Saturday, November 7, 2015

Rehabing the Gulag

Prisons are in theory supposed to rehabilitate prisoners. Yet, in reality, few do. Many criminals, for whatever reason, repeat their crimes. Except for crimes of passion. Or where the state feels wronged--political crimes. Here in the US, we have only had short forays into punishing people for political crimes. Joe McCarthy comes to mind here. And, yes, there is a story there. But, that is for another day. Today, the issue is rehabilitating the prisons.

"The fence at the old GULag in Perm-36" by Gerald Praschl - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

Russia is attempting to rehabilitate the past, including the history of the gulag ( It has persecuted Memorial, an organization founded to remember the victims ( It has forced the Museum of the Gulag at Perm to close (

My grandfather's second wife and her family were some of the victims of the gulag. They were taken from a town in the Kresy (eastern Poland) in 1940, in compliance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (, which allowed for the start of WWII and divided East Central Europe, in particular Poland, between the signatories.

The family of husband, wife (my grandfather's second wife) and two sons were taken by train from their home in winter. Both sets of grandparents had said they were too old to travel, and so were shot. The remainder of the family was loaded onto a cattle car and shipped east. Many of the people from the town were taken.

In the middle of the taiga near Arkhangelsk, the train came to a stop. The people were offloaded. They asked, "Where do we live?" The answer was, "There are trees, you can build houses." The people asked, "What do we eat?" The response was, "There are rabbits."

Of the 4 members of the family to arrive in the taiga, only 2 made it out of the Soviet Union. Only 3 people from the town survived. I am uncertain why my grandmother's first husband died. What I have found online suggests he survived to be freed. The younger of the two children was only 3 years old when he was sent to the taiga. According to family, he was "just too young to live." The older child was eleven when he was taken from his home. He survived this and joined the Anders army, a Polish army organized under the British. Despite his young age, he fought with them during WWII. See an earlier blog, from 2012, on Child Soldiers.

Timothy Snyder was asked a few years ago whether Hitler or Stalin was worse ( He approached the question by telling the history and letting the reader decide. I won't presume that I can answer the question any better. I know that I can't.

Both Hitler and Stalin were evil dictators who each killed millions. Each believed that their philosophy justified the killing. And, like memorials for the victims of the Holocaust, there should be memorials for the victims of the gulags. And, not just in Moscow or Perm. Their deaths should not, again, be denied to the world. They should be remembered, so that such crimes are never repeated.

1 comment:

  1. I was so happy to learn more about this part of the family from the Kresy-Siberia Foundation. My grandmother and uncle rarely spoke of their experiences to me. I did hear some from my mother, but lost her many years ago.