22 May 2005

Bitter Taste of Freedom from the Gulag

Release [from the Gulag], whether it came in 1926 or 1956, had always left prisoners with mixed feelings. Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov, a prisoner released in the 1930s, was surprised by his own reaction:
I imagined that I would be dancing instead of walking, that when I finally got my freedom I'd be drunk with it. But when I was actually released, I felt none of this. I walked through the gates and past the last guard, experiencing no happiness or sense of uplift ... There, along the sun-drenched platform ran two young girls in light dresses, merrily laughing about something. I looked at them in astonishment. How could they laugh? How could all these people walk around conversing and laughing as if nothing unusual was happening in the world, as if nothing nightmarish and unforgettable stood in their midst ...
After Stalin's death [in 1953] and Khrushchev's speech [in 1956], the releases came more rapidly, and reactions became even more confused. Prisoners who had expected to spend another decade behind barbed wire were let go on a day's notice. One group of exiles was summoned during working hours to the offices of their mine, and simply told to go home. As one remembered, Spetskomandant Lieutenant Isaev "opened a safe, pulled out our documents, and distributed them ..." Prisoners who had filed petition after petition, demanding a re-examination of their cases, suddenly found that further letters were unnecessary--they could simply walk away.

Prisoners who had thought of nothing else except freedom were strangely reluctant to experience it: "Although I could hardly believe it myself, I was weeping as I walked out to freedom ... I felt as though I had torn my heart away from what was dearest and most precious to it, from my comrades in misfortune. The gates closed--and it was all finished."

Many were simply not ready. Yuri Zorin, riding a crowded prisoners' train south from Kotlas in 1954, made it past only two stations. "Why am I going to Moscow?" he asked himself--and then turned around and headed back to his old camp, where his ex-commander helped him get a job as a free worker. There he remained, for another sixteen years. Evgeniya Ginzburg knew a woman who actually did not want to leave her barracks: "The thing is that I--I can't face living outside. I want to stay in camp," she told her friends. Another wrote in his diary that "I really don't want freedom. What is drawing me to freedom? It seems to me that out there ... there are lies, hypocrisy, thoughtlessness. Out there, everything is fantastically unreal, and here, everything is real." Many did not trust Khrushchev, expected the situation to worsen again, and took jobs as free workers in Vorkuta or Norilsk. They preferred not to experience the emotions and undergo the hassle of return, if they were ultimately to be re-arrested anyway.

But even those who wanted to return home often found it nearly impossible to do so. They had no money, and very little food. Camps released prisoners with the equivalent of 500 grams of bread for every day they were expected to be on the road--a starvation ration. Even that was insufficient, since they were often on the road much longer than expected, as it proved almost impossible to obtain tickets on the few planes and trains leading south. Arriving at the station in Krasnoyarsk, Ariadna Efron found "such a crowd, that to leave was impossible, simply impossible. People from all of the camps were there, from all of Norilsk." She was finally given a ticket out of the blue by an "angel," a woman who by chance had two. Otherwise, she might have waited for months.

Facing a similarly crowded train, Galina Usakova, like many others, solved the problem by riding home on a baggage rack. Still others did not make it at all: it was not uncommon for prisoners to die on the difficult journey home, or within weeks or months of arrival. Weakened by their years of hard labor, tired out by exhausting journeys, the emotions surrounding their return overwhelmed them, resulting in heart attacks and strokes. "How many people died from this freedom!" one prisoner marveled.
SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 511-512

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