards were so innumerate that they often had to get the women up again to recheck their numbers. Food rations were given in accordance with the prisoner’s fulfilment of her working quota; anyone who failed to meet the quota for ten days in succession was transferred to the ‘death barracks’ and left to die. ‘Every morning the dead were carted out and buried in the mass grave just outside the camp,’ recalls a former guard. The hardest thing to bear for many prisoners was the prohibition on letters from relatives (a condition of the ‘special regime’). After May 1939, the ‘special regime’ was lifted. ALZhIR was designated as a ‘general labour camp’ and conditions began to improve. The barracks settlement was gradually enlarged, as more women completed their sentences in the prison zone or were rewarded for their labour in the prison with an early release to the settlement.* Conditions there were much more bearable. There were no fences, the women were escorted by the guards to work and counted every evening on their return, but otherwise they were left largely to themselves. There was a vibrant cultural life in the club house of the settlement, which was encouraged by the camp commandant, Sergei Barinov, who was to be remembered as a relatively kind and decent man. Among the women in the camp were the wives and relatives of many senior Bolsheviks and Red Army commanders; they included writers, artists, actresses and singers, even soloists from the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. According to Mikhail Iusipenko, the deputy commandant of ALZhIR, there were 125 doctors, 400 qualified nurses, 40 actresses and 350 pianists in the first convoy of prisoners. Mikhail Shreider, the second-in-command to the NKVD chief of Kazakhstan, recalls his discomfort on visiting ALZhIR, where there were so many of his former colleagues’ wives, ‘for whom I could do nothing’. The camp administration assured Shreider that the prisoners enjoyed good conditions at ALZhIR, but it still seemed to him a ‘frightful place’, as bad as any of the Gulag camps, not because of the physical conditions, but because it contained such a concentration of mothers separated from their children.43

In this respect the Bushuevs were fortunate to be together. Zinaida’s son Slava, who had been put into the orphanage on their arrival at ALZhIR, was reunited with his mother when she was transferred to the barracks settlement. Her transfer also meant that Nelly and Angelina could join her. They all lived in one of the barracks, which had long rows of sleeping planks on two levels. As Angelina remembers:

Children at ALZhIR, 1942. Slava Bushuev is standing far right

The other women rearranged themselves so that we could live as a family in one corner, with two of us on top and two below, a bedside table and a little corner shelf, which was all our own, where we kept our bread and jam… We took our meals from the canteen and ate them sitting on our sleeping planks… No one ever stole our things… There were four families in our barracks. Each one had a corner, where they could enjoy some privacy. It was agreed that this was right.

Angelina and Nelly went to the school in the labour camp. They even joined the Pioneers, which operated in the camp, encouraged by the authorities to cultivate a Soviet ethos in the children of ‘enemies of the people’. There were no red scarfs in the labour camp, so the Pioneers made their own by dyeing cotton strips with the blood of mosquitoes, which swarmed all around the camp.44

However, most of the women at ALZhIR had little connection to their families. Once ALZhIR became a general labour camp the inmates were permitted to write and receive letters according to the rules of correspondence stipulated by the Gulag code of 1939: prisoners were allowed one letter and one parcel every month, or once every three months if, like most of the women of ALZhIR, they had been convicted of ‘counter-revolutionary crimes’. But in reality the number of letters the women received depended on the whim of the camp guards, on the regime inside the camp and on the location of the camp (some labour camps were too remote to be reached by any mail). Inna Gaister recounts the elaborate arrangements for sending parcels to her mother in ALZhIR. Normal post offices did not accept parcels for dispatch to labour camps. Special posting stations were designated for the purpose, but since there were no public announcements about their location (the existence of the camps was not acknowledged by the Soviet authorities), people had to rely for information on the rumours that circulated within the prison queues. In 1938, all dispatches from Moscow were stopped, so Inna had to travel to Mozhaisk, a town 100 kilometres south-west of Moscow, and battle with the crowds to hand in a parcel at a designated carriage on a special train taking prisoners to Kazakhstan.45

To be deprived of these letters was a form of torture for the women of ALZhIR, who were sometimes known to make their feelings heard. When Esfir Slavina, the wife of the jurist Ilia Slavin, arrived at ALZhIR in 1938, she was horrified to find a large number of teenage girls – many of them younger than her sixteen-year-old daughter Ida – who had somehow ended up in the labour camp. Esfir was afraid that Ida, too, was in a camp somewhere, but she had no rights of correspondence and had heard nothing from her daughter. In fact Ida was coping on her own, staying in the homes of various schoolfriends in Leningrad and sending parcels to her mother, which never reached her. Esfir went on a hunger strike. It was the first sign of protest at ALZhIR, where the prisoners – mostly Party members or the wives of Bolsheviks – had on the whole been loyal to the Soviet regime and done their work conscientiously and without complaint. Esfir was not involved in politics. She had never paid attention to her husband’s legal affairs, and her only interest was in her family. When she refused to eat, Esfir was put into a punishment block, but after several weeks, as she neared the point of physical collapse, the camp administrators finally agreed to let her receive letters from her family. Perhaps Esfir’s hunger strike was not the determining factor: it is hard to imagine that the camp authorities were concerned about an individual death, and they were in any case already preparing to transfer ALZhIR from a ‘special regime’ to a ‘general labour camp’, which would allow the prisoners to receive letters from their relatives. But the authorities may have been concerned by the possible reaction by the other prisoners in the event of Esfir’s death, for feelings on this issue had been running very high, and there had been frequent complaints about the lack of mail. A few days after the capitulation of the camp authorities, Ida was summoned to the NKVD headquarters in Leningrad and informed that she could send a parcel to her mother. It arrived in the winter months of early 1940, a time when hardly anyone in ALZhIR was receiving letters, let alone parcels. Esfir’s victory made her a celebrity. Hundreds of women gathered in her barracks to inspect the precious contents of her parcel. It encouraged some of the others to protest to the camp authorities.46

As the rules of correspondence were relaxed, the women of ALZhIR poured all their emotions into their letters, often making little gifts to enclose for their children as tokens of their love. ‘We so wanted for our children to have something we had made for them,’ recalls one of ALZhIR’s prisoners.47

Dina Ielson-Grodzianskaia was sentenced to ALZhIR in 1938, following the arrest of her husband Yevgeny, the director of the Moscow Higher Technical School, in December 1937 (he was shot in 1938). Their daughter Gertrud (Gerta), who was then aged five, and her younger brother were adopted by their aunt. A trained agronomist, Dina played a senior role in the agricultural management of the labour camp – one of the many ‘trusties’ in the Gulag system who worked as specialists or collaborated with the camp authorities to earn those small advantages which in a labour camp could make the difference between life and death.48 Compared to the other prisoners, Dina was allowed to send and receive letters relatively frequently. She often sent her daughter little presents she had made by hand – a piece of clothing or a toy, or on one occasion a beautiful embroidered towel with animals, which Gertrud was to treasure all her life. ‘I always kept it on my bed, wherever I was, in student dormitories, in every place I lived,’ she recalls. ‘In my mind it was synonymous with the fairy-tale mother of my imagination. In her absence I had constructed an image of a mother who was good and beautiful, but who lived far away.’49

Embroidered towel (detail) made by Dina for Gertrud

The yearning for a mother found its parallel in the yearning for a child, even in the conditions of a labour camp. A printer from Ukraine, Hava Volovich was twenty-one when she was arrested and sentenced to a labour camp in the Far North in 1937. Feeling isolated and lonely, she longed to have a child, to feel the joy of a child’s love. It was a longing felt by many women in the camps, as she recalls in a memoir full of emotion:

Our need for love, tenderness, caresses, was so desperate that it reached the point of insanity, of beating one’s head against a wall, of suicide. We all wanted a child – the dearest and closest of all people, someone for whom we would give up our own life. I held out for a relatively long time. But I did so need and yearn for a hand of my own to hold, something I could lean on in those long years of solitude, oppression, and humiliation.

Hava had an affair with an unnamed man (‘I did not choose the best of them by any means’) and had a little girl with golden curls whom she called Eleonora. The camp had no special facilities for mothers. In the barracks where Hava gave birth three mothers were confined in a tiny room.

Bedbugs poured down like sand from the ceiling and walls; we spent the whole night brushing them off the children. During the daytime we had to go out to work and leave the infants with any old woman we could find who had been excused from work; these women would calmly help themselves to the food we had left for the children.

Motherhood gave Hava a new purpose and belief in life:

I believed neither in God nor in the Devil. But while I had my child, I most passionately, most violently wanted there to be a God… I prayed that God would prolong my torment for a hundred years if it meant that I wouldn’t be parted from my daughter. I prayed that I might be released with her, even if only as a beggar or a cripple. I prayed that I might be able to raise her to adulthood, even if I had to grovel at people’s feet and beg for alms to do it. But God did not answer my prayer. My baby had barely started walking, I had hardly heard her first words, the wonderful heartwarming word ‘Mama’, when we were dressed in rags, despite the winter chill, bundled into a freight car, and transferred to the ‘mothers’ camp’. And here my pudgy little angel with the golden curls soon turned into a pale ghost with blue shadows under her eyes and sores all over her lips.

Hava was put to work in a brigade felling trees and then transferred to a sawmill. By bribing the nurses in the children’s home, she was allowed to see her daughter outside the normal visiting hours, before the morning roll-call and during her lunch break. What she found was disturbing:

I saw the nurses getting the children up in the mornings. They would force them out of their cold beds with shoves and kicks… Pushing the children with their fists and swearing at them roughly, they took off their night clothes and washed them in ice-cold water. The babies didn’t even dare to cry. They made little sniffing noises like old men and let out low hoots. This awful hooting noise would come from the cots for days at a time. Children already old enough to be sitting up or crawling would lie on their backs, their knees pressed to their stomachs, making these strange noises, like the muffled cooing of pigeons.

One nurse, responsible for seventeen infants, found ways to speed up her work:

The nurse brought a steaming bowl of porridge from the kitchen, and portioned it out into separate dishes. She grabbed the nearest baby, forced its arms back, tied them in place with a towel, and began cramming spoonful after spoonful of hot porridge down its throat, not leaving it enough time to swallow, exactly as if she were feeding a turkey chick.

It was only their own children that the nurses cared for properly, and these, claims Hava, ‘were the only babies who lived to see freedom’. Eleonora became sick. Her little body was covered in bruises:

I shall never forget how she grabbed my neck with her tiny skinny hands and moaned, ‘Mama, want home!’ She hadn’t forgotten the bug-ridden slum where she first saw the light of day, and where she’d been with her mother…

Little Eleonora… soon realized that her pleas for ‘home’ were in vain. She stopped reaching out for me when I visited her; she would turn away in silence. On the last day of her life, when I picked her up (they allowed me to breast-feed her) she stared wide-eyed somewhere off into the distance, then started to beat her weak little fists on my face, clawing at my breast, and biting it. Then she pointed down at her bed. In the evening, when I came back with my bundle of firewood, her cot was empty. I found her lying naked in the morgue among the corpses of the adult prisoners. She had spent one year and four months in this world, and died on 3 March 1944.50

Most labour camps that included female prisoners also had children’s homes. The children’s compound in ALZhIR had 400 infants under the age of four in 1944. Nearly all of them had been conceived in the camp. In other labour camps some women wanted to be pregnant so as to be released from hard work, to receive better food, or perhaps even to be amnestied, as women with small children sometimes were.51 Amnesties did not apply to most of the women of ALZhIR, because they had been convicted of ‘counter-revolutionary crimes’, and the other motivations were equally irrelevant to most of the prisoners who gave birth in the camp. According to a number of former ALZhIR prisoners, most of these 400 babies were conceived through rape by guards, above all by Mikhail Iusipenko, the deputy commandant of the camp, who preyed on the women prisoners. In later life, he liked to boast that he had ‘enjoyed power over several thousand beautiful women, the wives of fallen Party leaders, at ALZhIR’.52

Sexual relations between female prisoners and their jailers were not always based on rape or the desire to conceive. Some women sought the protection of a guard by giving in to his sexual demands: to have sex with one man was better than to be raped by many. In mixed labour camps (with male and female zones) women also entered into sexual relations with trusties, whose privileged position brought them food and clothes, or a prized job in the kitchens or the offices.53 Other than the laws of the jungle, it is hard to judge what governed these relationships – the power of the trusties to protect, harass and threaten the women, or the sexual power of the women, who were vastly outnumbered by the trusties – but from the women’s perspective they were usually motivated by the struggle to survive.

Ketevan Orakhelashvili was sentenced to five years of hard labour in ALZhIR following the arrest of her husband, Yevgeny Mikheladze, the director of the Tbilisi Opera, in 1937.* Ketevan knew nothing of her husband’s fate (he was shot in 1937), nor anything about her two children, Tina and Vakhtang, who grew up in a series of orphanages (they were sent to labour camps when they reached the age of adulthood). Ketevan was young and beautiful. In ALZhIR she attracted the attention of many of the guards and Gulag administrators, including Sergei Drozdov, whom she married on her release in 1942. With their son, Nikolai, born in 1944, they lived in Karaganda, where Drozdov worked as an official in the administration of the labour camps in Kazakhstan.54

Ketevan with Sergei and their son Nikolai, Karaganda

Liudmila Konstantinova, the mother of Natalia and Elena, was a graduate of the Smolny Institute for Noblewomen in St Petersburg. Her first husband, a seismologist at the Pulkovo Observatory in Leningrad, was arrested in 1936; Liudmila herself was sentenced to eight years in a camp near Magadan. In 1938, Liudmila met a fellow prisoner, Mikhail Yefimov, a mechanic of peasant origins, who had completed his three-year sentence for ‘hooliganism’ (he had been arrested after getting involved in a drunken brawl), but had decided to stay on as a voluntary worker at the camp, where he lived in his own house in the settlement for officials and guards. Mikhail took an interest in Liudmila. At first, she rejected his approaches, because she still looked forward to the day when she would rejoin her husband and their family (she did not know that he had been shot). But then Liudmila became ill with a kidney infection. Mikhail sent her love letters with gifts of money. He brought her food. Liudmila never fully recovered from her illness. As time passed, she gave up hope of seeing her husband, presuming he had died, and became increasingly dependent on Mikhail, who showered her with attention. Granted a divorce from her husband (it was easy to divorce an ‘enemy of the people’), Liudmila married Mikhail, settling with him in Rostov-on-Don after her release in 1945.55

It was not just to Gulag officials that women in the camp looked for protection. The fate of female prisoners could sometimes be determined by powerful protectors outside the camps. One of the prisoners in ALZhIR was Liuba Golovnia, the ex-wife of the film-maker Anatoly Golovnia. Liuba was arrested and sentenced to five years in the labour camp in April 1938, four months after the arrest of her second husband, Boris Babitsky, the head of the Mezhrabpomfilm studios in Moscow, who was shot in 1939. Liuba later thought that she had been arrested because she had purchased furniture from the NKVD warehouses in Leningrad (she felt so guilty about the furniture, which had been confiscated from the victims of arrests, that she sold it all after her return from the labour camps). But in fact she was arrested just because she was Babitsky’s wife. Babitsky had been caught up in a scandal that led to dozens of arrests in the Soviet film world. The hit songs from Grigorii Aleksandrov’s film Veselye rebiata (‘Jolly Fellows’) had somehow found their way to the USA, where they were released as a phonogram, leading to charges of espionage in the Mezhrabpomfilm studios in 1937–8.

When Liuba was arrested, the couple’s three children from three different marriages were taken by the NKVD from her apartment in the Comintern hotel: the two-year-old Alyosha, Liuba’s son from her marriage to Babitsky, was sent to an orphanage in the centre of Moscow, while Volik, Babitsky’s thirteen-year-old son from his first marriage, and Oksana, eleven, Liuba’s daughter from her marriage to Anatoly, were taken to the NKVD detention centre at the old Danilov Monastery. Oksana was kept with twenty other girls in one of the monastery’s many cells, all filled to bursting with children. Volik was taken to a special area for the over-twelves who, having reached the age of criminal responsibility, would be transferred to the special ‘children’s camps’ and penal colonies administered by the NKVD. Volik’s fingerprints and mug-shots were taken for his criminal record.

A few weeks later, Oksana’s father, Anatoly Golovnia, appeared at the monastery. Oksana recalls the moment she first saw her father in the courtyard. Dressed in a leather coat, he had his back to her, but she recognized him, even at a distance, and began shouting ‘Papa! Papa!’ from her cell window as loud as she could. Anatoly walked towards the gates. He was about to leave, having been informed by the director that Oksana was not there. A Black Maria – one of the notorious NKVD vans used to pick up suspects from their homes – passed Anatoly and drove through the gates, the noise of its engine blocking out the cries of his child. Oksana became desperate. She realized that this was her last chance. She let out one more shout. This time Anatoly turned around. She yelled again and waved her hands through the iron bars on the window. Anatoly looked up at the building. There were so many windows and so many faces peering out that Golovnia had a hard time finding his daughter’s face, but at last he picked her out with his cameraman’s eyes. He hurried back to the director’s office, to which Oksana was summoned. She told her father that Volik had been brought to the monastery as well. To get her out was relatively straightforward: legally she was still Anatoly’s child. But to rescue Volik, who was considered an adult, and in any case was not Anatoly’s son, required help from contacts in the NKVD. After hours of negotiations and several phone calls to the Lubianka, Volik was released. As for Alyosha, Anatoly could not find out what had happened to him. But Oksana remembered where the NKVD car had dropped him before taking her and Volik to the monastery. With her father, she retraced the route they had followed from the Babitsky flat in the Comintern hotel. Locating the orphanage, Anatoly ‘went inside and half an hour later reappeared with Alyosha in his arms’, recalls Oksana.56

All three children found a refuge in Anatoly’s home, two small rooms in a communal apartment in the centre of Moscow that he shared with his mother, the haughty Lydia Ivanovna. A year later, in September 1939, Volik’s mother came for him, and the two disappeared into the countryside. Liuba’s older sister Polina took Alyosha to the Babitsky dacha at Kratovo, where they lived with Polina’s sister Vera and her father in two small rooms; the third and largest room was occupied by another family. Polina worked in Moscow and sometimes stayed at Anatoly’s apartment. Widowed twice, without children of her own, Polina stoically bore the suffering life brought her. After her sister’s arrest she had been evicted from her home and sacked from her job as the Secretary of the Moscow Maly Theatre. She worked for a while as a room-attendant in the Moscow Theatre Museum, but was fired from that job as well, and ended up as a machine operator in a factory.57

Nothing was heard from Liuba for a year. The ‘special regime’ at ALZhIR forbade prisoners to write to relatives. Then, in the spring of 1939, just as the ‘special regime’ was lifted, a telegram arrived. Polina wrote back to her sister, and a busy correspondence started up between the two, nearly all of it about domestic details and the bringing up of the children, although, according to Oksana, there was much else said as well, but in code to conceal it from the censors. A devoted sister, Polina wrote to Liuba almost every week. She sent money, books, clothes, typed-out articles from magazines and photographs of the children, especially of Alyosha.

Anatoly wrote to Liuba less often, and his letters had a different character. He sent her money, food parcels and a manual for film projectionists, so that she could learn a practical skill. During the first year, Liuba had worked on a building site but she fell and broke her hand while hauling logs and was transferred to lighter work by Barinov, the camp commandant, who, after receiving a request from Anatoly, allowed her to run the cinema in the club house. This was not the only privilege that Liuba received from Barinov. In 1942, Polina died in Dzhambul, Kazakhstan, where she had fled with Alyosha when she became afraid of her own arrest in January of that year. Alyosha was placed in an orphanage by distant relatives, who then sent a telegram to Liuba in ALZhIR. Liuba was allowed to travel to Dzhambul, several hundred kilometres to the south of Akmolinsk, retrieve Alyosha from the orphanage and bring him back to live with her in ALZhIR’s outer zone. It was an extraordinary concession to make to a prisoner, and Barinov, who signed the release papers, did so at great personal risk. It is possible that Liuba’s beauty played its part in winning these concessions, though this is not the view of her fellow prisoners, who stressed instead the influence of Anatoly Golovnia. In his letters to Liuba, Anatoly wrote without apparent fear of the censors (in many of his letters he criticized the Soviet film authorities). Anatoly wrote about his love for Liuba. He forgave her for leaving him, and pleaded with her to come back to him on her release (‘which may not be so far away as you believe… I am sure I can get somewhere if I petition the authorities for you’). Liuba, unaware of Babitsky’s fate, warded him off. But Anatoly perservered. He wrote about the success of his films, Minin and Pozharsky (1939) and Suvorov (1941); about the prizes he had won (the Order of Red Labour in 1940 and the Stalin Prize in 1941); about the affluent life he enjoyed and the parties he attended in the Kremlin. He played on Liuba’s emotions, emphasizing how much their daughter needed her: ‘I shall wait for you and pray for your return, if only for Oksana’s sake. I am a bad parent, as you know, and have little time for it. And our daughter is now at an age when she needs a mother’s influence. She is shy with me.’58 Anatoly must have known that Babitsky would not return. He made this clear to Liuba and tried to make her see that she would now be better off with him. He also clearly thought, or wanted to give Liuba the impression, that he possessed the influence to speed up her release, if only she agreed to come back to him.


In January 1939, the writer Konstantin Simonov married Zhenia Las-kina, the youngest of Samuil Laskin’s three daughters, who had been a student with Simonov at the Literary Institute since 1936. They had started their romance the previous spring, when Simonov was still married to Natalia Tipot, another classmate, although in those days the civil marriages formed in the bohemian circles of the Moscow student world did not have much real significance. According to Zhenia, Simonov began to court her with a romantic poem (‘Five Pages’) that he had originally written for Natalia. It was typical perhaps of all young poets to recycle love poems for new sexual conquests, and certainly typical of Simonov’s relations with women at that time. He was quick and clumsy, prone to fall head over heels in love and sexually inexperienced.59

Zhenia was a tiny woman, almost pocket-sized, with graceful features. But Simonov was also clearly drawn by her spiritual qualities: she was generous and patient, devoted to her friends and she had that rare capacity to get on with almost anyone (a talent she inherited from her father) and to affect them with her kindness. Zhenia was the Secretary of the Student Union at the Literary Institute. During the purge meetings at the institute in 1937, when Simonov had denounced Dolmatovsky, she had courageously defended two foreign students – too weak to defend themselves – whose work she felt had been unfairly criticized by members of the teaching staff.60 Whatattracted Zhenia to Simonov is hard to tell. She fell in love with him and continued to love him throughout her life. No doubt she was attracted by his good looks, by his poetic talent and intelligence, by his masculinity, and by his qualities of leadership, which had always made him stand out at the institute.

Zhenia and Konstantin on their honeymoon in the Crimea, 1939

Eight months after their wedding, in August 1939, their son Aleksei was born. After a difficult delivery, Zhenia and Aleksei were both ill and kept in isolation in the hospital for several days. ‘I love you very much my little darling, everything in our lives together will be fine, I am convinced of that,’ Simonov wrote to Zhenia.

I talked with the doctor, he said all is well. And the baby will recover gradually. Write to me what you like most about our son… Today I began on a new poem. Now I shall write every day… My sweetie, I so want to hear your voice, to see your little face which is no doubt pale and thin… Ask if I can send you Jewish liver.61

Shortly after the birth of their son, Simonov received his first assignment as a military correspondent. The newspaper Geroicheskaia Krasnoarmeiskaia (‘Heroic Red Army’) sent him to Khalkin Gol to cover the conflict between the Soviet Union and Japanese-controlled Manchuria. From Mongolia, where the Soviet forces were massed, he wrote to Zhenia, sending her the poem ‘A Photograph’.

I did not bring your photographs on my travels,

Without them, as long as we remember, we will see.

On the fourth day, the Urals far behind,

I did not show them to my curious neighbours.62

The battle of Khalkin Gol (known in Japan as the Nomonhan Incident) was the decisive engagement of a border war that had been brewing since the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the establishment of the Manchukuo puppet state in 1932. Stalin was afraid of Japan’s imperial ambitions in Siberia as well as Mongolia, which though nominally part of China had been under Soviet influence since 1921. When skirmishes broke out on the disputed border between the Mongolians and the Japanese, Stalin sent in his heavy troops: 57,000 infantry, massed artillery, 500 tanks, and the best planes of the Soviet Air Force, all under the command of the rising star of the Red Army, General Georgii Zhukov. The Soviet forces pushed the Kwantung Army back from the Khalkin Gol River, where the Japanese maintained the border was, to Nomonhan, 16 kilometres further east, the border according to the Russians. Surprised by the heavy concentration of Red Army tanks and artillery, the Japanese bid for a cease-fire on 16 September. The Soviets claimed a mighty victory. The Red Army’s invincibility – proclaimed by Soviet propaganda – had been confirmed, it seemed. The reality, however, was significantly less inspiring. As Simonov knew from his own experience, the losses on the Soviet side were far greater than acknowledged by the government (the Red Army claimed 9,000 killed and wounded but the actual number was 24,000, of whom 7,000 men were killed).63 And there was no end of dreadful sights. Frustrated by the censorship of the military press, Simonov tried to offer a truer picture in his poetry. ‘Tank’ tells the story of a platoon of Soviet soldiers who suffer heavy losses in their hard-won victory against the Japanese. The soldiers leave behind a burned-out tank, which the poet puts forward as a monument to their bravery and sacrifice. Simonov’s political minder, who was no less than Vladimir Stavsky, the former leader of the Writers’ Union who had reprimanded him for ‘anti-Soviet’ conversations in 1937, blocked the poem’s publication. He warned Simonov to stick more closely to the propaganda mission of the writer, namely to present an upbeat vision of the war. To that end, Stavsky suggested he replace the burned-out tank in the poem’s final image with a brand new one.64

The border conflict with Japan strengthened Stalin’s fears of becoming embroiled in a two-front war against the Axis powers. In the spring of 1939, Hitler’s armies had marched into Czechoslovakia, unopposed by the British or the French, who continued to appease Hitler and who, it seemed to Stalin, were encouraging the Nazis and the Japanese to direct their aggressions against the Soviet Union. Although France and Britain were engaged in negotiations with the Soviet government for an alliance to defend Eastern Europe and the Baltic states against Nazi aggression, the Czechoslovak crisis demonstrated to Stalin that the Western powers were not acting in good faith. Throughout the spring of 1939, the British and the French had been dragging out the negotiations with the Soviets, using the reluctance of the Poles to allow Soviet troops to cross their borders as a stumbling block; they wanted the Soviet Union on their side to deter the Nazis diplomatically but were not prepared to sign a military pact. Meanwhile, the Germans were making overtures to the Soviet government, whose neutrality was essential if they were to launch their planned invasion of Poland. They proposed to divide Eastern Europe into separate spheres of influence, with the Soviet Union gaining Eastern Poland and the Baltic lands. By August, Stalin could no longer wait for the British and the French. Convinced that a European war was imminent, he knew that the Soviet Union would not be able to resist Nazi Germany, especially with so many of its forces in Manchuria; as he saw it, he had little option but to come to an agreement with Hitler. It was these immediate events of 1939, rather than a long-term calculation, as many have supposed, that persuaded Stalin to sign the notorious Pact of Non-Aggression with Hitler’s Germany on 23 August 1939. As the Soviet leader saw it, the pact would provide the Soviet Union with the breathing space it needed to arm itself as well as create a useful buffer zone in Eastern Europe and the Baltic lands. By remaining neutral in a war between two forces he considered hostile to the Soviet Union – the capitalist powers of the West and the Fascist states – Stalin hoped to see them wipe each other out in a long and draining conflict that might spark revolutions in both camps (as the First World War had done in Russia in 1917). As he told the Comintern, ‘We are not opposed [to war], if they have a good fight and weaken each other.’65

Assured of Soviet neutrality, Germany invaded western Poland on 1 September; two days later Britain and France declared war on Germany; and shortly afterwards the Red Army entered Poland from the east, in accordance with the secret protocols of the Nazi–Soviet Pact which had divided Eastern Europe into German and Soviet zones. After the occupation of Poland, the Soviet Union began to pressure the Baltic states and Finland to accept territorial changes and Soviet bases on their soil. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania gave in to the Soviet demands, signing pacts of ‘defence and mutual assistance’, which allowed their occupation by the Red Army. The invading Soviet troops were accompanied by NKVD units to carry out arrests and executions: 15,000 Polish POWs and 7,000 other prisoners were shot by the NKVD in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk; and at least a million ‘anti-Soviet elements’ were deported from Poland and the Baltic lands. Finland proved less compliant, rejecting Soviet demands for army bases on its soil. The Soviets launched an invasion of Finland in November 1939, certain of victory after their military successes in Manchuria, Poland and the Baltic states. But the war in Finland went disastrously. The Soviet troops were unprepared for winter fighting and could not breach the solid Finnish defences. In four months, 126,000 Soviet troops were killed and nearly 300,000 injured, until Soviet reinforcements finally broke through the Finnish lines and forced the Finns to sue for peace.66

For Simonov, as for many Communists throughout the world, the Nazi–Soviet Pact was a huge ideological shock. The struggle against Fascism was a fundamental aspect of the Communist mentality and rationale. ‘My generation – those of us who turned eighteen around the time when Hitler came to power in 1933 – lived in constant expectation of a war with Germany,’ Simonov recalled in the 1970s. ‘For us that war began, not in 1941, but in 1933.’ The Spanish Civil War was of particular significance to this generation, not least because they had been too young to fight in the Russian Civil War, whose history had inspired their heroic dreams. But also because they fervently believed that the Spanish Civil War was the opening battle in the last great struggle between Communism and Fascism that would reach its climax in a fight to the death between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. ‘At Khalkin Gol,’ Simonov recalled, ‘that fight was no longer imaginary, it was no longer something we anticipated in the future, but something we had seen with our own eyes.’ Simonov was at Khalkin Gol when he heard the news of the Nazi–Soviet Pact. His mind full of the bloody struggle the Soviet forces were then waging against the Japanese, he initially understood the pact as a pragmatic measure to keep the Germans from ‘delivering a fatal blow to our backs’. He even welcomed the Soviet invasion of Poland and the Baltic lands as a necessary defensive measure against German military expansion. But morally, he was troubled. He felt the pact was a betrayal of Europe, of the Communist promise to defend the weak against tyrants, and he was uncomfortable with the new ideological order in which it was suddenly not acceptable to criticize Nazi Germany. ‘They were still the same Fascists,’ Simonov recalled, ‘but we could no longer write or say aloud what we thought of them.’67

This inner conflict surfaced in several of Simonov’s works, especially in his first major play, A Young Man from Our Town (Paren’ iz nashego goroda), which he wrote in the autumn of 1940 on his return from Khalkin Gol. The play tells the story of a brash young Red Army officer, a Komsomol enthusiast called Sergei, who returns to Russia from the Spanish Civil War and volunteers to fight at Khalkin Gol. As a call to arms against Fascism, A Young Man from Our Town at moments seems to invite its audience to feel hostility towards Nazi Germany, but, as Simonov recalled, he could not make these sentiments explicit because of the Hitler–Stalin Pact. When the play was first performed, by the Lenin Komsomol Theatre in March 1941, it was left to the actors to suggest their opposition to the pact by adding more emotion to any lines that had anti-German implications.68

Conflicts of a different, more intimate sort run through the play as well. Its hero was modelled on the poet Mikhail Lukonin (1918–76), a friend of Simonov’s at the Literary Institute who had fought in the war against Finland. Lukonin was only three years younger than Simonov, but he was considered to belong to a different generation of Soviet poets, mainly because he had been born after 1917 and had come from a proletarian family without any trace of the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia culture that marked Simonov’s peers. Simonov idealized Lukonin: the younger poet, who had worked in a tractor factory in Stalingrad before joining the Literary Institute in 1937, embodied for him the ideal of the ‘Soviet’ and ‘proletarian writer’ he had tried so hard to become. In 1939, Simonov gave the completed draft of A Young Man from Our Town to the playwright Afinogenov, who liked the play but thought that its hero should have a surname. Simonov was at a loss – he did not know what to call him. Afinogenov asked Simonov what surname he would have chosen for himself, given the choice. Perhaps he recognized that Simonov had given his fictional hero all the qualities that he would have wanted for himself. Without hesitation Simonov replied that he would have liked to be called Lukonin and on that basis he named the hero of his play. The real Lukonin was not pleased: ‘How would you like it if I wrote a play about a football player and called him Simonov?’69

The heroine of A Young Man from Our Town also had personal resonances: Simonov had written the lead female part for Valentina Serova, a star of the Soviet screen and stage, with whom he had fallen hopelessly in love. Simonov had first seen Valentina in a play at the Lenin Komsomol shortly after his return from Khalkin Gol, and although he was a married man and must have known that he had little chance of winning her heart, he brought A Young Man from Our Town to that theatre so that he could get closer to the actress. In that play, the female character is a rendering of Valentina, not as she was in reality, but as Simonov wanted her to be (trusting, loving, patient and forgiving), just as the hero of the play, Sergei Lukonin, is a portrait of Simonov as he would have liked himself to be (more masculine, more courageous, more Soviet than he was in reality). These two literary prototypes, the ideal Valentina and the ideal Simonov, reappear in nearly all his poems, plays and novels during the 1940s.

Valentina Serova, 1940

Valentina was young and beautiful, a famous widow and film star, but she had a secret history that made her vulnerable. Her father, Vasily Polovyk, a hydro-engineer from the Kharkov region of eastern Ukraine, had been arrested in Moscow during the industrial purges of 1930, when Valentina was thirteen, and sent to a labour camp. Released in 1935, Vasily was rearrested in 1937 and sentenced to eight years in the Solovetsky labour camp. All these facts were carefully concealed by Valentina’s mother, a well-known actress at the Kamerny Theatre in Moscow, where Valentina spent much of her childhood, playing all the leading parts for girls. Valentina’s mother changed her name from Polovyk, a Ukrainian name, to the Russian Polovikova, and worked hard to erase all trace of her Ukrainian past. Valentina was brought up to deny all knowledge of her father (in later years she claimed she had never seen him as a child). It was not until 1959 (fifteen years after his release from the Solovetsky labour camp) that she summoned up the courage to meet him, and then only after he had got in touch with her.70

In 1935, Valentina joined the Komsomol. She soon attracted the attention of Aleksandr Kosaryov, the leader of the organization, whose well-known fondness for young actresses was easily indulged through his control of the Lenin Komsomol Theatre in Moscow. Kosaryov promoted the career of his beautiful young protégée.But in November 1938 he was arrested (and later shot) in a general purge of the Komsomol leadership, which was accused by Stalin of failing to root out the ‘counter-revolutionaries’ in its ranks. At a banquet in the Kremlin shortly before Kosaryov’s arrest, Stalin had approached him, clinked glasses, and whispered in his ear: ‘Traitor! I’ll kill you!’ The arrest of her patron placed Valentina in serious danger, particularly when she was denounced as a ‘counter-revolutionary’ by a jealous former boyfriend, whom she had jilted for Kosaryov. Called to account for herself at a purge meeting in the theatre workers’ union, she was questioned about the arrest of her father and made to renounce him to avoid expulsion.71

What saved Valentina in the end was the influence of her new husband, the famous aviator Anatoly Serov, whom she had met at a banquet thrown by Kosaryov. Pilots featured prominently in the pantheon of Soviet heroes. The air force, in particular, symbolized the Soviet Union’s military power and progress, and it was the glamour of the aeroplane that inspired many young men to join the military. With his handsome, clean-cut, healthy ‘Russian’ looks and perfect proletarian origins, Serov was the ideal figure for this propaganda role. His exploits in the Spanish Civil War were legendary, and by the time he met Valentina he had become a national hero and celebrity, one of the most honoured pilots of them all, and a Kremlin favourite. Married ten days after their first meeting, Anatoly and Valentina moved into the sumptuously furnished apartment recently vacated by Marshal Yegorov, who had been arrested in connection with the Tukhachevsky trial. They enjoyed the decadent lifestyle of the Stalinist elite, with late-night parties and receptions at the Kremlin. Disaster struck on their first wedding anniversary. Anatoly was killed in an air crash. The circumstances of the accident remain unclear, but Serov and his fellow pilot Polina Osipenko were flying at low altitude in poor weather. Both pilots were buried in the Kremlin Wall with full state honours. Four months later, in September 1939, Valentina gave birth to Anatoly’s son, whom she named after him. As the widow of a military hero, she enjoyed the protection of the Soviet leadership, which helped to launch her career in the cinema. Her first major part, the title role in the hit film A Girl With Character (1939), was tailor-made for her. Stalin himself became one of her admirers. At his sixtieth birthday banquet in the Kremlin he proposed a toast to the widows of two famous pilots, Anatoly Serov and Valerii Chkalov, who were sitting near the end of one of the far tables. Stalin then invited Valentina to come up to his table to drink the toast with him. Her hand shook so violently that she spilled her wine. According to Valentina, Stalin squeezed her hand and said quietly: ‘Don’t worry, it’s nothing. Just hold on, comrade Serova, we’ll stand by you.’72

By the summer of 1940, Simonov was head over heels in love with Valentina, but she remained cool towards him. She was still in mourning for her husband – she had his baby son – and she did not want to encourage Simonov, a married man with a baby son the same age as her own. Simonov, Zhenia and Aleksei were now living in the Laskin apartment on Zubov Square. And though Zhenia did not realize the full extent of her husband’s growing passion for the beautiful actress, she could not fail to notice his frequent absences from the Laskin home.73 For a year their marriage soldiered on, while Simonov pursued his new romantic interest with little effect. Simonov was not the sort of man that Valentina was usually attracted to. He was too arduous in his attentions, too serious and dry, and he lacked the poise and confidence of her previous suitors, who were more successful and more powerful than Simonov. At the first rehearsal of A Young Man from Our Town, Simonov asked Serova what she thought about the play. In front of everyone, she said she thought it was ‘a shitty play’. But even this did not deter him. He showered her with gifts. He wrote plays with parts for her. But most of all he sent her poetry, some of it recycled:

I did not bring any photographs on my travels.

Instead I wrote poems about you.

I wrote them from sorrow

I missed you

And carried you with me…

Gradually, by the power of his pen, he wore her down, but it was not until 1943, when his love poem ‘Wait For Me’ had made Simonov the country’s favourite poet and a figure of real influence in the Kremlin, that Serova succumbed to his eager passions and agreed to marry him. Simonov and Serova would become celebrities through ‘Wait For Me’, a poem that inspired millions of people to go on fighting through the war. But no one knew about the politics their marriage would serve, nor about Simonov’s previous wife, whom he had abandoned with their child.74

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