Travel Reference
In-Depth Information
the mold of a more prevalent young Russian—struggling to get by, satisfied to be near fam-
ily, educated and familiar with the West but not clamoring to see or be part of it.
Aunt Nina is to my left at the table, keeping constant watch over my plate to make sure
it's never empty. Her insistence that I keep consuming food gives me ample time to pick
her brain about the time she and Sergei's uncle spent working at the local prison colony
in the 1970s. “And Peter had the rank of major,” she says. “But he was never promoted,
because of an incident at the camp.” She explains that the camp dentist needed an assistant
and designated a prisoner, who enjoyed the freedom that came with working for a prison
staff member. He used that freedom to go on a killing spree, hanging a woman who worked
in the prison pharmacy and fatally stabbing a prisoner.
“The man's name was Grom,” Aunt Nina remembers. “He fled to the woods near the
camp. The dogs found him. They wanted to take him alive, but Grom yelled there was no
way they would get him. So they shot and killed him.”
Uncle Peter was not directly involved, but he was in charge that day. The local Com-
munist central committee investigated “and needed someone to blame. So they put a rep-
rimand in Peter's file, and it stayed there forever.”
“So, Aunt Nina,” I say, pausing for a quick sip of tea “ Was this one of the gulags we in
the U.S. heard about?”
“No, I don't think so. There was respect here for prisoners. They had new uniforms that
were replaced often. I do remember different classifications for prisoners, which determ-
ined their treatment: 5-A was the code for sick prisoners who needed food often and got
better treatment; 9-A meant you received bread and broth once a day; 9-B meant you had
violated a rule and received bread and broth every other day.”
I ask if people died at the camp.
“There were death-penalty prisoners, but people were not killed there—at least I don't
know of any.”
“Were there people there for political crimes? Do you think anyone was innocent?”
“Well, Peter said he saw innocent people who were there. He tried to help them. He
helped them prepare their appeals. He was an honest person.”
GULAG is an acronym that essentially translates into English as the main department
of labor camps. Sergei suggests that Western historians have used the term more broadly
than Russians have. The colony where Aunt Nina worked was something different, a place
for thieves and murderers—not for political prisoners. Aunt Nina tells me she knows little
about the “gulag” system we in the West heard so much about, which seems revealing.
Here was a system that under Stalin, and after his death, killed millions of people, often for
political crimes. Aunt Nina and her husband did not work in a gulag—their prison colony
was wholly separate. And yet I'm struck that she seems sincerely unfamiliar with the larger
picture of violence—and not so eager to speculate about it. From what I know of Soviet
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