'I'm not an enemy': Moscow exhibit showcases Gulag letters

Written on cigarette packs or scraps of newspaper, embroidered with a fishbone on shreds of cloth or scratched on birch bark, clandestine letters from the Soviet Gulag were composed by any means prisoners had. Now those desperate calls from people banished to the oblivion of Soviet-era labour camps are being given full voice in a Moscow exhibition showcasing letters from the Gulag. Entitled "The Right of Correspondence," the exhibition is organised by Russia's top rights group, Memorial, and displays hundreds of letters sent by Gulag inmates to their families. It runs to May 4. The letters illustrate the history of the network of Soviet labour camps from its creation in the 1930s up to the 1980s. "Most of them were written in 1937 and 1938 –- at the height of Stalin's purges, when 700,000 'enemies of the people' were executed," said Irina Ostrovskaya, the exhibition's curator. At that time, prisoners' families did not yet know that a sentence of "10 years in camp without the right of correspondence" was tantamount to the death penalty. "Dear Dad and Mum, I don't know where I am being taken to. I am sentenced to 10 years in camp," poet Vasily Malagusha wrote in 1938 en route to the Kolyma labour camp in Russia's Far East. The letter was among 15 others which he threw from the train, and which were picked up by people working or living along the railway line and sent on to Malagusha's family. "I'm not an enemy," Anatoly Kozlovsky insists in a few lines he embroidered on a piece of cloth with thread from his sock, using a fishbone as a needle. "I have been arrested and thrown in prison," Vasily Laishchev informed his son in a message without punctuation, and which he embroidered on a handkerchief. "Stay with your mother continue studies think of me," wrote the engineer, who was sentenced to 10 years in camp for listening to an anti-Soviet joke. - 'Only connection to life' - Gulag prisoners could be granted correspondence rights of one letter a month, one every six months or once a year. But withdrawing that privilege was a favoured means by authorities to punish inmates, many of whom had to resort to various tricks to circumvent the ban. Their letters were often folded in the form of a paper aeroplane and flown over the barbed wire, where passers-by could pick them up and post them to indicated addresses -- but at the risk of losing their own freedom. Some prisoners used a coded language in messages to get around heavy-handed censors. "I was very disappointed to learn that uncle's relatives met you. They are not nice people," scientist Lev Mishchenko, who was interned in Russia's Far North, wrote to his sweetheart, Svetlana Ivanova. In their exchanges comprised of over 1,200 letters written between 1946 and 1954, "uncle" stood for the secret police, "room" for a cell and "vitamin A" for money. "Correspondence was the only connection to life for Gulag prisoners," said Arseny Roginsky, president of Memorial, which documents Russia's Soviet totalitarian past. "The tone of the letters changed during the last years of the Soviet Union," said Roginsky, himself a former political prisoner who spent four years in jail. "Unlike our predecessors, who feared that every letter could be the last, we were certain that we would not be executed." The Soviet terror nearly abolished social solidarity, added Roginsky. "But one institution survived -- family," he noted. Some 18 million Soviet citizens went through Gulag camps, where millions were worked to death between 1929 and 1953, according to the US historian Anne Applebaum.

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