Children of the gulag live with amnesia

FORGETTING THE PAST: Young people don't know and aren't interested in the Stalin-era deportations and repression that landed their families in Kazakhstan's gulag camps


Mon, Jan 01, 2007 - Page 4

Maria Sadina hunched over fading pictures of her parents, ethnic Ger-mans who were deported in 1941 from Russia's Volga region to one of Karaganda's many gulag camps.

Sadina's father was imprisoned for praising the quality of a German-made tractor, and for a decade he worked as a slave laborer in the nearby coal mines. Her mother was sent to the Karaganda gulag simply for her German heritage.

They had married and reared their daughter, Sadina, in a two-room brick house so low to the ground that visitors must bend over to avoid hitting the ceiling. Sadina, now a grandmother, continues to live in the same house.

She pointed to the neighbors' homes through her kitchen window.

"These people are all children of the gulag," she said. "Nobody talks about it anymore. Nobody even wants to look at their pictures anymore."

The gulags once spread over the Kazakhstan steppe like a thick wreath. Eleven camps with names like Alzhir, a Russian acronym for the Akmolinskii Camp for Wives of Traitors of the Motherland, housed hundreds of thousands of prisoners and their families. The camps, built shortly after the creation of the Soviet Union, were partly emptied to provide soldiers and workers during World War II and were eventually closed, although not dismantled, after Josef Stalin died in 1953.

In Kazakhstan today, a large percentage of people have parents or grandparents whose lives were savagely rewired by deportation and imprisonment in the camps. But memories of the gulags are dying.

"For younger generations the gulag is uninteresting," said Arest Savchak, a 61-year-old teacher whose parents and grandparents were exiled to Karaganda for supporting Ukrainian nationalism.

"After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when we entered market economy, the values and the views of people have changed. Unless the gulag can be linked to the present time, it is meaningless," he said.

For many Karaganda youngsters, the oppression the gulags stand for does not register.

"This was just a village for miners," said Sasha Talabaev, 12, who was riding a bicycle through the heart of what was one of the gulags.

Some of the reasons for a collective forgetting are obvious. The memories are painful. And since the fall of the Soviet Union and Kazakhstan's independence in 1991, there are more pleasant things to focus on. Growing affluence is one of them.

But there are political aspects to a sidestepping of Kazakhstan's recent history, too, often born out of the government's determination to stay friendly with Russia.

To sustain support for a pro-Russia foreign policy, "the Kazakhstan state has gone to great lengths to construct an ideology for its nation-state that glosses over its colonial and neo-colonial history with Russia," Sean Roberts, a researcher in Central Asia affairs at Georgetown University, wrote on Dec. 19 in his Web log.

Although those efforts have not added up to a blanket ban on public remembrances of the gulags, the government has chosen to ignore the issue. And it has used its control of the education system to keep texts from dwelling on the topic.

In a more pointed example of control, the government forbade large-scale of a violent uprising in Almaty, the capital, that took place in December 1986. As many as 40,000 ethnic Kazakhs poured into Almaty's central square then to protest then Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev's firing of the chief of the Kazakh Soviet state. Soviet security forces are estimated to have killed at least 200 protesters on the square.

The rebellion was a watershed for Kazakh identity. It resonated too strongly for the government to ignore this year, so in October, President Nursultan Nazarbayev quietly dedicated a statue to commemorate the event. But the gesture received little coverage in the press, which is controlled by the government.

Opposition leaders and several thousand nationalists hoped to use the statue as a gathering point for an anti-government rally, but the government moved swiftly to crush preparations for it.

With Kazakh nationalism having become mostly the purview of the anti-Russia opposition here, the government has had to use other avenues to promote a coherent national identity. That is no small challenge in this country of 17 million people who span 80 different ethnicities and nearly as many religions -- a direct legacy of the Soviet Union's use of Kazakhstan as a holding pen for prisoners, dissidents and people who did not fit in the Russian mainstream.

Popular culture has been one tool of choice, especially through the government-financed movie studio KazakhFilm. This year the studio released its biggest hit yet, a historical piece called Nomad that tells the little-known story of an ancient battle to give an uplifting view of Kazakh identity. The film, a US$34.5 million production, broke box-office records in Kazakhstan, grossing more than US$1 million.