Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Window on Eurasia: For Stalin’s GULAG Victims, the Dictator’s Death Did Not End Their Travails, Scholar Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 5 – Stalin’s death sixty years ago today led the release of most of those incarcerated in the GULAG, and many Russians believe now that his demise led to the end of repression in the Soviet Union (interfax.ru/russia/news.asp?id=293675). But while the extent of such repression did decline, it did not end, including for those who had been Stalin’s prisoners.

            In the current issue of “Neprikosnoveny zapas,” Miriam Shprau, a German archivist, describes, on the basis of recent archival research in the Russian Federation, the difficulties that those who were released from Stalin’s prisons and camps after his death when they returned to what many of them called “the big zone” (magazines.russ.ru/nz/2013/1/s14.html).

            Noting that the number of prisoners in the Soviet Union fell from 2.5 million at the moment of Stalin’s death to 600,000 by 1960, Shprau says that she focused her investigation on the difficulties those and especially the young who were released faced after they or their parents were released and how this contributed to “the ambivalent policy of de-Stalinization.”

            She says she examined some 300 case files of those former prisoners who appealed to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and the USSR Council of Ministers. In these files are letters which reflect the existence of a “specifically Soviet” dialogue between the authorities and the citizenry about their immediate problems such as finding work or housing.

            Shprau reports that in 70 percent of the appeals she examined, “former prisoners and especially young ones complain about the absence of employment.” That is because those who were released often “fell into a vicious circle out of which it was very difficult to break:” to get work one needed a resident permit and to get that one needed work.

            According to official statistics, “only 65 percent” of those former prisoners as of June 1953 were capable of working, and in major cities, that percentage was even lower.  The authorities were forced to take measures to “re-integrate” these people but these varied widely in their scope and effectiveness, depending in many cases on accidents and personal ties.

            Shprau reports the interesting case of former Latvian Foreign Minister Vilhelm Munters who was able to get help from Soviet leader Vyacheslav Molotov after making a personal appeal to him as a fellow signer of the Soviet-Latvian mutual assistance pact. Munterss may have succeeded in this regard because he said would otherwise appeal to the International Red Cross.

            “The most important task of those who had been freed after being condemned for political reasons was rehabilitation,” Shprau says. Between 1953 and 1956, only a handful of people were successful, but later far more were especially when they had had personal ties with the Soviet leaders they were appealing to. 

            Children of those who had been executed or died in the camps needed their parents to be posthumously rehabilitated “not only to restore the good name” of these peoples but “also for the improvement of [their own] legal, social and economic position” as well as that of their more distant relatives.

            Former prisoners also sought restoration of housing and property, but because they were frequently prohibited from settling in major cities or even beyond the place where they had been in the camps, they often found it almost impossible to go home again as it were and had a miserable existence a result.

            Many former prisoners simply wanted to know the fate of their relatives because under a Soviet policy initiated in 1939, they were not told anything more than that the latter had been sentenced “without the right of correspondence.”  In August 1955, officials could orally inform the relatives about the fate of those close to them.

            But because Soviet officials feared that documentation of such deaths would call attention to the massiveness of Stalinist violence against the population, the Soviet government did not allow written notification of the execution of someone in the prisons or camps during Stalin’s time until 1988, three years into Mikhail Gorbachev’s reign.

            Ordinary Soviet citizens who were caught up in Stalin’s terror machine had the most difficult time recovering from the GULAG, whereas somewhat more privileged people in the past were able to use their personal connections to overcome some of the obstacles that the post-Stalinist regime maintained in place.

            Only the latter, and only some of them, Shprau says, were truly able to “return” to ordinary life after 1953, to move back to their “former apartments in the House on the Embankment, to receive personal pensions, and to again acquire furnishings” for their places of residence.

            But even they, the German achivist concludes, “on the social level, never received complete recognition because the process of rehabilitation to a significant degree took place hidden from the public eye. This was not the result of the efforts of the Soviet leadership to hide its guilt but served the self-affirmation of the ruling class.”


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