Tales from the Gulag: why I’m helping survivors tell their stories

Why I’m helping survivors tell their stories

11 September 2021

9:00 AM

11 September 2021

9:00 AM

I trudge up the concrete stairs of a council block of flats in west London. Up three floors. Then along one of those outside corridors, past several doors until I reach the final one. It is already open and there she is — smaller than I remember and with a charming, friendly smile. I guess that is because Ivanna knows me better now. She trusts me more. After what she has been through, it’s not surprising that it takes time to gain her trust.

She welcomes me into her little one-bedroom flat and before long, I am in a different world — a world of Ukrainians, Poles and Soviets, deportations, helping resistance fighters, being arrested… it is a world of memories which mean so much to her. She is 96, and the people she was closest to are long gone.

I have come to make a new video recording of her. The previous time I came, I recorded her talking about being tortured in Poland — made to hold her arms up in the air for such a long time that it was agony, and also agony to bring them down again. She told me about being taken out to the Gulag in the north-east corner of the Soviet Union in a region called Kolyma. She had been dismayed that I had never heard of Kolyma. I think she nearly decided there was no point telling her story to someone so ignorant. But she relented and told me about working in temperatures lower than -40°C. Her group of workers were sometimes punished for an infringement of the rules by being made to lie down face-first in the snow, then get up, then go down again. The hunger was so bad that those who did not receive food parcels from relatives struggled to survive.

But when I met Ivanna some time later, she told me something she had not mentioned in that first interview. She had engaged in a secret romantic correspondence with a male prisoner. Imagine that! Love in the Gulag! It had started when she was in a group of women being walked along a street in Magadan, the main port of entry to Kolyma. An open lorry passed by carrying male prisoners. One of them tossed a piece of crumpled paper among the women. It turned out to be a heartfelt plea to exchange letters to ease the loneliness and hopelessness. Ivanna volunteered to reply, and a correspondence began that lasted 13 years. Meeting in the Gulag was impossible. And after they were finally released, years apart, family pressure, great distances and borders meant they never met at all. The letters from Vladimir were full of emotion.

After the interview, I go back down the concrete stairwell. Ivanna waves at me as I find my way out through a gate. I am pleased and relieved to have got a recording of this bit of history.

It’s bizarre suddenly to be back in the modern world — back to driving a car, eating out, watching TV. Twitter, as usual, is full of anger and scorn. It is a world where people get angry about things which seem trivial compared with the suffering in the world I have just left.

When I meet people for the first time, they naturally ask what I do. When I tell them, they often seem bemused as if not sure what to make of it. I imagine they are thinking: ‘What did he say he was doing? Recording testimony of the years of communist rule? Aiming to create a museum? Why?’

Sometimes I wonder, too. I don’t have to do this. I could be playing golf and going on holidays. It started when I visited the House of Terror in Budapest, which vividly records the reigns of terror in Hungary — first under the fascists and then under the communists. I came out thinking: ‘My children and their friends know little or nothing about this. They ought to know. The terrible things that were perpetrated under communism should be part of everyone’s core knowledge just like the Holocaust.’

A Polish journalist asked me: ‘Do you really think there is a possibility that modern Britain would turn to communism?’ I said I did not expect it but I wanted to reduce the chances. Or, to put it more neutrally, I would like to ensure that, if young people consider turning to communism, they do so in full knowledge of how the previous attempts turned out.

It has got to the point where I feel obliged to carry on. Last year, I recorded an interview with Uran Kostreci in Albania. He spent 20 years in jail because he was against communism. For more than two of those years he was in solitary confinement in a small cell, sleeping on a concrete floor. Since I interviewed him, he has died. He trusted me with his testimony. I feel a responsibility to him to preserve his story and, with luck, to share it with others.

It has become almost fashionable for young people to say they are communist. I sometimes read their righteously contemptuous remarks online. I am now too used to them to be surprised. But I wonder what they would say to Ivanna, or to Uran were he still alive. Would they say ‘Bad luck but you can’t build a great new communist world without hurting a few people on the way’? Or perhaps alternatively ‘Your oppressors were not real communists. I believe in true communism’?

I guess that it is easy to favour a political and economic system when you never meet any of its victims. Last week I came across one of the victims in an unexpected place. Wang Zhiming has been carved in stone and placed above the main entrance of Westminster Abbey. He was a pastor in China. He submitted to the communist regime but refused when he was told to take part in the public humiliation of landlords. These ‘struggle sessions’ normally involved torture. From then on, Zhiming was categorised as a counter-revolutionary and, in 1973, he was executed in front of a crowd of 10,000. He is now recognised as a Christian martyr.

He, Ivanna and Uran are only a few cases among the tens of millions who suffered under communist regimes. Stories like theirs have to stand for an unimaginable multitude of others. We live such different lives now — with cappuccinos, mobile phones and nail parlours. But it seems unconscionable to me that the great suffering that took place in communist regimes in the 20th century should not be remembered.

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