Posts tagged gulag

Working Upstream from the “Sexual Gulag”

I just had my heart broken all over again as I listened to a young Cambodian girl named Nhu give her horrific story about what she went through as a 12 year old sex slave.  Thankfully she has broken free from her “sexual gulag” that so many young girls who are born in grinding poverty are caught in.  When talking to Dick Wexler, co-founder of “Not for Sale – MN” last December, he talked about organizations that are going “upstream” from where the traffickers perpetuate the sexual gulag hellholes. First, I need to explain two things: 1) what it means to be upstream and 2) why is it called “sexual gulag?”

Let me explain Gulag first. As many of my readers know, gulag is a Russian acronym for “Glavnoe Upravlnie Lagerei” which essentially means “Main Camp Administration.”  In Kazakhstan, they had a similar term “Karlag” which has the same meaning but in the Karaganda region where the headquarters were in Kazakhstan.  What was notable about the gulag and karlag was that it was far, far away from any civilization.  The people who were sent to these places were either political or criminal prisoners during the Soviet Union with little chance of escaping. The term “sexual gulag” has many of the same connotations for those women caught in the sex trade but the major difference is that it is done in the major cities, sometimes in open view to everyone.

I remember one time when my husband and I were walking around in Amsterdam about ten years ago, we were trying to avoid the red light districts.  But somehow we got off track and walked right into an area close to the main train station where women were showing their “wares” in store front windows. They were like moving mannequins but scantily clad, we quickly moved away.  The “sexual gulag” is right at our doorsteps and not somewhere far removed, except in our minds if we continue to let it.

Many of my faithful readers of this blog know I have long been at this problem of trying to make people more aware of the USSR’s gulags and especially about Kazakhstan’s karlags. So it would seem a natural thing for me to move into the outrage that should be created with the 21st century sexual gulags we have in our midst. I guess I’m upset about what happened in the Soviet past and now incensed about what is going on in the present. In a book written by Anne Applebaum, she wrote the following about gulags:

“In the course of the Soviet Union’s existence, at least 476 distinct camp complexes came into being consisting of thousands of individual camps…The total number of prisoners in the camps generally hovered around 2,000,000, but the total number of Soviet citizens who had some experience of the camps, as political or criminal prisoners, is far higher.  From 1929, when the Gulag began its major expansion, until 1953, when Stalin died, the best estimates indicate that some 18,000,000 people passed through its massive system.”

I’m getting this information from a report done by Lisa L. Thompson when she gave a talk representing Salvation Army to a special committee about sexual exploitation of children to the U.S. Congress in 2005.  What Thompson reported were some staggering statistics while comparing the numbers of the Soviet gulag to our present day “sexual gulag.”

“UNICEF reports that one million children enter sex trafficking per year. Approximately 30 million children have lost their childhood through sexual exploitation over the past 30 years.”

Lisa Thompson has many other interesting analogies to make between the Soviet Gulag and the current sexual gulag we are experiencing.

Now I want to explain what it means to be “working upstream” from all these problems of children getting sucked into sex slavery.  The way it was best explained to me was by Dick Wexler. Caring people can go to countries like Thailand, Philippines, Cambodia, Viet Nam and find out where the girls are who are being preyed upon. Usually it happens if there is only one parent left or there is a new stepparent who comes in due to divorce or a number of other problems that drives desperate people to extreme measures to get them out of poverty.

The “Remember Nhu” organization is working upstream when they try to find girls who are vulnerable and help feed and educate them.  Check out the following website www.remembernhu.org and you will see many of the same things I looked into.  I believe this is a very worthy cause to find girls who the traffickers might prey upon. This helps them to become employable by making money for themselves before they are snatched away to be sex slaves.  Too often the trafficking shelters that are trying to help rehabilitate those girls who have escaped sex slavery see a high recidivism rate because these girls are so broken, damaged, hooked on drugs or alcohol to help cure the pain in their hearts.  Sadly, the girls who are no longer in the sexual gulag after years of damage are found downstream with lots of emotional baggage.

Yes, working upstream to help eliminate poverty for those families who have girls that might be sold into slavery is the best way.  Check out “Remember Nhu.”

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“The Way Back” or “The Long Walk” of 4,000 miles out of Siberia’s prison

Last night we watched “The Way Back” starring Ed Harris and a superb cast of actors (including one 16 year old girl). The movie is based on a true story of an original group of 7-8 men who walked away from an Siberian prison camp in 1941.  My husband, as a young boy, had read the book that was first published in 1955 titled “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” written by Ronald Downing.  That alone clinched our decision to experience this epic journey through cold, mountain passes and thirsty, Mongolian deserts. My husband wanted to see how close the movie fit to his recollection of reading this book 45-50 years ago.

Interestingly enough, Ronald Downing had started his own quest in Tibet of the legendary abominable snowman. However, he instead started gathering information about a Polish man, Slavomir Rawicz, who had walked across eastern Siberia to the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, through China, Tibet and the Himalayans to finally gain his freedom in India. That was more compelling to write about than a snowman.

No doubt the film’s director Peter Weir had some parts of Downing’s book “Hollywood-ized”  However, the main meaning comes across in the special features after the movie.  That is, the inhumanity present in 100s of concentration camps throughout the Soviet Union is little known by people from the West.  I’m guessing for every 100 movies about Nazi atrocities in concentration camps, you have one movie about what Stalin did to his own people of the U.S.S.R. with the Siberian gulags. (That would also include Kazakhstan’s KARLAG system too)

The Soviet system was extremely brutal to their political prisoners who were imprisoned alongside REAL criminals of thieves and murderers.  There is one character, Valka, in this story who owned a knife, he called it “the wolf.” He also had tatooed on his chest the faces of Lenin and Stalin.  Though he believed in communism, he actually helped the other “politicals” survive in the wilds with the use of his knife. Yet he turned back once they got to the Trans-Siberian railway which they thought was the end of the Soviet Union and walking into freedom…sadly Mongolia had been taken over by USSR and so their trek to freedom continued.

The movie skipped over the Himalayans since the over two hour long movie had already shown its audience enough of the bitter cold of Siberia and reaching Lake Baikal and then the dry desert scenes. Also, I don’t think the actors or camera and production crews could fathom doing more marathon type survivalist living in the mountains.

The real hero of this story (played by Jim Sturgess) in both the movie and the book was Slavomir Rawicz, this Polish army officer who had been captured by the Red Army and accused of being a Nazi. His wife had been tortured to create a false testimony against him and Slavomir was summarily imprisoned by the Communists out to Siberia. He successfully trekked 4,000 miles after escaping from a Siberian prisoner of war camp. He survived the ordeal which lasted about a year because he knew how to live in the outdoors and survive on nature’s food and water.  He was accused by the Ed Harris character, known only as “Mr. Smith” of not being able to survive in the prisoner’s camp because he was too kind and helped other prisoners.  Perhaps his kindness and knowledge of how to survive is what eventually prevailed and got the two other men out alive with him.

Apparently, the older American, dubbed “Mr. Smith” had earlier watched his 17 year old son die at the mercy of communists then he was sent to the gulag and once “free” went on the Lhasa, Tibet. We don’t know if he survived once he parted ways with Slavomir and the others.  Also, I’m not sure if the movie ended accurately which showed how Slavomir had waited until Poland was free from the bonds of communist oppression to see his wife again after being separated for almost 50 years.  I would like to get a copy of the old book titled “The Long Walk” to read what my husband had read 50 years ago.  Such a remarkable story had a great impact on him.  The movie may have a profound impact on many other westerners as well.

Why don’t more people in the West know about the gulag system that happened throughout Russia and Kazakhstan?  Little is written because few people survived the cruel brutalities!  I would highly recommend watching this movie “The Way Back.”

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“Till My Tale is Told” Part II – “Tatar Anguish” poem

“It seemed as if the monstrous Stalinist regime had given birth to a new type of human being, a submissive, inert creature, mute and devoid of initiative.  So it is important that our contemporaries hear the voices of the surviving representatives of another generation of women, born at the beginning of the century, who through the nightmare of false accusation, torture, humiliation, hunger and unspeakable deprivation, bring to the us the ideals of true humanity.” Written by Vera Shulz (Taganka prison)

From the preface of Simeon Vilensky’s Russian version of “Till My Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag”

As I wrote in yesterday’s blog, a former student of mine in Almaty sent me the link to this fascinating book published in 1999 by Indiana University Press titled “Till My Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag.” She knew that I have inordinate fascination about what happened in the former Soviet Union, particularly in Kazakhstan where a third of its territory was taken up in the Gulag system.  GULAG is really an acronym which means: Main Administration for Corrective-Labor Camps.   Read on the pathos here as written by Anna Barkova

Tatar anguish, anguish of the Volga.

Grief from far-away and ancient times.

Fate I share with beggars and with royalty,

Steppe and steppe-grass. ages gallop by.

On the salty Kazakh steppeland

I walk, head bare beneath the skies;

The mutter of grass dying of hunger,

The dreary howl of wolves and wind.

So let me walk, fearless, unthinking.

On unmarked paths, by wolfsbane clumps.

To triumph, to shame, to execution,

Heeding no time, saving no strength.

At my back lies a palisade of barbs,

A faded flag, which once was red;

Before me, death. revenge. Rewards,

The sun, or a savage, angry dusk.

The angry twilight glows with bonfires,

Great cities blaze. put to the flames;

Knowing slave labour’s agonies.

They choke and putrefy with shame.

All is alight, all flies to ash.

Yet why should breathing hurt me so?

Closely you cleave to Europe’s flesh,

Dark Tatar soul.

(c.1954) Translations from “An Anthology of Russian Women’s Writing, 1777-1992, edited by Catriona Kelly, Oxford University Press, 1994

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Quotes from Preface to “The Whisperers”

I haven’t finished reading yet The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia by Orlando Figes but I have really enjoyed reading the first third of this very detailed book describing the brokenness in many Russian families.  However, this is about Russia and the author is a Russophile to the exclusion of other countries and cultures who suffered as much, if not more, than the Russians did during Stalin’s reign of terror. [My own comments are in brackets, I can’t help myself!!!]

Preface 31 “A silent and conformist population is one lasting consequence of Stalin’s reign. [wow, how’s that for leaving a legacy of brokenness?]

Pre 32 “Historians have been slow to enter the inner world of Stalin’s Russia.  Until recently, their research was concerned mostly with the public sphere, with politics and ideology and with the collective experience of the “soviet masses.”  The individual – in so far as he appeared at all – featured mainly as a letter-writer to the authorities (i.e. as a public actor rather than as a private person or family member).  The private sphere of ordinary people was largely hidden from view. [the same might be written about the culture of Kazakhstan where writing was not as important as telling stories orally, they DO have stories, just not in the written form!!!]

Pre 33 “But while these memoirs speak a truth for many people who survived the Terror, particularly for the intelligentsia strongly committed to ideals of freedom and individualism, they do not speak for the millions of ordinary people, including many victims of the Stalinist regime, who did not share this inner freedom or feeling of dissent, but on the contrary, silently accepted and internalized the system’s basic values, conformed to its public rules and perhaps collaborated in the perpetration of its crimes.” [I suppose there are Kazakhs who did conform and even perpetrated some of the Soviet crimes among their own people…I have heard stories]

Pre 34 “According to some, it was practically impossible for the individual to think or feel outside the terms defined by the public discourse of Soviet politics, and any other thoughts or emotions were likely to be felt as a ‘crisis of the self’ demanding to be purged from the personality.”

“The Soviet mentalities reflected in this book in most cases occupied a region of the consciousness where older values and beliefs had been suspended or suppressed; they were adopted by people, not so much from a burning desire to ‘become Soviet’ as from a sense of shame and fear.” [using fear is a terrible motivation to change, can still be used in teaching practices today]

Pre 35 “…a way to make sense of their suffering, which without this higher purpose might reduce them to despair…

Such mentalities are less often reflected in Stalin-era diaries and letters – whose content was generally dictated by Soviet rules of writing and propriety what did not allow the acknowledgement of fear – than they are in oral history.  Historians of the Stalinist regime have turned increasing to the techniques of oral history. Like any other discipline that is hostage to the tricks of memory, oral history has its methodological difficulties, and in Russia, a nation taught to whisper, where the memory of Soviet history is overlaid with myths and ideologies, these problems are especially acute.” [sad but true]

Having lived in a society where millions were arrested for speaking inadvertently to informers, many older people are extremely wary of talking to researchers wielding microphones (devices associated with the KGB).  From fear or shame or stoicism, these survivors have suppressed their painful memories.  Many are unable to reflect about their lives, because they have grown so accustomed to avoiding awkward questions about anything, not least their own moral choices at defining moments of their personal advancement in the Soviet system.  Others are reluctant to admit to actions of which they are ashamed, often justifying their behaviour by citing motives and beliefs that they have imposed on their pasts.  Despite these challenges, and in many ways because of them, oral history has enormous benefits for the historian of private life, provided it is handled properly. [Yes, let’s hear it for oral history and qualitative research!!!]

Pre 36 “For three quarters of a century the Soviet system exerted its influence on the moral sphere of the family, no other totalitarian system had such a profound impact on the private lives of its subjects, not even Communist China. [wow, that’s pretty bad!!!]

Check out http://www.orlandofiges.com

Pre 37 “The population of the Gulag’s labour camps and ‘special settlements’ peaked not in 1938 but in 1953 and the impact of this long reign of terror continued to be felt by millions of people for many decades after Stalin’s death.” [that’s a LOT of people who were affected by Stalin and his regime of terror, even after his death!]

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Akbota’s Grandmother: Reconstruction of Soviet Economy after WWII

I. Introduction

The victory in bloody war opened a new page in the history of the Soviet Union. Potential possibility of changes in a political mode, economy, and culture opened. As a result of war the parity of forces on international scene sharply changed. Despite heavy losses, the country’s victory in the World War II, its huge economic potential, presence of powerful army, formation under the direction of the USSR of the block of the people’s democratic states have transformed the Soviet Union into a new super state. However, there were a set of problems in the country after the war, with which the state already ought to struggle. Reconstruction of the economy became one of the central problems during the post-war time, the government decided to use the work of Gulag’s prisoners and influence people by ideology to increase the USSR’s economy. According to Yevsei Liberman (1967)

“The rapid rate of Soviet economic development, begun in 1921-1922, was based upon Lenin’s theory that socialism and communism could be built in our country if public ownership of the means of production was established and the economy was centrally planned.” (p.53)

 

II. The problem section

In the conditions of transition from war to the peace there were questions on ways of the further development of a national economy. It was a question of fast reconstruction of the industry and agrarian sector. In the first post-war years the country position was similar to the martial law. So, there was a labor’s acute shortage that led to turnover of staff, shortage of products, high percentage of different diseases, there was a process of conversion of the industrial enterprises which have been reconstructed during the war on the territory of USSR. As Pozharov (2005, p. 166) said:

One of the crucial factors is the military (war) economy. Experience shows that victory in a big war implies, first and foremost, a military-economic victory, which creates the material basis for superiority in military might. This is possible not only with superiority or equality of the economic opportunities of the belligerent states, but also when a country has significantly lesser economic might, but is able to gear it more fully to its military goals and build a more efficient military economy than that of the enemy.”

 

 Also, the agrarian sector had suffered because products were delivered for the front and the city; heavy taxes were withdrawn from peasants in the war. But how the government did solve these problems?

1) Using the work of Gulag’s prisoners.

From the history we know that many innocent people had been deprived of their freedom. So, among the real criminals there were soldiers and marshals, the simple peasants, many party and statesmen, scientists, creative intelligence in the Gulag. The state had started to use work of prisoners as one more economic resource, maintained them as a free or cheap labor. Prisoners of Gulag worked on construction of many industrial enterprises, in agriculture, in extracting branches and on timber cuttings. According to Shirokov (2007, p. 158):

“A new impetus for the spread of prison-camp complexes came when the Soviet Union embarked on a program of accelerated industrialization. Indeed, their prime objective was to serve economic objectives. It was then that GULAG came into being. It was created as a specialized agency to enforce penalties but was rather used as an instrument of forced labor backing up major projects of the national economy.

 

2) Influencing people by ideology.

But nevertheless, I think that the more effective way was influencing simple people, citizens by the force of its ideology. Joachim Zweynert (2006) wrote that Soviet ideology rested on three pillars: on the belief that Marxism – Leninism offered a ‘true’ interpretation of social reality, on democratic centralism (the dictatorship of the CPSU), and on a centrally planned economy. People put enormous efforts for improving the position of the country thanks for great wish to prove to the whole world that the USSR was the super state with high level of economy. People worked with one enthusiasm about the fast light future, about democracy, and nobody thought that actually they lived in a totalitarian mode. As we know, the government influenced people through the literature, cinema, music, painting, newspapers, it means that the ideology was in all spheres of life and the Bolshevik party controlled the mass consciousness with it.

My grandmother Zhumagul(2008) told me that she was grown up in children’s home because her parents were died in the Great Patriotic War. And the post-war period was very difficult not only for her, but also for all Soviet Union. As Pozharov(2005) noticed, just as during the war, Russia faces a titanic challenge: to be or not to be. The national economy was in a bad plight, there was a strong shortage of the foodstuffs, money, labors. But despite these problems, people trusted in an idea of creation of the developed country and used the best efforts for achieving of this purpose. During summer vacations, even schoolgirls worked on fields and collected vegetables, fruits, it means that they also brought the contribution to restoration of agriculture of USSR.

III. Conclusion

To conclude the two most appropriate decisions that helped the Soviet Union to solve their economic problems in agriculture and industry sphere is using the work of Gulag’s prisoners and the other by influencing people’s ideology. So, the first problem solving was more severe, because lot of innocent people was prisonned and they had to work hardly to survive. Nevertheless, the best way of solving the problem was influencing people by ideology, because it was more humane and profitable. But after the Stalin’s death in 1953 the USSR had different problem solving in economics.

 


Works cited

Bernhard, M.(2007). Gulag: life and death inside the Soviet concentration camps. Journal of Cold War studies, 9(3), 191-195.

Liberman, Y.(1967). The Soviet economic reform. Foreign Affairs, 46(1), 53-63.

Pozharov, A.(2005). Military-Economic Victory and Its Lessons (On the 60th Anniversary of the Soviet Union‘s Victory in the Great Patriotic War). Military Thought, 14(2), 158-168.

Shirokov, A.(2007). A history of Gulag. 1918-1958. Socioeconomic and political-legal aspects. Social Sciences, 38(4), 158-162.

Zhumagul grandmother’s story (2008).

Zweynert, J.(2006). Economic ideas and institutional change: evidence from soviet economic debates 1987–1991. Europe-Asia Studies, 58(2), 169-192.

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Aida’s Grandmother: Life in ALZHIR

I. Introduction

70 years ago Kazakhstan was the place of exile and deportation for millions of Soviet people. There were 953 camps and colonies of the punishment system functioned throughout the country in the years of Stalin repressions. One of them is sadly known as Akmolinskiy camp for wives of traitors betrayed (ALZHIR from the Russian initials) the Fatherland was based in the village of Malinovka. That was the sole camp in the USSR, where about 20 thousand women – mothers, wives, daughters of the repressed were imprisoned (Elmann 2007, p. 668). My grandmother who spent more than ten years in ALZHIR, the elite of the Kazakhs, and many others like her survived because of the extremely strong desire to live, to hope, to love and make the Kazakh steppe independent, free, and to keep it for the next generation.

II. Background of labor camps

The command–administrative system leaded by Bolshevik communist party required to totally subordinate to the aims and system of Soviet time, no one had the permission to think, and talk differently (Rosefielde 1994, p1). Individuals, especially well educated people were proactive to establish their own views to be independent, free to think and protect the values they believed in, that means they were against for Politburo’s system. Such people were prosecuted and finally were killed and their relatives became the victims of repressions and deportations. 1932 – 33 years were marked by savage and extra-judicial repression period of time (Elmann 2007, p. 668). It led in 1932 – 33 to a quarter of a million people being charged by the OGPU and more than 200,000 sentences (normally of 5 – 10 years in the Gulag) of which more than 11,000 seem to have been death sentences.

“I was 21 year old new married, young woman and have just started my life with lovely person, we didn’t even had the honeymoon yet, when, suddenly, all my plans and dreams crashed, my husband was killed (after 10 years I knew) and I was repressed for 10 year sentence to ALZHIR, just because I was the wife of the enemy of the country,”

said Mrs. Balken Sultanova (interview 2005) the prisoner of ALZHIR. On July 3, 1937, Head of NKVD (Peoples’ Committee for Internal Affairs) of the Western Siberia Mr. Mironov and Peoples’ Commissar of Internal Affairs of Kazakhstan Mr. Zalin simultaneously received an encoded telegram, which prescribed them to organize two concentration camps fenced with razor-wire and having advanced security and increased guards to exclude escapees. These facilities were not meant for assassins and thefts – they were meant for fragile women: wives, mothers, sisters… Of the two camps Kazakhstan ALZHIR was the biggest women’s colony where instead of three thousand prisoners twenty thousand were kept. The telegram was signed by the Head of GULAG Mr. Berman, but was initiated by Mr. Yezhov. Neither sickness, nor pregnancy or babies could prevent women from being kept here. Absurd, but even the former wives of the parricides were arrested. The authority thought that women shared points of view of their husbands, meaning they were potentially dangerous.

III. Extent of problems – living conditions in the labor camps

“Arrests were quite fast – there was no investigation held: a woman would not even have time to pack her belongings and say goodbye to her relatives, who in their turn were arrested later as well,” shared Mrs. Sultanova.  “Women in home slippers or light shoes on their feet stepped into the thick Akmola snowdrifts”. Prisoners worked in the gardens, took care of cattle. Also, they cut the reeds, worked in the forests and felled the trees to earn daily rate for food. Moreover, they worked in extremely difficult natural conditions because the temperature could fall to -50 º C (Zaitseva & Homburg 2005, p.57).

IV. Solution for problems – hope, love and help

“The daily rate of food was given according to how much you worked, 200 grams of bread and may be sometimes porridge. I was young and worked very hard and over made my daily standard that is why I survived. But, unfortunately many people were dying because of starvation and hard work,” said Mrs. Sultanova.

Also, another Gulag prisoner Hava Volovich in the article of Ruthchild (2000) said very horrific facts about the living conditions in labor camps:

You were allowed into the bathhouse once a month and given half a bowl of water: as for a laundry – forget it. Every puddle of rainwater was precious, and when they wanted to wash their clothes, women would carry their bowls around the camp and get their friends to piss in them, and then use the urine to wash a sweater or a skirt. (p.8)

Children of the parricides were sent to orphanages all over the huge country. Relatives or friends were purposefully divided. But even in the darkest time a human being is led by hope. Only the hope to see their children again helped those women not to break-down in ALZHIR. The hope to see and live again with their family made them survive in that difficult and savage time. “One day when we came after very difficult working day to our barracks, I started to recite the poem of the Alexander Pushkin about brave and hope,” said Mrs. Sultanova. “The jailer of our barrack stayed silently and than added: even we separated you from your family, high elite community and forced to hard work you are still morally unbreakable. I wonder at your power!”

V. Conclusion

To sum up, I would like to add Mrs. Sulatanova’s words: “Extremely strong desires to live made us alive and survive, because we were responsible for the future of the Kazakhs.” Nowadays when Kazakhstan is independent and a sovereign country and have the legal constitution about human rights, we lay our heads to our brave and really patriot hero ancestors. That is why every year on the 31st of May we remind the victims of political repressions and is called as the Memorial Day. The horrific memories of this time period lives not only in books, but also in the memories of the people who survived the Stalin’s terror up till nowadays. The cultural heritage of Kazakhs can be enriched not only with the help of books and Internet but also by accessing the primary sources-the survivors’ stories. History-is our future, for those who don’t know their past will never be successful in future. There is the old Kazakh proverb tells “Who don’t know his history, he is like the tree without roots”. Therefore, history should be treated as a treasure, for it is the only thing that will remain living through ages and will made the new generation of Kazakhstan be proud of their ancestors and be inspired to work and live for the well being of their country.

Works Cited

Ellman, M. (2007). Discussion article Stalin and the Soviet famine of 1932 – 33 revisited. Europe-Asia Studies. 4 (59), 663 – 693.

Rosefielde, S. (1994), Retreat from utopia: the reconfiguration of Russia Socialism. Atlantic Economic Journal. 2 (22), 1-12.

Ruthchild G. R, (2000) Heroes of our time. The women’s review of books. 6(17), 7-8.

Sultanova, B. (personal interview). 25 May. 2005.

Zaitseva E & Hamburg E, (2005). Catalytic chemistry under Stalin: science and scientists in times of repression. Ambix, 1(52), 45-65.

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“You Want to Read Good Student Essays, Don’t You?”

I recall a conversation last spring semester I had with a teacher when I was NOT teaching reading and writing classes.  I had observed from the outside what the Kazakh teachers were doing in their classrooms by showing their students how to access information in the library computer lab.  Prior to this I had given several workshops to the teachers on how to use the electronic research databases from our great library.  I showed them the luxury of having Ebscohost, Pro-Quest and J-Stor on their campus and that the students would be able to use keywords to access information of interest to them.  I believe in a student-centered approach that if you can ignite the students’ interest in whatever they are looking up, they won’t see it as an onerous task but one of benefit to them.  

The first week of class this fall semester, I wanted to find out about what my own students’ grandparents or great grandparents had gone through in their years of growing up. When I taught freshman composition in the U.S. I had my students interview their grandparents and write down the hardships they endured, such as surviving the Great Depression.  NOTHING compares in solving those past difficulties to what the Kazakh people encountered, the Americans had it much easier.  But it is all in one’s perspective and I greatly respect what the Kazakhs have gone through in the last 100 years. I had one Kazakh student whose grandmother as an 18 year old bride was sent to ALZHIR as a wife of the Enemy of the People.  She survived ten years of grueling, manual labor.  A third of the population of women did not survive the cold hardships in the Astana area back during the years of repression.

 

The conversation I had with one teacher last semester went something like this:

Teacher-centered: Poor me, I have so many students and so many papers to grade.

Student-centered: You want to have good essays to read, don’t you?  Are you making sure your students are finding good material in the electronic databases to write about?

Teacher-centered: I don’t know how I’m going to survive this semester with all the papers I have to look at, I’m swamped.

Student-centered: Have the students picked good topics that they are engaged in?  Do they have enough sources to get them thinking about the topic and its issues from different angles?  You want to have good essays to read, don’t you?

Teacher-centered:  You keep saying having good essays to read, why do you say that?

Student-centered: Because if you want to enjoy your work as a teacher, you have to make sure that the students enjoy what they are doing.  If the student just does the essay because he is supposed to do it a certain way according to your guidelines which makes it easier for YOU to grade, he will see it as drudge work.  However, if he finds out the joy of discovering information that is out there in the journal articles, then you may have a budding researcher. But at the very least you have a student who doesn’t pay attention to how much time he is spending on his paper. Part of the skills learned in Process Writing is that the thesis statement might go in a different direction from what was initially supposed OR the outline might have to remain fluid due to what the student finds and reads.  Writing should be a joy and not a painful experience.  Your job as a teacher can be a joy too!!!

I had one student whose great grandfather was the famous Kazakh named Abay and another student whose grandfather was a mathematician and he survived 15 years in a Siberian gulag.  I believe my students enjoyed their final portfolio experience. The following is just a sampling of what my hard working students wrote for their final problem/solution portfolio project.

“Second World War, Social Organization”

“Overcoming Famine and Starvation with pure honor and hope during WWII”

“Life during the Collectivization and Repression 1920s-1930s”

“Role of Patriotism during the Great Patriotic War”

“Economic and Job Opportunity Problems during Soviet Union Period”

“Soviet Education: Abay Kunanbayev and Kazakh Enlightenment”

“The Gulag and its Victims in the Soviet penal system”

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