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Home > About Kotlas > History > Gulag > Kazimierz Zybert

Archives of the NKVD in Archangel — Exactness, Order

by Kazimierz Zybert

At the Union of Siberyaks [Siberian Deportees], I was told that I needed only a certificate of repatriation in order to get certain small pension privileges for having been sent to the USSR during the war. That was precisely the one document from those years I did indeed have. But as a souvenir I wanted another one. I wanted to have serious proof that I was in fact there, that in an Archangel camp in the Kotlas region, at the age of 14, I had to serve as a lumberjack in the Limenda Forestry Enterprise, in the settlement called Yagodnoye.

Maybe it was a whim, but, by God, everyone has something from those years — either an Auschwitz number on his arm; some kind of military medal from the partisans; for Warsaw, for Monte Casino, some kind of smuggled messages; arm-bands from the Uprising; arm-bands from the ghetto; some kind of diploma — but I had nothing, only a certificate that I had returned. No, I was not any kind of combatant. I knew that my "wartime losses" were minuscule compared with others'. There, near Kotlas, fate treated me relatively leniently. After all, this wasn't the classic Soviet gulag. It was a normal settlement without barbed wire, without guard towers, without gangs of brutal jailers, but instead a small "settlement" — three little barracks forming a cross, around which were hundreds of deportees and their families. There was one commandant with a revolver in his belt, that's all. How about escaping? Please, I'd like to see you go out into the Archangel taiga, but I don't advise it.

That's all true, but please believe me that it wasn't pleasant there. That was the most tragic period of my life, of all my life, not only of my childhood. I don't want to trade stories, but I had to enlighten a certain distinguished ambassador when he started to make stupid remarks about how I would willingly trade my six years of ill-treatment for a few months of his internat [which can be either a student dormitory or a reform school].

And so I commenced my search for traces of my stay and my work in the forests of the Archangel Region. For nearly two years my correspondence with our consuls in Russia and in the Ukraine dragged out. I kept getting the polite information that this matter must take a long time. I thought to myself: Kotlas is a district center, . . . [and thus] there has to be a local newspaper there. I addressed a letter: "To the editorial staff of the district paper in the city of Kotlas". I addressed the journalists of that newspaper privately with a request to find someone who could affirm the facts already known to me from 51 years ago. Maybe in this undertaking some trail would turn up. Maybe in Yagodnoye the barracks still stood. Maybe someone remembers details that I myself could know?

An answer came, or rather a letter from Kotlas, from a certain Irina Andreyevna Dubrovina. Irina wrote that first of all, the newspaper simply printed my letter. . . and second, the letter was also turned over to her, because she was the Chairperson of the Kotlas chapter of the organization Sovest (or "Conscience") and because that organization looked after the interests of victims of the Stalinist terror and represented their interests. Third, after the appeal in the paper, there answered (along with others) a certain Maria Koposova, who remembered me and my (deceased) sister well from the settlement of Yagodnoye. It turns out that she was working in the kitchen at that time, and what was the most uncanny thing of all, was that Koposova, whose maiden name was Makhina, was the daughter of that commandant who guarded us there, Grigory Makhin, and whom I also mentioned in the letter. Fourth, Irina Dubrovina in the name of Sovest sent a request to Archangel for documents proving my exile there.

Everybody doubted the success of this last mission. Especially I, who knew from personal observation the bureaucratic manner of Soviet authorities, didn't believe that in distant Archangel there would be found a trace of paperwork about a certain young kid who was lost in a little settlement in the backwoods of the Kotlas forests.

It was unbelievable, but then it came! Irina from Kotlas sent me another letter, and with it was the most authoritative document, which for me, and probably for many others, was a true revelation. There was a lot more than I had expected, than I had dared to dream of.

It was an official letter, on an official form, stamped with the government emblem and with two round seals and two signatures. At the top the letterhead: "MSV USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Executive Committee of the Archangel District Soviet of Peoples' Delegates", the address, street, even telephone number, if one wanted to call, "teletype 125", the date, the case number.

And the thing itself: "Attestation of the Archives". There [it was written] that in accordance with documents in the files, . . . that such-and-such (me) together with his family, his father and sister, was deported to the Kotlas region; that from July 18, 1940 (who could have remembered that date?) he worked in the Limenda Forestry Enterprise as an unqualified worker (How is that, "unqualified"? I was a regular lumberjack); furthermore, that on October 8, 1941 (who remembers that date?), they were on the list of deportees "taken" on the basis of a Decree of the Presidium of the Highest Councils of the USSR and were amnestied as Polish citizens. (That was a very important comment. It meant that we were exiled also solely because we were Polish citizens). And now the key thing, I cite: "References: General File No. 7, Personal File No. 3889". Precision, system, accuracy, order — convulsive, like the Germans — waking dream. . . .

And now several words about Irina Dubrovina:

She comes from Stalingrad [now Volgograd, a city 570 mi. S of Moscow]. She was 10 years old when they arrested her father, a teacher, and sent him somewhere beyond Vorkuta [which is near the Arctic Circle]. In order to get into the university in Leningrad, she had to hide that she was the daughter of an "enemy of the people". When she graduated and had to accept a job offer, she was already afraid to hide it, so she was sent, as she writes, "into the far reaches", to Kotlas. She arrived there in the year of Stalin's death. In cold Kotlas (I read that right now it's -40 °C. I believe it, as I myself lived through -57 °C), she took root, and had her family, with grandchildren. [Now] she's retired and puts all her energy into the Kotlas Sovest, devoting herself totally to the ideas of that organization — help to the living, memory to those who died. How beautifully, with such fervor, she writes about her sacred work!

Here is some information about "Conscience" which is contained in Irina's letters: Sovest was organized in Kotlas in 1989, right after it was founded in Archangel, the provincial capital. It is, as we would define it, "a self-governing, independent organization", though in concept it has much in common with the Russia-wide organization "Memorial", which is well known to us. It brings together the victims of Stalinist terror and their families, hence, one can assume, almost all the citizens of the Archangel taiga, and certainly of Kotlas. For it is necessary to know that Kotlas was a special place on the map of Gulags. Here at one point ended the rail line to the east and north. From here on foot, in sleds and on barges prisoners were herded into the endless expanses of the Archangel and Komi taiga, which were literally sprinkled with camps and involuntary work camps. Here was the transit station for prisoners who were headed in the direction of the White Sea, the Barents Sea, and Vorkuta. Here prisoners after their release settled and brought their families or formed new ones.

I must say that Kotlas is almost a Polish village; it's populated to a large degree by Polish exiles even from the 1920's and 1930's. Either whole Polish villages from the Ukraine were displaced here, or [people were sent here] simply within the framework of the policy of raskulachivaniye [dispossession of the kulaks]. During his exile to Yagodnoye, my father's glasses were broken and the commandant allowed him to go to Kotlas to get new ones. He said that he heard Polish on the street there, and the Polish optician had been exiled there in 1928. I know that among the Polish Sybiraks there are many "Archangelites" and "Kotlassians". I consider Kotlas a very important point for us on the map of Europe.

From Polityka, a Warsaw weekly, Jan. 18, 1992