Posts tagged USSR

Double Punishment for being a Captive Soldier in WWII

I continue to learn new things from my advanced Speaking class, sad things about death and repressions. What irony there is in life but it often happened in the former Soviet union, double punishment for fighting as a soldier in a war and being caught as a prisoner. One of my student’s grandfather on her mother’s side was arrested by a German officer and put in a German concentration camp.  After the war, the Kazakh soldier was released and he returned to Kazakhstan only to be put in a Soviet gulag camp according to Stalin’s orders.  After Stalin died in 1953, he was released and lived only another 8-10 years, he died in the early 1960s.

Another student said that his grandfather on his mother’s side wasn’t imprisoned, he somehow avoided prison.  But he did not avoid the police station every night for several years.  He was asked over and over again the same questions and by 1953, he was convinced he hated communists.  I asked if he was beaten or tortured.  No, he just had to answer the questions correctly otherwise he would have ended up in a Siberian concentration camp.

Another instance in the same family was the grandfather was an officer for the NKVD.  After the Great Patriotic War there were a lot of gangs with guns in the Pavlodar region and he had to interrogate those who were causing much unrest in the area.  He would have been on the opposite side of the table as the other grandfather as he was the head of this police station.

Another Kazakh student of mine is from the Karaganda area and she doesn’t know much about her own grandparents.  [this is typical because there was a strict code of silence for all those in Karaganda and especially those who were finally released from the KARLAG once Stalin died]  She said that many intellectual people were sent to Kazakhstan from all over the USSR to the Karaganda region and they helped develop and build the architecture of that city.  Many Japanese, Russians and other nationalities brought enrichment to this area because of their expertise. The very skills that had drawn attention to themselves in a favorable climate, won them disfavor in the eyes of the ruling Moscow elite.

She did remember that her mother’s older brother had driven a tank during WWII and when he returned from the war he worked in a mechanical factory or plant.  When he was alive still she was very small.  She did say that what was a prison for political prisoners in Karabass is now a prison for hardened criminals.

Another interesting story came from a woman whose mother’s uncle was a tall Kazakh man with BLUE eyes.  He was somehow so unusual in his appearance that a German officer didn’t put him in prison but rather he stayed in his big house and helped built things around the house.  He was good with wood and made things for three years while living in Germany.  This Kazakh man spoke German very well but upon his return to Kazakhstan he was directly sent to Magadan in Siberia.  He stayed there ten years and when he returned to his native town he built a beautiful home.  He died at the age of 95-96. This student remembers that he was a vigorous, proud man who didn’t stoop but had good posture the last time she saw him at age 92.  He walked with a cane but had the regal look of a decorated officer, perhaps like the German officer who had spared him from prison camp while in Germany.

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Haunted by ALZHIR Stories of Brave USSR Women

The wind is howling wickedly outside today worse than it was yesterday.  Yet with this fierce, cold weather we are enduring in Astana, Kazakhstan, we have so much to be thankful for compared to the Soviet women from all over the USSR who were cruelly deemed as cast offs, spurned to this desolate area of Central Asia.  All 15 countries or former republics of the USSR were represented.  Very few intelligensia were spared during the Stalin purges.  My students marveled that so many of the creative, smart ones were destroyed in the past while our university is currently trying to create an intelligensia to move this country forward.

As a class field trip, we went out to see this ALZHIR museum that was built in 2007.  We picked up taxis across from Mega Mall by the sauna and with four of us riding in each taxi, it cost 1,000 tenge one way.  The road is narrow and sitting in the front, I had to trust the skill of our driver to get us to our destination in one piece.  These drivers have no idea how unnerving it is to narrowly miss a hair’s breadth away from hitting the oncoming cars and trucks.  The bumps, crevices and potholes gave an extra thrill for those three riding in the back seat. Fortunately, we were able to get taxis going back into Astana (25-30 kilometers away) after not too much standing in the wind and cold.

How sad to hear all these women’s stories from our Kazakh guide. The cost was 100 tenge for student rate and 150 for me as their teacher.  It would probably take a week, 8 hours a day to really know and understand each sad saga that is represented behind the faces of these ladies whose pictures were on display.  I am eager to find out what my PDP students’ reactions were to all this.  One from the south of Kazakhstan didn’t even know this gulag existed so close to the capital city.  Another student showed me the name on a list of his grand, grandfather who was considered an enemy of the people.

These 18,000 women were considered political prisoners and first they had their husbands taken from them and then they were yanked away from their children.  Some women came pregnant and after their children were 3-4 years old, they were taken away to be put in an orphanage.  Sometimes the women were lied to and tricked into being interrogated to their own demise.  Initially they were told they were to meet up with their missing husbands again. In some cases, they would put on their finest clothes only to be placed on a train going south to Kazakhstan.  Another instance I read in the English brochure produced by the British Council is that a husband and wife met in the hallway where they were being interrogated.  They were in a mad embrace and would not let each other go until their arms were brutally hit with the butt ends of rifles.  Oh…the sadness!

Today I’ll show the photos from inside the main lobby area but we could only take photos on the outside.  Too cold to go to the back wall where ALL the women’s names were engraved into a stone slab similar to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C.

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What else I learn from my adult learner students

The other day was a potpourri of various talents who showed up for English practice that is meant for advanced speakers once a week.  Some of these university employees were more shy to speak up once the talkative ones found their stride.  Represented were those from Center for Energy Research, Economics, Admissions, Legal department, Strategic planning and the Library.  We got on the topic of occupations as a kind of carry-over from the week before when we discussed teachers and builders.

The conversation went all over the place from talking about Kazakhstan’s sports like boxing, football and hockey to the recent Asian Winter games to Tour de France, to Roza Bagnalova’s son to the profession of policemen to the upcoming presidential election.  Finally an hour was up and we were talking about Olympics and the Goodwill Ambassador Vladimir Smirnoff who represented Kazakhstan.

One of them asserted that the most popular professions in Kazakhstan are lawyers and economists, especially looking at what students are majoring in for their subjects at university.  Others didn’t agree so we quickly moved into sports.  Apparently the most famous footballer is Pele whose name means “useless” or perhaps “crafty.”  We talked a long time about his name and how his name means smart but doesn’t let on that he is, like in Russian (heat-tree.) I can’t tell from my notes because I had to write fast with six people all having an opinion about this athlete.  Supposedly he was quoted as saying that if Russia wins the World Cup, then Brazil will have a hockey team in hell.  Something like that, like I said, my notes after trying to decipher them 24 hours later leave much to guess work.

This I DO know they talked about and was new information for me, that the Klitschko brothers who are so famous in Ukraine for their boxing feats were actually born in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan. Their father was a military man and it is said as a kind of joke, I’m not sure if this actually happened.  One of the Klitschko brothers ran into Sasha Cohen in New York City, who made that despicable movie about Kazakhstan (which really wasn’t true to Kazakhstan and was filmed in Romania).  Anyway, since Klitschko is really a Kazakhstani, he had some strong words for Cohen and it put the fear into him.  You don’t want to mess with a boxer if you get him riled. Maybe this was just a joke but the point is, that the film has done little to bring good repute to Kazakhstan.

One thing that was supposed to bring Kazakhstan’s reputation up a notch or two was the Tour de France that was won by a Spaniard Cantador while he was biking for Team Astana last year.  We shall see who will rise from the Kazakh athletes to take over in cycling.  A nice stadium that was built just down the road from the university for the ice skating for the Asian games is really for cycle races.  It looks like a bike helmet from the outside.

We moved on to what all Kazakh people know internally but is little known in the western world about Roza Baglanova who died just last week.  She was a much loved singer and represented Kazakhstan in the former Soviet Union.  Apparently one of my adult learner “students” went to school with her son Tarzhen.  When he was born his grandparents went to register him with a good Kazakh name but when the father found out about it, he was furious and had it changed to a good communist name, Tarzhen. I’m unsure of the meaning but it sounds like Tarzan to me.  Apparently Tarzhen didn’t follow in his mother’s footsteps in music but his father’s as a businessman.  He is entrepreneur and his quiet and keeps to himself, a good father of 3-4 children.

Then we got into the subject of names of Kazakh children and what it was like in the past if you wanted to appear politically correct.  I mentioned that during the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s many young girls were called “Hong” for Red.  Someone said it was true in the USSR’s past that many had the names related to Lenin or Marx.  One poor lad was named after Albert Gore after he visited Kazakhstan.  With the Asian games now over, some girls are called Aizada (Asia) or boys might be called “Summit” after the OSCE summit last December. Or parents might use the word “Khan” or “Bai” or Abai going back to ancient times.  Some babies are given the name of the day of the week that they were born.  This has deep Kazakh roots to give names that honor an event.  Being BORN is an event here in Kazakhstan!

Somehow our conversation was directed back to occupations and several of these Kazakh people drive cars, so we talked about policemen.  After a Kazakh driver is stopped by a man with a white and black baton, the requisite forms are filled out. Some said they never pay a fine and talk their way out off whatever ticket.  Others who are in a hurry will pay the bribe just to get back on the road again.  You see, if you don’t want to go through all the steps of going to the bank and the police office to get the necessary paperwork down, you can give 1,000 or 2,000 tenge to the officer. However, this is NOT usually done directly, it might be slipped into a book or it might be left in the back seat of the squad car.

If you were to pay directly and officially with all the extra time spent to do it, it would cost about 6,500 tenge.  In the capital city of Astana it is not as bad to pay bribes to police officers as down in the south of Kazakhstan, like in Almaty. Perhaps this doesn’t happen in Astana because the police are more tightly controlled or they have other more important functions to deal with such as security for the president and other VIPs.  Maybe they are better paid than those officers to the south.

We talked of other things of course, such as the football match with Tartastan where the Dutch played in Moscow and the temps were -20 C and they played in the cold and mud with a score of 2-0.  Better than the score during the Asian games where a hockey match was 30-0. That would have been no fun to watch but one of my “students” witnessed that lopsided game.  Others saw the same ice skaters I did and we all talked about the opening ceremony.  I was surprised that one Kazakh woman didn’t even watch the Asian Games Opening ceremony on her t.v. I think she is too busy with her job and raising a family.

That’s it, from Lake Kaz-be-gone.

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“I Write as I Please” 1935 book (Part II)

Walter Duranty was a good observer of the Russian people, I would term him a Russophile.  Maybe he sold his soul to be able to be a New York Times correspondent in Moscow at the time when so much was happening so quickly.  I have taken many notes off of the electronic pdf version of “I Write as I Please.”  What is interesting to me are the pages that were missed in the scanning process such as:  p. 48, 77, 230, 242, 333. There may have been others, I’m just saying that the person who scanned this whole 1935 edition didn’t want some things known about Duranty.  The following are my very rough notes from what I read relating to the Russian mentality from Duranty’s perspective:

p. 118 explanation of rushing the process of nationalism wanting to hasten the communist millennium

political anarchy replaced by order and strong central authority But: economic self-sufficiency had vanished

p. 125 – Russians are a romantic folk whose innate sense of drama is stronger than their regard for truth.

p. 126 Potemkin villages

p. 144 – They were Russians, you see, whose racial quality is to live intensely in the present and dismiss doubts or fears or horrid memories with the easy insouciance of children – Nichevo which means:  what of it or no matter

p. 146 – In 1921 – Red Army soldiers in uniform back from fighting Moslem rebels in Central Asia or from “liquidating” Makno’s anarchist movement in Ukraine

Ch. 14 – Red Star – Report the facts as I saw them but to avoid quoting statements of Soviet spokesmen or newspaper, “we do not want to risk the New York Times a vehicle for Bolshevik propaganda”

p. 166 Stalin 1933 said to Walter Duranty – “You have done a good job in your reporting of USSR although you are not a Marxist.”

Walter said of himself “…I’m a reporter, not a humanitarian, and if a reporter can’t see the wood for trees, he can’t describe the wood.”

p. 169 – Wm. Bolitho had taught me [WD] to think for myself or merely that the facts of the last 2 years spoke louder for the Bolsheviks than words create impression that I was tinged with pink myself.

The Wobblies or I.W.W. were not so long in the ideological theory stuff as the Russians

Russians “most would sooner talk than work, or even eat.”

“When you come to know more you will understand the superiority of Marxists in two respects of immediate practicality.  They know what they want and why the want it and are determined to sell it by fairness or foul.

Lenin speech in autumn 1921 – “Kto Kavo” “who beats whom?”

Sent it “mulnia” lightening – where news sent triple urgent

p. 194 Catherine the Great  said one good harvest in Russia atoned for ten years of bad politics

p. 196 W.D. gives Kulak definition

p. 197 “Do you really think America will ever go communist?” W.D. refused to be sidetracked by moral issues or by abstract questions

Chapter – A Prophet with Honor

p. 202 – spring of 1922 – chasm between West and Soviet thinking – Polish Catholic priests were given capital punishment

p. 203 – “Who were these foreigners anyway who dared to tell Russians how to conduct their own affairs?” He [the main priest] has abused Russian hospitality if it is a bigger crime and he is a foreigner

West thinks “anyone accused is innocent until proven guilty” but in Eastern countries and in Russia, “the accused is guilty otherwise he would not be at trial.”  Anglo-Saxon race fights savagely against pre-determined by a preliminary inquiry, otherwise it is injustice

After priest was killed one Russian who worked with foreigners said, “Life of one man had robbed the Soviet of the fruits of 2 years of patient diplomacy.”

Buchkevich execution did more to retard American recognition of USSR for 10 years

(to be continued)

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“A Cruel Wind Blows” (Part II)

Yesterday’s blog was about my impressions of a movie, produced in Canada, that I watched Wednesday morning with the international women’s group in Astana. Today’s photo was taken off the web from the URL below. It is of the nuclear bombed lake created in the Semipalatinsk area.   I would like to visit this northeastern area of Kazakhstan later some time. I know someone from the ladies group who HAS been to this radioactive place.  Wow!

Today I’ll not continue with my impressions of the film we watched but rather show some facts that I picked up off the web (along with the above photo) about the research done concerning this very sad era of communist rule over Kazakhstan. How many times in the 80 minutes that I watched did I shake my head in disbelief listening to interview after interview from the survivors from the Polygon area?  Too many. These Russian and Kazakh people would reveal truths from their perspective one after another. If enough westerners paid attention to this movie subtitled in English, they would know that communism was not about caring for the common man.  No, certainly not the common Kazakh in an out of the way place such as the Semipalatinsk area, not these Kazakhs didn’t count with the bigwigs in Moscow during the 70 year Soviet regime.

This documentary movie has a good title that should maybe instead read “A Cruel Wind Continues to Blow” because the radioactivity in this godforsaken area will harm generations to come.  Read on from this website:  http://new.csc.ca/news/default.asp?aID=1416

“To the unsuspecting eye, an endless landscape of beauty unfolds in all directions. The Steppe – as it’s known by the locals – is an 18,000 km prairie-like flatland, dotted with randomly occurring mountain ranges. Its history has been scarred by the detonations of 456 atomic bombs – 340 underground (borehole and tunnel shots) and 116 atmospheric (either air drop or tower shots) tests. The former Soviet Semipalatinsk Test Site, in northeast Kazakhstan, was the primary nuclear test site during the Cold War from 1949 through to 1989. (Kazakhstan is a country of 16 million, which borders on the Caspian Sea to the west, Russia to the north and China to the east, and gained its independence from Soviet rule in 1991.)

In 1947, the head of the U.S.S.R. atomic bomb project, Commissariat for Internal Affairs chief Lavrentiy Beria, falsely claimed that the area was “uninhabited.” Today the site – also known as the Semipalatinsk Polygon and latterly the National Nuclear Center of Kazakhstan – is under study by various scientific groups who all agree that there are many areas that are not only contaminated but are still radioactive. The question is, how “hot” is it, and is the test site still a toxic source that is strong enough to be harmful to the residents who both live on or near it?

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Although testing ended almost 20 years ago, there are many areas that remain “hot.” Such hot spots were craters created by the underground explosions just 18km northwest of the village of Sarjal. In the Degelen Mountain range, mountain tops destroyed by bombs that were placed deep inside them by way of tunnels that have since been backfilled. We also shot at ground zero, just 50 km west of Kurchatov where the first atomic bomb (Operation First Lightning) was exploded in 1949. This was an atmospheric explosion test site where more than 100 above-ground weapons tests took place. The site currently exhibits measurably high levels of radiation. Surprisingly there are no warning signs or fences to stop people or livestock from getting too close. In fact, sheep, cattle and horses can be found scattered around the Polygon grazing on the grasslands and drinking the water from the craters.

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Photos of CCCP helicopter from 1993

Sorry I missed posting my blog yesterday, I was trying to locate my copy of Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago” where I want to read the last chapter that is about the Kengir Uprising in 1954.  Once I read that, I will post about it. I also want to go visit the Karaganda area (not too far from Astana) where this event happened when the political prisoners said: “Enough is enough!!!” They ran off the prison guards and administrators and enjoyed 40 days of freedom and their own self-governance.

Not much is known about this amazing act of bravery but since Stalin had died the year before in 1953, there were also other smaller uprisings in Kazakhstan and Siberia where the gulag systems were packed.  Naturally, the big USSR tanks came rolling in and snuffed out the Kengir uprising, that unusual period of freedom for the inmates. Many of these prisoners had been unjustly accused of some crime and had no business being in prison.  They wanted to be loyal subjects of the Soviet Union, but it was always a tightrope balancing act to know how to walk correctly during the CCCP (Cyrillic for USSR) period.

In lieu of more words, I’ll just post a couple of OLD, but interesting photos that I took back in 1993 when I first met Ken.  We went on an antiquated Aeroflot helicopter ride one early Sunday morning from Almaty area to a lake with some U.S. Embassy and Peace Corps people. (Brave for us to trust this relic) Quite romantic actually and my grandma used to say that was our first date, not quite but almost.

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“The Big Red Schoolhouse” (Part IV)

The last of a four part series that I have enjoyed showing my reading audience simply because all the writing was already done for me by Irving R. Levine who died at age 86 last year.  He was well known as an NBC news reporter but much earlier in his career he had been in Russia back in the 1950s.  He was suspected of being a spy yet he did his job well as a journalist, not an agent. I appreciate his words documented in the book “Main Street USSR” because it applies to my setting in Astana, Kazakhstan.  See what you think of this last installment, I welcome comments by those of you who are teaching or have taught in Central Asia before in whatever capacity.

“Specialized training at an institute is one of the few roads to success in Russia. There are few other steps by which a young man or woman can climb the economic and prestige ladder. Unlike capitalistic countries, a young man with natural acumen does not have an opportunity to start a business on a shoestring and build it by effort and talent to a large chain of stores. A boy just out of secondary school cannot count on being taken into his father’s successful enterprise because father in Russia owns no enterprise. Membership in the Communist Party, itself the main portal to success in Russia, is open largely to those who have some special talent or skill to offer the state. Thus the number of applicants each year for the Soviet version of college far exceeds the space available, and competition is keen.

There are other reasons, too, for the crash of applicants. Family financial standing plays no role in the decision to continue education. It is not a question of being able to afford it. Tuition now is free. Also, the fact that good marks and scholarship are encouraged from childhood contributes to stimulating interest in higher education among youngsters. The smart boy or girl is seldom the butt of teasing as a teacher’s pet. There is no aversion to “eggheads’* at any age in Russia. Unlike American schools, where the star athlete is likely to be campus hero, students in Soviet institutes have less diversion of this sort. There are teams, but no program of intensely competitive contests among schools with cheerleaders and pre-game bonfires. School, whether grade school, high school, or college, is intended for study, and the emphasis is on high marks in the classroom rather than on a high score on the football field. Even so, occasionally there is newspaper criticism of over-emphasis of sports in some schools.

There is, nonetheless, a perennial problem of rearing Soviet youngsters in the mold of discipline and devotion to Communist aspirations sought by Kremlin authorities. There are frequent cases of student  misconduct, teen-age indolence, and outright hooliganism. Out-of-school influences are usually blamed by the authorities. For example, it is in the home that youngsters are taught religion; this influence is so great that in some villages, despite classroom instruction in atheism, the entire student body stays away from school on minor religious holidays. The decision was made to keep youngsters in school more, under proper Communist influence, and away from the home, the church, and the street. Boarding schools were introduced in 1956, and the plan, as sufficient school space becomes available, is eventually to make boarding schools universal where youngsters will sleep, returning home only on Sundays.

The beginning was modest; 285 boarding schools were opened in 1956, and the number is growing slowly. At first, in order to evoke as little parental resentment as possible, pupils were taken from orphanages, from broken homes, and from poor parents with large families.

The preference given to former workers and soldiers is in itself intended to encourage a serious attitude in student bodies. Infringements of student discipline during the early days of de-Stalinization gave fresh impetus to the program of encouraging would-be students to go to work first. So did the leading roles played by students in the October events in Hungary and Poland in 1956. It was felt by the Kremlin leadership that a person who had served three years in an army unit or two years plowing dry Siberian soil would better appreciate the opportunity offered by education to improve his station in life and would more willingly bend to ideological discipline.

Cases of breach of discipline were many, but in terms of student exuberance in other countries, the transgressions of Soviet students might seem mild indeed. Yet, seen in the Soviet context, they might well give rise to alarm in the leadership. There were instances of previously docile lecture groups in dialectic materialism, for example, being disrupted by brash students plying the instructor with questions intended to undermine Communist theses. There was a report of a Komsomol group at a Moscow institute refusing to elect a chairman presented on a single-name slate by the group’s governing committee.

There was the case of an unpopular Komsomol chairman being suspended out of a fourteenth-story window of the Moscow University skyscraper by a rope around his waist. Elsewhere this might pass as normal spring-fever conduct; in Moscow it is scandalous. There were persistent reports of expulsions.

Branches of student discipline were recorded in the pages of Dawn of the East newspaper in Tbilisi. An article on March 24, 1956, shortly after street disorders in which students played a prominent role, re- ported:

“At many meetings and conferences they often tell of students showing a lack of discipline, often cutting classes. The figures from September 1 until December 31 show that 94,083 man hours have been skipped without any excuses, among them in Marxism-Leninism (2682 man hours), in dialectic materialism (2231 man hours), and in political economics (1665 man hours).

“Sometimes lectures are skipped by whole groups, who instead go for a collective review of a new movie, leaving the teacher to lecture to a virtually empty auditorium. Especially “organized’ in this way are groups in the West European language and literature faculties. Unfortunately their record is closely followed by students in the faculty of physics. In the history faculty, A. Mkheidze and M. Dzimestarhishveli were so rarely seen at lectures that their fellow students could not have recognized them. Almost half of the students cut seminars in dialectical materialism. It sometimes happens that only one or two students from an entire group are present, and once the whole fifth group of the fourth year of the philological faculty cut their seminars.”

The paper told of expulsion of students for violating public order. “Can it be tolerated,” asked Dawn of the East, “that in 1955, for instance, there were 176 cases registered of students breaking rules of socialist order, and the 41 students were detained by the militia for a total of two and a half months?

“Some old prejudices of the area are recreated and some young people, such as a student in the geographic-geological faculty, N. Moudiry, revived the old custom of a runaway marriage. He sneaked away with a girl student from the biological faculty.”

Other cases of misconduct cited were less in the virile mountaineer tradition of this Caucasus region but equally reprehensible to the authorities, such as the student who beat up a taxi driver after a drunken spree and then struck a policeman who arrested him.

There are quips about students who misbehave or do poorly in classes. A Russian friend shook her head disapprovingly as she told about a neighbor’s none-too-bright child who was getting bad marks. “Well,” she shrugged, “maybe he’ll be able to get a job in the weather bureau if nowhere else.”

This rather light-hearted attitude is not shared by Soviet officialdom. Every opportunity is taken in publications, speeches, and edicts to impress upon young people the need for a serious attitude in studies and also in free-time pursuits. This may partly explain why Soviet youngsters spend so many free hours poring over chessboards instead of chatting on the telephone. The Soviet attitude of earnestness, seen in recreation as well as in study, has its roots in the Soviet classroom.”

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