The Western world saw the Soviet forced labor camps thanks to the three essays by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called “The Gulag Archipelago” where he described the system in the camps, later abolished in January 1960. “Gulag” was the term indicating the special police that was in charge of managing the work, but eventually it became the name for the camps themselves. A total of 20 million of people lost their lives inside those structures, in a period of 23 years running from the 1930 to the 1953. Although the population would see the Gulag as a political system of repression, very little guests of their buildings had to do with such a thing; 40% of its prisoners were in fact children, guilty only to have parents who had been accused of something.

Cathy Frierson and Semyon Vilensky, in 2010, published a book able to bring back to the memory millions of people, died in the Gulag or that forgot their own name in the labour camps and orphanages, deprived forever of their own identity. “Children of the Gulag” is an essay which allows an insight of how, between the 1918 and 1953, children of those people labelled as “class enemies” would share with their parents the same hell: famine, imprisonment, forced migration to the labour camps, shooting to death.

Dramatic the letters that some of them, from the Gulag, wrote to Yekaterina Peshkova and Nadezhda Krupskaya (first president of the Soviet Red Cross, second wife of Lenin), which are a raw proof of their conditions in the camps:

“We live barefoot, naked, hungry and full of lice. For breakfast they give us a piece of bread with onion and salt. For lunch a boiled beetroot with cabbage and as for dinner we are not even supposed to think about it as there’s none”

After the awful famine of the first 1920, the October Revolution and the IWW, millions of children had become orphans living on the street and over 5 millions died in the gutter. Almost two decades later, between the 1937 and 1938, 1,4 millions of children became orphan once again but this time for another reason: at least one of their parents had been killed by the regime. With their parents they would share the same tag of “class enemies” and like them they would end up in forced labour camps. Of the 20 millions of people deported during the ’30s, 40% (around 8 millions) were children.

The injunction n° 00486 of the commissioner for the internal affairs of the Soviet Union (NKVD) of the 15th August 1937, describes the operation of repression to wives and children of the country traitors. They were classified as “socially dangerous”, not for their actions but more for what they might have done in the future as relatives of traitors. Women and adolescents were taken to the forced labour camps whilst the infants were taken to the orphanages managed by the Nkvd, (Narodnyj komissariat vnutrennich del – People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs).

Symbolic the story of Engelsina Markizova, famous young girl from the Buryats region, close to Mongolia, depicted in an official photograph next to Stalin in 1936. The image was used as a propaganda means and ended up in all the newspapers with the title “Dad Stalin” even though there was very little of paternal in him, and the way he behaved towards his son Jakov is an evident proof of it.

Engelsina’s real father though was minister of the agriculture and deputy secretary of the party; he was charged with the accusation of counterrevolutionary activity (being a Japanese spy and Trotskista) so he was shot in 1938. The child’s mother was deported in Kazakhstan where she died mysteriously, supposedly choked by the Soviet Secret Police. Engelsina was taken to Moscow to some relative of hers, and her identity in the picture was falsified with the one of another girl named Tagiki Mamlakat Nakhangova.

The data published by Frierson and Vilensky was obtained from the government archives after Gorbačëv. The seven chapters of the book face the dramatic experiences that children had to endure during the Soviet wars: the Stalin war against the farmers, the famine from the ’20s, the expulsion of the “class enemies”, the forced deportation, the 2WW, the poorly-hidden antisemitism of the Soviet Regime. All from the children’s perspective.

Certain shocking anecdotes involve the mass burial, nameless tombs where the age of the dead is possible to be recognised only by the length of the excavation, deep not much more than a meter (3.2 ft).

Another anecdote refers to a note from a doctor in the camp. In the note he affirmed:

“..impossible to inject smallpox vaccine. 75% of the population has emaciated bodies, the children are swelling up and starving to death”

Many children died of starvation, disease and poverty, left to die because they were the sons of the enemies. The evaluations from the 2002 by Aleksandr Yakovlev, Chief of the Kremlin for the Commission on the Rehabilitation of Soviet Repression Victims, says that 10 millions is the official number for the children died within the deportation system. Many of them survived, one of whom the picture-girl Engelsina Markizova, but they lost their original identity, torn away by the regime and hidden for good in order to avoid issues with their surnames.

Below: cover of the book “Children of the Gulag”, showing a baby girl with a pinewood forest in the background

Underneath the ground thousands of nameless bodies are buried, victims of one of the most terrifying regimes of all times.

Below: the “Children of the Gulag” documentary

Sources: Harvard Educational Review, RAI News, Treccani Encyclopaedia

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Matteo Rubboli

I am a publisher specialised in the digital distribution of culture and founder of the portal Vanilla Magazine. I don't wear a tie or branded clothes, I keep my hair short so I don't have to comb it. That's not my fault but just the way I've been drawn as...

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