LIVING THROUGH EXTREME STRESS: LATVIAN SURVIVORS OF DEPORTATIONS TO SOVIET FORCED LABOR CAMPS
By Mara Vidnere, Dr. oec., Dr. psych. University of Latvia and Aina O. Nucho, PhD, ACSW, LCSW-C, BCD, ATR, University of Maryland at Baltimore. University of Maryland at Baltimore, 1996
LIVING THROUGH EXTREME STRESS METHOD Reasons for Arrests, Imprisonmet. and Deportation What was the Worst? What Helped to Survivre Returning Home Current Conditions Outlook on Life
This study examines the attitudes and current living conditions of 600 Latvians who managed to survive the imprisonment and deportation to forced labor camps during the Soviet occupation of Latvia. The average length of confinement in the forced labor camps in Siberia was 15 years. The survivors credit hope, willpower and faith in God as having helped them survive. Currently 74% of the respondents do not consider themselves as having been broken by the suffering they endured.
LIVING THROUGH EXTREME STRESS
It has been estimated that about one quarter of the population of Latvia perished during the fifty plus years of Soviet domination between 1940 and 1991. A similar fate befell Estonians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Armenians and many other small nationalities on the borders of the Soviet Union. The exact numbers of people killed or imprisoned and deported to Siberia arid the Far East is not known as the authorities of the former Soviet Union, understandably, are not eager to make these figures available. Only a fraction of those deported to Siberia and the Far East managed to survive the brutal living conditions and return home. Many returned in poor health and died soon thereafter.
This study examines the attitudes and current living conditions of 600 Latvians who managed to survive the imprisonment and deportation to forced labor camps during the Soviet occupation of Latvia. What helped them endure the inhumane treatment, hunger, abysmal living conditions and the harsh, long winters in Siberia? What was it like for them to return home after the long years of absence when their native country was still occupied by the Soviets? What is their current outlook on life, and how do they cope with the scars inflicted on them by the cataclysmic events they experienced?
REVIEW OF LITERATURE
The experiences of the deportees in the various Soviet forced labor camps are now fairly well documented by eyewitness accounts. These account are almost exclusively in the native language of the eyewitnesses (e.g., in Latvian: Aizupe, 1974; Auzers, 1994;
Bushmanis, 1994; Latvian National Foundation, 1982; Līce, 1990 & 1993; Šilde, 1956; Simons, 1965; Vairogs, 1986; Vanaga, 1991; U., 1977; Zariņa, 1968). However, little is known about the current life of those who survived and returned from the forced exile in the Soviet labor camps. The post-deportation phase of life has not been studied systematically. A search of psychologic literature for the past 20 years yields no publications about the victims of Soviet deportations.
Human response to extreme stress has been studied (Goldberger & Breznitz, 1982, Kahana et al., 1988; Van der Kolk, 1987; Wilson, 1989; Wilson & Raphael, 1993). Most of these studies deal with prisoners of war, Vietnam veterans, and survivors of the holocaust. Dreadful as these experiences were, their duration was shorter than those of the inmates of the Soviet forced labor camps. The average length of confinement in the Soviet forced labor camps in Siberia of Latvians who survived and eventually returned home, was 15 years, and the threat of persecutions spanned a period of 50 years.METHOD
Process of Data Collection
The local authorities in Latvia started to register the returnees in 1991 when Latvia regained its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union. By April 1993 some 15,600 returnees had been registered.
Data collection for this study took place between September 1994 and March 1995. A systematic sample of every fifth name was selected from the several lists provided by the local governments in Latvia. The instrument was a three-page mail questionnaire containing 16 questions, and space was provided for additional comments. A total of 2,500 questionnaires were distributed.
By August 1995, 600 questionnaires were returned and analyzed. Although the responses still trickle in, this report presents tile findings from the first 600 respondents (a 24% response rate). Due to the profound social changes taking place in the country, it seems best to treat the later responses separately from the first.
Although the return rate (24%) is quite adequate for a mail questionnaire, it should be noted that no stamped self-addressed return envelopes were provided to the respondents. Currently some 80% of the population live below the level of poverty in Latvia, thus expense of return mailing may have prevented some respondents from answering. Several additional factors may have affected the return rate. For one, a certain proportion of the returnees may have already died by the time tile questionnaires arrived. Those who were arrested and deported as adults fifty years earlier during the first wave of mass deportations, are now well into their 80s, 90s and beyond. Many are in poor health, have poor eyesight, and thus unable to respond to a written inquiry.
It should be kept in mind that the information contained in this report may represent the responses of the younger and the emotionally relatively more secure segment of the survivors of Soviet persecutions. Many potential respondents are still reluctant to put in information, however harmless it may seem to us, for fear that it might be twisted and eventually used against them at some later time. In fact, even those who did participate in this study comment that they still fear that the forces of occupation might return and resume the various forms of genocide.
Age of Respondents
At the time of data collection, tile ages of the ~ ranged from 35 to 95. As shown in Table 1, the majority (75.5%) of the respondents were below tile age of 65. Respondents below the age of 50, in most cases, were persons whose mothers were either already pregnant when arrested, or they were born in Siberia.
Information about the age and gender of the respondents is presented in Table 1.
TABLE 1. AGE AND GENDER, BY PERCENTAGE
AGE MEN WOMEN TOTAL 35 -44 3.0 5.6 4.0 45 -54 21.1 12.6 17.5 55-64 65.5 32.3 54.0 65-74 8.9 41.6 21.0 75-84 1.5 6.5 3.0 85 and over 0 1.4 0.5 TOTAL 61% 39% 100%
The majority of the respondents in this study are men (61 %). It is possible that more men than women were arrested and subsequently deported to Siberia. Additional studies are needed to determine the ratio of men to women among those arrested and deported. Furthermore, additional studies are necessary to determine the death rates while in Siberia. Men who were members of tile armed forces of Latvia were summarily arrested and shot. Is it nevertheless possible that more men than women succeeded in returning home after having been arrested and deported? Or did more men than women choose to participate in this study?
Further studies are also indicated to explain the gender imbalance between the various age groups. While in the age group 55-64 there are considerably more men than women in this sample, the situation is reversed for the age groups of 65 and older. There are very few younger men in this sample. Is it merely some artifact of the sampling methods used? Further studies are indicated to ascertain tile reasons for the absence of younger men in this sample.
Reasons for Arrests, Imprisonmet. and Deportations
It appears that the Soviet authorities pursued deliberate genocidal policies by slating for persecution members of specific national and socio-economic groups.
One of the questions on the data collection instrument dealt specifically with the reasons for arrest, imprisonment and deportation. Of the nine categories listed, the most frequently mentioned reason for arrests and subsequent deportation was the fact that the person had been a member of the national armed forces. A little over a third (36%) belonged in this group. The next largest category consisted of persons who were related to someone already incarcerated for political reasons. In this category were 16% of the respondents. The data revealed that another hazard that had resulted hi persecutions by the Soviet authorities was the fact that the person belonged to a certain socio-economic class. If one owned a farm, a house, or some business, be it self-made or inherited from parents, that person was likely to be slated for for political persecution. Certain professions were particularly undesirable, from the point of view of the Soviet rulers, for instance, being a judge, a policeman, or a member of the clergy. Membership in certain organizations was dangerous, especially those of a religious nature (e.g., the Roerich Society). Also, it was sufficient to have been a stamp collector, or an athlete who had participated in international competitions, to be suspend of anti-soviet activities. Only 25% had been arrested and deported for their explicit anti-soviet activities, such as having extended aid to the partisans (10%), participated in some organized anti-soviet activity (10%), distributed anti-soviet literature, or engaged in some simple protest activity such as singing the national anthem, or placing flowers on the grave of a freedom fighter (5%).
In most cases there were no actual trials or judicial proceedings. Even now, decades later, some people were not certain what had led to their designations as the enemies of the people. It could have been a casual remark about one's dissatisfaction with the activities of the forces of occupation, a joke about some political event, or simply a poem in one's diary expressing love for one's native land. This was the fate of Lucia Sagameza-Nagele, age 17, who on Latvia's day of independence had written a poem devoted to her native country. For this, she was sentenced in 1946 to 10 years in a reformatory plus five additional years of lost rights of citizenship. Another person was sentenced to 15 years in a forced labor camp because he was the son of an officer who had earned the highest medal for bravery in the Latvian army during World War I. Many respondents cite similar reasons for their arrests and deportations to Siberia.
For most people, there was no warning of the impending arrest. One respondent reports that she was picked up on her way home from an opera performance. She was wearing a velvet cape, a silk dress and high-heeled shoes. Dressed in this manner, she had to endure several weeks of journey in an unheated boxcar, without any sanitary facilities, to Siberia, beyond tile Arctic Circle. Many were arrested at night, with little, if any time to gather any necessities for what turned out be week and even month long journeys to Siberia. Another respondent comments that the trip to Siberia lasted an entire month. We were starving and freezing. When they let us out, we had no strength, we could not move. Those who died, were simply thrown out, and the train continued. Another person relates that she was pregnant when arrested in 1952. Her journey to Omsk, in Siberia, lasted almost three months. Before that, she was held in a prison for one month and imprisoned again for one more month when they reached Omsk. That prison had been built at the time of Catherine the Great (who ruled Russia 1762-1796). There was hunger and humiliation... As a result, my child was born physically and mentally impaired, and I am caring for him still day. The ostensible reasons for persecution are listed in Table 2.
TABLE 2. REASONS FOR PERSECUTIONS
REASONS N % Member of National Armed Forces 215 35.8 Relative of an enemy of the state 98 16.3 Socio-economic class 73 12.3 Organized anti-Soviet activity 61 10.1 Aided partisans 61 10.1 Participated in a demonstration 28 4.7 Other 64 10.7 TOTAL 600 100
Families were torn asunder. Men were typically sent to labor camps, ranging from coal mines in Kazakhstan and Vorkuta (beyond the Arctic circle), to lumber camps throughout Siberia. Many worked on building roads and railroads Women and children typically were brought to state farms in Siberia where they were left to fend for themselves. They lived in shacks or earthen huts, several families in one room They tore up the pound (they had no farm implements) to grow some food, and somehow survived until the meager crops ripened during the short summer months.
Many of the older people died soon after their arrival due to starvation and tile cold. Mean length of confinement for the entire sample was 15 years. The in- length for those born before 1930 was 9.5 years. Several of the respondents report that they spent over 20 years in confinement, and one of the respondents states that he was kept in a forced labor camp for 23 years and 9 months. Even after they had served their original sentences, they were asked to sign documents that they would not leave the region for the next 25 years. The younger detainees, after they reached the age of maturity, had to sign documents that they would not leave the region for the remainder of their lives. To insure that they complied with this order, they had to register at the local police weekly or monthly.
What was the Worst?
When asked what had been the worst experience while detained in Siberia, 88% said it was the arctic cold. A close second (86%) was hunger. The third most frequently mentioned factor was humiliation. Examples of what this entailed are summarized in Appendix A. Next worst factor was the hard labor (71%). It should be kept in mind that a considerable proportion of the deportees were professionals, not accustomed to manual labor. Over half of the respondents (53%) mentioned illness as their worst experience. Threat to life was mentioned by 49% of the respondents. Repeated torture was the worst for 20% of the respondents. The remainder of the worst experiences consisted of death of someone close (37%), betrayal by a compatriot (17%), and the death of a child (6%). The senselessness of work without appropriate tools was cited by 14% of the respondents.
The responses about the worst experiences while in confinement, are listed in Table 3.
TABLE 3. WORST EXPERIENCES IN CONFINEMENT
What Helped to Survive?
EXPERIENCE N % Cold Climate 532 88.23 Hunger 520 86.24 Humiliation 447 74.13 Hard Labor 430 71.13 Illness 318 52.74 Threats to Life 298 49.42 Death of Someone Close 225 37.31 Repeated Torture 122 20.23 Betrayal by Compatriot 103 17.08 Senseless Work 86 14.26 Death of a Child 35 5.80
In retrospect, several decades since the original experiences, the majority of the respondents report that they sustained their ability to endure the extreme stress because of their hope to return to their native country some day. The hope of eventually returning home was mentioned by 83% of the 550 respondents who answered this question. It is difficult to fathom the source of this hope. It must have been a matter of faith rather than hope based on some factual knowledge.
Willpower was credited by 62% of the respondents as having been a factor that fueled their ability to endure. Physical strength was mentioned by 55% of the respondents. In the fourth place among the factors that sustained them, 50% mentioned their faith in God. Belief in fate gave the ability to endure to 30% of the respondents. Over a third of the respondents (39%) stated that their fellow sufferers had helped them survive. The local Russian population was mentioned by 9% as having provided some help to them. The camp guards had been helpful to 4% of the respondents. The desire to unmask and revenge the injustices was a sustaining factor for 9%. A number of additional other factors were cited by 24% of the respondents. Factors that helped endure the horrors are summarized in Table 4.
TABLE 4. FACTORS THAT HELPED ENDURE
One woman mentions that a fellow inmate provided help to her by teaching her how to curse in Russian. One of the difficulties, beside the many others, was that the political prisoners were housed together with hardened criminals, many of whom were experts in cruelty. The political prisoners often felt helpless in warding off the attacks by the criminals. Once the respondent mastered the foul language the fellow inmate taught her, to her surprise, it worked in fending off the attacks and exploitation by the criminals.
FACTOR N % Hope of Return 459 82.55 Willpower 342 61.51 Physical Strength 306 55.06 Faith in God 280 50.36 Belief in Fate 168 30.22 Helpfulness of Fellow Inmates 216 38.85 Helpful Local Residents 48 8.63 Helpful Camp Guards 20 3.60 Desire for Revenge 52 9.35 Other Factors 135 24.28
One survivor reports a moving experience where a criminal had attacked her and blamed her for some mishap that actually had not been her fault. Some months later, when they met again in another camp, the criminal gave the respondent a little hat and a coat she had made for the respondent's daughter who was ill. It would seem that behind the harsh exteriors sometimes there was compassion and kindness. This being so seldom in evidence, it was the more moving on the rare occasions when it occurred.Returning Home
After the end of World War II in 1945, the children gradually were permitted to return home if they had a relative willing to care for them. Their mothers, however, had to remain in Siberia. A four year old girl was sent home with a stranger and did not see her mother until a year later. A 15 year old boy left his mother in a mental hospital when he had the opportunity to return to Latvia. His mentally ill mother was still lucid at that point, and she encouraged him to leave Siberia. A woman reports how at the age of 15 she sold the cow the family had acquired, bought a coat, a pair of boots, a train ticket, and left for Latvia. Her father, who was her only living relative, remained in prison. He died soon thereafter.After the death of Stalin in 1953, while no new decrees were issued, the old decrees were not rescinded. The criminal elements were permitted to return home but not the political prisoners. Even after their original sentences had expired, they had difficulties obtaining permission to leave. They report how they devised ingenious methods to secure the good will of the local officials to pry loose the documents necessary for their return. One person succeeded in securing her release only after she managed to get a letter delivered to Khrushchev's personal mailbox at the Kremlin. A mother went to Latvia to visit her child who had been brought back home four years earlier. She was rearrested and returned to Siberia.
What was life like for those who eventually managed to return home? The country was still occupied by the Soviets. The returnees found that their friends and relatives shunned them for fear of being implicated in aiding an enemy of the state. This could have led to their own arrest and deportation.
The returnees discovered that their own homes and apartments were either demolished or occupied by someone else. In most instances, the existing housing was allocated to the settlers who had flooded the country from various parts of Russia during the Soviet occupation of the country. Having no official residence meant that the returnees could not obtain work. It became a vicious circle. Fortunate were those who found someone who permitted them to move in, however inadequate the living quarters. One family of seven people, for instance, moved in with a relative and lived in a small kitchen for ten years. Another respondent relates how she slept every night with different friends for fear of being arrested again. Many of the respondents refer to instances where people they had trusted, betrayed them and reported them to the Soviet authorities, fearful that otherwise they might be implicated in lending help to an enemy of the state.
The majority of the respondents report that they could not return to their former residence (73%). Problems with obtaining work were mentioned by over a half of the respondents (58%). Many found that they were not given permission to rent an apartment (43%). Many report difficulties in gaining admission to colleges and universities (42%). About a third of the returnees experienced repeated attacks on their personal sense of honor and dignity (33%). They were still regarded as the enemies of the people. Over a quarter of the returnees were repeatedly summoned by the secret police for investigations (26%). Some were rearrested and sent back to Siberia (8%). Other difficulties and obstacles were reported by 14% of the sample.
The various difficulties encountered by the survivors who had returned home are summarized in Table 5.
TABLE 5. DIFFICULTIES UPON RETURN HOME
DIFFICULTY N % Loss of Former Residence 441 73.50 Could Not Find Employment 349 57.88 Not Permitted to Rent Apartment 261 43.28 Not Allowed to Enter University 253 41.96 Repeated Threats 201 33.33 Repeated Investigations 156 25.87 Not Allowed to Travel Abroad 249 41.29 Rearrested and Returned to Siberia 50 8.29 Other Problems 84 13.93
At the time of this study, 72% of the respondents stated that their material conditions were the same as those of the rest of the population. In one sense, this is a positive development inasmuch as for many years they were discriminated against and their economic condition was worse than that of people who had escaped the label of enemy of the people. In another sense, this is a sad commentary in that 80% of the population are currently living below the level of poverty. Especially those no longer able to work and have to subsist on meager governmental pensions, are suffering dire deprivation. In this sample, 18% of the respondents report that they are worse off than the rest of the population, and 5% of the respondents state that their condition is desperate. Only 4% state that they are satisfied with their level of income. These respondents had managed to obtain higher education and had several adults in the family still capable of working. It also helps if they have access to a family garden or a small farm of a relative where they can raise some vegetables to supplement their food supply. Only 1 % of the respondents in this study report that they are very satisfied with their current economic condition.
Responses concerning the current economic condition of the returnees are presented in Table 6.
TABLE 6. CURRENT ECONOMIC CONDITIONS
CONDITION N % Same as Rest of Population 431 71.80 Worse Off Than Rest of Population 108 17.91 Desperate 28 4.67 Satisfactory 21 3.84 Very Satisfactory 6 1.00
Outlook on Life
What happens to people who have endured conditions of extreme stress? Obviously, their physical health sustains impairment, to varying degrees. But what happens to their mental health? What is their outlook on life? Surprisingly, more than a third of the respondents in this sample (39%) state that their faith in God had increased as a result of their cataclysmic experiences while in captivity. It is conceivable that the very fact that they survived while most of their fellow sufferers died, is experienced as a manifestation of the grace of God. Only 5% of the sample admitted that they had lost faith in God. A considerable proportion of the respondents stated that they have become more withdrawn and reticent (28%), while 13% of the sample thought that they are now more open towards other people than before. A feeling of compassion was reported as having increased by 19% of the respondents. A similar number of respondents (19%) estimated that their intuition had deepened. As for negative qualities, 6% stated that their feelings of revenge have
increased as the result of what they had to endure, but 2% thought that their ability to forgive had increased. A small proportion of the respondents stated that they are now more ruthless or hardhearted than before (2%). Various other changes in their personalities and outlook on life were mentioned by 17% of the respondents.
The changes in personality and outlook on life reported by the participants in this study are summarized in Table 7.
TABLE 7. CHANGES IN PERSONALITY AND OUTLOOK
N % Stronger Faith in God 228 38.81 More Compassionate 112 19.01 Stronger Intuition 114 18.91 Increased Feelings of Revenge 34 5.64 Loss of Faith in God 29 4.81 Greater Ability to Forgive 10 1.66 More Ruthless 14 2.3 OTHER 101 16.8
On the whole, there seems to be more compassion than bitterness in the responses of the returnees. One respondent says that she still feels that there is more good than evil in people. One just has to search for it. Another respondent, who saw four people shot in front of him, affirms that God helps those who help others.
Most of the respondents seem to be able to take pride in the fact that they lived through extreme hardships and still remained alive. Many say that they would not wish suffering like what they endured even to their worst enemies. A former member of the
armed forces urges the youth of his country to live without hate and not to idealize war and weapons. God or fate punishes evil doers more than any person could. Leave revenge up to God. Many of the respondents emphasize the value of education. Everything can be taken away and lost except that which is in you. The themes that run through the comments of the respondents are faith, endurance, persistence, honesty, hope, and hard work.
Most of the respondents talk in terms of internal victories over death, hunger, cold, betrayal, murder, and torture. However, when asked if they feel they were broken by the life threatening experiences, only 482 chose to answer this question. Of those who did answer, 74% said that they were not broken, 11 % said maybe, while 15% admitted that they felt broken by their experiences in Siberia. It may very well be that those who did not answer this particular question (20%) would fall in the maybe or broken categories.
Table 8 contains responses to the question if the respondents feel they were broken by their experiences in Siberia.
TABLE 8. WERE THEY BROKEN BY THE SUFFERING?
CATEGORY N % Not Broken 357 74 Perhaps Broken 53 11 Feel Broken 72 15 TOTAL 482 100
The respondent in this study, most likely, represent the exceptionally capable, clever, and fortunate segment of the hundreds of thousands of those who were deported to Siberia by the Soviet authorities. It must be kept in mind that only a small proportion survived the brutal conditions of the forced labor camps and were able to return home. Of those contacted, only 24% responded. The conditions of the remaining 76% of the sample are not known at this time.
The respondents in this study report massive human rights violations they were exposed to during the Soviet occupation of Latvia. They credit hope as a factor that helped them endure the catastrophic conditions. It is not clear what sustained this hope. It is possible that their hope stemmed from their fervant desire to return home to what they now idealized as some kind of a Camelot. Those who managed to survive and eventually returned home, discovered that the idealized state they remembered, was no longer there. They endured continued persecutions and immense hardship for several more decades.
Faith in God was another factor frequently cited as having helped them survive the extreme stress while in Siberia. Majority of Latvians are Lutherans, but they are not noted for an overt adherence to organized religion. The responses of the participants in this study suggest an undercurrent of a pantheistically tinged spirituality that helped them prevail.
Additional studies should be done to discover the source of the particular hardiness shown by the participants in this study. Can this kind of fortitude be cultivated by religion, education, or the strengthening of social networks?
It would be of interest to compare the reactions of the participants in this study with the reactions of survivors of other cataclysmic events, such as the holocaust and the various forms of persecutions by totalitarian regimes in south East Asia and elsewhere.
This study cast some light on what took place behind the Iron Curtain. But additional systematic studies are urgently needed before the pool of potential respondents disappears due to old age and death. It is essential that the free world be cognizant of dangers of totalitarian regimes.
The transit to the free market economy after having been to tied to the Soviet Union for over half a century is causing havoc in Latvia and the other newly liberated countries. Unemployment soars. Bank failures are frequent, and people lose the little that they had set aside for the education of their children, or their own funerals. It has been estimated that currently 80% of the population in Latvia live below the level of poverty. Similar conditions prevail in the other newly liberated countries. Conditions are particularly dire for those living on pensions. Economic and humanitarian aid is badly needed before totalitarian forms of government reemerge in Latvia and the other newly liberated countries on the borders of the former Soviet Union. This would have unfortunate consequences not only for the countries in question, but for the rest of the free world as well.
In the prison camps in Siberia, the respondents in this study report, they suffered dire lack of food, shelter and medical help. Many mention the sadism of the camp guards. What follows are excepts from the comments on the questionnaire. The initials in parentheses identify the responded who described the particular incident.
To amuse themselves, the guards would shoot through the windows of the huts where the inmates were housed. Typically a number of deportees were kept in the same room without any privacy. In some labor camps, men and women were herded together to wash, having only small containers filled with cold water. (I.S.)
One farm of amusement practiced by the camp guards was to attack the sleeping inmates of the camp by throwing a piece of cloth over their heads and then beating them up. White some of the guards engaged in physical assault, others collected whatever few possessions the inmates still harbored. (I.G.) Many chose suicide as a way out. Others became mentally deranged. (N.F.)
The deportees were forbidden to correspond with their relatives during the early 1940s. Later they were permitted to send one letter a year provided it was written in Russian. In the 1950s they were allowed to write two letters a year, but still the letters had to be written in Russian. (M.V.)
For women, rape was a constant danger. One respondent reports that when she was 16, she was summoned to the police. She was interrogated, and finally she was told that if she joined the Communist youth organization voluntarily, she would be rewarded and allowed to visit Latvia. She refused. She was then thrown into a dark room where she was ridiculed and raped repeatedly. At school, even the teachers called me names. The grades I received were all failing grades. (A.G.)
When it was too cold to work in the forest, the guards made the detainees dig holes in the ice by the huts while they themselves stood inside. One of the guards laughed and said, I do not need your work. All I need is to make you suffer. (L.S.)
The work lasted 12 to 18 hours a day. According to many respondents, the work of women did not differ from that of the men. Women, like the men, worked in coalmines, constructions, building railroad tracks and in the forests. (A.L.)
The usual daily ration of food for those who fulfilled their quota of work was 150 grams (about 5 ounces) and some thin soup daily. (E.J.) Those unable to work did not receive any bread. The old people and children subsisted on what their working relatives were able to give them. One respondent describes how as a 12 year old girl she had to load heavy pieces of lumber to earn a meager plate of soup. (V.T.) Another comments, All we talked and dreamt about was food. (L.S.)
The arctic cold was another source of unmitigated suffering. We lived in a hut with thin walls made of plywood. It was below -60 degrees C outside. All we had to heat the place with was some straw. (B.V.)
Another woman recalls that she was 21 years old when deported. The seven years spent in Siberia were years of horror and hunger. How did we survive? What did we eat? Dear God, better not to think about that. I try to forget what can not be forgotten. For seven months we did not see any bread. Then my father managed to buy two loaves of bread. We divided the one loaf into seven pieces, one piece for each of us. We gave the other loaf to our grandfather. That day, having eaten some bread, my died... (V.K.)
The political prisoners provided cheap labor for the Soviet Union. In one part of Siberia they were forced to work building a railroad. That particular branch of the railroad, from Cuma to Yermakova, on the left shore of River Yenisey, was 1400 km long. It went through permanently frozen areas, tundra, marshes, five large rivers and hundreds of small rivers. In summer there were clouds of mosquitoes. In winter it was numbing cold. Every 7 to 10 miles there was a camp with some 1000-1500 inmates and 200-300 guards. The only took we had were shovels, roes and wheelbarrows... The stones for the railroad bed were sent from behind the Polar Circle, prepared by yet thousands of other inmates. Now this branch of the railroad has been swallowed up by the tundra and permanent frost. (M.V.)
Over 80% of the deportees report that they were tortured. Even now, several decades later, many report that they still feel pain where they were beaten. Even the women prisoners were not spared torture. (A.L)
One respondent relates how he was hanged by his feet, upside down, with his head repeatedly hitting the floor. (Z.G.) Others describe how their fingers were caught between doors. Electric shock was another method of torture. Between the sessions of torture, political prisoners were placed in cave-like confinement where they could not stand up or stretch out, it was that small. Several respondents report that they signed whatever was placed before then, in an attempt to end the torture. One quick way to secure a confession was to put naked prisoners outside in winter and pour water on them. Those who died after such treatment, were listed as having died of pneumonia. (M.V.)
Finally the Soviet authorities discovered that they were not gaining any useful information through torture as people soon were ready to sign anything. One respondent states that he even signed blank sheets of paper. After 1951, torture could be done only with special permission by the secret police. (M.V.)
Those who survived and returned home, report various chronic health problems. Many were medically disabled already at a very young age. The emotional wounds are even deeper than the physical. They still remember how they did not have the strength to bury their friends and relatives because the ground was permanently frozen. Dogs dragged human heads around because people could not be buried properly... (M.V.)
This is just a fraction of the horrors reported by the respondents in this study. Much in their reports is too abhorrent to repeat and too sickening to read.
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