Monthly Archives: March 2008

Soviet Orphans of the Great Purge

From The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2007), pp. 335-343:

The Great Terror swelled the orphan population. From 1935 to 1941 the number of children in living in the children’s homes of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine alone grew from 329,000 to approximately 610,000 (a number which excludes the children ‘lent out’ by the orphanages to Soviet farms and factories)….

Nikolai Kovach was born in 1936 in the Solovetsky labour camp. Both his parents had been sentenced to ten years in the White Sea island prison in 1933. Because his mother was then pregnant with his older sister Elena, they were allowed to live together as a family within the prison. But then, in January 1937, the NKVD prohibited cohabitation in all labour camps. Nikolai’s mother was sent to a camp in Karelia (where she was shot in November 1937); his father was dispatched to Magadan (where he was shot in 1938) … but Nikolai was taken north to Olgino, the resort on the Gulf of Finland favoured by the Petersburg elite before 1917, where the NKVD had set up an orphanage for children of ‘enemies of the people’ in a wing of the old white palace of Prince Oldenburg….

Without the influence of a family, Nikolai and his fellow orphans grew up with very particular ideas of right and wrong; their moral sense was shaped by what he calls the ‘laws of the jungle’ in the orphanage. These laws obliged every child to sacrifice himself for the collective interest. Nikolai explains:

If a person had done something wrong, for which we could all be punished, then that person was made to confess to the authorities. We would make him take the punishment rather than be punished as a group. If we could not persuade him verbally, we would use physical methods to make him own up to his crime. We would not denounce him – it was forbidden to betray one’s own – but we made sure that he confessed.

But if it was forbidden to betray one’s own, a different law applied to the relations between children and adults. The orphans all admired Pavlik Morozov. ‘He was our hero,’ Nikolai recalls.

Since we had no understanding of a family, and no idea what a father was, the fact that Pavlik had betrayed his father was of no significance to us. All that mattered was that he had caught a kulak, a member of the bourgeoisie, which made him a hero in our eyes. For us the story was all about the class struggle, not a family tragedy.

The moral system of the orphanage – with its strong collective and weak familial links – made it one of the main recruiting grounds for the NKVD and the Red Army. There were millions of children from the 1930s who spent their lives in Soviet institutions – the orphanage, the army and the labour camp – without ever knowing family life. Orphan children were especially susceptible to the propaganda of the Soviet regime because they had no parents to guide them or give them any alternative system of values. Mikhail Nikolaev, who grew up in a series of children’s homes in the 1930s, recalls that he and his fellow orphans were indoctrinated to believe that the Soviet Union was the best country in the world, and that they were the most fortunate children in the world, because everything had been given to them by the state, headed by the father of the country, Stalin, who cared for all children:

If we had lived in any other country, we would have died from hunger and from cold – that is what we were told … And of course we believed every word. We discovered life, we learned to think and feel – or rather learned not to think or feel but to accept everything that we were told – in the orphanage. All our ideas about the world we received from Soviet power.

Mikhail, too, was very struck by the legend of Pavlik Morozov. He dreamed of emulating his achievement – of exposing someone as an enemy or spy – and was very proud when he became a Pioneer. Like many orphans, Mikhail saw his acceptance by the Pioneers as the moment he fully entered Soviet society. Until then, he had always been ashamed about his parentage. He had only fragmentary recollections of his mother and father: a memory of riding with his father on a horse; a mental picture of his mother sitting by a lamp and cleaning a pistol (which made him think that she must have been a Party official). He did not know who his parents were; nor did he know their names (Mikhail Nikolaev was the name he had been given when he first came to the orphanage). He recounted an incident from when he had been four or five years old: his former nanny had come to visit him in the children’s home and had told him that his parents had been shot as ‘enemies of the people’. Then she said: ‘They should shoot you too, just as they shot your mother and father.’ Throughout his childhood Mikhail felt ashamed on this account. But this shame was lifted when he joined the Pioneers: it was the first time he was recognized and valued by the Soviet system. As a Pioneer, Mikhail looked to Stalin as a figure of paternal authority and care. He believed all goodness came from him: ‘The fact that we were fed and clothed, that we could study, that we could go to the Pioneers Camp, even that there was a New Year’s tree – all of it was down to comrade Stalin,’ in his view.

The children at Mikhail’s orphanage were put to work at an early age. They washed the dishes and cleared the yard from the age of four, worked in the fields of a collective farm from the age of seven, and, when they reached the age of eleven, they were sent to work in a textiles factory in the nearby town of Orekhovo-Zuevo, 50 kilometres east of Moscow. In the summer of 1941, Mikhail was assigned to a metal factory in one of the industrial suburbs of Orekhovo-Zuevo. Although he was only twelve, the doctors at the orphanage had declared him to be fifteen on the basis of a medical examination (Mikhail was big for his age) and had given him a new set of documents which stated – incorrectly – that he was born in 1926. There was a policy of declaring orphaned children to be older than their age so that they would become eligible for military service or industrial work. For the next two years Mikhail worked in the steel plant in a brigade of children from the orphanage. ‘We worked in shifts – one week twelve hours every night, the next twelve hours every day. The working week was seven days.’ The terrible conditions in the factory were a long way from the propaganda image of industrial work that Mikhail had received through books and films, and for the first time in his life he began to doubt what he had been taught. The children slept in their work clothes on the floor of the factory club and took their meals in the canteen. They were not paid. In the autumn of 1943, Mikhail ran away from the factory and volunteered for the Red Army – he did so out of hunger, not patriotism – and became a tank driver. He was just fourteen.

Like Mikhail, Nikolai Kovach was extremely proud when he joined the Pioneers. It gave him a sense of inclusion in the world outside the orphanage and put him on a par with other children his age. Kovach went on to join the Komsomol and become a Party activist; The History of the CPSU was his ‘favourite book’. He joined the Red Army as a teenager and served in the Far East. When he was demobilized he could not settle into civilian life – he had lived too long in Soviet institutions – so he went to work for the NKVD: it enabled him to study in the evening at its elite military academy. Kovach served in a special unit of the NKVD. Its main task was to catch the children who had run away from children’s homes.

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Akebono: From Rikishi to Pro-Wrestler

Japan-based blogger Ampontan backs into a retrospective of former yokozuna Akebono’s spectacular career in sumo and his troubled career afterwards. The story starts with a wrestling match at Yasukuni Shrine and ends up being a requiem for a yokozuna. Here are a few paragraphs to whet your appetite.

There is a long tradition of professional wrestlers fighting at Yasukuni Shrine. The most recent occasion was April 23, 1961, when Japanese wrestling legend Rikidozan presided over a card that featured youngsters Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki, who would become stars in their own right. (Inoki also would later form his own political party and win election to a seat in the upper house.) The event attracted 15,000 people….

Holding wrestling matches for the divinities at a Shinto shrine is not as outlandish as it may seem. There is a very long tradition in Japan of festivals with competitive events at Shinto shrines. In addition to sumo, which is closely linked to Shinto, competitions at shrines include archery, tug-of-war, and, according to my reference, even cock-fighting. The idea is that the divinities will favor the more deserving competitor, and the victors in these events will have good fortune in the year ahead….

The primary draw this year was the appearance in the ring of the former sumo yokozuna Akebono fighting as one member of a six-man tag team match….

Akebono’s career match record was 654 wins and 232 losses. He won 11 tournament championships, ranking him 7th in the modern era at the time. (After Akebono retired, another foreign rikishi, Musashimaru, racked up 12. Today’s fallen superstar, the Mongolian Asashoryu, later broke Akebono’s records for speed of promotion, and won 22 championships to place fourth on the all-time list. But that’s another story.)…

Eight years ago, Akebono appeared in a sumo ritual at Yasukuni at the pinnacle of his professional fame. Last weekend, few even in Japan noticed as he threw his weight around once again to take down his opponents. He said he was nervous at first, but happy to be back.

He seems to have found his niche. He said he wants to continue his career as a professional wrestler as a single instead of being part of a tag team.

Rikidozan and Giant Baba were the first pro-wrestlers I ever saw—and that was on a black and white Sharp TV in Kyoto in the 1950s, the same place I used to catch the end of sumo tournaments after school. Sumo captured my imagination in a way that pro-wrestling never did.

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Early Days of the Polynesian Society

I recently discovered that the right venerable Polynesian Society in New Zealand has been slowly digitizing the back issues of its long-lived Journal of the Polynesian Society and mounting them on its website, working together with the University of Auckland Library. At this point, one can browse volumes 1 (1892) through 40 (1931). A perusal of the front matter in the earliest volumes transports one into another era.

Volumes 1 (1892) through 3 (1894) list the Patron of the Society as “Her Majesty Liliuokalani, Queen of Hawaii.” Her reign began in 1891, after the death of her brother, King Kalākaua. The Queen was deposed in January 1893, the rebels declared the Kingdom a Republic in July 1894, and then arrested the Queen in January 1895 after suppressing a royalist counterrebellion.

Volumes 4 (1895) through 8 (1899) accordingly list the Patron of the Society as “Liliuokalani, ex-Queen of Hawaii.” No Patron is listed in the volumes from 1900 through 1903, but the ex-Queen still heads the list of Honorary Members, with her address given as “Honolulu, Sandwich Islands.” Next on the list is the “Rev. R. H. Codrington, D.D., Wadhurst Rectory, Sussex, England.” Codrington was the author of The Melanesian Languages (Oxford, 1885).

From 1904 through 1910, the ex-Queen’s address is given as “1588, 21st Street, Washington, U.S.A.” and the Rev. Codrington’s as “Chichester, England.” In 1911, the ex-Queen is back in the “Hawaiian Isles.” Back numbers of the journal in those years cost 2s. 6d.

In 1905, the Society acquired a new Patron, “His Excellency, Lord Plunket, Governor of New Zealand.” From 1911, the Patron is listed as the “Right Hon. Baron Plunket, K.C.M.G., K.C.V.O., ex-Governor of New Zealand, Old Connaught, Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland.”

The annual report report of the governing council for the year ending in December 1911, which appears in volume 21 (1912) begins with a retrospective and ends with its customary financial report.

The Council feels in presenting its nineteenth report that there is some justification for congratulating the Society on having attained its twentieth year of existence….

Our financial position is good, though there are a few members in arrear with their subscriptions. We end the year with a balance to our credit of £28 18s. 7d.

At that point the society had 201 members. Good show, chaps.

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Perils of Trust Inside the NKVD

From The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2007), pp. 283-285:

Mikhail Shreider was another NKVD officer who voiced his opposition to the mass arrests. In his memoirs, written in the 1970s, he describes himself as a ‘pure Chekist’, inspired by the Leninist ideals of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka in 1917. Shreider wrote his memoirs to justify his work in the Cheka and portray himself as a victim of the Great Terror. According to his version of events, he became disillusioned with the Stalinist regime as he observed the corruption of his fellow NKVD officers during the 1930s. Comrades he had known as decent and honest men were now prepared to use any form of torture against ‘enemies of the people’, if it meant advancing their careers. Shreider was also troubled by the scale of the arrests. He could not believe in the existence of so many ‘enemies of the people’. But he was afraid to express his doubts in case he was denounced. He soon discovered that many of his colleagues shared his fear, but no one would break the conspiracy of silence. Even when a trusted colleague disappeared, the most that any of his comrades dared to say was that he might be an ‘honest man’. Nobody suggested that he might be innocent, because this would expose them to the risk of denunciation for questioning the purge. ‘No one understood why all these arrests were happening,’ recalled Shreider, ‘but people were afraid to speak out, because that might raise suspicion that they were aiding or communicating with the “enemies of the people”.’

For several months, Shreider watched in silence as old friends and colleagues were arrested and sentenced to death. Unable to oppose the Terror, he became a sort of conscientious objector by not attending the executions of NKVD colleagues in the Lubianka yard. Then, in the spring of 1938, Shreider was transferred to Alma-Ata, where he became the second-in-command to Stanislav Redens, the NKVD chief of Kazakhstan (and the brother-in-law of Stalin). Shreider and Redens became close friends. They lived next door to each other, and their families were always in each other’s homes. Shreider noticed Redens’ growing disgust with the torture methods of his operatives. He thought that Redens was a man of humane sensibilities. Redens, for his part, had marked out Shreider as somebody who shared his doubts about the methods used in the Great Terror. Late one night he drove him out of town and stopped the car. The two men got out and began to walk. When they were out of earshot of the chauffeur, Redens said to Shreider. ‘If Feliks Eduardovich [Dzerzhinsky] were still alive, he would have the lot of us shot for the way we’re working now.’ Shreider made out that he did not understand: to show complicity in such a thought was enough to warrant his immediate arrest, and he could not be sure that what his boss had said was not a provocation. Redens continued talking. It became clear to Shreider that he had meant what he had said. Shreider opened up his troubled soul as well. Once this trust had been established, the two men confided in each other. Redens regretted that all the decent Communists had been destroyed, while the likes of Yezhov remained untouched. Yet there were still subjects that were too dangerous for him to talk about. Looking back on these whispered conversations, Shreider thought that Redens knew far more about the Terror than he had let on: ‘His situation and the circumstances of the times obliged him, like all of us, not to call things by their name, and not to talk about such things, even with his friends.’

Shreider was emboldened by his conversations with Redens. They made him feel remorseful and angry. He wrote to Yezhov to protest against the arrest of an old colleague in the NKVD, and against the arrest of his wife’s cousin, a student in Moscow, vouchsafing the innocence of both these men. A few days later, in June 1938, Redens received a telegram from Yezhov ordering the arrest of Shreider. Presented with this news in Redens’ office, Shreider begged Redens to appeal to Stalin: ‘Stanislav Frantsevich, you know me well, and you, after all, are his brother-in-law. It must be a mistake.’ Redens replied: ‘Mikhail Pavlovich, I shall put in a word for you, but I fear it is hopeless. Today it is you, no doubt tomorrow it will be my turn.’ Shreider was imprisoned in the Butyrki prison in Moscow. In July 1940, he was sentenced to ten years in a labour camp followed by three years in exile. Redens was arrested in November 1938. He was shot in January 1940.

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Soviet-style Neighborhood Watch

From The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2007), pp. 180-181:

By the middle of the 1930s the NKVD had built up a huge network of secret informers. In every factory, office, school, there were people who informed to the police. The idea of mutual surveillance was fundamental to the Soviet system. In a country that was too big to police, the Bolshevik regime (not unlike the tsarist one before it) relied on the self-policing of the population. Historically, Russia had strong collective norms and institutions that lent themselves to such a policy. While the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century sought to mobilize the population in the work of the police, and one or two, like the Stasi state in the GDR, managed for a while to infiltrate to almost every level of society, none succeeded, as the Soviet regime did for sixty years, in controlling a population through collective scrutiny.

The kommunalka played a vital role in this collective system of control. Its inhabitants knew almost everything about their neighbours: the timetable of their normal day; their personal habits; their visitors and friends; what they purchased; what they ate; what they said on the telephone (which was normally located in the corridor); even what they said in their own room, for the walls were very thin (in many rooms the walls did not extend to the ceiling). Eavesdropping, spying and informing were all rampant in the communal apartment of the 1930s, when people were encouraged to be vigilant. Neighbours opened doors to check on visitors in the corridor, or to listen to a conversation on the telephone. They entered rooms to ‘act as witnesses’ if there was an argument between man and wife, or to intervene if there was too much noise, drunken behaviour or violence. The assumption was that nothing could be ‘private’ in a communal apartment, where it was often said that ‘what one person does can bring misfortune to us all’. Mikhail Baitalsky recalls the communal apartment of a relative in Astrakhan where there was a particularly vigilant neighbour living in the room next door: ‘Hearing the sound of a door being unlocked, she would thrust her pointed little nose into the corridor and pierce you with a photographic glance. Our relative assured us that she kept a card index of his vistors.’

In the cramped conditions of the communal apartment there were frequent arguments over personal property – foodstuffs that went missing from the shared kitchen, thefts from rooms, noise or music played at night. ‘The atmosphere was poisonous,’ recalls one inhabitant. ‘Everyone suspected someone else of stealing, but there was never any evidence, just a lot of whispered accusations behind people’s backs.’ With everybody in a state of nervous tension, it did not take a lot for fights to turn into denunciations to the NKVD. Many of these squabbles had their origins in some petty jealousy. The communal apartment was the domestic centre of the Soviet culture of envy, which naturally arose in a system of material shortages. In a social system based on the principle of equality in poverty, if one person had more of some item than the other residents, it was assumed that it was at the expense of everybody else. Any sign of material advantage – a new piece of clothing, a better piece of kitchenware, or some special food – could provoke aggression from the other residents, who naturally suspected that these goods had been obtained through blat [blackmarket networks]. Neighbours formed alliances and continued feuds on the basis of these perceived inequalities…. Mitrofan Moiseyenko was a factory worker who supplemented his income by repairing furniture and windows and doing odd jobs for the residents of his communal block in Leningrad. In the spring of 1935, he was involved in an argument with his neighbours, who accused him of charging them too much for his repairs. His neighbours denounced him to the police, absurdly claiming that he had been hiding Trotsky in his workshop in the basement of the block. Mitrofan was arrested and sentenced to three years in a labour camp near Magadan.

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Osaka Grand Sumo Finale and Freakonomics

Going into the final day of this year’s Osaka Grand Sumo Tournament, the two Mongolian yokozunas, Asashoryu and Hakuho, are tied for the lead with 2 losses each and will meet each other for the deciding match. Right behind them are two mid-level maegashira, the Georgian Kokkai and Estonian Baruto, with 3 losses each.

Seven rikishi are going into their final day with records of 7 wins and 7 losses, and therefore must win to retain their rank. It will be interesting to see how many of them win. (According to stats compiled in Freakonomics, about 5 out of 7 them will win.) All but one are facing opponents who have already secured a winning record, and the sole exception (Asasekiryu) faces an opponent who has no chance at securing one.

  • Goeido (M8, 7-7) vs. Kakizoe (M14, 8-6)
  • Wakanoho (M4, 7-7) vs. Tochinonada (M8, 8-6)
  • Miyabiyama (M2, 7-7) vs. Baruto (M7, 11-3)
  • Asasekiryu (M1, 7-7) vs. Aminishiki (M2, 6-8)
  • Kotoshogiku (S, 7-7) vs. Kisenosato (K, 8-6)
  • Ama (S, 7-7) vs. Kyokutenho (M4, 9-5)
  • Kotomitsuki (O, 7-7) vs. Chiyotaikai (O, 8-6)

UPDATE: Sure enough, six out of seven won their final bouts. (The winners are in boldface.) Baruto had too much to prove to go easy on Miyabiyama. He and Kokkai ended up at 12-3, tied with Hakuho, who lost his final match with fellow yokozuna Asashoryu. Baruto and Kokkai both shared the Fighting Spirit Award for the tournament.

Did the losers intentionally take a fall? Maybe not. Maybe the winners were just hungrier for that last win. Also, except for the ozeki (O) and Baruto, the winners also outranked their respective opponents, which meant they had better records in the previous tournament than today’s losers did.

UPDATE 2: Like every major sport worldwide, sumo has its ongoing scandals. Washington Post foreign reporter Blaine Harden updates us on one of them, the beating death last year of a trainee.

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Romanian Idioms: Doamne, Paşti, paşte

Here are some entries featuring Doamne ‘Lord’ (vocative) and Paşti ‘Easter’ from the Dicţionar Frazeologic: Englez-Român, Român-Englez (Teora, 2007). I’ve added literal translations (in square brackets) and edited the idiomatic ones (except those in quotes) when the English seems too archaic, unfamiliar, or awkward (as many do).

The first such expression I learned was from way back in Army language school: la paştele cailor [at the-Easter of-horses] meaning ‘when pigs fly’, ‘when hell freezes over’, or “when two Sundays come in one week” (according to the Dicţionar Frazeologic, which also provides a synonymous la calendele greceşti [at the-calends Greek] ad calendas Graecas).

din an în Paşti [from year to Easter] once in a blue moon, once in a while

din Paşti în Craciun [from Easter to Christmas] once in a blue moon

Doamne ajută! [Lord help] God help me!

Doamne apără! [Lord defend] God forbid, “not for the life of me!”

Doamne/Dumnezeule [O Lord/O Lord-God] Good God! Great God Almighty! Goodness gracious!

Doamne fereşte [Lord forbid/protect] God forbid! Lord have mercy!

Doamne iartă-mă [Lord forgive me] God forgive me!

Doamne păzeşte [Lord guard] Lord have mercy!

Doamne sfinte [Lord holy] (archaic) see Doamne/Dumnezeule

BONUS: Here are a few idioms beginning with the verb a paşte ‘to graze on’ (compare pasture):

a paşte bobocii [to graze-on the-buds/ducklings/goslings] to be gullible or feeble-minded

a paşte vântul [to graze-on the-wind] “to gape at the moon; to catch flies”

paşte, murgule, iarbă verde (lit. ‘graze, o bay roan, on green grass’) “you may wait till the cows come home”

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