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Two Lives Joined By Stalin's Terror

Even In Former Gulag, Stalin's Popularity Persistsi
February 25, 2013
Josef Stalin is remembered in the West as a brutal dictator who engineered mass famine, deportations, and the Gulag system. But in Russia, he is often seen as a strong and savvy leader -- even by those who suffered the most under his rule. In Vorkuta, a far-northern city founded as a labor camp, former Gulag prisoners give Stalin credit for winning World War II and have little to say about his policies of political repression. RFE/RL's Tom Balmforth spoke to former prisoners and other residents of Vorkuta about the complex legacy of the Soviet leader.
WATCH: Even In Former Gulag, Stalin's Popularity Persists

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By Tom Balmforth
VORKUTA, Russia -- Anna Krikun and Rasma Stodukh had little in common as young women. But their lives and fates -- like tens of millions of others -- were thrown together during Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's despotic rule.

For the 85-year-old Stodukh, it all began in the Latvian capital, Riga.

It was 1946 and she was supplying food to Latvian guerrillas who were fighting the Soviet occupation. Stodukh was just 17 at the time and says it was a matter of patriotism to help the resistance.

But she didn’t elude detection for long and was soon picked up by the Soviets.

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From that day, she never saw her father or brothers again. Her crime was terror against the motherland and her punishment was harsh: death by shooting.

Stodukh was held in a cell for three months, where she says she awaited execution every night, not knowing whether jailers were coming to remove a cell mate -- or to escort her to her death.

Then, one day, her sentence was unexpectedly commuted to 20 years in a labor camp.  

'Camps Were A Paradise'

Today, many decades later, jolly and dressed in a brightly colored sweater, she says arriving in Vorkuta’s camps in February 1947 was a vast improvement for her.  

"The camps were a paradise in comparison with what I’d already suffered. Here, they dressed you, they fed you three times. Whatever little it was, it was at least food," she says. "But the winters! Oh, the frost was horrible, horrible, horrible."

She was one of an estimated 2 million prisoners who passed through Vorkuta's camps between 1931 and 1957 as part of Stalin’s wider drive to exploit untapped raw materials by using forced labor. Two-hundred thousand of them would perish from disease, overwork, and malnourishment in the Arctic conditions.

It was here that Stodukh first crossed paths with Anna Krikun, who is now 90. They saw each other in the camps and knew each other by face but would not meet properly until decades later. While in the camps, Stodukh was too frightened to reach out to her fellow inmate.
"I decided it was better to be silent than to let something slip while talking," Stodukh says. "They had taught us to hold her our tongues."

Tortured And Confessed

Krikun, a native of the Crimean city of Sevastopol, was a few years older than Stodukh.
Anna Krikun, 90, in the bedroom of her apartment, where she lives alone
Anna Krikun, 90, in the bedroom of her apartment, where she lives alone
Her father was shot by the Bolsheviks in 1924. In 1939, Krikun moved to the southern Russian city of Oboyan with her mother and stepfather.

When Oboyan fell to Nazi occupation in November 1941, Krikun made money working as an interpreter for a German military aide. It was a "crime" that shaped her life. Almost as soon as the Red Army liberated the town seven months later, she and her mother were arrested.

The official document certifying Anna Krikun's freedom, dated September 27, 1956.The official document certifying Anna Krikun's freedom, dated September 27, 1956.
The official document certifying Anna Krikun's freedom, dated September 27, 1956.
The official document certifying Anna Krikun's freedom, dated September 27, 1956.
Krikun was tortured for weeks with sleep denial -- a method known as the "conveyor" -- until she confessed to betraying the motherland and agitating against the Soviet Union.

Eventually, after a litany of horrors that included working among corpses and being forced to march barefoot for 60 kilometers, she was sent to the labor camp in Vorkuta, 150 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle.

The two women shared these and other memories when they met formally for the first time through the Memorial human rights organization.

Today, both Krikun and Stodukh remain in remote Vorkuta. Both are too frail to leave their apartments.

They have become friends, though, and every now and again call each other up for a chat.

Tom Balmforth

Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics.


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