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The Great Terror: A Fear That Spared No One

The Solovetsky Stone on Moscow's Lubyanskaya Square honors Stalin's victims (AFP) On August 13, 1990, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev ordered the rehabilitation of millions of people killed and jailed under Josef Stalin. Stalin's repressive campaign reached its peak in 1937-38, a period that is today known as the Great Terror. In this part of a series of articles on the Great Terror, RFE/RL tells the stories of families victimized by Stalin's campaigns of repression.

August 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- No one was spared -- the Great Terror spanned all age groups, genders, professions, and ethnic backgrounds across the Soviet Union.

Vladimir Besleaga, a prominent Moldovan writer, was six years old in 1937. He recalls the climate of fear that hung over his small village in what is now Moldova.

Awaiting The 'Black Crow'

"During this period, people in the village were being arrested on a massive scale," Besleaga tells RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service. "Every morning, the neighbors would ask: 'So, who's been taken away last night?' The words 'black crow' were on everyone's lips. That referred to the car that came in the depth of night to arrest people."

This was also the time when reading and writing in Romanian became a crime. Books were confiscated and the Romanian language was banned from schools.

Despite the risk of being denounced, Besleaga's mother secretly taught him to read Romanian with a zoology manual stolen from a government storeroom. Besleaga says he has never completely shed the fear in which he spent his childhood.

"Fear enveloped everyone, no one could say anything openly," Besleaga says. "People were vigilant so that nobody would report on them. The fear was so great that it's still in our blood to this day."

Stalin's regime, wary of the well-educated, cracked down particularly hard on intellectuals.

In 1992, archeologists discovered a mass grave outside the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. It contained the bodies of 138 intellectuals and high-ranking officials shot and buried in secret.

Mar Baijiev is a famous Kyrgyz playwright and former lawmaker. His father died in prison during the Great Terror.

"Orders were given to arrest, shoot, exterminate all those who were educated and understood what was happening," Baijiev tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. "Just look at the Atabeyit, how many great people are resting there. There are no words to describe it, these were ghastly times. While our fathers were in prison, we were ordered to recite slogans such as 'long live Stalin, hurray!' There was such huge propaganda at that time. But what else could we do? My father's body was buried at [Kazakhstan's] Karaganda [prison camp.] I've visited his grave there."

'Without Right Of Correspondence'

The Belarusian poet Todar Klyashtorny also lost his life during the Great Terror. His daughter, Maya Klyashtornaya, tells her family's story to RFE/RL's Belarus Service.

"I was born in 1937. My father was already in prison, my mother was in detention," Klyashtornaya recalls. "Once, through the intervention of an acquaintance who was a lawyer, my parents were granted a meeting. Both were so shocked at each other's disheveled appearance that my father lost consciousness."

Klyashtornaya's father was executed a few month after this reunion. But only much later did her mother learn of his fate.

"She hoped that he would be released since she'd just had a baby," Klyashtornaya says. "She hoped up to the very end, until they told her that he was sentenced to 10 years in jail without right of correspondence. This essentially meant that the person was no longer alive. This verdict was used when people were to be executed: sent away for 10 years, to some unspecified destination, without right of correspondence."

Like many relatives of so-called "enemies of the state," Klyashtornaya and her mother served time in a prison camp.

Klyashtornaya's tragic childhood has shaped her whole life.

After the Soviet collapse, she became the president of an organization formed to protect the memory of the repressions. Today, she takes care of a memorial built on the site of a mass grave outside Minsk.

Ethnic minorities suffered heavily as a result of the repressions and other Stalin-era policies. While Chechens were deported to Central Asia in 1944, ethnic Koreans were forcibly displaced as early as 1937. Many community leaders were executed.

All-Encompassing Repression

Between September and October, 1937, approximately 170,000 ethnic Koreans living in the Soviet Union's Far East were rounded up and herded onto cattle trains bound for the bare steppes of Central Asia. The official motive: "Suppress the penetration of Japanese espionage."

The parents of Roman Shin, a lawmaker in Kyrgyzstan, were among the deported Koreans.

"They were deported without being asked anything, in cattle trains," Shin tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. "My parents were also deported. People were sent to Kazakhstan, to the steppe, or to Uzbekistan. We can praise our government for having already rehabilitated a great number of Koreans, although many died without having been rehabilitated."

The rehabilitation process is slowly moving forward as former Soviet countries gradually unlock their archives.

But millions of people scarred by their childhood under the Great Terror are still hoping to obtained redress for their jailed, tortured, or murdered families.

Russians In The Former Soviet Union

Russians In The Former Soviet Union

Click on the map to see how many Russians live in each of the former Soviet republics.

RUSSIANS OUTSIDE OF RUSSIA: A total of some 30 million ethnic Russians remain in the republics of the former Soviet Union, including large diasporas in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. This historical legacy has often been a source of tension between Russia and its neighbors. "Support for the rights of compatriots abroad is a crucial goal," Russian President Vladimir Putin said in his April 2005 state-of-the-nation address. "It cannot be subject to a diplomatic or political bargaining. Those who do not respect, observe, or ensure human rights have no right to demand that human rights be respected by others."


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