National Minorities in the Gulag

The most fundamental, and ultimately the most powerful, of the political clans [in the Gulag] were those formed around nationality or place of origin. These grew more important during and after the Second World War, when the numbers of foreign prisoners increased dramatically. Their derivation was natural enough. A new prisoner would arrive, and immediately search his barracks for fellow Estonians, fellow Ukrainians, or, in a tiny number of cases, fellow Americans. Walter Warwick, one of the “American Finns” who wound up in the camps in the late 1930s, has described, in a manuscript he wrote for his family, how the Finnish speakers in his camp banded together specifically in order to protect themselves from the thievery and banditry of the professional criminals: “We came to the conclusion that if we wanted to have a little rest from them, we must have a gang. So we organized our own gang to help each other. There were six of us: two American Finns … two Finnish Finns … and two Leningrad District Finns” …

Because of their small numbers, the West Europeans and North Americans who found themselves in the camps also found it difficult to form strong networks. They were hardly in a position to help one another anyway: many were completely disoriented by camp life, did not speak Russian, found the food inedible and the living conditions intolerable….

But the Westerners–a group which included Poles, Czechs, and other East Europeans–had a few advantages too. They were the object of special fascination and interest, which sometimes paid off in contacts, in gifts of food, in kinder treatment. Antoni Ekart, a Pole educated in Switzerland, was given a place in a hospital thanks to an orderly named Ackerman, originally from Bessarabia: “The fact that I came from the West simplified matters”: everyone was interested in the Westerner, and had wanted to save him. Flora Leipman, a Scottish woman whose Russian stepfather had talked her family into moving to the Soviet Union, deployed her “Scottishness” to entertain her fellow prisoners:

I pulled up my skirt above the knees to look like a kilt and turned down my stockings to make them look knee high. In Scots fashion my blanket was thrown over my shoulder and I hung my hat in front of me like a sporran. My voice soared with pride, singing “Annie-Laurie,” “Ye Banks and Braes o’Bonnie Doon,” always finishing up with “God Save the King”–without translation.

SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 295-297

A Step at a Time has a related post (via Siberian Light):

TALLINN, April 13 (AFP) – Two Estonians who were held in labour camps as political prisoners during the Soviet occupation of the Baltic state urged world leaders in a letter published Wednesday to boycott events in Moscow on May 9 to mark the end of World War II.

And another about a Pole who’s feeling less than celebratory about commemorating his “liberation” from the Nazis by the Soviets.

“If you did something bad in the German camp, a guard would take out a gun and kill you immediately,” he recalled. “But in a Soviet camp, they would starve you to death so the death was longer and more painful and then they would shoot you and finish you off with a sickle.”

Olizarowicz’s “crime” was serving in Poland’s Home Army, the clandestine force that fought the Nazis, and which the Soviets feared would remain a rallying point for resistance. Convicted in 1947 of “anti-Soviet activity,” he was among nearly 800,000 Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians shipped to labor camps.

Leave a comment

Filed under USSR

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.