This I Believe

Svaja - Chugiak, Alaska
Entered on April 18, 2006
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: legacy, war

May Day

I am the grand-daughter of a Gulag survivor—Stasys Silingas. In 1941, the Soviets arrested him with his wife and a daughter and deported them to Siberia. His wife and daughter died with 2 years of deprivation. He was 55 then, yet he endured 20 years of prison and labor camps. His crime was that he was an active member of Independent Lithuania’s government. His wife and daughter were guilty by association. Although his story is unique, it is also representative

“Anyone a visitor meets today in the Baltics is likely to have a relation who was sent to Siberia or simply shot.” (Insight Travel Guide to the Baltic States, 1999, 34).

Yet the English speaking world knows next to nothing of the scope of this unprecedented human-caused suffering and death not only of East Europeans, but of Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Germans, Georgians, Chechens, Belarusans, Bulgarians– the list goes on and on:

Everybody knows of Auschwitz and Belsen. Nobody knows of Vorkuta and Solovetsky.

Everybody knows of Himmler and Eichmann. Nobody knows of Yezhov and Dzerzhinsky.

Everybody knows of the 6 million of the Holocaust. Nobody knows of the 6 million of the Terror Famine.”

[Everybody knows] About 1 million children died in the Holocaust. [Nobody knows] About 3 million children died in the Terror Famine of 1933. (Martin Amis, Koba the Dread).

Schools and the media inform about the evil of the Holocaust and Nazism; Gulags and communism deserve the same exposure so that Soviet becomes as feared a word as Nazi. Meanwhile, It’s painful to see a full page ad in a university paper for the “Soviettes,” a rock group, or to sit a Halloween concert for children listening to a Russian symphony with a backdrop of a huge red hammer and sickle. They deserve the same rejection as the “Naziettes” or the swastika.

Robert Conquest called the Ukraine “one vast Belsen”; Kolyma, “Stalin’s arctic Auschwitz”; and Vorkuta, “a name that means as much to a Russian as the name Dachau means to a Jew.” Yet hardly anyone in the West even has even heard of these places. One journalist calls this an “amnesia that needs to be corrected” (Jacoby, “To the Victims of Communism”). I agree.

I brace for Russian May Day commemoration with its inexplicable Soviet and Stalin “nostalgia”—an egregious oxymoron, Stalin being “one of the most evil dictators of the 20th century” (biographer Robert Service). The time for correction is now. Designating a May Day as a Remembering the Innocents Day (R.I.D) symbolized by a Forget-me-not, like the Poppy of Veteran’s Day, might help rid the ignorance, stop the trivialization and denial of Soviet crimes (a Holocaust denier was recently sentenced to jailtime), and memorialize the nearly 29 million men, women, and children who suffered and lost so much. In Vorkuta, in the forgotten fields of a former Gulag, lies a stone with this scratched message:

“I was exiled in 1949, and my father died here in 1942. Remember us.”

(Colin Thubron, In Siberia)

They yearn to be remembered, as does my grand-father, whose letters from exile I am now translating.