Archive for December 26, 2008

Laura’s Grandfather: 15 year Victim of the Gulag

 I. Introduction

          It is a well known fact that USSR was one of the Greatest Powers. Everything appeared to be good, stable and firm. For the majority of people, there was no class division. And it looked like there was nothing to complain about. But, in truth, not everything was so perfect, as it might seem to be. The Soviet system was far from ideal. And those people who did not follow all the rules, or whose actions were misinterpreted were strictly punished. It is hard to imagine what victims of Soviet system had to endure, especially when sent to the Gulags as “enemies of people”, but nothing can be done except to avoid such a horrible mistake again.


II. Soviet penal system

          The Soviet regime of the late 1920s and 1930s aimed on enemies hunting. At first, their target were “former people” – people of non-proletarian origins (Guseva, 2007). But the members of these groups were not really suspected of any oppositional activity. According to Guseva (2007): “neither their thoughts nor their past behavior justified arrests, but only a hypothetical possibility of them committing a crime because they belonged to a certain social group” (p. 325).

          Next, in the early 1930s came the turn to penalize the “kulaks”. Hundreds of thousands of peasant families were labeled “kulaks” and deported away from their home (Getty & Rittersporn, 1993).  And it became a very frequent occurrence when people informed against peasants who seemed to be kulaks, or had some connections with them. Often they were portrayed as young idealists, a new generation of Soviet people promoting communist ideas. And as Guseva (2007) wrote it led to: “…a generation of “new Soviet people”—loyal to the Party rather than their family, vigilant and merciless, ready to spy and report on their parents and neighbors” (p. 327). Remembering what my father said about my granddad, Utelbay Jumabayev: “…as a secretary of Komsomol organization, studying at MGU, he had presented a paper – “About preparing scientific specialists in Kazakhstan”. Furmanov’s  wife, who was at that meeting, reported on him as if he were a nationalist. And he was sent to the Siberian gulag for 15 years”. This is a vivid example of how people denounced others, pretending to be the heroes, who saved the government.


III. Gulags

          Thus everyone who had, or seemed to have, any slightest threat to the government were punished. As McDermott (2007) wrote: “the ‘Great Leader’ said: ‘Anyone who attacks the unity of the socialist state, either in deed or in thought, yes, even in thought, will be mercilessly crushed’” (p.614). Usually they were sent to exiles, Gulags. The Gulag was the government agency that administered the penal labor camps of the Soviet Union (Uzzell, 2003). The Gulag system had become primarily known as a place for political prisoners and as a mechanism for repressing political opposition to the Soviet state. There were at least 476 separate camps, some of them comprising hundreds, even thousands of camp units (Gheith, 2007). Gheith (2007) also wrote that: “the Gulag system spread throughout the former Soviet Union: through the Urals, Siberia, Central Asia, with one of the largest camp systems being in Kazakhstan” (p.162). The number of convicted people reached 2 million in 1941 (Uzzell, 2003). The death rate in the camps was “too high” (Uzzell, 2003). According to Getty and Rittersporn (1993), it was found that between 1934 and 1953, 1, 053,829 people died in the camps of the Gulag.


IV. Sufferings form the Gulag

          Soviet ‘ethnic cleansing’ led to a lot of suffering. But people were not supposed to talk over this problem; otherwise, there was a risk to be next who would be sent to the Gulag. Many people’s lives were destroyed: children, whose parents were arrested and shot, spent their lives trying to find out what happened to their family; people who were put in the Gulag spent their lives trying to build a life, they often had difficulty finding work and dealing with the psychological and physical disruption of these years.  But what about those sufferings that happened inside the Gulags?

          The Gulag tried to organize prisoners to live in such a way as to get maximum work out of them. The system of food norms was designed for economic purposes. As Uzzell (2003) wrote for the frailest prisoners it was given half as much food as those deemed capable of heavy labor. Being at Siberian exile, my granddad remembered that every day people next to him died. In winter time when they were moving from one camp unit (in Siberia) to another, if you had just stopped for several seconds you would have had been immediately frozen to death, and no one would search for you because  they already knew that you were dead. After spending 15 years at Gulag he remained the same intelligent, calm and kind man, but the shadow of those tormented years never left  his eyes.


V. How my granddad survived

          As I already told my grandfather was sent as nationalist to Siberian Gulag. You might know that in Siberia there was one of the most horrible Gulags in the Soviet Union. He spent there 15 agonizing years. My granddad was from intelligence, but he used to stay not only with political prisoners but also with killers and thieves. And along with hunger and cold people were dying from murders. But as my father told me everyone respected my granddad, because of his justice, erudition, wide reading and strength of will. 15 tormented years he struggled with death, repeating to himself again and again: “I will survive”. He was not of those men who ever gave up. So he survived. And after several years my grandfather defended a dissertation.


VI. Conclusion

          The ideology of the Soviet Union made a society where people had to report on each other.  And the communist system was merciless to those on whom were that reports. The social effects are searing, long-lasting, and often just that little bit under the surface that makes it difficult to bring into the realm of language and tangibility. Unfortunately the consequences of that terror are irreversible. But knowing the past we can change the future. So by having minor representation of how had society admitted such horrible situation and what endured victims of the Soviet regime, we are not to allow such huge human’s mistake happen again.





Getty, J. & Rittersporn, G. (1993). Victims of the Soviet penal system in the pre-war  years:  A first approach on the basis of… American Historical Review, 98(4),



Gheith, J. (2007). “I never talked”: enforced silence, non-narrative memory, and the           Gulag.        Mortality, 12(2), 159-175.


Guseva, A. (2007). Friends and foes: informal networks in the Soviet Union. East        

          European Quarterly, 41(3), 323-347.



McDermott, K. (2007). Stalinism ‘from below’?: Social preconditions of and popular           responses to the Great Terror. Totalitarian Movements & Political Religions,              8(3/4),        609-622.


Utelbay Jumabayev (from family remembrance)


Uzzell, L. (2003). Remembering the gulag. First things: A Monthly Journal of Religion &           Public        Life, 137, 38-45.


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