In memory of Eduard Kolga.
Returning To The Gulag To Face the Scars of Soviet Terror
By Marcus Kolga
I can't remember exactly how I asked my 90 year old grandfather Eduard -10 years ago- if he would join me and return to the Gulag camp that he managed to escape from in 1942. Did I tell him that the journey would be the equivalent of a round trip road journey between Toronto and Miami? Did I warn him that dodgy hotels and a diet of cabbage soup and pirogues lay ahead? Or that the walls of roadside bathrooms would be covered with decades of fecal matter?
Probably not, because I could not have known what lay ahead on our journey to Stalin's Gulag killing fields at the edge of Siberia, in the far north of Russia where the land is haunted by millions of souls.
The lives of millions were stolen when families were broken up and forcibly deported to work for the Soviets as slaves. And as slaves, millions died. They came from dozens of nations: Russians, Poles, Finns, Americans, Germans, Latvians and Estonians. Stalin's victims also came from ethnic groups that have all but been forgotten; entire nations eliminated wholesale by the vicious Soviet system.
My grandfather, Eduard was also stolen from his family. But his odyssey, no more or less remarkable than any other, ended quite unlike those of most Gulag survivors - happily.
in 1939, Stalin forced the Baltic states to accept permanent Soviet military bases in their countries and shortly thereafter annexed the countries via staged referendums and elections - not at all unlike that which we have seen in Crimea and Donetsk today. Many citizens, primarily men, fled into the woods and swamps to hide from Soviet authorities as did my grandfather and his brothers.
In order to survive, they were compelled to liberate food and other materials from known communists and soviet collaborators. At the time, Eduard was quartered under a small haystack at the edge of a grove a few kilometres from his wife's family farm - my grandmother was expecting twins.
During a late spring raid in 1941, to gather essential supplies from the shed of a local Soviet aparatchik, Eduard was identified as one of the "bandits" and an arrest warrant was issued. Local NKVD/KGB and their collaborators paid a visit to my grandmother's family farm and threatened to kill the entire family, and burn the farm if they refused to give up Eduard's location (Eduard’s uncle -a landowning farmer- had been tortured to death after Soviet agents had gauged out his eyes and burned him to death). At the same time Stalin imposed a compulsory and illegal mobilization of all eligible Estonian men into the Soviet Red Army. Eduard's solution to the KGB ultimatum was to give himself up for mobilization along with over 30,000 other Estonian men.
But instead of taking the Estonian men to military bases for training, they were sent to remote areas of the Soviet Union, to work in forests and factories as slave labourers. In Eduard's Gulag camp, he estimated that at least 1/3 of the Estonian men died from malnourishment, or exposure to cold and disease. Although he was among the few lucky Estonians to escape -having crossing the front lines at the second battle of Velkie Luki, the unspeakable horrors he witnessed and experienced scarred Eduard and his family for decades.
Eduard spoke very little about his experience in the Gulag or his escape. In fact, upon his arrival back at home following his escape, my grandmother scolded him for leaving her to raise their newborn twins on her own (she never recognized that he had voluntarily given himself up to protect his family). The first time Eduard gave a full account of his ordeal was in 1993 when I asked him about the "Siberia business" while I was in Toronto on break from university in Chicago. Clearly what my grandfather had witnessed and lived through caused deep psychological scars, which he never confronted until we travelled back to the camps in 2004.
I still think about my own father's upbringing and wonder how much of it had been affected by Eduard's experience. I also wonder how the tens of millions of families of victims and survivors have faced this dark historical and psychological legacy. Few experts, like Estonian historian and psychologist Imbi Paju, have examined this aspect of widespread national trauma that was caused by Soviet authorities, aparatchiks and collaborators.
In 2004, when Eduard agreed to join me to film his return to Gualg 113, he was concerned that Putin's FSB would arrest him at the border for escaping from his camp. If that fear remained in 2004 (a fully understandable fear today given Putin's psychotic positions leading up to the present day), how did his other experiences haunt him during the preceding 60 years?
In the town that acted as the administrative center for the regional camps in the area, Kotlas, there remains a expansive communal grave for the masses who died or were executed in regional camps. Visiting that location- where many of Eduard's compatriots would have been buried- Eduard’s emotions, also buried for 60 years, came to bear when the memories of the unspeakable suffering, death, and his fallen compatriots were refreshed by being there. I had never witnessed the tears that flowed from Eduard that afternoon at the mass gravesite in Kotlas. Eduard was finally released to grieve those who did not survive and the loss of his own youthful innocence.
I was incredibly fortunate to have been given the opportunity to experience that journey with my grandfather: to face the dark past together and to reconcile that with the present.
Those who knew my grandfather all commented how he seemed to walk with a lighter step and speak more openly and freely after his return that place of death and misery.
Sadly, other survivors and the families of victims will never have the opportunity to confront the deep psychological damage that the Soviet system inflicted on hundreds of millions and that continues to haunt millions today. Although, we have monuments to mourn the victims, the scars will never heal without justice. Nor does Vladimir Putin's ongoing sinister glorification of Soviet crimes as great achievements, make healing or reconciliation possible.
More can be learned about Eduard’s experience at realworldpictures.ca