The Land of the Steppes, Kingir, Lugovoy,
Aralsk, Kizilorda, Through the Outback, Love at First Site,
Karagenda - Federovka, Spaask, Karaganda City
Kokshetau - Chkalov
THE LAND OF THE STEPPES - and beyond
If this was to be my last journey through Kazakhstan, I would take away with me some lasting memories…
- Those gently rolling hills of Lugovoy that entice the onlooker to eternity with their serenity and timelessness.
- “Yuznoye nie nuznoye” – that place way out in the steppes, now forgotten and abandoned. Yuznoye that nobody needs or wants any longer. And the face of the woman who, after a lifetime of work dedicated to Khrushchev’s “Celina” project, all she has to show for it now is a collection of worthless medals.
- The burial ground in Rudnik where one hesitates to kick a stone for fear of unearthing human bones, and the cemeteries with graves of Polish, German, Russian and so many other peoples uprooted and deported to perish under the Soviet regime.
- The folly of Man’s messing with Nature epitomized by the Aral Sea, and my “dinosaur friend” awaiting its return, and the windswept salt dust engulfing the Kazakhs of Shizhaga.
Of course there is much more to Kazakhstan than what I saw. There is a different side to it, a different viewpoint. The beautiful and majestic mountains in the south, the Altai in the north-east, Lake Balakash - they will attract tourists. There is oil, gas and mineral wealth to attract entrepreneurs and, for politically minded, there still is much to keep quiet about. But if my “dinosaur friend” stood here, not all that long ago, really, say in the 1830-80’s, the time of my great-grandfather’s manhood, he would have seen a very different world at his feet and on the horizon.
The rout of Napoleon in Moscow in 1812 had sealed the fate of this region. Russian forces chased the French all the way back to Paris itself where Tsar Alexander made a victorious entry. He was the hero; he was the saviour of Europe from Napoleonic ambitions; he was the man of destiny; he was ready to take up the mantle of Peter the Great and have Russia rule the world. But the Congress of Vienna didn’t acquiesce to his dream and blocked Russia’s expansion further west into Europe, so his eyes turned south-east where the vast riches of India, Persia and the decaying Ottoman Empire lay.
One hundred years earlier, Peter the Great had already had his eye on this region and back in 1717 had sent a military expedition under cover of trade to the khanate of Khiva, but there his mission was tricked by the devious Khan and the entire force of 4000 armed men was wiped out. Prince Bekovitch, the leader of the expedition was hacked to death by the mob and his severed head publically displayed. The very few that survived were sold into slavery and only one or two managed to escape to tell the tale. But the juggernaut of Russian expansion continued south and east. Under the rule of Katherine II the Empire reached beyond the Urals and into western Siberia. Settlers from Russia, Ukraine and all parts of her Empire were freely given land to settle in this wild Eastern Frontier. Settlers from Germany, in particular, were encouraged to come, and thousands of politically rebellious people were forcibly exiled to these lands from all parts of the Empire.
By the early 1800’s much of the preparatory work had already been done. The Caucuses were Russian, so was the Caspian and, after the fall of Napoleon, Alexander’s armed forces had been built up to an incredible number of 600,000. Two militarized and well fortified fronts were in place to guard the eastern borders of the Empire and to act as the forward lines for further expansion. The West-Siberian Army Group held the line Omsk-Petropavlovsk-Orenburg; the Orenburg Army Group held the line in the west running from Orenburg south along the eastern side of the Urals to Guryev (Atiraw) on the Caspian.
In front of Omsk and directly to the south lay the vast, open emptiness of the “Land of the Steppes” stretching all the way to the region of the Seven Rivers, and beyond that lay Chinese Turkistan to the east, and the mountains of Afghanistan to the south. South from Orenburg lay the Aral Sea fed by Syr Daria and Amu Daria rivers, the Red Desert between the two rivers, and the desolate Black Desert stretching west from Amu Daria to the Caspian – the Western Turkistan (later known as Russian Turkistan).
Adolf Januszkiewicz exiled from Poland to this region by the Tsarist regime in 1832 wrote in a letter to his mother(1) about his travels from Tobolsk through Kazakh steppes all the way south to the region of the Seven Rivers…
“…in summary I will just say: that…I have travelled through quite high mountains covered with dense forests inhabited by bears, moose and dear; that I have crossed on horseback many rivers unknown to Europeans and on their banks, for the first time in twelve years (of my exile) I heard the song of the lark; that I have seen nomadic Kirgiz tribes in their encampments of a thousand, or more, yurts over a distance of twenty five to thirty wiorsts, studded by thousands of horses, camels, sheep and cattle of great beauty; that I have come across caravans of traders from Tashkent and Kokand, herds of wild goats, wild horses called “kulany” ...Isn’t all this interesting? Isn’t it more interesting than the sight of German fields planted with potatoes or Neapolitan gourmets gorging on macaroni? Here, I haven’t seen a single stalk of corn; no fences, limitless open space everywhere. I could breathe freely like an Arab in the desert…”
The “Land of the Steppes” – as this region was generally referred to in those early days – was populated by nomadic tribes, descendants of the Golden Hord that swept through this region under Genghis Khan in the 13th century. With time, these peoples split into three main Hords: the Older or Senior Hord, the Middle Hord and the Small or Younger Hord. There were also two smaller groupings: the Kara-Kirgiz (Burut) Hord, and the Bukiyev Hord within the European part of Russia (2). The Hord was a grouping of tribes, subdivided into clans and further into auly - villages. It was essentially a princedom – khanate - established in a region of the Land of the Steppes but without very firm borders. At its head stood the Khan, supposedly a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, and it was ruled by Sultans who stood at the head of their tribes, and the senior clergy.(2) It was a markedly feudal society: the aristocracy and the very rich, on one side, and on the other hand, the very poor held in contempt by all others. Throughout this society, women were held in even greater contempt - they had no rights whatsoever and were often treated no better than pack animals. The poor lived in abject misery plagued by disease and the only source of help came from superstition and witchcraft practiced by shamans.
The wealth of an individual and that of the entire Hord was measured in the number and quality of livestock; wives were bought and daughters sold in exchange for sheep, camels or other livestock. The penalty for murder, maiming or other criminal acts was also settled by compensation in terms of livestock, but if the injured party would not agree to such compensation, than the argument would be settled by duel to death – by combatants hired for this purpose.
The nomadic style of life of the people in the Land of the Steppes meant that throughout the spring and summer, entire tribes would have to be constantly on the move in search of fresh pastures for their livestock, so that its people and its entire wealth would be spread over a wide area of open steppe and hence very difficult to defend against any marauders. Then again, they would have to move to winterize in a more-friendly and warmer climate in the Syr Daria region. At each move they would simply pull up their yurts and drive their herds of livestock forward – the rich on camels or horses, the poor on foot. They left nothing permanent behind, even their winter quarters were built to last one season only. They had no boundaries, no natural or man-made lines of defence; they were open to raids by armed bands from neighbouring regions, including the other Hords. An even greater plague was the conniving, the treachery and thieving prevalent among the tribes within a Hord itself to the extent that in the late XVIII century, the Sultans of the Small (Young) Hord sought protection and submitted to the Russians.
The constant rivalry, disagreement and fighting between the tribes of the Great Orda in the Seven Rivers region enabled the khanate of Kokand to impose itself on the Hord and extract taxes and contributions. Similarly in the west, where tribes of the Middle Hord winterized in the region between the Syr and Amu Daria Rivers, the Khanate of Khiva imposed itself on the Hord and extracted from its tribes taxes and contributions in return for a fickle protection from marauding Turcoman bands. Helpless against such subjugation, constant harassment and fighting between their own tribes, the Medium and the Older Hord had little choice but to seek help from the Russians which eventually, and inevitably, led to their submission and incorporation within the Tsarist Empire. The final step took place on the 22/08/1847 when the gathering of Sultans of the Senior Hord swore allegiance to the Tsar of Russia and undertook to co-exist peacefully with the Middle Hord and prevent infighting between their own tribes.(3) The Sultans - representing the Kirgiz tribal aristocracy – were formally appointed as the leaders of their tribes and came onto Russian payroll as Officials of Border Administration bodies. Regrettably, feudal traditions and attitudes persisted.
In truth, the peoples inhabiting this region had little choice but to submit to the might of Russia, for its eyes and mind had been clearly focused by the unfolding “Great Game” between Russia and Britain over the supremacy in this region and the control of access routes to India – the jewel in the crown of the British Empire.
But in the early 1840’s, as Tsar’s Generals stood on the fortifications of the fort in Orenburg and Omsk, their rapacious eyes focused beyond the Land of the Steppes and beyond the mountains of Afghanistan; they saw India - the jewel in the British Crown. They saw the promise of trade along the Marco Polo routes, and the fabled wealth of Khiva, Bokhara and Samarkand… And beyond all that glimmered the prospect of great wealth, honours, aggrandisement that only military success could bring.
Time had come – time to begin the Great Game between the Tsarist Russia and the British Kingdom. Afghanistan, Persia and Turkey were involuntary participants in this Game of bribery, cunning, deceit, espionage, fraternal rivalry, holy wars… and the lubricant was gold.
But it was not to be. The stakes were high but the obstacles great and whoever ventured out had to run the gauntlet of Mother Nature – severe and unforgiving in this region, and had to contend with the treachery and barbarism of the peoples of Khiva Kokand, Bokhara and Afghanistan…
(1) Polacy w Kazakstanie w XIX wieku / Adolf Januszkiewicz – listy / p.96
Gajrat Sapargalijew, Wladimir Djakow (in Russian, translated into Polish by Anna Trombla and Jan Plater) Czytelnik – Warszaw 1982 (English by J.K.)
(2) Polacy w Kazakstanie w XIX Wieku p.78
(3) Polact w Kazakstanie w XIX Wieku / Zywot Adolfa Januszkiewicza / p. 103-114
JEZKAZGAN – KINGIR , RUDNIK LAGIER
After mass in Jarevo, in the chapel of a small village in Belarus not far from Postawy, the sacristan came up to me – you know, my father perished in Kazakhstan… all I know is that he was in KINGIR, Jezkazgan district. I hear you are going to Kazakhstan… could you perhaps try to find out something…
Jezkazgan happens to be 500 Km off my route – one overnight trip by train one way and another back to Karaganda. But how could I refuse? His father perished in the lagier – my father survived!
- 0 -
I am, indeed, going to Kazakhstan again, this time heading for Maikain – the “Garden of Eden”, as my mother saw it, in comparison with the sheep farm in Griaznovka. I am travelling “plac-kart” on a train from Moscow to Kokshetau, cooped in under the ceiling of a modern, de-lux “peoples’ cattle wagon” – for 51 hours! The man on the bunk below me, Nilkolai, an ethnic Ukrainian born in Kazakhstan, now works in the Ukraine as safety inspector in the nuclear industry. Chernobyl – oh yes, he knows it well. Opposite us, sit a very good looking young woman with auburn hair, Olga, age 21, and her 11-12 year old half-sister. It was 28 May 2008 – Nikolai’s 45th birthday! Of course, we had to celebrate.
Out came all the little food Nikolai and I had on us and, of course, a bottle of vodka. But we couldn’t celebrate - not just the two us - seeing who sat vis-à-vis. We had to ask, out of politeness if nothing else, the young lady across the table to join us for a drink, and to our surprise, she did so, and very happily too! The contents of the bottle, shared equally between the three of us, vanished in no time at all and prompted Olga to contribute to our celebrations. She fished out a large package from under the bunk, and there, wrapped in layers of newspapers was fish! Smoked fish; delicious fish from the Urals. It was destined for her relatives she was travelling to visit – but it’s O.K - she assured us, and so, some of the fish found its way onto our table. Later, as our train pulled into a station, Nikolai reappeared with a second bottle of vodka and, as its contents diminished, Olga became more and more generous - with the fish. And no one had objected to our party-ing even though, officially, drinking alcohol on trains is forbidden.
As we were approaching Olga’s destination we started clearing the remains of our feast and I realized, with some remorse, that we had eaten all of Olga’s fish – not a scrap was left. It must have been excellent vodka for neither Nicolai, nor I, felt any after effects but at that particular moment, Olga felt very much the worse for it so it was fortunate for the two of us and the neighbouring passengers that Olga had to get off the train when she did… Somehow she managed to stumble out of the train following her half-sister and, out of the window, I could see her falling into the arms of her relatives waiting on the platform – regrettably her aunts and uncles will never taste those delicacies from the Urals!. As the train pulled away, Nicolai explained that that’s how it is in today’s Russia with young people, including young girls and women from well-to-do families…
But before the celebrations Nikolai and I had plenty of time to talk. Back in the 1920’s life was very difficult in Ukraine so his grandparents voluntarily moved to Kazakhstan and settled just south of Kokshetau. When Hitler attacked Russia in June 1941, Stalin considered all ethnic Germans to be potential German collaborators and had them deported from their homesteads to Kazakhstan and so Nikolai’s family found itself next to a colony of Volga-Germans. Nikolai essentially grew up amongst German children and had many friends amongst them but, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of the Germans repatriated to Germany and the colony is now essentially derelict. Nikolai’s parents feel that their roots are now firmly in Kazakhstan and have decided to make their life there. Nikolai now regularly visits them and the few German friends that have stayed behind, every year.
The odyssey of the Volga Germans dates back to the time of Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia. In 1763 she offered land to new settlers on her eastern frontiers. Germans, who even at that time, were appreciated for their industriousness and advanced agricultural skills were particularly welcome and were encouraged to settle in the Volga region around Saratov. They were guaranteed freedom of religion and local self-government. First settlers began arriving in 1870’s and by 1900 some 110 settlements existed in the NW Territories of the Russian Empire.
During the October revolution rural German colonies sided with the Bolsheviks and in 1924 they were rewarded by the permission to create the Volga German Autonomous Republic. However, Stalin had other ideas. In the course of his collectivization programme, larger German estates were broken up and their people deported to Kazakhstan. When Germany attacked Russia, all Volga Germans were accused of collaboration with the Nazis and deported to Kazakhstan en-mass. In a period of just three weeks in September 1941, 800,000 Germans were deported and by the end of the war a total of 1.2 million Germans were deported to labour camps in Almaty, Pavlodar and Karaganda regions.
When Khrushchev came to power, conditions in forced labour camps were eased and “trudo-lagiers” abolished although they still existed under more acceptable names. After meetings between Khrushchev and Adenauer in 1956, the situation of Germans began to improve. Finally, in 1964 the Supreme Soviet cleared all Volga Germans of treason and active discrimination against them begun to reduce.
At the time of the 1989 Census, 957,000 ethnic Germans lived in Kazakhstan. When in 1991, Germany established the “right to return” policy some 900,000 ethnic Germans signed up to return to Germany. At the end of 2007, 230,000 Germans were still living in Kazakhstan awaiting permission to return “home”.
Later, as I walked about cemeteries in Kazakhstan searching for vestiges of Polish presence in Pavlodar, Kokshetau, Maikain and Karaganda, I was surprized by the presence of so many German graves. I was brought up focusing on the suffering of Polish people, and here, in front of my eyes, I saw German, Russian, Ukrainian and even Ingush-Chechen graves… So, Polish people were not alone in Stalin’s “Gehenna”. Later, I talked to several Russian-Germans still living in Kazakhstan and their first-hand accounts give testimony to the brutal treatment meted out to them by Stalin, no less dire than that endured by Polish people deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia, including my own family. Of course, I have heard about the millions of people of other nationalities suffering under Stalin, but it’s not enough to have read “Gulag Archipelago” and Solzhenitsyn’s other books - it’s only when I came face-to-face with graves of these other peoples, graves of children born, like me, in 1939 but already dead a little later, that the suffering of other people became live. No, the Jews were not alone; Polish people were not alone…
- 0 -
But in the meantime, I am back on the road - from Kokshetau to Ekibastuz, Maikain and Karaganda, and from there, on to Jezkazgan. Some 30 km south of Maikain my coach makes a stop in Bayanawrl - a miracle of nature hidden in the vast, open and barren land in this part of Kazakhstan. An oasis of beautiful green hills, blue water lake and ravishing greenery – a “Little Switzerland” – locals say. But why go to Kazakhstan to see this “Little Switzerland” when the genuine one is just “round the corner” from London? Yet some enterprising British investors have already bought up parts of this gem for development into a tourist resort. It is, of course, very popular with people living in Kazakhstan as a place for recreation, a place to get away from the searing heat in summer and the arid terrain of central Kazakhstan.
Jezkazgan – It’s early morning; my train from Karaganda is approaching my destination. The sun is already well up; barren, brown-red land stretches to the horizon on my left and right. As the train approaches Jezkazgan I can see signs of large-scale mining activity: long embankments of mining spoils, heavy plant and machinery enclosures, pylons, a huge power generating station and other indefinable industrial installations shrouded in heavy pollution. And suddenly, through all this, out there on raised ground, unbelievably, stands a massive cross! As clear as it can be – a cross! You wouldn’t see it in Stalin’s days or in Khrushchev or Brezhniev days… Had you asked for a cross to be put up to commemorate those perished in GULG lagiers, why, they would happily have you crucified on it and have your bones add lime to its foundations!
Father Victor meets me at the station and takes me to his home for breakfast. A low, grey house with tin covered roof stands indistinguishable from other houses in this neighbourhood with unpaved, dusty streets full of potholes. A part of this house is sectioned off and serves as a prayer house – yet no one would have guessed that, for the local authorities have not given permission to put up a cross or any other public sign on the building. I am surprised by the primitive interior of the presbytery-kitchen-breakfast-dining room and the frugal breakfast of bread, jam and tea or coffee. What a contrast to the relative luxury of life at the presbytery in Postawy; but there, the congregation numbers around 1,500, and here? – perhaps 20 Russian-German Catholics; 10 attended today’s Sunday mass.
Fr. Victor Messner comes from a family of Odessa-Germans deported by Stalin to Kazakhstan. Faith runs uniquely strong in this family: his brother is also a priest and his second brother is now a bishop in Germany. Perhaps this is what gives him strength to serve God here in Jezkazgan. This is not a life of a parish priest as I know it; it’s the life of a missionary and this is reflected in Victor himself: tall, lean, angular features, always composed, serious and kind eyes. Everything about him and around him is grey; his shirt, the colour of his eyes too; only the garden patch outside the house is lush-green at this time of the year and it provides the entire, and only, supply of green vegetables for the kitchen.
Kingir - Without any hesitation Fr. Victor takes me on a tour of the places I need to see. The original Kingir posiolek (village or kolkhoz) has been absorbed into what is today the town of Jezkazgan. The lagier of the 1940’s and 50’s was destroyed and covered over to obliterate all traces of its existence, of its history and of the revolt of its prisoners in 1953/4 so infamously put down by the Khrushchev regime. This was done so effectively that by the early 1990’s no one knew exactly where the lagier stood and where the burial ground(s) was. Eventually, someone wanted to build a large depot or a factory and when ground clearing started, masses of bones were uncovered. These were gathered, removed and now lie under the raised ground on which stands the cross I saw from the train as it was approaching Jezkazgan.
The history of Kingir lagier needs to be told separately for it is saturated with the blood and lives of its prisoners. Nothing remains of it today. Only the memorials erected on the mound of human bones testify to its tragic history. The landmark cross I saw from the train commemorates Lithuanians perished in the strikes of 16/05/1954-26/05/1954; other monuments commemorate Ukrainians, Russians and the dead of many other nations.
Yet “Kingir” posiolek does exist! It lies just outside the town of Jezkazgan but it turns out to be a new, almost a model posiolek, built in late 1960’s - there is a cemetery too. One wonders why this posiolek bears the name “Kingir” so prominently displayed at the entrance – surely, it couldn’t have been so named to commemorate its bloody history! On the contrary, was it not to derail tourists and researches; was it not to conceal the true meaning of KINGIR?
Rudnik - Not far from Kingir lies another lagier – Rudnik – its ruins are clearly visible from the road. One wonders why this lagier has been left still standing for all to see. All barbed wire enclosures, all watch towers have gone; all roofs, doors, windows have long been dismantled and removed; only the rubble remains – no one wants it, no one needs in this part of Kazakhstan. The imposing façade of the administration building still stands – the year 1940 clearly visible on its front. The prison has been demolished but the pit is still there, some ten feet deep, but unmistakable. And throughout this massive lagier and amongst its many barracks only one vestige of prisoners’ life was left behind – a metal slush bucket! But just outside the lagier boundary lie discarded shoes, cloth, bits of metal, plastic and other items that in normal life would have been considered “junk”… and one wonders whether all this “junk” was discarded by the prisoners, or removed by guards, for they all knew that it would no longer be needed once the prisoners crossed to the other side of the road…
It’s across the road from the lagier that the enormity of what went on here really strikes home. As I walk the copper-hued ground sparsely covered with tufts of wizened grass and masses of stone chippings, I am afraid to kick a stone; afraid to dig my foot into the ground for fear that I may strike a skull or uncover human bones… I am treading on a vast burial ground. Mounds of earth are clearly visible on this flat terrain, some large and more pronounced than others; graves for one, or ten, or perhaps one hundred dead left untouched for fifty years now lie weathered but still discernible – no flowers had ever lain there. A shred of discoloured cloth lies half-buried in the earth – or is it dangling from a grave..? A strand of old barbed wire lies partly buried – how and why it got here, who was girdled with it...? One might have overlooked these mounds and treated these acres as wasteland, a hunting ground for vermin perhaps, but further down the incline a few graves still stand; a few crosses have survived; rectangular clumps of shrubbery grow here and there… and one wonders whether perhaps they mark the graves of winter-dead, when the ground was frozen rock-hard, when only very shallow graves could be dug?
But the living have not forgotten this “killing ground”. A large simple cross has been erected to mark this place and, for the past few years in July, crowds visit here to pray, to remember, to reflect on men’s inhumanity to man, to reflect on mankind… The cross is white covered with black blotches over its entire surface – what do they represent? Are they to connect the dead with their homeland represented by the “beriozka” – silver birch – the “national” tree of Russia. Or do they perhaps represent the number of graves here? Of these, there were too many to count.
It may be surprising to think of beauty in the context of this place and its history, and yet, I am drawn to it…. Hues of charcoal-grey and brown ranging from light to almost maroon intensity, clumps of scrub add a little dead-green colour, the sky deep blue, air still; panoramic view punctuated by several towers of mining shafts in “delicate” brownish hues – tall, slim, elegant round towers with rectangular openings. They are copper mine shafts - quite unlike in the coal mines - no spoke-wheels whizzing this way or that way; abandoned shafts draw you in – see what man has left behind! I am standing in Kazakhstan’s most important copperfield region. Most certainly here, not only David, but school headmasters too, would have pushed their feeeding bowl up front and asked for more – to eat. But all is quiet here now, no action, no movement… Not a soul in sight – they, they departed fifty years ago.
Volga-Germans - Back in Jezkazgan, birthday lunch was being laid out for an octogenarian. Alina, a Russian-German from Kujbyshev (Samara) is 80 today. Her children had prepared all the food and Fr Victor offered the Chapel hall for the venue, for where else could Catholics accommodate a group of ten people. Alina’s memory is still excellent and she speaks lucidly and precisely. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the variety of dishes on the table but this was a rare opportunity to hear from first-hand about the plight of Volga-Germans. I was all ears but, even so, it was impossible not to notice the voracious appetite of Alina’s friends - years of constant hunger are hard to forget.
For Alina, the fateful day came in early December 1941. Alina, then 12, her sister and two brothers (13, 8 and 2) and their mother were visiting their relatives nearby when the husband of her father’s sister rushed in and told them to slaughter the three goats they still had, and to salt and hide the meat – if they didn’t do it right away, the Soviets will confiscate them. He should know; he was the “predsiedatiel” the president of the community so they listened and the meat was made safe - just in time.
Her father, a truck driver, returned home from a trip and the same day the Soviets came. On that fateful day the entire colony of Russian-Germans, all 400 families, in Kujbyshev by the Volga River were packed into cattle wagons (Alina’s own words) and deported; only one Jewish family and the Russian teacher were left behind. There were wooden bunks for sitting on and sleeping, and an iron stove for heating and boiling water. Alina’s aunt, who had eight children, had an awful accident: reaching for the kettle on the stove she spilt boiling water onto her legs – it was awful; she was lame for some time but eventually recovered.
Some four weeks later, all the deportees were deposited in Rudnik near Satpayev. It was freezing in the open. Kazakhs started arriving with wagons drawn by cattle, Germans and their belongings were loaded onto wagons and distributed among kolkhozes in the region. Alina’s and her aunt’s family were taken some 100 km to Ulitaw, and from there, another 30 Km to their destination (Amlegede?) posiolek. It was a gruelling journey in the bitter January cold lasting more than one week only stopping for the night at places along the route. On the way, her aunt cradled her baby in cushions to keep it worm and, so unfortunately, the baby was smothered. There was no time for burial – the dead baby was simply left behind in a shallow grave… somewhere! In the posiolek, they found a room in a zemlanka which they had to share with another German family.
Very early in January her father was conscripted into a “trudoarmi” (forced labour echelons) and all news of him disappeared. Women were also taken into the local trudarmie. Later, in 1945 after the war, she learned from men returning from forced labour that her father was taken to Chelyabinsk and died there at the age of 48.
During the war years, and immediately after, life was very difficult, always on the verge of starvation. “Celina” (“voluntary” work brigades developing agriculture and husbandry in Kazakhstan) paid so little – 8 Kg. of wheat / family – that one had no choice but to steal one’s own produce! But if caught stealing, penalties were very severe, so the only hope of survival for Alina was to marry a Kazakh. He was twelve years older and worked as “chaban” (herdsman) of a large flock of sheep and Alina was his shepherd girl – they had work, they had food, they could survive. But for much of the year they would take the flock far out into the open country and for weeks on end would live under open skies in total isolation. They had a son and daughter, and as living conditions gradually improved, Alina had had enough of living with a Kazakh and this kind of life; she yearned to be with her own people, to meet and marry a German man; to be closer to the Church and to give her son a chance to go to Russian schools. Her Kazakh husband would not agree to divorce so, in 1958, she left him and run away to town where she lived alone with her children – officially, she stayed married to the Kazakh for twenty years until his death.
After 1956 life started to ease when “komendatura” - restrictions on relocation and employment were lifted. Some of the German men wanted to return to Kujbyshev but there they found that all their homesteads had been taken by Ukrainians on the day of deportation and now, the new occupants came out with clubs, pitchforks and axes to confront the rightful owners. There was no way back for the Germans.
In 1978 Alina married a Lithuanian – he was a Catholic and a good man with whom she lived for 22 years until his death. His is also an interesting story. He was conscripted into the Russian army in Lithuania and in 1945 found himself stationed in Germany. Russian soldiers were getting coupons from the army exchangeable for food in German shops. One day he and two others walked into a shop but the German shopkeeper refused to accept the coupons so they pulled the gun on him. They took vodka, sausages and a bag-full of goods and were running away but the shopkeeper managed to alert the military and the three were apprehended. The Lithuanian was sent back to his home town to face criminal charges; he was convicted and deported to Kazakhstan. But he was a good man – in his youth he studied in a seminary. As a good Catholic he refused to attend any Russian Orthodox churches and preferred to wait for the possibility of attending Catholic mass.
Yes, one can make a living in Kazakhstan now – provided one doesn’t drink. Her son wanted to change his name from his Kazakh father’s name to a Russian surname but, how things have changed – now, having a Kazakh father and surname gives him an important advantage in today’s Kazakhstan! Yes, many Germans have repatriated to Germany; her brothers’ children have all gone, and her grand daughter – they are all happy there… She is alone now; both her brothers are dead; both from heart failure – but somehow she keeps on going…
Alina’s friend, now 75, sits next to me. Back in 1941 her family lived in the Rolleter colony near Engels on the Volga – Germans have lived there for generations. She and her family were visiting her grandmother when the Russians came and took them just as they stood – they were not given a chance to take anything with them! All Germans from the Engels colony were deported to Siberia, Kargadzki region, at the same time. Her family really suffered in Siberia for they were taken just as they stood; they had no food with them or extra clothes to exchange for food or fuel later! In 1956, she was transferred to Kazakhstan, Pavlodar, Krasnokudzki(?) region to work on “Celina”( development of agriculture and industrialization of Kazakhstan steppes promoted by Khrushchev). From early childhood she had to do all kinds of work – milking cows, building houses, work in the field - at the age of just 14 she was able to milk 20 cows! There was no time for schools; she had to work, and work, and work to live and to support her two children. In 1975 she moved to Jezkazgan with her husband and children, and here also, it was work and work… To this day she is “nie gramotnaya” she can’t read or write! Now she is retired; her husband and son are dead; her daughter lives separately; her heart gives her problems, but she lives…
German advance into Russia was stopped at Stalingrad (Volgograd and) so places like Kujbyshev (Samara) and Engels on the Volga remained in Russian hands throughout the war. The NKVD therefore had time to deport or dispose of ethnic Germans in this region as they pleased. Odessa, on the other hand, was occupied by Germans early in the war and Russians, withdrawing in disarray, didn’t have time to dispose of ethnic Germans in this region. Nevertheless, although by a different route, many Odessa Germans found themselves also in Kazakhstan.
Sister Catrina – an absolutely charming, diminutive “little lady” in her early 90’s. A little bit hard of hearing, but her memory is excellent and the twinkle in her eyes and a quiet smile never leave her face for long. Not a trace of the hardship she has gone through in her life but much to show for the time and effort she had, and is still putting, into humanitarian work in the Fiedorowka area of Karaganda. Between her (christened Matilda) and Sister Monica, from Lithuania, they have managed to create a lovely place for homeless people, alcoholics and orphans – a place for medical, physical and spiritual support – so much more than just a soup kitchen. It’s enough to meet Monica and Marta to understand why so many people and organizations support them in their work.
Can Matilda speak German? German?! Why, in comparison, I don’t speak Russian! Everybody, for generations, spoke German where she comes from – many people didn’t speak Russian, and this was Odessa, this was Russia! Her aunt’s Russian, for example, was so bad that on one occasion when she was entertaining Russians she meant to say “nie scisniajcies” - eat more, feel at home… but in her lips it sounded like – get out – and she couldn’t understand why the Russians left!
Matilda comes from Haupstadt, a village in Landauski rejon, Nikolajevski oblast (now Odessa oblast) some 130 Km. from Odessa. Her father, his father and everybody that she remembers has always lived there, but some documents show that the family originally came from Karlsruhe in Germany. 1930 was a fateful year for them all. It was the year when the Soviets “rozkulaczywali” everybody – stripped all “wealthy” people, the “kulaks” of their possessions. Her family could hardly be counted amongst the “kulaks” – they had just started building a little house – but that was enough, and they were German! They were kicked out and Ukrainians moved in. She fell ill with meningitis and was sent away to hospital while her father moved form place to place until in 1936 her family found a place at his sister’s farm in Alexandrowka, closer to Cherson than Odessa. She came back from hospital in 1937.
Russians came again in 1938; arrested and shot all the men – her father, two brothers and her uncle. When her father married he already had four children from his first wife and seven more with his second wife, but two died still babies – a big family, total of nine. Her sisters husband was shot, second sisters husband shot, mother’s eldest son died somewhere in prison and he was only 20. And why? Perhaps Russians were expecting a war with Germany and didn’t trust ethnic Germans in their own backyard?
There were many Jewish settlements in the area where thy lived sponsored by Americans. When the Germans came, they killed the Jews and allowed ethnic Germans to move there. Her family moved to Hagendorf, roughly 50 Km from the farm. As the German army started withdrawing in 1943, Monica moved back to Nikolajev. Many ethnic Germans then moved with the army through Hungary to Poland but she stayed. She had a good job as cook for German (officers?) and she prides herself of being a good cook even now. Finally, in 1944, as Russian bombs started falling on them, she left with the last of German forces. First by ship to Litmanshtadt, then Kalatz – where a huge lagier was based – and then by train through Hungary to Poland. Here she found a place to live in a small town just outside Poznan with a Polish landlord who owned two properties and took in refugees. Here she learned that her mother and children were already in Germany – Hamburg or Harburg (?) and she joined them.
But in 1945, just after one year in Germany, Russians came again. They promised to send them back to their homes in Odessa but, instead, Matilda found herself in a lagier in the Urals. There she had to work for 17 (!) years cutting trees and at other forestry work. At first it was all manual work with massive steel saws for two and an ax; with time work became more mchanized and less exhaustive physically.
And during those hard 17 years, as her photographs show, Sister Catrina’s smile and equanimity had never left her.
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Olga, now 69 and retired, lives in Chromtau, nr Aktiubinsk in Kazakhstan. Her two children were born in Kazakhstan, went to school and grew up here. After 1993, practically all ethnic Germans in the area, including her two children, have repatriated to Germany – they are happy there; they have work and better life. But for Olga, her roots are here; her father, mother and grandmother are buried here. But perhaps what clinched her decision to remain in Kazakhstan was the way native Germans treat repatriated ethnic Germans. Germans from Kazakhstan give themselves away by their Russian accent, social habits and behaviour. They are treated by native Germans as second class, even worse than Turks living in Germany. Olga visited her children in Germany. Once, they were sitting on a bench in a park and talking between themselves - a couple of German women sitting within earshot suddenly got up and walked away saying quite audibly: Russis, Russis… On another occasion, in a shop run by Turks, when Olga stepped in and asked for service, a native German woman immediately walked out saying with disgust: Russ…
Back in 1941, Olga’s family lived in Nikolajevski region. People there worked like Germans, dressed like Germans, kept up German traditions, spoke German - they were German. Many of them didn’t speak Russian at all. When German forces entered Odessa early in the war in 1941, it was not seen as occupation - Odessa Germans felt they now became a part of New Germany.
When German forces begun retreating in 1943, they took all ethnic Germans with them via Hungary to Poland. Her father was a good mechanic and found work in Poznan at the locomotive maintenance workshop; her mother also found work locally. As Russians were advancing on Poznan, Germans retreated further and took Olga’s father with them, but the family was left behind; all contact with her father was lost.
Soon the Russians came and deported all “Ukrainians” from Poland back to Ukraine, but there, native Ukrainians identified their family as German. Olga’s family was deported to Kazakhstan and confined to live and work in a posiolek near Aktiubinsk. Here they lived in a zemlanka sharing it with several other families and always on the verge of death from starvation. They survived only thanks to Olga’s grandmother. She was brought up in the old, traditional German ways; she ruled the family. Whatever food they managed to find, earn or steel she would divide into equal portions among family members and give it out according to a careful schedule – never all at once! And when children were truly on the verge of death, she would tell them to lie on their backs, motionless, cross their arms on their chest, breathe slowly and, take a few drops of saline water – and we would lie like that for days – Olga recalls. Other people in the posiolek set her grandmother as an example and would often say: why aren’t we like these Germans?
Olga’s aunt feared death in this posiolek and decided to move to a town further north, and there, unbelievably, she found Olga’s father working in a factory. His story is quite remarkable. As a specialist locomotives mechanic, Germans needed his skills and took him with them to France! When the war ended in 1945, he could have stayed in France but, when he realised that his family was in Kazakhstan, he decided to go find them. Once on Russian soil, he, of course, was arrested, sentenced and, like his family, deported to Kazakhstan! And now at last, he had the chance to join his family.
He reached his family in a dire state from exhaustion and hunger but he recovered slowly. He was a good man, quiet and loving. He was never called to active service because he had bad legs, severe eczema on both. But he was a very good mechanic and could fix any tractor, track or combine - skills badly needed in the posiolek. He was appreciated, always had work and so their living conditions started improving and even the eczema on his legs disappeared.
From 1956 onward, living and working conditions improved: it was permissible to move, to change employment; to relocate. Olga married in 1975, had two children, moved to Chromtau and acquired these living quarters. This is where home is now, where her memories are, where her grandmother, father and mother and husband lie; this is where she has put down her roots. Life is quite bearable in 2009, sun shines into the kitchen, they have a large refrigerator, cosy living room, television, enough to eat… absolute wellbeing in comparison with those years!
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As one, my fellow passengers and I stopped talking but noise suddenly overwhelmed us as a troupe of men, women and children piled into our wagon. How many of them actually trooped in – it was impossible to tell amidst the numerous packs engulfing them, and no less impossible to say at first glance whether I was looking at two women or one woman twice my size. Men ignored everybody, especially their own womenfolk, and settled down in what instantly became a “men-only” section of the walk-through wagon; women instantly started pressurizing neighbouring passengers for better bunks but no one yielded to their entreaties.
Eventually, the monotonous clatter of train wheels calmed everybody down. My new neighbours were evidently a large family unit. Nearest me was a woman massive in size and shape – perhaps twice my size, if not more. It was impossible to guess her age - she could be twenty or forty. Nearby sat or lay an older woman – even larger in bulk and, between the two women, shuttled two children: a boy of perhaps eight and a girl of perhaps five. A third child, a youth of perhaps fifteen, shuttled between the women and the men’s camp, cock-sure of himself and perpetually shouting in a hoarse and guttural voice what sounded to me as heavy invective at the two women. One man was obviously in command of the unit and he strutted periodically between the men’s camp and the women – the other three men in the group didn’t seem to count, or exist, except as card-plying partners.
Who were these people – dark skin, black eyes, bulky physiognomy - obviously not Russian or Kazakh, nor Europeans… gipsy perhaps? But from where and why were they travelling from Kiev to Uralsk in Kazakhstan? Passport control enlightened us. As there were forms to be filled, the younger woman begged my Russian neighbour to help fill the form. She held a Moldavian passport and, to our amazement, she was “nie gramotnaya” - she couldn’t write or read at all! In great embarrassment she explained that, where she comes from, that’s just how it is. Women don’t, go to school; they don’t learn to read, or write. Their men were of no help; they had the answers, but I doubt they could read – perhaps with the exception of the leader of the clan.
As the leader was passing our bunks, my Russian neighbour ventured a question:
- Who are you?
- Why, we are Gipsies.
- Why do you say you are gipsies when you have Moldavian passports?
- And why do you say you are Russian when you hold Kazakhstan passports?
- Hmmm, yes…
- You see, we are Gipsies. We are citizens of Moldova but we are a nation of Gipsies… Our home is throughout the world…
Despite all this commotion, I couldn’t help but look upon the little gipsy girl with tenderness – she reminded me of my own little grand daughter. True, this little gipsy girl was of very dark colouration, her black eyes sparkled with excitement, her whole face would instantly light up with a broad smile and happiness on the merest provocation and her jet-black hair done up into six little pigtails bobbed up and down as she pranced joyfully between the two women or frolicked on the bunks. Yet, as I looked upon this beautiful little gipsy girl I couldn’t help thinking that this child could well be already betrothed to a man she has never met; that she may, more than likely, grow up illiterate like the other womenfolk; that she may, more than likely, grow and mature into a woman like her mother and grandmother… Or would she, perhaps, have the strength of character to rebel against the traditions of the Gipsy clan; become another Carmen?
Eventually we were approaching Uralsk in Kazakhstan and the whole clan was getting ready for departure. While the two women were gathering their belongings their men attended to their toilet. Out came spray-bottles and spray-cans of scented water and deodorants and their contents were liberally applied under the armpits, over the stomach, behind the collar… The scent in the wagon became overpowering as it must have been in the days of the Sun King in France and amongst the nobility of the 18th century generally. Then, the nobility also shunned water and preferred to cover themselves with heavy scent and perfume.
Their language was so strange that I had, long ago, given up trying to divine what they were saying to each other but suddenly one word - just one word out of the deluge of totally incomprehensible words - startled me. By this time, both children were very tired and the boy was evidently taunting his younger sister. Finally my little gipsy girl couldn’t bare this any longer and run to her mother crying mammie, mammie, mammie…she ran to safety, to the comfort, love and tenderness found in her mother’s embrace.
“Mother” This one word - mother - is instantly recognizable in all its diminutive and endearing shades: mama, mamusia, mamcia, mami, mom, mamasha, mutti… be it in English, Polish, Russian, German or Yiddish – even in the language of the Gipsies! “Mama” - not father, nor brother or sister or uncle…. Not even “God” that many profess to believe in.
Mother… even in the depths of Siberia, in the lagers of Soviet Gulags among the dregs of the living: the thieves, criminals and murderers, one person, one concept, one word was untouchable: mother. The highest security a criminal could offer was to swear on the life of his mother – not on the Bible, not on God, not even on his own life. Insult his mother and you would be instantly stabbed or beaten to death, or he would die in defence of his mother’s honour.
And who will forget the incident with Zinadine Zidan during the 2004 World Football Cup Final between France and Italy. Italian player was seen tugging at Zidan’s shirt; Zidan ignored him and tried to walk away and then the Italian said “something”… Zidan’s reaction was instantaneous: he spun around and head-butted the Italian in the chest – the Italian lay sprawled on the pitch. Millions of viewers around the world held their breath in disbelief at what they had just witnessed… Zidan was sent off the pitch in disgrace. The same Zidan that was held in adulation by all France; that shining example of a boy from the slums of Algeria a hero in France; the same Zidan embraced by the President of France at the Elise Palace, threw away all that and a golden future... and for what? Only later it transpired that the Italian insulted Zidan’s mother! Zidane wouldn’t even repeat the words in self defence!
How tragic and painful it must be for a child to lose his mother. Who can understand the anguish of an eleven-year old boy at the death bed of his mother - his “mamusia”; who can understand his pain and fear as, with the last breath of his mother, he realizes he has just become an orphan… lost in the barren vastness of Kazakh steppes, in a world at war, a world that is totally indifferent to his fate. What now? Soviet orphanage, then a labour camp at the age of fourteen…
Franek, even at the age of 78, remembers that moment well; it is etched in his heart, soul and mind forever.
The events leading up to this moment started in the middle of the night on 13th. April 1940 when his mother, Ludwika, with her three sons: Wacek, Tadek and Franek Herzog were driven out of their home in Lubaczow, Poland, and after a three-week journey in freight wagons, were dumped by the Soviets in the emptiness of the vast steppes of north-western Kazakhstan. He remembers the place, the name, the “address” to this very day; he can draw an exact plan: Khazaksha SSR, Aktiubinskaja oblast’, Kluczewoj rajon, Kluczewoj sel’sowiet, posielok Lugavoj, kolchoz Czerwonyj Serp.
Many deportees didn’t survive the atrocious conditions of the journey and many more perished from starvation or sickness, or froze in the extreme Siberian temperatures. Alas, Franek’s mother perished. The inevitability, powerlessness against fate, and the pain suffered by the Hrzog boys in the last few days of their mother’s life are vividly described in Tadek’s dairy, Franek’s elder brother. In his own words
………… a few days later mamusia fell ill. At first we thought this was simply flu which, after all, was easy to catch, so we didn’t worry much about mamusia. One thing worried us, the fact that mamusia didn’t want to eat at a time when we received our first parcels form the Red Cross and we could put in front of her food that she could only have dreamt of when in state of high fever.
Mamusia was not in a state of physical exhaustion. If we had medical help at the time,
she could, undoubtedly, have been saved. True, our food was not exceptional, nor abundant, but mamusia didn’t have to work hard physically. Only now I can understand her frequent “lack of appetite” at times when, on our return from work, the four of us sat around the supper table. Now I understand those tears in the corners of her eyes, though she tried to hide them, when we asked for more food because “hard work drained all out of us” she would say there was none left.
After a few days of her sickness, we realized that something was wrong. Mamusia started to lose her memory, she didn’t recognize where she was, she started hallucinating. Then there were moments of apparent recovery (evidently when her temperature fell -we didn’t have a thermometer) and mamusia was alive again, tried to eat, talked. I re member one such moment, we were reading a Russian newspaper and we came across reference to that India agreed to accept 250 Polish orphans.
You see boys - said mamusia – I will die, Tadzik and franek will go to India and Wacek will join the armed forces.We felt embarrassed because mamusia was saying this in all seriousness. We started denying all this, as it happens in such situations, but it seems that mamusia, even then, had the courage to look the truth in the eyes.
It was getting worse. Wacek kept demanding medical help. But there was no chance. The doctor was 28 kilometres away, roads were snow-bound, no means of transport to fetch him and, anyway, people were saying: Wait, in February the doctor will be doing his regular rounds so he will visit the posiolek and see what is wrong with your “matieriu”. Wait? Wait for what – death?
And death more and more frequently took mamusia in its embrace. We gathered whatever remnants of medicine we could find, and desperate prayers and tears were all we could offer… That was all we had in our fight against her death. Her mind now roamed more frequently through the days of her youth in Wilno, she talked with her ancestors (as we understood from her ravings) and she would rcognize us less and less frequently… We looked upon this in fearful silence, still hoping.
Later, mamusia lost all consciousness. At times she would be jolted back to life by a heart attack; we would immediately run to her giving her drops of valerian to drink which we managed to get from some “good people”. Sometimes, other Polish deportees visited us; they helped as much as they could, they would shake their head, became thoughtful, gave advice and then left us.
On the evening of 17th January (1941) we were lying on the bare floor, while Franek, as always by mother’s side on the bed - slept. Wacek and I were keeping watch by a small oil lamp made from a bottle and a piece of wick – “kopciuszek” as mamusia used to call it. We were lying there half asleep, half on watch. Every sound would instantly awaken us. I remember how I would hold my breath to be better able to hear whether mamusia is still breathing. We were both afraid that she might leave us any moment, although we never spoke about it to each other.
Suddenly mamusia body stirred and she uttered a kind of a groan or whimper. We instantly jumped towards her and pressed a spoonful of water with a few drops of valerian to her lips. And at this moment, we, clumsy, thick-skinned boys, found the most tender of words and quite unashamedly poured them forth. We knew, or rather we felt, that a critical moment had been reached. Our state of nervous tension which had been mounting during the many badly-slept nights and daily realities reached its climax when we realized that the liquid we poured down mamusia throat, liquid which was to delay death if only for a moment, liquid with which we wanted to snatch a few more moments of life for mamusia, flowed down her throat as if down an empty well – to the bottom. Mamusi lips didn’t close. We understood – mamusia was dead. But our brain couldn’t absorb this; there was no room in our emotions.
I grabbed the lamp and brought it close up. The forehead, as white as alabaster, was covered with beads of sweat, as if by hoar frost. I trembled. No! It can’t be! I placed my ear to mamusi chest – I could clearly hear, loud heart beats: bum- bum - bum! For a moment I felt as if a wave of happiness, hundred times greater than the wave of doubt and fear which had rocked me, will now tear me apart. In the past I had often put my ear to mamusi chest and listened to the gentle, like a bird in a cage, beat of her heart. Now the heartbeat is strong. The crisis is over. All these thoughts instantly passed through my mind and, before I could open my mouth to tell Wacek, I understood, it was the sound of my own heart beat. I no longer had any illusions.
Wacek wept. I knelt by the bedside and felt my chest filling to near bursting point with a wish for revenge, a wish to run somewhere and tear someone apart, to snatch mamusia from his grasp. I didn’t cry. I was cut up by pain and a feeling that some immense wrong had been meted out to mamusia and to us.
Franek had already woken up by then but he didn’t know what was happening. We told him “Mamusia died”. How strange this word sounded in our mouths for the first time. And how frightening.
For me our mother’s death was something unreal. In truth I didn’t quite grasp what had happened. I didn’t follow mother’s coffin to the cemetery because I had no shoes…
Lugovoy - 2009
68 years is a long time. Many of the places - “toczkas” - in the steppes of Kazakhstan where deportees had been “deposited” by the Soviets in 1936 and the 1940s have seen many changes. Many have expanded into sizeable villages; some into small towns. Many have had a chequered history: the glory of Khrushev’s “Celina” days and the collapse coming with Gorbachev’s “Glasnosc”. Yet Lugovoy and its people have, somehow, been bypassed, forgoten even to this day.
Rather surprisingly, Lugovoy does show up on Google maps but they give it more clarity, more presence, than it merits in reality. It happens to lie on a road from nowhere and the one road through it leads to nowhere. In reality, there is no “road” to it, or through it – only a track gouged in the steppe by the wheels of vehicles following the tracks made by wagons drawn by cattle in those earlier years. If you don’t know where it is exactly – you won’t find it; it’s camouflaged in the vast flatness of the steppe. The greenery around Lugovoy visible on Google satellite pictures is deceptive, it’s not trees or shrubs – it’s nothing more than early-spring scrub grass hugging the ground; grass that will turn dry and brown in a matter of a few weeks. When the steppe is dry the village can be reached on foot or on horse, but a sturdy four-wheel drive is the safest option. But in winter? The village could well be entombed in deep snow and tracks leading to it quite imapssable, or in early spring when the steppe could become a quagmire. How could - how did - people survive in those early 1940’s?
But Lugovoy does exist; it’s still there, in the open steppe. Franek’s hand drawn map from memory is remarkably accurate, but time and people have made some changes to it. The same track runs through the village. The cemetery is there – much larger now - and a track still runs by it leading to the stream. The mill has since been taken apart, there’s no office building, no shop with a bench next to it, no stables – no horses were visible anywhere – and the remains of the cow shed and pig sheds are now used as a yard for machinery, old and corroded, lifeless, abandoned… Severe winter burans, snow, freezing temperatures and spring flooding have taken their toll – all zemlanki that Franek would have seen, including that of Paraski Olejnik, have gone – their inhabitants moved up the road and built new, or departed from the village. But it’s obvious where they once stood. In those early days, the floor of zemlanki was nothing more than a tamped-down earth smoothed and “painted” over and over again by cow dung. That and whatever else has found its way onto the floor from its human or animal occupants have enriched the soil. Now, the rectangles where zemlanki once stood are covered by healthy scrub and bushes – in sharp contrast to the native steppe.
Very few people (or animals for that matter) are around. A Kazakh woman in the village points to a zemlanka. Kusanov Ablay, a healthy looking eighty-year old man, lives here in a large zemlanka he built in the 70’s; his grand and great-grand children are around him. He is doing quite well, in the circumstances. He lives off 250 hectares of steppe that is remarkably fertile and grows healthy grain crop. Several outbuildings stand by the house and a large satellite dish sits on the roof. His great-grand son cuddles up to him when he rests on the bench in the yard. Yes… he was born in Lugovoy and has lived here all his life. He stayed - others have left or died. He could well have been Franek’s playmate, set traps for gophers, gathered dried cow dung for fuel… Of course, he knew Paraski Olejnik long dead now. Olejnik’s son, Ivan, now lives in Progres-Marchonbulyak, “over there”…
And what about those who remained here for ever? The cemetery stands a short distance away on a somewhat higher ground. The view out onto the living world from this spot brings a sense of peace and solitude; the gentle undulation of the land some distance behind the village doesn’t interfere in any way with the open 360o horizon. On the ground there is clear evidence of a mixed community: wooden and metal crosses on Catholic graves intermingle with Russian Orthodox double-cross on graves in metal grille enclosures. But most striking perhaps is that so many crosses on, evidently Catholic graves, have been pushed well down into the ground, all the way to the arms of the cross in many cases. It’s obvious that the earliest graves have long been forgotten: broken wooden crosses lie on the ground but, in many cases, graves are barely discernible mounds. Which one? Where is “mamusia” grave? Under our feet; hidden in that clump of scrub; is this the wooden cross his brother Wacek pushed into the ground? Who can tell now…
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No, we couldn’t identify the grave. But, at least, we were there! At least, Fr. Janusz, Edward and I could, and did, say a prayer for the soul of Franek’s mamusia at her burial place, and I brought back with me a handful of soil from a grave, perhaps even mamusia’s grave – who knows. And we could contemplate the serene beauty of the steppe and the gentle hills behind the village, and the peace in this world… when left alone by man. There, a little distance from us, once stood Olenik’s zemlanka where it all happened…
The same evening, mass was celebrated jointly by Fr. Janusz and Fr. Tadeusz in memory of Franek’s mother.
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…Looking at the photograph of the zemlanki and the hills in the background, I thought I could just see myself chasing gophers or gathering cow pats there. And that track leading to the cemetery - I used to stand there when wagons full of watermelons from the kolkhoz went by and, for taking out and showing them my glass eye, I got a water melon. I would immediately break it open on my knee, eat the juicy centre and throw away the rest. When a few minutes later next wagon was passing, I did the same, except now I run home with my prize…
An Advertisement in the Sunday Times Appointments section may read something like this:
MARKETING EXECUTIVE - A high-flier is sought to resuscitate a small fishing port town, and to regenerate hope and prospects for its inhabitiants. The right person needs to have vision, imagination, perseverance and, perhaps most impotantly, faith in the common sense of mankind. Faith in God or Providence is not required, but certain Don Quichote characteristics will be appropriate to the task. The challenge is not so much the windmills as the wind; southerly gales, in fact, that have already blown all topsoil off the surrounding region and now sweep salt and dust into the air in the heat of the day. And as the sea, the main attraction and source of livelihood here has moved out of town some 80 Km south (eighty Km!), it is essential to entice it back. The pay package will include eternal gratitude of the people and the Environment here. Yes, you’ve guessed it – the fishing port and town is Aralsk, in Kazakhstan
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My train pulls in to a station at 07.22 hrs. ARALSK. Am I the only passenger getting off? Clusters of men stand idly on the platfrom but only one or two other passengers emerge and walk towards the station building. A forlorn station on the main rail route from Moscow to Tashkent; it looks even less inviting inside. A taxi takes me to the one hotel in town; the road is empty, the hotel is empty; no sign of life in fact, so I have to wake up the receptionist fast asleep somewhere behind the desk. Is it always like this, or is it because I arrived in the year 2009, and it happens to be the 7th May? Is the town already forgotten and abandoned by all? But what can one expect after forty years of progressive sea-withdrawal sickness?
A little bit of money well spent will go a long way, so I pay for a solid breakfast at the hotel but, more importantly, I can leave my heavy rucksack here for the day. I am the only one sitting to breakfast in this huge eating room with some fifteen tables; my only companion is a woman barely awake at the serving hatch and… twenty, or more, two-litre beer jugs in disarray in the hatch! Is this a sign of debauchery of the night before, or of the day to come? “Oktoberfest” in May? Perhaps this place is not as dead as it seems.
As I step outside the hotel and look round to take in the scene, a welcoming party runs towards me: a tall, lanky man with shoulder-length blond hair grabs my hand in a warm hand shake. “Welcome my dear Russian friend, can you…” No, I am not Russian… “Oh sorry…” and he disappears as suddenly as he appeared – from nowhere to somewhere he only knows. And yet if he had stayed a little longer, I would have relented – he looked the twin brother of Maxim. Gorky after heavy drinking the night before.
I walk about town… Aralsk… I am seeing something unique; something painful, dreadful yet, somehow, uplifting at the same time; seeing with my own eyes the effects of man’s meddling with nature; I am in awe of nature. It has to be seen to be believed. Surely, other people must – should - want to see this; call them tourists if you will… If only they saw Aralsk, if only we all ccould see the melting ice cap of the Arctic, we would all believe; we would all want to “fix Nature”.
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As early as the 1920’s, Lenin saw that Aralsk held a great promise and he spelt it out in his Directive no.4. Its towns-people agreed to uphold this promise and the concordat between Lenin and the People, enshrined in a huge mural, is still in its original place on a wall in the waiting hall at the railway station in Aralsk.
“LENIN’S 4TH DIRECTIVE - WE WILL DELIVER 14 WAGONS OF FISH”
Lenin had faith in People. But then came Stalin followed by Khrushchev – they had faith in industrialization, in cotton - the white gold - in rice and water melons. People became dispensable. If God could part the Nile to let Moses lead the Jews out of Egypt, why, they could do better, much better. They could make an even greater miracle: they would feed millions more than the 5000 people Jesus fed with five fish and five loaves of bread. They could part the waters of Syr Daria and Amu Daria in as many places as they wished to irrigate barren lands; they could lead Soviet people out of poverty; they could make the Soviet Union powerful like Egypt of old… But they forgot the small print in the Bible: “Take from Peter to pay Paul”. And so, while millions of people were fed in one place and foreign currency rolled into Soviet coffers, others lost their livelihood in other places. And the Aral Sea, starved of its Syr Daria and Amu Daria waters, shrunk, then shrivelled, its fish gone, its fishing fleets marooned in the sand, its fish processing factories disintegrated. The land is now desert and dust storms of salt eat out peoples’ lungs. People have shrunk too, both in size and numbers… Look at the Aral Sea – how it was, how it is today – look for Aralsk sitting on the rail tracks in the upper right hand corner.
Just look at these appaling statistics.
Sea level M
“Lies, more lies and statistics” you may say. But these statistics don’t lie. Just walk up to the edge of what used to be the quay and look south west. Can you see what’s between you and the horizon? No skyscrapers, no zemlanka, not even a molehill to obstruct your view; and no water. And if you don’t believe your own eyes, ask the port crane standing next to you. It will tell you a story of man’s ingenuity and of man’s folly. Look at the steel carcass of this dinosaur, dead from man’s indifference; look at Its proud jib still gazing out to sea… What can It see?
1960 2000 June 2009
If only It could hoist you up to the level of Its eye… but It can’t any more, for its guts have been eaten out by salt carried by the wind whistling in Its ribs… Can It peraps see the first hint of a blue line on the horizon some 80 Km (eighty!) away; will It survive to witness the miracle of the Aral returning to lap at Its feet again – or will It tumble with the crumbling quay to be buried in rock, and only then will Aral come…
And if you don’t believe Its mute pain, ask the taxi driver; ask the museum administrator. At 54, the taxi driver looks old, wrinkled, parched by the wind, sun and salt. He used to work in the local fish processing plant; now he lives off an old Russian-made Fiat taxi parked just outside the hotel – the fish factory is dead. Yet, when he was ten years old, he used to bathe in the sea that practically lapped the steps of the hotel. The curator of the local museum also remebers how, when she was only three or five years old, she too used to jump into the sea, right here, by the entrance to the port, next to the hotel – that would have been in the 1960’s.
Now, in the morning the streets are empty, later in the day they are still practically empty. Eating places (can’t call them restaurants) are also practically empty; small groups of men come, sit at a table for a while, eat a little and drink rather more beer. Hanging over the main street is an atmosphere of somewhere, way out there in Mexico… a cowboy on horseback is riding in… people slink away, peep from behind doors…
Yet there is no evident anger amongst the few people met in the street; no rebellion against their fate; no hooligans, no drunkeness to any large extent. Perhaps it’s because Lenin’s Directive on the mural doesn’t say whether the 14 wagons of fish were to be delivered in 1920 or in 1927, every day or every year, in a five year plan, or perhaps in the next thirty years… So the pressure on people is off; they can relax, they can wait for the miracle when the waters and fish will once again lap the stepps of the hotel – then they will live up to their promise.
So why do tourists come her then - like the four Russians departing from the hotel on two Russian “Harley Davidson”motor bikes. Are they prompted by some kind of morbid interest – like crowds gaping at a dead body of a suicide victim in the street, or a shrivelled sea, a dying town? Perhaps they want to visit the “kladvieshche” the “cemetery” for fishing trawlers abandoned in the sand some forty Km away. But it’s not a burial ground; it’s a mortuary where the cadavers of three trawlers are on display. They were on display! For as the price of metals on world markets rocketed, grave robbers appeared. Two of the ships have already been carved up and carried away, to China perhaps? One still rests in place.
But why drive forty Km. when three cadavers of the “loved ones” are on display right next to the hotel, embalmed with many coats of paint and under the watchful eye of someone, for sure. But body snatchers have been here too as evidenced by some skin’n bones of several other vessels left embedded in the sand. Thankfully, my friend, the dinosaur and its mate are under protection.
And these two French cyclists sitting in the railway station Café – what are they doing here? Thank goodness Aralsk is on the main line station – that’s the reason. They cycled from France all the way to Iran, along the Caspian, downstream along the Syr Daria to Aralsk and are now heading back home, by rail via Moscow, then back on their bikes. It was fine sitting in the café-Bar sipping bear until the Café owner had one sip too many - just one mouthful really - and suddenly he was beyond recall to normality. His wife tried to pull him away, to leave us alone, but… Fortunately he was quite docile when over the limit – not aggressive, but still a nuisance. Better wait outside for the train.
But there is life in this town; there are people – many of them; there are cars and carts; minibuses, buses, coaches from by-gone years, coming and going to just about every town in Kazakhstan; noise and commotion. And all that exists at, and around, the market place, on the other side of the railway line – away from the main street, the railway station and the “sea”. The contrast and activity here is bewildering. Inside the recently-built market hall, the cacophony of colours is simply wonderful; fruit, vegetables, nuts come from Uzbekistan and their quality looks fantastic, but I can’t see any fish nor meat stalls - normally they are easy to find, but not here. I look around for them but someone tells me that if I want to see a genuine Kazakh village, this black minibus, next to me, is going to SHIZHAGA right now.
Nobody in the minibus understood Russian except for the driver and a young woman sitting up front – hopefully I will get a chance to ask her a few questions when we arrive. Forty minutes later the minibus comes to a stop and the twelve passengers get out, but by the time I hoist my rucksack onto my back, they have all disappeared – where? I am left with the driver and he is in a hurry to go. How do I get back to Aralsk? Is there a café, a bar perhaps? No, no! But he will be going back to Aralsk at 14.00 hrs - that’s three hours from now - and to pass the time away, perhaps I would like to go to the cemetery up there… He’s gone in an instant. I look around: not a living soul in sight, no animals; nothing moves; only sand under my feet and dwellings with few trees and shrubbery in between. The sun is already high up; the air is still, it’s hot although it’s only the second week of May …
Three hours! So I follow the desert track to the cemetery; it’s there, on raised ground about a kilometre away. Around me to the left and right there’s nothing except uneven desert terrain sparsely covered with grass. There, to my left, is a gap in the enclosure and, as I walk amongst the graves I am strangely aware that all worries have left me; I am at peace with myself and with the world - to whomever it belongs… The Moslem dead must be at peace too, they still have their little walled residence on this earth, some have a tomb or even a dome inside, others lie simply and peacefully below ground.; they can look down towards their village; they can see their home and, in their own way, communicate with their dearest – they are with Allah. I could spend a night here, at peace, without fear. And in a Christian cemetery? From early childhood to adulthood we fear ghosts, evil spirits, hell, purgatory – how difficult it is to get a place at our God’s table – for us, sinners.
True to the Moslem tradition all graves are heading north-east so that the dead, when placed on their right shoulder, face south-west, towards Mecca. The long line of graves is only three deep and the wind has taken its toll: many of the timber enclosures have been knocked down, some completely destroyed, but even the more ambitious graves are crumbling through erosion and the effect of salt on mortar; sand is gradually encroaching on them all. But it’s quiet at the moment - “dead quiet” – and it would seem that nothing could live in this salt-laden sand, and yet, almost right under my foot a fragile little yellow flower, and just a step or two further, a solitary pale blue desert iris and, there again, a clump of withered grass and within it a family of delicate iris!
The ground behind the cemetery slopes towards a small salt-lake, its crust glistening white in the sun, and opens onto an infinite horizon. As I stand there mesmerized by infinity, a sudden gust of wind from the south-east blows in my face. The world around me changes instantly as the wind skims the surface of the dead-lake and blows a white cloud of fine salt streaming towards the cemetery. Back in the cemetery, I take shelter behind one of the graves with a fine view of the village below. It’s peaceful and contemplative at the moment… silence, emptiness, my boots white from salt. And when it seems there is nothing but the dead for company here, a horse, somewhere to my right, neighs! Perhaps a live visitor is a rare event here for a moment later, a solitary small yellow butterfly flutters round my head and leaves; a fly settles on my knee but, evidently, my sweat, to which I am getting quite used to in this heat, is not to its taste for it also flies away… and I didn’t have the heart to swat this solitary sentinel of the cemetery.
A horse somewhere close by neighs again and suddenly there’s action in the village. Horses appear as if from under the sand and gather at the foot of a large lake by the village. Their numbers escalate; a horseman appears and, as one, they move towards the village. An amazing scenario - I am watching it with interest - but before I can focus my camera on the rider, the wind suddenly picks up and blows in strong gusts from behind the cemetery; a cloud of salt dust sweep over the cemetery towards the village and instantly the rider, the horses and the entire village is obliterated from my view! Vanished in a white cloud of salt! The wind dies down, the salt cloud settles but the horses and the rider have gone – a mirage perhaps? Gusts of wind become more frequent and stronger. Horses knew, the rider knew what to expect in this desert at around noon in mid-May and horse-sense tells me too that it’s time for me to seek shelter in the village rather than here, amongst the dead. With my hat pulled down hard and fastened under my chin I make my way towards the village… somewhere there… in that direction… I can feel my windcheater stiffening from salt forced into its texture.
The village is deserted and shrouded in murky air so I shelter from the wind and salt behind a wall of the first house I come across and resign myself to whiling away the remaining two hours sitting on some disused machinery. But I am not the only one with good “horse-sense” for on sand dunes to my right, three camels are racing towards the village; one in particular is anxious and soon leaves the other two behind in the race for shelter. A young Kazakh man comes up to my perch and sits next to me - saying nothing. I try Russian on him but he doesn’t speak the language, so we sit like this for a little while, “incommunicado”, wondering who is who, or what.
A little later a car pulls up to the entrance of the walled-in house and yard; my young man hops off our perch to talk to the driver who gives me a look of curiosity and, before I could ask him if, perhaps, he is going to Aralsk, he drives off. The young man disappears in the house and, a little later, reappears and beckons me in. Ah, Kazakh hospitality – how could they let a foreign visitor just sit on their doorstep! I am invited into the house to share their meal. Happily, I remember to take off my boots and wash my hands in the bowl by the door, and we enter… The floor and walls are covered with colourful carpets and my hosts are reclining so low on the floor that they are almost not noticeable at first! The man lying on his back on the carpet by the table tries to raise himself a little - obviously very old, or sick – and an equally old woman is sitting cross-legged at one end of the table. The table, covered with a white cloth, is not more than one foot off the floor; a large dish heaped with large-grain rice and meat stands in the centre and three large aluminium spoons are stuck in the rice; a variety of sweet morsels are heaped in a dish next to it. The young man takes one spoon, “demarcates” a portion of rice and gestures to me to eat. He can see that I don't really know how to go about eating so he runs off and comes back with a small plate which he places in front of me. Meanwhile the old man raises himself onto one shoulder, takes one large spoonful of rice and meat, eats from it, then replaces the spoon in the rice on the common serving plate; the woman follows suit; the boy sits on a stool and attentively watches (me).
What a wonderful opportunity to learn a little about their customs and their life. This old man may well remember the days back in the 1940’s when the Kazakhs were forced by the Soviets to abandon their nomadic ways for a life in kolkhoz.; perhaps he could tell me about those tragic early years when his father and other Kazakhs in the community had slaughtered, in their own yards, all their cattle rather give it to the kolkhoz… Regrettably they don’t speak Russian – I don’t speak Kazakh. In sign language I tell the young man that I am seventy; how old is the old man – seventy also; how old is he – eighteen – so we can communicate. Before starting on the next chapter of our “conversation” I happen to glance at the clock on the wall and, with a shock, I see it is one hour ahead of my time – here in Aralsk, we are on Astana time! It’s time for me to run for the minibus to take me back to Aralsk! The boy nods with his head - yes it is! I thank my hosts as best I know – perhaps I could take a photograph of them? The old man, with great difficulty, raises himself to a sitting position and I can see a flicker of a proud and delighted smile on his face; the Kazakh woman sits upright, the boy joins them – a snapshot of Kazakh life.
We can see the black minibus in the distance; the boy waves to it – what a relief! The only obstacle is the camel sitting in the middle of our way and HE is not going to move for the likes of me and a “boy” and spits at me in disdain! And here’s another obstacle in our way - two men supporting a third man between them; red, happy, smiling, friendly faces, wobbly legs from early drinking… take our photograph too! A black cow stands motionless high up on a pile of timber and stares into the desert – has she lost a calf perhaps? Three little boys, perhaps two-three years old, have just come out onto the road and settle down to play in the sand – our little boys play in sand pits, or in the sand on the beach by the sea; here they play in the sand on their own doorstep - will they ever see the Aral, or any sea? Two lean, big-horn cattle watch us sleepily from the shade under a tree…
My minibus driver is trying to be helpful: all Kazakhs live in villages now, in houses like these. What do they do for a living? No, this is not a kolkhoz any longer; they have horses, cattle, sheep, camels… No, they don’t live in yurts any longer except when they take cattle way out to pasture, then they will put up yurts for themselves – but it’s too early in the year for that…
Back in Aralsk it is late afternoon but the bustle at the bus terminal is no less intense. On the way back to the hotel I am stopped by a group of young boys – “zdrastwuycie dzieduszka, zdrastwuycie” – they like my hat! Happy boyish faces, lively eyes; they jostle for the best position from which to tackle me – with questions. The cheekiest and probably the youngest boy, jostles his way to the front and fires the first salvo: England?! London! Manchester! Football! Beckit? Becket? ahh Beckham… And how old are they? 13! 11! Yes we go to school… Oh, yes a photograph please… and they look at themselves on the screen with great satisfaction!
“Dzieduszka” – I have been called that before in Kazakhstan – “grandfather” in literary translation, evidently, it is a term of respect for an old man with grey hair. But they are young, they are Kazakh boys - the future belongs to them, but what kind of future in this “dry” town? Can they make the Aral Sea come home? I would like to return here to see my dinosaur friend again; to look upon the vast emptiness before him; to the peace of the Moslem cemetery and the salt desert around it – desert so unlike any I have seen elsewhere: in Egypt, Saudi...
Can anyone reverse a miracle-gone-wrong? Some are trying: the World Bank, IMF and others are funding regenerative studies, projects and investments. There is hope and the first signs that shrinkage of the North Aral Sea – the Kazakhstan part - may be stopped, even reversed.
Mr Khrushchev! What have you done?
What have you done! And all for the glory of Communism, for the “white gold” of cotton, for watermelons, for pumpkins… you have siphoned-off the waters of the mighty Syr and Amu Daria rivers. Did you have to mess with Nature and leave the Aral dead – a sea of sand?
I have already wept twice over the death of the Aral Sea; I now had to see where and how infections arose. And the nearest source was in Qizilorda.
Only 150 years ago, Qizilorda was little more than a Russian outpost in Turkistan. It was called Fort Perovski at the time in recognition of the General who conquered these lands for the Russian Tsar. It stood on the right bank of Syr Daria. Today it’s a large, sprawling, modern city.
I came in a third-class carriage arriving late at the railway station, tired and hungry. It was already dark – oh what would I not give for a comfy bed tonight! I was even ready to approach a policeman – in Kazakhstan! But this one wasn’t like our London Bobby, nor even like the policemen in Moscow of today; no, he was just like that policeman in Karaganda who approached me, like the policeman in Kiev that approached me, like the policeman in Tarnopol that approached me… like the policeman in Warsaw that approached me because my car was dirty and he wanted some pocket-money!
- A hotel? Follow me… (I followed this “helpful” policeman and, to my great surprise, I found myself in the railway station jail “imported” straight from the Wild West! A “civilian” in black leather jacket and breaches was on hand).
- Documents! Open your rucksack! Place its contents there. (Hell, that’s not what I expected! But I keep my nerve…))
- You don’t have the authority to inspect my rucksack; you open it if…
- What!? What! I don’t have the authority!? Open it… You might be carrying a gun…
- O.K. I will open it but I need two witnesses, one from the UK Embassy: or bring your superior here…
- What is “Embassy”..? (I try to explain in my double-Dutch Russian but the two ignore it and talk between themselves. The “civilian” leaves the post and returns with two other men…)
- Now open the rucksack!
- Who are these two men?
- They are the two witnesses you want…
- Oh come-on… It’s obvious they are shit-scared of you; they will do and say whatever you tell them to… Ask your superior to come… (Indeed, the two men were obviously collared straight off the street and were now visibly trembling)
- Look… I am tired, why don’t you lock me up for the night behind bars in your jail and I will talk to your superior in the morning..? (the policeman and the “civilian” look taken aback by this proposition and turn of events; that’s not what they were expecting. They talk between themselves in Kazakh and…)
- Follow him. Take your rucksack… (as I follow the “civilian” and pass the policeman standing by the door, I put my hand out and say…)
- Nice to have met you.
- What do you mean? Why do you say that? (I was just as surprised at my own words as he was! Perhaps they were a sign of my great relief that my bluff had worked!)
- It’s because I really like Kazakhstan; I’ve been here many times… (he shakes my hand automatically; his amazement still visible on his face)
Of course our “battle” took much longer than the time it takes to read these words; my nerves were jangling throughout… It was pitch black outside by the time I left the jail.
One flight of stairs, another... yet another… the “civilian” bangs on a door… a woman opens it and a shocked surprise comes over her face when she sees the “civilian” in black. Take him in, give him a bed… He spins on his foot and leaves without saying another word. I enter… Wow! It’s the station hotel; I will have a soft bed for the night, and soup perhaps; and it’s cheap! There’s no point in dwelling on these “little” incidents - all’s well that ends well - challenge, experience, frayed nerves, heart attack… that’s life. I slept well; it’s all forgotten by next morning.
A friendly taxi driver takes me to the old bridge on the Syr Daria - not quite all the way, for the policeman on duty at the bridge would have “approached” him too; would I pay the “toll”? So I walk the last hundred yards, past a huge mural on my left with its message now totally obliterated, and engage the guard. We chat about England, Poland, football... O.K. you can go, but no photographs, no photographs!
How can I not take any photographs! It’s a remarkable, unforgettable place! A series of sluices span the river - solid, impressive steel construction, as it used to be in the old days, as much attention given to its aesthetics as to its functionality. Calm water on one side of the sluices, a swirling mass on the other… I surreptitiously pace the structure to measure its length but with a policeman at the far end, with a gun slung over his shoulder, keeping an eye on me, I lose the count every time.
And now I can see it! It’s like drawing blood from an artery; you could argue it’s a blood transfusion for millions of people to keep them in life, but it’s killing the donor at the same time. No matter how well I describe it, just look at it through Google’s eye and you will understand… and if you multiply this blood letting 5, 10, 20 times… will you still be surprised that the Aral Sea is dead?
How nice - a bus-stop just past the policeman’s booth! A wide, straight road bordered by modern non-descript buildings eventually brings me back to the railway station. On the left, along much of the road, set back perhaps a hundred yards and rising a little above the ground level, runs what, surely, must be an “arik” - a covered culvert that brings the Syr water to the town. Another bus, another long, wide road… brings me to the new part of town and the new bridge across Syr Daria. People are proud of the bridge; it’s needed to cope with the expanding population and traffic; the old sluice bridge would surely have collapsed. As I pace the bridge, it vibrates with each passing truck or bus, and so does my camera. It’s long; I count paces and lose the count every time. Its waters flow sluggishly under the bridge constrained only by unregulated soft banks; it’s mid May, the river should be in flood, but this year like last, the water level is low, too low! But even in this state the Syr seems to come from infinity and continues slow, brown… into the distant horizon.
There is, of course, history to this place, museums and, surely, other items of interest… but not for me, not to-day. I will move on… to Jezkazgan, to Karaganda… to places that are much closer to the history I search.
Through the Outback – to Jezkazgan
That’s a bit of luck! Once a day, but not every day, a bus plies the desert route between Qizilorda and Jezkazgan; I am there on the day it does! 430 kilometres across the outback - only one or two distant peaks along the way: 203 metres, 260 metres…stand out like mountains lost in the desert. The road looks good on the map - E123 - a fat red line, but once you are on it, you realize that the “E” stands neither for “express” nor for “excellence”! The fat red line goes by another name too, a more appropriate “A344” – “A” for awful - full of huge potholes, subsidence, ruined surface… So you won’t find any cops with radar to book you for speeding; you won’t see anyone speeding; you won’t see anyone.
The road may be A-wful but the bus driver thinks nothing of it – he’s covered it hundreds of times; and even if there were two or three vacant seats, the bus would still be solidly weighed down for he himself is thrice my size! It certainly isn’t boring – the driver makes sure of that – for when the road surface becomes impassable we charge along the tracks in the vast, open steppe. The bus rocks like a ship in a storm and leaves a long wake of dust in the dry air, but the driver knows and understands it like the palm of his hand. It takes quite some time to settle down in the crammed interior, and a good deal longer for my stomach to come to terms with the rucksack bouncing on my knees, but we have time – it’s a full day’s trip.
Gradually but inevitably the desert draws you attention. It’s the month of May and the spring is rapidly transiting into summer; the sun is high and it’s hot, the ground is covered by a carpet of green – the kind of green I have never seen before! A rigid stem, like a stick two feet high, protrudes upright from the ground and, at its base, lie absolutely flat, right on the ground, several large, circular green leaves… each “stick” has thus demarcated its territory! How clever of Nature! The leaves protect the roots from the intense sun and reduce the evaporation of life-sustaining water from the porous soil; and no chance of any rogue seed penetrating the green carpet of leaves and taking root anywhere near the “stick” to challenge its right to life and water… now imagine millions of these “sticks” all around you as far as the eye can see!
Of course the bus won’t stop just for me to take a closer look at these remarkable plants and, regrettably, their Kazakh names had almost instantly evaporated from my memory. So we speed along the open desert track to the next remarkable sight. There are no shadows at this time of the day so it’s easy to miss the fault-lines in the desert but, there ahead of us and to our left, runs a horizontal ridge and a sheer drop – impossible to tell just how high it is; and there, again to our left, runs for miles and miles, an oil or gas pipeline, buried in some places, above ground in others - a reminder of Kazakhstan’s abundance of black gold. As we reach somewhat higher ground, spring has already progressed into early summer, and we are now driving rough-shod over an infant “forest” of millions of upright “mini-trees”, their stems perhaps two feet high, sprouting a large number of branches at their head – not unlike an umbrella turned upside-down and partially opened; another week or two, and they will turn into mature bushes, four to five feet high, covered with a mass of pale violet flowers.
Quite unexpectedly we stop. Passengers get out and I do too but it takes me a minute or two to straighten my back and bring back life to my limbs; and when I eventually look around, I can’t believe my eyes! I had always wanted to see a genuine “zemlanka” - the type of abode my mother and I, and thousands of other deported families, had built and lived in, in the depths of Kazakh steppes back in 1940, and here was one, right in front of me! Of course, the “zemlankas” of the 1940’s had disintegrated long ago, so I had in front of me a modern version of zemlanka, luxurious and spacious in comparison with the hovels of the 1940’s. But it is a “zemlanka” – its walls are only three feet above ground level with one small window, the living quarters are all well below ground level, and only the cooking facilities, and several attached outbuildings for animals and storage are above ground; it’s cool in summer and retains heat in winter.
The driver and I are invited for some refreshments and I almost stumble on the steps leading into the “bowels” of the “zemlanka”. Surprisingly, it’s well lit inside with electric light – not with a wick made from shreds of a shirt or skirt dipped in fish oil in a can, as it was then – clean, white walls almost totally draped with rugs, carpets on the floor, a long table barely one foot above the floor… and as I try to get my feet under it, I suddenly realize that I had not taken my boots off! How could I forget such basic manners and custom! But I did forget in my excitement! These foreigners… but the host said nothing, and I apologized on leaving. But in the meantime a bowl of “kumis” was passed around, but as I am not used to drinking fermented mare’s milk, the driver advised me against drinking it bearing in mind the rough bus journey still ahead of us. But the round, golden, home-baked, fresh loaf of bread was something different; our host cut it into thick slices, and I loved it! Only men sat at the table; women brought the food down to us, but otherwise were somewhere above ground and rarely came into view. On the other hand, the passengers and the host were quite keen to be photographed, some posing voluntarily.
After the disintegration of the USSR and the formation of the Republic of Kazakhstan, our host acquired land and set up home in this remote part of the country; he built the “zemlanka” in 1992 and now rears camels and sheep. The region looks arid and only lightly covered with scrub grass that looks green in the spring but will become scorched and withered by early summer, yet good enough to sustain sheep, goats and camels – three of them were scrounging not far from the household. But, perhaps, this household is not as remote as it seems – it is on the main road through this outback; we stopped for a rest here, others surely do that too, and our host tells me that only last year a Dutchman cycling solo through the desert stopped here!
The last leg of the journey took us through a landscape barely covered with clumps of grass; it was less exciting and eventful, but perhaps it is not surprising as I suddenly woke up at the outskirts of Jezkazgan.
Love at first site
See that small building painted pink? That’s it. With my mind and midriff contracted in the extreme, I quickly walk – actually run in tiny steps - over to the pink building for it’s been a very long and cramped journey in a microbus through the desert.
Oh… you are from England! How nice…. Here... put your rucksack down; it will be safe here. Go on; I won’t charge you… you can do it all for nothing… I don’t often get a visitor from England here. What a welcome!
A little later, as we chat about life in England, life in Kazakhstan and the “lucky” ones, I feel myself being charmed by my host – a big woman with a large mop of curly blond hair; one tender bear hug from her and I would have suffocated in the depths of her bust. But it’s her smiling eyes, her whole body and her bearing full of life and energy, and the goodwill written all over her face that are so captivating - an instant friend for life! It’s contagious – I cant’ help but smile and laugh in return.
We leave the small pink building together, hugging, heads together, to take a photo snapshot to remind us of our friendship whenever we feel down; two women with a broom and bucket in their hands suddenly shout: you cow! How can you do this! How can you pose for a photograph with a foreigner… in front of a TOILET! Cow! Ah… those “lean and mean” bitter, humourless and lifeless women – they just don’t understand! Don’t take any notice of them; they are jealous – says my friend – if you ever have a problem or need help… just come to me!
Early next morning I am trying to buy a coach ticket for Karaganda – no seats available today, come tomorrow morning! As I start pleading, a voice greets me from a near-by window… it’s my friend from the “pink” building; she’s now doing book keeping at the bus station! The next morning it’s the same story: no seats today come tomorrow! Where’s my friend, I wonder? Ah… she’s back in the “pink” building; she’s the Toilet lady again today, collecting tolls for the use of WC. I cry on her shoulder; can she help? What! No tickets – for you! Come with me! She grabs me under my arm and “marches” me to the ticket office – wait here! One minute… two… five minutes… she’s back smiling broadly; here’s your ticket! Have a nice trip… see you again… perhaps one day… and walks back to collect tolls at the WC.
Later in the day I am on the bus – it’s absolutely full, every seat taken; obviously, they must have taken somebody off the bus to find me a seat! I am seating right behind the driver, my knees up to my chin, cramped… but I am on the bus! Thank you my friend!
Somewhere half-way from Jezkazgan to Karaganda, in the middle of the night we stop at a road-side café in this vast open country… twenty yards from the café it’s absolute silence, only the stars above sparkle and shine in the pitch-black sky. I am spellbound; I have never seen the night-sky in an open steppe before; can you imagine starlight so intense that it almost hurts the eye? I envy my friend: not her duties at the WC… but those vast open skies, these summer nights… the shimmering stars that she could almost touch if only she was to stand on her toes and reach out for them…
I climbed the belfry with some trepidation. Narrow square shaft, not more than six feet a-side going up and up, almost total darkness, only a glimmer of light at the very top. Loose planks, steel ladder, loose rope and wires eagerly waiting to ensnare my feet. Hard climb up, easy and quick descent at the slip of a foot. No wonder they didn’t want to let me go up.
But from this height I can gaze out on the four corners of our world - peaceful, clean, expansive… To the East and South-East lie several huge water-filled coal pits; to the North lies the city Karaganda; to the West - open country covered in fresh green blanket of grazing land, single-storey blocks and individual houses set in greenery, animals grazing, railway track on high embankment; to the South – open road leading to the end of the world almost. Indeed, it would be easy to submerge in a feeling of detachment, solitude…. It’s just that I know that here, directly under my feet, at ground level, lies Fedorovka.
Look at Fedorovka from the height of 25 miles up in the sky; look at it through the eye of a Sputnik; zoom in on this place with Google Earth… and what do you see? awe-inspiring beauty of our marvellous earth. But zoom in as much as you will, Google will not show you the truth of Fedorovka.
And way up there, in the beyond, how beautiful, how enthralling, gratifying the Universe must look to the Creator – true, our Earth is there… somewhere - but of what interest, what significance, a pimple like Fedorovka would have been to Him? He had done His “job”, He had sent His only begotten Son once… what else?
No, one needs to come down to earth, to descend from the belfry, to forget Google... to see the warts on Mankind.
Fedorovka was born of coal – black. Its future history stamped with Stalin’s callous thumbprint. I didn’t need to ask; I could see in the distance, half a kilometre away, the huge embankment carrying railway tracks. I couldn’t see the cemetery from the belfry but, sure enough, it was there, running along the embankment, hugging its side - almost tucked underneath it – camouflaged by shrubs. And just one item, one cross amongst the hundreds gives the Fedorovka story away - a sturdy wooden cross, still standing upright in the ground with heavily-rusted metal plate still attached to it. No name, no date, just a number – 5248. Nowhere I looked in this cemetery could I find the other 5247 graves. What happened to them, where are their bones, their names, dates of birth and departure, their number plates…? In mass graves, in pits under the embankment, human skeletons holding together the rubble of the embankment – useful even in after death…? Or drowned in the coal pits now filled with water…? Fedorovka – a GULG lagier! Stalin - a wart on Mankind!
And yet, today, looking around me from the height of the embankment, the world is calm, almost serene. There, in the distance, through my telephoto lens I can see the church and my belfry tower – it’s so small, almost a toy or a drawing made by a child; what soul could have reached it in those years…? Late afternoon, early June - the best time of the year - wherever you look the ground is covered in lush green, cattle graze contentedly, miniature figures of people working in the fields, the rail track curves graciously into the horizon; peace… only the hoot of a distant train engine, somewhere, breaks the quiet… Fedorovka a GULAG lagier... really?
Indeed, in 2008 the barbed wire is gone, watch towers are gone, armed guards are gone and so are their dogs; hunger and misery have subsided, but people are still alive who remember Fedorovka of 1938; people who were part of the hunger, sickness, freezing; part of the forced labour gangs. They survived because, somehow, they were able to bribe, to smuggle things or inmates in or out, to sell something they cherished, somehow able to make friends; they were the born survivors – and the others? They were all corralled behind barbed wire enclosures in huge camps - men in one camp, women and children in another adjoining. They were Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, even Japanese; intelligentsia and factory workers, kulaks and peasants, criminals and murderers – their arms and legs was the one common factor. They were here to work, to dig coal for the industries in the Urals, for the glory of Stalin’s Russia. And they were worked to death in huge open cast coal mines; they dug, and kept on digging wider and deeper, and deeper until water broke through the bottom and flooded the mine. Machinery was abandoned, people were abandoned… how many of the 5247 rest here? Who knows, who bothered or cared to count; who would dare write about it? But people remember.
True, in 2008, Fedorovka is no longer a lagier. In fact, walking amongst the barracks of Fedorovka it’s hard to imagine life as it was in the 1940’s. The barracks were built by Japanese prisoners - solidly built - single storey but of very pleasing architecture, painted white and set amongst green shrubbery. Administrative building, social building, the refectory, are all still there - one would think that they had seen good times in the past. But get down to earth from the belfry and you see that the utter misery of 1940’s has been replaced by the utter misery of 2008. Drugs, alcoholism, broken families, unmarried mothers, orphans… Rubbish piled high in the yards and along the passageways between the barracks, cracks in walls, communal standpipe for drinking water… children play football with rubbish heaps for goal posts, dogs scavenge… a still pretty, blond, young woman happily poses for a photo and would happily give more for just a few dollars more… a matron stands at the entrance to the “street” keeping an eye on it all. And what am I? A tourist, a spectator? I come, I leave, and do nothing?
But there are people in Fedorovka who see human beings in those others around them. Like Sisters Monica and Katarina; they run an open house, open kitchen, open clinic with open arms to welcome the deprived, destitute, alcoholics, drug addicts… Sister Monica, a Volga German now in her late eighties, fragile but, still, the same smile and warmth enlightens her face as it did even in the 1940’s when felling timber in the lagers of the Urals. They act while others prefer not to see.
Or Fr. Stefan – tall, straight as a ramrod, all bones and muscle, hands the size of a garden spade, knuckles like hammers, wrist thrice mine, unearths boulders with a spike I can hardly lift, a Knight Templar in cassock, Ursus of the early Christians… And yet he mounts a bike and, with his black cassock billowing in the air, he speeds to bring the Holy Gospel and the Holy Communion to those still left behind. Who would have guessed that a heart full of warmth beats in that frame of steel? And Fr. Krzysztof who strove to build a church, a home for the souls of Fedorovka, only to see the world around him change even before the work was completed. For after the break up of the USSR, from the early 1990’s onwards, Fedorovka Germans returned to the new Germany, Poles returned to Poland… like the Jews from their land of exile in Egypt to their Promised Land. And now, just a handful of Catholics remain. Is their work worth it? Indeed. The answer is deep in their hearts.
And what’s the story of Spassk – another satellite lagier of Karaganda? A vast burial ground says it all. Three or four wooden crosses still protrude from the ground covered with lush green grass of early spring. Who knows how many perished in this lager; who kept statistics, who cared when bodies, in tens, were carted daily from the lager to rest here – no cross, no name, not even a number.
But survivors will not forget. And once Stalin’s legacy disintegrated with the coming of Glasnost, the French, Polish, Azerbaijanis and other nations erected monuments in remembrance of the tragedy here.
And not far, just a kilometre, or so, away, the white of lagier buildings cuts sharply against the green of the gently rolling hills here. They serve as army barracks now and the army makes sure that no telephoto lens penetrates lager’s secrets. But just a little further away, blackened skeletons of the original buildings are visible, and one wonders whether fire gave them that hue – to destroy all evidence perhaps?
It’s curious, sad, and tragic how
the wheels of fortune turn. In the mid 1800’s Stephen Poppov, a Russian entrepreneur
was mining in the Kirgiz steppes for copper, silver and lead to supply the Tsar
with lead during the Russo-Turkish war. Later, in mid 1860’s an eminent family
from Yekaterinburg, the Riazanoffs, were granted mineral rights in this region
and begun to develop copper mining, smelting and coal mining on a larger scale.
After the “rapprochement” between the Tsar and Edward VI of England, British
entrepreneurs were welcomed by the Tsar and the Riazanoffs leased their
concession to a newly-formed company – Spassky Copper Mine Limited. The company acquired the freehold to some 100
square miles of land here and begun to modernize Spassky Zavod smelter,
Yuspenssky copper ore mine, and coal mining in Karaganda. Company directors
were Mr. Arthur Fell M.P., M.E. Sadi Carnot (son of late president of France)
Prince Khilkoff, Mons. J.P Depelly, Mons. F. Robellaz, the Earl of Chesterfield
and two other Englishmen. By all
measures Spassky Copper Company was a great success and set a fine example for
social responsibility – some 20,000 people worked in Spassk and they had access
to reasonable housing, a school, church, and the best medical facilities in the
At this time, Karaganda coal mine
was eclipsed by the Spassky copper smelter but it soon became apparent that
Karaganda had enough high quality coal to supply all Siberia if necessary; a
railway link to Petropavlovsk would open up this prospect. Not surprising then
that the Communists nationalized Spassky Copper Mine in 1918 and, although in
the 1920’s Lenin tried to entice British and foreign investors back to the
Soviet Union, Stalin soon put a stop to that.
In 1932, Spassk was absorbed into
the Karaganda group of lagiers – Karlag. In 1941 it became a “speclag” - lagier
for “special” prisoners under special, restrictive rules. Stalin’s thumbprint
was now firmly stamped on it; the “population” of Karaganda exploded and the
burial ground begun to fill. Prisoners of war, political dissidents, “enemies
of the State” criminals, invalids… In the first three years of its existence,
the lagier expanded from some 1500 prisoners to well over 10,000 prisoners of
some forty nationalities. Everyone had to work in the quarries supplying building
materials for the expanding lagier and for the two-metre high wall – even those
without arms were harnessed like cattle to pull four-wheeled wagons laden with
rocks from quarries. Epidemic struck the exhausted prisoners; dysentery in
1949-50 and then contagious yellow fever in 1951; human cattle carted dead
humans to the burial ground. No material for crosses; no time for digging
graves - time only for one massive common dump in the steppe.
At last, after Stalin’s death,
conditions in Spassk begun to ease: more food, more humane treatment of
prisoners, and hope for release at the end of one’s sentence. And eventually,
by 1956, essentially all political prisoners, the “enemies of the people” had
been released. In the ten years of its existence, some 40,000 prisoners of 25
nationalities tasted the bitterness and tragedy of life in Spassk.
And what of it remains to-day? Only
the few wooden crosses barely visible above the grass, the raised ground under
my feet, the black skeletal ruins in the distance… and the commemorative stones
so we do not forget. A little further, Spassky Zavod still toils, still smelts
So what would you like to see of
Karaganda? From my belfry tower I can see the city to the north - an open
horizon, no skyscrapers, no beautiful skyline to draw your eyes; it’s flat,
uniform, somehow hidden amongst the greenery.
From the foot of the belfry bus A1 will take you to the main coach
station – a twenty minute ride – not far really, and from there, you can walk.
And I can already see that I was
wrong. I thought Lenin was no more. I found one in Postavy in Belarus where I
expected the old regime to be last to die – but here, it was a surprise. A
magnificent bust of Lenin in pink marble stands in the centre of the city –
true, there are not many people queuing to pay homage to the great
revolutionary leader, no one stops to read the inscription, but I am reminded
of a text from my “Learning Russian” book: “at
the International Exhibition in Paris in 1937, a huge bronze bust of Lenin
stood at the entrance to the Russian Pavilion. Many workers, peasants, soldiers
and other people visited the Pavilion but one day, as it was time to close, a
blind man was gently led up to the bust by a woman; he stood quietly, touched
the bust and tenderly run his hand down Lenin’s arm. The attendant standing
near by asked the woman who is he - it’s my husband. He was blinded in the war
of 1914 - how could I refuse him this one request; he had never been able to
see Lenin’s portraits. As the attendant looked upon the man with great respect,
he could see two sunken holes in the man’s face and tears slowly rolling down
his cheeks…” The book was published
in Moscow, but no date is given – it must have been a long time ago.
But to-day, here in Karaganda,
Lenin looks beyond the long, straight and wide main street with cars, old buses
and trucks speeding this and that way –
it wasn’t safe to cross the street under his gaze. He looked beyond, towards
the public fountain, the green park and the lake some 200 meters distant. An
underpass leads safely to the other side of the road; it’s busy, full of stalls
with food and just about everything else; it’s rather poorly lit. The fountain
ensemble on the other side cascades down in long rectangular enclosures and
it’s not, as you might think, there for decoration, or to impress the residents
and visitors; it has another purpose too: you can wash your clothes in it,
bathe children and wash your feet, children and grown-ups paddle in it... Will
this attract tourists? Walk down the
steps and you find yourself amongst slender trees and bushes, still in fresh
green colours although already covered in dust – and it’s only the end of May.
Further down is the lake, but it doesn’t leave any permanent impression in my
There isn’t much about the centre
of the city to excite a casual visitor, like me – Lenin is there but no sign of
Stalin – no busts or portraits in his memory. There isn’t really much to excite
a photographer either, not even policeman’s booth by the curb… but he IS
excited by my presence! Here’s an opportunity to fleece a stranger!
Hey, hey… you are
not allowed to photograph police installations!
Installations? I don’t have you in my camera… look.
No thank you.
looks at my passport and registration slip.
Hey you are
registered in Astana, but you are in Karaganda!
Yes I am in transit so I don’t need to register; if you
don’t know the rules, take me to the police station… I will write down your
number and name…
No, no! He’s
no longer sure of his ground, and when he sees a police captain approaching, he
stealthily tries to give me back my passport, but it’s too late. The captain looks
at my passport, we go through the same scenario… he gives my passport back to
the policeman and tells him to write a report. Feeling reassured, the policeman,
with alacrity, gets out his pencil, licks its tip but… Write!? What should he
write in the report? that all he wanted was to fleece a tourist, that just a
few Tengi would have delighted him… It’s all become too much for him!
There, take your
passport and go!
Indeed, it’s time to move on. I
walk along the main street towards the coach station – it’s a long, long walk
so, finally, I hop on a bus. It shouldn’t be surprising for, to-day, in 2009,
Karaganda is a city of 500,000 people.
In 1909, a hundred years ago, it was essentially “nothing” - just one or
two settlements around the coal mine supplying coal to the Spassky smelter and
a little to the industries in the Urals. Its location in a remote part of
Russian Turkestan was a serious disadvantage: 600 miles from the Urals and 1500
miles from Petropavlovsk, the nearest point on the trans-Siberian railway;
there were no roads, only tracks through barren land or open steppe, impassable
to horse or cattle-drawn carts in the spring and autumn.
was the heart of Karaganda. As an English engineer visiting the region in1906
put it “There, in the heart of Siberia, a
seam of coal is to be found as rich and as wide as any in the greatest of our
Staffordshire show mines” 1. It would
attain the prominence it’s due once a rail rink with the trans-Siberian line.
But by 1920 coal mining had practically ceased.
in 1931, the Petropavlovsk-Karaganda railway came and coal was exploited with
only one thought in mind – delivery targets! Nothing else mattered – not the
environment, not safety and, list of all - cost in lives. One of the Mennonite
Brethrens deported to Karaganda in 1936 describes what met their eyes “We arrived in the old section of Karaganda…
As far as the eye could see there were large and small piles of refuse. Smog
consisting of smoke and soot hung over the entire region. We were led down a
single street. Pitiful, crumbling earthen huts, built halfway into the ground,
stood on both sides of the street. Tall weeds covered the sod roofs. Here and
there were small dirty windows. Nothing green anywhere—only the monotonous,
In 1936, Karaganda was designated
an industrial centre based on coal mining and, by 1939, its population grew to
166,000. Then came the German invasion and when their rapid advance threatened
the industry in the Donieck region, all mining plant was moved to a safer
location, here in Karaganda - and so came the GULAG to ensure that coal supply
targets were met, and with it came the explosive growth in its population. By1972,
demand for water was so high that fresh water had to be brought in to the city
by the Karaganda-Irtysh canal. To-day some 550,000 people live in Karaganda,
but of the old part of Karaganda that the Mennonites had seen, practically
nothing remains – the penalty for thoughtless mining and the victim of subsidence
under its own foundations.
KOKSHETAU – the land of “точка”
As I am racking my brain how best
to translate the Russian word точка – point? full stop? dot..? – I come to realize what a genius
Stalin must have been. That one word encapsulates it all - full stop - like the
full stop at the end of a sentence - your sentence… of 10 years, 15 years, or
life sentence to labour in the wilderness of Kazakh steppes… your life
sentence! And that’s exactly what точка had been for the thousands of Ukrainians,
Poles, Germans… deported to Kokshetau.
Of course, even in a точка, young
people made love, fell in love, married, had children, worked; children went to
school, enjoyed roaming in the steppe, playing in the snow… You were “free”, you
could live – if you didn’t need a doctor or medicines; you could live if you
could scrounge or steel food… you were “free” to freeze to death if you
couldn’t find wood or cow dung for fire, or you could freeze to death on your
doorstep if you had to venture out when buran was blowing… You were “free”! The
only constraint on your freedom was the NKVD – the bane of life in a точка But
Man will adapt, absorb, survive all adversities - even deportation to, and life
in a точка. And over the years точка(s) developed into thriving communities, but
give people a chance, and they will want to go back to their own country, to
their own piece of land, to their roots, go home; the only thing that holds
them back is the fear of uprooting yet again; fear of how they will adapt, how
they will be received in the land of their forefathers.
And in the vicinity of Kokshetau
there are many точка(s).
I am on my way to Chkalov - точка
12 – the heart of the 13. It’s a long, long way from Moscow to Kokshetau. It’s mid-day
and time to eat. Just a little to the left of the railway station, a flashing
red sign invites me in; I am not expecting much, any food will do right now.
Black marble floor, black walls, bright orange plastic table covers; a young
Kazakh man with hands in pockets circulates inside as if he couldn’t make up
his mind… and a loud welcome resounds from the far end where four women sit
engaged in a lively exchange. Hey, come-on
in, come over, give me a kiss, come dance with me… Ah, so that’s what this
is - not much to eat but a lot on offer. But why not? I might as well eat here
as at the station. A big, buxom woman floats up to my table, hips gyrating
seductively, arms happily outstretched, ready to embrace, and a gorgeous smile
on her face… come, young man, come… you can have me for very little, I am generous
to-day… Many years back in Moscow I had worked out my self-defence tactics
in situations like this: “mama nie vielit” (mother doesn’t allow) Ha, ha, ha… did you hear that girls, “mama
nie vielit”! An old man like you and you still listen to your mom! Ha, ha, ha…
But it’s taken with good humour; I can eat in peace, and I can take a photo to
mark where one can find welcoming “friends” in Kokshetau!
As I get off the bus and look around,
I almost cringe in reaction; a leaden weight descends on my heart and mind; I
want to exclaim O Ch! but the words don’t quite leave my lips. It’s that
feeling of discomfort that comes over a man who looks poverty in the eye; a man
who doesn’t remember his own days of hunger, sickness and pain and, quite
unexpectedly, is confronted with a whole village afflicted precisely with that.
Or is it a feeling of guilt, of undeserved good fortune? Me – an easy childhood
and a life-time of well-being in cities like London, Chicago, Paris… They –
those left behind – still here, abandoned, forgotten? But perhaps it’s just the
greyness of the day; perhaps it’s the squat, dilapidated - call them houses –
that stand in unpaved roads; perhaps it’s the white barracks with gaping holes
for doors and windows, and no roofs… or perhaps it’s the few women in the
street selling home-grown tomatoes, potatoes and other “things” from a box, or perhaps
it’s the two shops I can see – I walk into one, look around and walk straight
out again. Perhaps it’s just me… perhaps people living here are not unhappy,
perhaps they don’t live in misery, perhaps… they were born here, grew up here…
perhaps they know of nothing better, have seen nothing better…
Talk to “babushki” - you will see
them in the street, in church, in shops; look at their hands - huge on narrow
feminine wrists - fingers gnarled from hard work, their faces weather-beaten
and wrinkled, but their eyes are clear and look straight at you, through you… And
you instinctively know that they know Life; they survived, and they will
survive! There is an air of calm around them and a shy but cautious smile
easily comes to their faces; they see you coming from another world – a richer
world, and they think it’s a better world… but is it better, fairer..? How can I explain it to them?
Listen to their stories and you
will begin to understand, to gain respect for their grit, their doggedness in
preserving their heritage, their language and faith, their life; respect for what
they have achieved despite all the adversities in their life. And you will
start wondering: would you, could you have survived?
Imagine… 1936 - June. You may be a
Ukrainian, Polish, or of German origin; your parents and grandparents have
lived for years in that Russian part of western Ukraine or Belarus; you have
worked hard, you have a family – wife three-five children, relatives next door;
you have a farm of 5-10 acres, maybe five cows, few pigs, a horse or two,
chickens… Ah! Yes! You have become a “kulak”! So, tomorrow we, the “People” take
over all you own, all you have achieved through your hard work… we take it over
for the People, for the kolkhoz! And you? The People have already made plans
for you! If you show enthusiasm for their plans, the People may allow you to take
some of your livestock and belongings onto the train and then you, and two thousand
others like you, will go on a journey… Why? Where? Don’t ask! Children are
excited in anticipation for they had been told they are going to the land where
silk grows, where they will be able to make silk dresses for themselves and
their dolls… But you are more sensible, more sceptical, apprehensive; fearful
of the unknown; you have heard stories of the open steppes, of Siberia, of…
As you cross the Urals, you know
your worst fears are coming true. Two weeks in the train and you are then disgorged
– the railway station is called Tainsha - two, three abodes and nothing but the
open steppe around you. Your destination is точка 1, or 2… or 12 or 13… There
is no silk; there is no food, no water – neither for you nor cattle. And where
is your точка; where is that place with a pole stuck in the ground and a board
nailed to it – точка No.12? A Kazakh points you south – thirty kilometres that
way. And when you eventually get there, a few tents, a water-well and
rudimentary tools welcome you. Yes, that’s all… and the open steppe. The camp
commandant reads out the First Commandment – if you don’t work, you don’t get
to eat! But what of the children, the old, the sick…? And the Second Commandment
– you are here to stay. How long can you sit in the open step and weep...? You
know the winter is coming – Siberian winter! Start digging a hole in the
ground; surround it with mud walls; cover it with branches, grass, mud; gather
shrubs in the steppe and cow dung for fuel… So the old, the sick and babies
will die… but you will live; you may get work at a kolkhoz – you will live…
things will get better with time?
… all we had brought with us we sold – only our bed was left and some
covers to keep us worm. Mother worked in the kolkhoz, she received nothing as
payment throughout the year - they used to tick off every day you had worked.
At the end of the year, mother would go to the office and ask what she had
earned and they would say that she had earned nothing! In fact, she owed them
money! What could mother do? We lived well in Ukraine; we had a big house,
lovely linen, antique crockery, clothes… we had brought it with us, but we were dying of hunger… So what could mother do… she
quit work at the kolkhoz and took as much as she could carry to trade for food.
Several women would get together and walk 200-300 kilometres through the
steppe, in winter with temperatures of -40oC, to other posiolki (villages).
There were several, old, established posiolki where Russians from the days of
the Tsar lived, they had huge fields, machinery, cattle, they were relatively very
well off and were happy to trade food for the “luxury” goods we had to offer. Mother
would bring back with her in a sack on her back a bowl of corn, some bread…
Mother was 35 then; our father was 33 when he was executed… And we sat and
waited and waited for mother to return… we couldn’t go out - we had no shoes or
warm clothes… Mother would take some old rags and wrap them round her feet and
legs and go like that… When she got back she told us that, on the way back,
they got lost; they stopped to rest for the night and were woken up by some noise...
they opened their eyes and could see wolves circling... they shouted, made a
lot of noise and the wolves run off… And so, quite soon, she sold all we had
brought with us… so she went back to the kolkhoz… we were dying of hunger. My
brother was taken into the army. I was five at the time so I went to work as a
baby sitter just to get a little to eat…
What could we do...? I had two smaller sisters, my brother died here.
We lived in this little hut… in winter it was totally covered with snow. Two
metres of snow was nothing; we said we had snow when there was three metres… we
walked on the roof, made a small hole through the snow and the roof to get some
light in the hut… we would sit on the stove almost in total darkness – there
were no windows in the zemlanka. We had made a lamp from a tin, put some oil in
it and made a wick from cloth, but how could we buy oil if we had nothing to
eat? So we sat in almost total darkness. We tried to keep worm by burning straw
in the stove but, by the end of the year, there was nothing left to burn…
Mother left the kolkhoz and went to scavenge for food; she would look
for spilt grain around the loading areas – this was war time and everything was
sent to the front – for just one Kg. of grain found on you the penalty was
immediate execution… Somehow we survived. But when the war with Germany broke
out, it was terrible – there was nothing to eat; nothing in the kolkhoz shop…
How did we survive? We had faith; we prayed… every morning mother would get us
to pray in front of our icons that we had brought with us. One day the
commandant came round and demanded to know who painted them… we said we had
brought them with us… Take them down,
throw them out or you will be shot! Mother said we can’t, they keep as alive,
if I do, my children will die… Another time the leader of the kolkhoz came and
demanded that mother take them down… Mother said: if you dare take them down – they
will not let you leave this place… He looked hard at mother and went away. Much
later, when the church was opened in Tainsha mother donated them there.
Faith kept as alive. We had no priests so mother would gather people to
pray. We had to hold prayers in secret. We would gather in small groups in
different houses, close doors and blind all windows, and pray. When NKVD saw
what was happening, they would call mother in and say –tovarish Swierczewskaya,
we see you are organizing illegal meetings for prayers… we are warning you, if
you don’t stop, you will join your husband. And mother would answer – you know
I have five small children… So what? They will join you too! But somehow they eased
off. Mother continued to hold secret prayer meetings. She baptized new-born
babies; she prayed at burials… until her death in 1991.We didn’t have a priest
then and people from other posiolek would ask mother for christening or burials
– the first priest came here in 1990; Fr. Bukowinski came here.
How were you paid on Celina?
Celina had sovhozes, people were paid for the work they did. In
kolkhoz, people were paid in kind at the end of the year according to the
number of days they had worked. Celina was well equipped-they had heavy
machinery, tractors, combines, all technology… They build homes for people.
Many stayed on in the sovhozes after Celina, married, set up families, homes…
In the 60’s under Khrushchev it was much easier for us; I went to a technical
school in Kokshetau; shops were full and we could buy just about everything we
needed. “commendatura” was abolished after Stalin’s death in 1953 so we could
change our polace of work or residence more easily…
And after perestoyka?
Oh… we were without electricity or power for two years…some people got
a combine, others got a tractor…
And your children, how is their
We all work to give our children a better life. My daughter, for
instance, has two degrees in teaching and now works in Petropavlovsk. Of
course, they are sometimes sjort of money but they have a much better life.
I heard that Germans were here
I will tell you about the Germans. Some Germans were here even before
us. But in December 1943 they brought Germans here and put them in the old
zemlankas. While we were allowed to take everything with us, they came naked;
they had no food and nothing for heating. All the men were taken away and only
women and children were here. In one German family near by, grandmother, mother
and daughter just froze to death. When people told the commandant he said just
leave them there for the winter; we will get a tractor to dig a grave in the
spring…Another family that had recently gone back to Germany told me that in
their family three people died of hunger or froze to death. Essentially all our
Germans have gone back to Germany now. Back in 1990 it was easy for them to go
back, now it’s much more difficult.
Were you friendly with Germans?
Oh yes, we were friendly with them, no problems; our children played
together…most of them were from Woroshylowgrad
Many Polish people came here after 1950. In Lida, in Belarus, it was
difficult for Polish people living amongst Byelorussians; there were arguments
about the church, violence… so many came here voluntarily…
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 Extract taken from “Kronika Herzog” translated by J. Kubica