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'These Things Are My Father': Letters Are All That's Left Of Gulag Prisoners

  • Melanie Bachina
  • Robert Coalson

This letter from a Gulag prisoner in the Tomsk exhibition shows the work of the censor's pen.

This letter from a Gulag prisoner in the Tomsk exhibition shows the work of the censor's pen.

TOMSK, Russia -- "No matter where I look or what I think about, everything seems to me gloomy, worrisome, and generally hopeless," Moscow University professor Aleksei Vangengeim wrote in an undated letter to his wife from the mid-1930s. "And only my home, with my dear and loved ones, seems to me clear and joyful, a star that illuminates my way."

Vangengeim, the founder of the Soviet Union's state meteorological service, was arrested in 1934 and sent into Stalin's labor camps. In 1937, he was executed. His crime -- issuing false weather forecasts in an attempt to sabotage Soviet agriculture.

The letter is part of a current exhibition at the Memorial Museum of the History of Political Repression in Tomsk titled "Letters From Papa."

"The letters are very touching," says museum director Vasily Khanevich. "It is amazing how people in labor camps continued to worry about their children and tried to participate in raising them."

Most of the documents are on cheap paper, written in microscopic scrawl to take full advantage of the space. Some are scarred by the thick, black ink of the censors' pens.

Vangengeim addressed several pages of each letter he wrote home from the Gulag to his daughter, Eleonora or Ella, who was around 4 years old at the time. He sent her dried leaves and sketches of the birds and animals he saw at the Arctic Solovki prison camp. He wrote her riddles and word problems.

A display case of effects and letters from a Gulag prisoner

A display case of effects and letters from a Gulag prisoner

Eleonora went on to become a respected scientist herself, a leading specialist on mammoths.

In contrast to the many letters from Vangengeim that survived, only one letter and a few hand-drawn postcards remain from Nikolai Klyavin, arrested in 1938 for "anti-Soviet agitation."

The colors on the cards showing characters from fairy tales like "The Three Little Pigs" or "Little Red Riding Hood" are still bright, cheery.

"It is surprising that a man who was dying of hunger could draw such bright pictures," museum director Khanevich says. Klyavin died in a camp in 1943.

The Tomsk museum is located in the former local headquarters of the Soviet NKVD secret police, the predecessor to the KGB. Visitors can pass through the heavy iron doors of the cramped cells and peer through the tiny windows high up near the ceiling. The corridors are decorated with photographs of many of the repressed people who passed through this nightmare in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s.

This place calls to me because memory lives here."

"This place calls to me," says Marta Alekseyeva, "because memory lives here."

The letters of Marta's father, architect Boris Alekseyev, are featured in the exhibition.

"Sketches, drawings, books, photographs, and -- most important of all -- the letters," she says. "These things are my father."

Boris Alekseyev was first arrested in 1933. His five-year prison sentence was reduced to exile in western Siberia, where he married his wife and had two daughters. Marta was born in 1937.

In 1940, Alekseyev was arrested a second time. The family moved to Tomsk in a bid to be closer to him. Initially, he wrote often, although he was frequently transferred from camp to camp and his wife's replies rarely reached him.

His wife died before his release from prison and the daughters were raised by relatives. No one spoke of her father, Marta says, and she herself was afraid to mention his name. It wasn't until she was in her 50s that she and her sister were able to find out any information about him.

After he was released from the camps, he was sent to a special settlement in the Far Eastern region of Magadan without the right of correspondence. The last record of him dates to 1952, and his fate is unknown. Marta continues searching.

Some of his letters survived. In one, he reproaches his wife, saying: "Your entire letter is about the price of food. It would be better to write in detail about the children and about your life."

"Kiss Marta for me," he writes in another, "and tell her that Boba thinks only of her."

Written in Prague by RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting from Tomsk by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Melani Bachina
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to