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The Great Terror: Victims Of Stalin's Campaigns Remember

Maya Kofman (RFE/RL) Josef Stalin's campaign of repression reached its peak in 1937 and 1938. It took more than 50 years before the millions of people killed and jailed under Stalin's regime were rehabilitated by the Soviet government, with an order issued by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on August 13, 1990. In part of a series of articles related to the 70th anniversary of what is today known as the Great Terror, victims recall the toll Stalin's campaign took on their lives and the lives of their families.

MOSCOW, August 13, 2007 -- RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent, Chloe Arnold, spoke to two women who were forever scarred by Stalin's campaigns of repression.

Maya Kofman:

"[I'm] Maya Lazarevna Kofman. I'm 77. When her husband died in 1893, my grandmother took my mother and her two younger brothers abroad to France. Her husband, whose surname was Gerzenstein, was from the same Gerzenstein family that was murdered by the Black Hundred [supporters of the Tsarist regime in the early 20th century], and so life was difficult for them at that time. He had been an engineer, one of the few engineers in Russia.

"My mother lived all her life in France until she was 30 years old. And my father studied in France. First, before World War I, he went to study in Brussels with his brother. But during the war, from 1914 to 1916, they were held as prisoners of war in a German prison camp. After that my father went to France, where he met my mother. At that time in Europe there was high unemployment, and it seems that the Soviet Embassy [in Paris] was keen to recruit specialists to the Soviet Union.

"So while they were still in France, my parents registered as Soviet citizens. Many conversations were had, arms twisted, everything that could have been done to persuade them to go [to the Soviet Union] was done. And so a lot of people from Europe went to the Soviet Union to build a bright future, to build communism. And they truly believed in their cause. When I read books about those times, I find it strange that they only heard one side of the story. Already from the 1920s, the names of people who had fled Soviet hard labor camps, or managed to escape in some way, had been published. This was already known in Europe. But a determined man closes his eyes to all that.

"So my parents returned to the Soviet Union and started work. They returned in 1930. In 1937, they were sentenced to prison. They had summoned my mother's mother, my grandmother, [from France] to help with my birth. I was born two months after my mother returned to the Soviet Union. My parents -- well, we were told nothing about my parents. There was a rule at that time that there was to be no written contact [with prisoners] for 10 years. It felt, practically, as though they had been executed."

"And then, after many years, when I received my parents' documents, it turns out that they had been shot, in June 1938. They spent just half a year in prison. Why were they sent to prison? [laughs] They had come here from abroad, and they were specialists in some field, I suppose. I don't know. They were sentenced under Article 58.6 [of the Soviet Penal Code]: espionage. And worse than that: group espionage. They sent my father, his younger brother, and my mother to prison.

"My brother's father was somehow able.... I'm not sure how he behaved during the interrogations, he was perhaps more tamed, knew how to behave, because in Bessarabia [latter-day Romania] he had come into contact with the Siguranta [the Romanian secret police under communist rule]. And so my uncle [escaped execution and] was instead sent to Kolyma [region, site of numerous labor camps]. He received three sentences there. He was never freed. He spent five years there. Then there was the war. Then another five years. Then endless resettlements. Then, in 1950, when they started sending people to prison again, he committed suicide.

"My mother and father were executed in June 1938, very quickly. They weren't in prison for long. I must have been 6 1/2, seven. I was left with my grandmother. Of course I remember my parents, I remember them to this day. I remember my mother's face, my father's face, and a few, short episodes from my childhood with them. Then, when my grandmother died in 1941, they came for me again to take me to the children's home.

"I have always had problems. When I was going to university I had two negative points on my curriculum vitae: the first was 'point five' [on my passport], that's to say that I am Jewish, and the second was that my parents had been repressed. First, I tried going to university, but it turned into a joke. From the very beginning they said to me: 'Please, don't get involved. There's no point.' I had wanted to study biology.

"The following year, I went to the Timiryazevsky [Agriculture] Academy [in Moscow]. I still wanted to study biology. But because of my history, they wouldn't let me take the exams, even though I was a good student. Eventually, I ended up at the Oil Institute, where they took people like me. And then, a year and a half later, I took all my exams and passed them and ended up as a qualified geologist.

"I was never arrested. Perhaps I was lucky. Because now, when I read people's letters and books, I know that there were many children of those who were shot or arrested who were themselves sent to prison."

Suzanna Pechura:

"I'm Suzanna Solomonovna Pechura. I'm 74 years old. I was a prisoner from January 18, 1951 to April 25, 1956. I was sentenced to 25 years, and I served five years.

Suzanna Pechura (RFE/RL)

"I was imprisoned because some friends and I -- schoolchildren in our final year at school and students in their first and second years at university -- established an organization that we called 'The Union of the Revolution Against the Current Regime.' We considered that what was going on in the country bore no relation to the ideas of Marxism. We decided that we could not keep silent about this. There were eight of us in the group, but 16 were arrested, because they took in our friends, too.

"We knew what would happen to us. We used to have long conversations late into the evening, when, after school, a few of us would meet and stroll along the Arbat, and we would discuss these themes. We considered this to be our most important responsibility. A few of us were kept for the first two weeks in the Small Lubyanka, and then we were sent to Lefortovo Prison. Then we spent a short time in the Great Lubyanka, Lefortovo again, Butyrka -- we went through a lot of prisons.

"[The day I was arrested], I was at school. I was taking an exam. Afterward, I came home and did my homework. Then I went to the bathroom when suddenly, there was a knock at the bathroom door. It was my mother, saying: 'Come out quickly! Boris's mother is on the telephone, and she wants to speak to you.' Boris Slootsky was the leader of our organization. So I went to the telephone, but I was told: 'She can't speak to you.' It turns out that at that time, their home was being searched.

"After that I went to our room and we all lay down to go to sleep. Then we heard the doorbell ring and someone in the corridor, going into every room. I thought 'Heavens above!' They came to us last. The officer came up to me and handed me a piece of paper. 'Sign here!' he said. On it were written the words 'search and arrest warrant'. I was 17. After that they took me away and it all began.

"Look -- here are the photographs of the boys they shot. Boris was 18, and Zhenya and Vladik were 19. The investigation lasted 13 months. Later, I read the notes. I'm the only one of our organization who is still alive now. In 1993, I fought hard to see the notes on our investigation. Our crime? Four parts of Article 58 [of the Soviet Penal Code]. Point 1A: treason. Point 8: a terrorist act -- that's very interesting, because Point 8 refers to the carrying out of a terrorist act. Who did we kill, and where? Article 58.10: anti-Soviet agitation, and 58.11: [being part of] an anti-Soviet organization.

"You could say that I was lucky, that's what I think. I was always taken from one place to another, from one labor camp to another, from one prison to another. I was never left in one place for long. Because they were always thinking up new accusations against me. And thus I spent time in seven labor camps and 11 prisons. One of those was in the north in the Inta-Abez [mining] labor camp near Vorkuta, and for my last year I was at Pochma in Mordovia. I spent time in various prisons, even in the Vladimir Closed Prison.

"[It] was a special labor camp [in Vorkuta], a particular camp for political prisoners. It was practically a hard labor camp. Living conditions there were very hard. The work was extremely difficult. The mortality rate was very high, there was constant hunger. The head of the camp said: 'I don't need your labor, I need your suffering.' For example, this sort of thing happened: when prisoners died, it was common knowledge that they weren't buried, they were simply stripped naked, they had a label with their name on it tied around their ankle, and they were thrown into a pit, or just a pile of snow, and covered up. No trace of them left was left behind. And the head of our camp shouted: 'Work hard! If you work hard, we will bury you in a grave.' Humor! All the same, I should say that but for a sense of humor, we would not have survived. It helps me even today.

"I was rehabilitated in 1989. After I was rehabilitated I was given compensation, with which I bought myself a raincoat. And my pension went up -- by 70 rubles [just under $3] a month."

RFE/RL Russia Report

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