November 01, 2007

Children of the Gulag

The Gulag, a network of labor camps across the former Soviet Union, first came to the attention of the English-speaking world in 1974, with the translation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. According to author Anne Applebaum, as many as 18 million people passed through the Gulag between 1929 and 1953. And, as Lynne Viola documented in her Unknown Gulag, an additional 2 million were accused of being kulaks – capitalist peasants – and exiled to remote, often uninhabited areas of Siberia and the Arctic as “special settlers,” with little more than the clothes on their backs. As might be expected in any population, many if not most of these individuals had children. Those whose parents were arrested and imprisoned, like Misha Nikolayev, whose memoirs are excerpted here, were separated from their parents, often forever. Those whose parents were deported, like Maria Solomonik, shared their parents’ fate in exile and were often the first to perish from hunger and disease.

While memoirs such as Solzhenitsyn’s brought the knowledge of the Gulag to a wide, international audience, they unintentionally created the impression that the camps were a phenomenon restricted to male intellectuals and dissidents. The reality was much broader and more variegated. While intellectuals are much more likely to leave behind written evidence of their lives, in fact only
1-2% of the Gulag population was people with higher education, according to historian Oleg Khlevniuk. Additionally, once someone had been designated an “enemy of the people,” Soviet law authorized the imprisonment of that person’s family members. Countless women were thus drawn into the Gulag as well. Usually their children were taken from them and placed in orphanages under the jurisdiction of the secret police, where they were subjected to both neglect by an overburdened and understaffed bureaucracy and stigmatization due to their social background. Children who were deported joined the special settlements with their parents. At one point, Khlevniuk reports, 40-70% of the population of the settlements consisted of children under the age of 14.

Upon the arrest of his or her parents, a child’s first stop was usually a Children’s Reception-Distribution Center, which was in theory a temporary way-station until a place in a children’s home was assigned. Yet sometimes, due to overcrowding, children could remain there for years. Special settler children usually entered the Gulag with their families via a sborpunkt (collection point) for families rounded up from several villages, before being placed on a train for a journey that could last weeks. Many children opted for a different fate – or escaped from the one they’d been assigned – by living on the road, forming crowds of besprizorniki, homeless children who traveled around the country living if not on charity then on theft. Like children the world over who lack a family structure, many besprizorniki became a permanent part of the criminal world.

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