A survivor on desperate hunger, the fight to survive – and why she fears Russians just want to forget

I was invited to Moscow earlier this year to give a talk about my latest book. But while I was there, I wanted to see if I could track down a few survivors of the gulags — the prison work camps where millions died during the communist years. I wanted to film interviews with them to be used as exhibits in a museum of communist terror which I hope to help create.

I asked Anne Applebaum, who wrote GulagA History of the Soviet Camps, if she could offer any advice on finding survivors. She gave me tips but added: ‘You’re a bit late.’ The people who were incarcerated in Stalin’s work camps are mostly dead. It was going to be difficult — perhaps impossible.

Fortunately the people who hosted my talk gave me a phone number for one of the staff at Memorial, an organisation which covers human rights abuses in Russia. She agreed to see me, so I walked away from the relatively prosperous centre of Moscow to an unmarked building near a crossroads. The woman and some other staff at Memorial agreed to try to help. A few days later I returned to the offices to do the interview.

Tatiana’s face was lined as if she were ten years older than her real age of 75. She looked nervous but determined. As we talked, she kept looking down at the table. I wanted to ask her to look at the camera but I didn’t because it was clear that she was finding the business of publicly telling her story enough of a strain as it was.

She told me her mother had been married to a man who worked at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow. One day he was arrested and taken to the notorious Lubyanka headquarters of the KGB and killed. She assumes he was shot. I asked if there was a trial. She smiled; the answer was obvious. Of course there was no trial. Her mother was sent to a gulag in Kazakhstan. She was not accused of any crime and imprisoned only because she had been married to an ‘enemy of the community’. That was crime enough. She was sentenced to eight years.

While in the gulag, she met another inmate and fell in love with him. I was surprised that men and women could be in the same gulag but Tatiana said that he was working there. Her mother became pregnant and, in April 1941 gave birth to twins: Tatiana and her brother. The boy died in the gulag. What did he die of, I asked? ‘Lack of clothes, lack of food, lack of medicine,’ she replied. Again it seemed that the answer to my question was, for her, obvious.

She explained what ‘lack of food’ meant. It meant an allocation of 140g of bread each day for the whole family — I suppose she meant her mother and the two children. I found it hard to comprehend such a small ration. It amounts to a near-starvation diet.

Her father, who was still in the gulag, was serving the second of two ten-year sentences. He had two sons who were almost adult and he was looking forward to seeing them when his sentence ended. But then he got the news that he had been sentenced to a further ten years. He became extremely depressed. He died, too.

At last the end of her mother’s sentence came. But the gulag did not release them. They were arbitrarily kept in for another six months. Then, finally, at the age of six, Tatiana left with her mother and they started to try to pick up the pieces of their lives. When Tatiana grew up, she got a job at the State Bank of the USSR. She worked there for the next 36 years and proudly says that she got a medal for her long service.

Tatiana is keen that I see some documents she has brought with her in a folder. The important ones are three official certificates, all from 1956, the year in which Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the USSR who took over from Stalin, admitted in his so-called ‘secret speech’ that Stalin had repressed or killed ‘not only … actual enemies, but also … individuals who had not committed any crimes against the party or the Soviet government’. One is a certificate for her mother’s husband, one for her mother and a third for her father; all three certify they were not guilty of any crimes. I don’t think that the main reason she is keen for me to see the documents is that she is angry at the injustice. I sense she just wants to be able to show that they were innocent.

I asked how she had found life in her early adult years, in the 1960s and 1970s. Did she feel there were limitations on what she could say? She replied that she felt she had to be very careful. She was frightened of being arrested again. To protect her career, she did not tell anyone at the bank that she had been in a gulag. In fact she did not tell anyone outside her family. Even now she does not tell people. For nearly 70 years, the key event in her life has been kept secret.

She now lives alone in a flat. She never married and has no children of her own. I would guess she is quite poor, living on a modest pension from the bank. She complained that she has not been given any compensation. She thinks all the time about her family, and she is clearly marked by her experience. Every year on the first of May, she goes back to where the gulag was in Kazakhstan, to be at the place where she and her mother and father were imprisoned. My translator has difficulty saying in English what exactly it means to her to go back there every year.

Tatiana’s memory of her experience is limited since she left the gulag when she was a small child. But she does remember always being hungry. The memory is so ingrained in her that, even seven decades later, she still remains so fearful of lack of food that she always makes sure she has bread in her flat.

It is hard for her to do this interview — a struggle. I ask her why she agreed to it. She tells me she agreed because she loved her family. That is the first reason. I suppose she means that they were of that utmost importance to her and now they are gone and she herself is nearing the end of her life. She tells me that her younger relations are not interested in hearing about ‘the repression’. But she wants those who are interested to know what happened. She does not want the memory to be lost.

I asked her to try to retell her story again in brief without me asking any questions. This might be the most useful part of the interview because it is the most likely to be used as an exhibit for the museum which I hope will be created. She does as I ask. Then she says she is tired and would like to go home.