30 January 2005

In the Gulag on the Day Stalin Died

Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History (Anchor Books, 2003) describes what happened in the camps on the day Stalin finally died.
Throughout the last years of his life, political prisoners hoped and prayed for Stalin's demise, discussing his death constantly, if subtly, so as not to attract the attention of informers. People would sigh and say, "Ah, Georgians live a long time," which managed to convey a wish for his death without actually committing treason. Even when he grew sick, they were still cautious. Maya Ulyanovskaya heard the news of what was to be his final illness from a woman she knew to be an informer. She responded carefully: "So? Anyone can get sick. His doctors are good, they will cure him."

When his death was finally announced, on March 5, 1953, some maintained their caution. In Mordovia, the politicals studiously hid their excitement, which they feared might earn them a second sentence. In Kolyma, women "diligently wailed for the deceased." In one Vorkuta lagpunkt, Pavel Negretov heard the announcement read aloud in the camp dining hall. Neither the commander who read out the notice of death, nor any of the prisoners, said a word. "The news was greeted with a tomb-like silence. Nobody said a thing."

In a Norilsk lagpunkt, prisoners assembled in the courtyard, and solemnly heard the news of the death of the "great leader of the Soviet people and of free human beings everywhere." A long pause followed. Then a prisoner raised his hand: "Citizen Commander, my wife sent me some money, it's in my account. I have no use for it here, so I would like to spend it on a bouquet for our beloved leader. Can I do that?"

But others openly rejoiced. In Steplag, there were wild cries and yells of celebration. In Vyatlag, prisoners threw their caps in the air and shouted "Hurrah!" On the streets of Magadan, one prisoner greeted another: "I wish you great joy on this day of resurrection!" He was not the only one overwhelmed by religious sentiment: "There was a light frost, and it was very, very quiet. Soon the sky would be turning blue. Yuri Nikolaevich held up his arms and with passion declared, 'To Holy Russia let the cocks crow! Soon it will be daylight in Holy Russia!'"

Whatever they felt, and whether they dared to show their feelings or not, most prisoners and exiles were immediately convinced that things would change. In exile in Karaganda, Olga Adamova-Sliozberg heard the news, began to tremble, and put her hands over her face so that her suspicious workmates could not see her joy. "It's now or never. Everything's got to change. Now or never."

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