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There Was No Return For Belarus's 'Children Of France'

Yanina Grintsevic Stashko and her husband Mikhail Stasya on their wedding day.
Yanina Grintsevic Stashko and her husband Mikhail Stasya on their wedding day.

Yanina Grintsevic Stashko was a 16-year-old girl living in a French village near the northern city of Lille in 1946 when she got the news that would forever change her life.

Her parents, who had moved to France in the late 1920s at the height of the Great Depression in search of a better life, had decided to pack up their belongings and leave.

They would be taking the teenaged Yanina back to their homeland, back to their Soviet village in what is now Belarus.

She would become part of a generation known as the “children of France.”

Numbering in the thousands, they were born to parents from the former territory of the Russian, Polish, and even the Austrian-Hungarian empires who had fled between 1920 and 1930 for a better life in France.

All those who opted to return to the Soviet Union had been "deceived" by Communist propaganda that a “worker’s paradise” awaited them, says Cheslav Stasya, the middle-aged son of Yanina, who is now 86.

“Ninety-nine percent of them, if they had known what really was going on, wouldn’t have traveled back to the USSR,” he explains.

Many of the Soviet expats were loyal to the Communist Party while living in France.
Many of the Soviet expats were loyal to the Communist Party while living in France.

Empire Exodus

According to data from Russian historian Viktor Zemskov, by June 1948, 6,991 people had been repatriated from France to the Soviet Union.

They had all emigrated over the years from the Russian Empire, Austria-Hungary, and Poland. Among them were 1,420 ethnic Russians and 5,471 ethnic Ukrainians or Belarusians.

In the 1920s, many families from interwar Poland -- like Yanina's -- left for the West in search of jobs. The work was usually hard, but often paid relatively well, allowing them to take care of their families and even save some money.

Yanina's parents, Ivan and Stanislava Gritsevic, left their Polish region of Pastavy, in what is now eastern Belarus, for France in 1929.

The family had been farmers, but their landholdings were meager so they made a plan to go abroad to earn some extra money, then return to the U.S.S.R. and buy more land.

With the world economy in a serious slump, miners across France were on strike for better wages. With the shafts empty, Ivan found work mining in northern France.

“In the beginning, my parents wanted to go to the United States," recounts Yanina, in flawless Belarusian, adding that her parents did try to move to the United States.

"They let my mother in, but not my father because he was shortsighted. So they decided to go to France instead,” she says.

In France, her father earned enough so that her mother didn’t have to work.

Yanina says she was a good student and attended church. While she did go to Sunday school with other Polish-speaking children, she was otherwise immersed in France's culture and customs.

“We didn’t eat black bread there, only white. I [only] learned to eat black bread here in Belarus.”

Socialist Utopia Back Home?

While he lived in France, Ivan Grintsevich supported the local Communist Party and read the Soviet press, including the newspapers Pravda and Izvestia, according to his grandson, Cheslav.

The glowing press reports convinced Ivan that a socialist utopia was being built in the Soviet Union, making their return inevitable, explains Cheslav.

“I was 16 and a half when we decided to leave France. I had nothing to do with the decision,” says Yanina. “When my father said at work that he was planning to go to the U.S.S.R., [the officials] at the mine asked him what he didn’t like [in France]. Do you want a raise? Just say so. We will give you more. Why did you come here?”

When he told his bosses at the mine he was going to leave, they warned him, she explains. "'Think about it because there won’t be a way back,' they told him."

As they prepared to leave France from the Marseille port, the Grintsevichs spotted a Soviet vessel loaded with grain.

"My father thought: 'What a mighty power. It survived such a war and is still able to export grain,'" explains Cheslav.

The Grintevic family and other expats from the Soviet Union at a vineyard in France.
The Grintevic family and other expats from the Soviet Union at a vineyard in France.

Nasty Soviet Reality

But when they arrived in Odesa, a different picture awaited them. Hungry people approached them with hands cupped, begging for a morsel of bread.

About 2,800 returnees were on the same Rossia steamship voyage returning to their “historical homeland,” as the Soviet authorities called it.

There were several such ships, with many of the returnees originally hailing from Ukraine or Belarus.

“We traveled as members of the working class, but there were those with us who had fled abroad after the revolution. And what did they return for? They were immediately put behind bars and all their property was confiscated,” remembers Yanina.

Wealthier passengers were also aboard the Rossia, even some whose cars were being shipped back with them. But besides a bit of money, the Grintsevics had only one possession: a Singer sewing machine.

However, their modest means may have saved them.

The passengers at the Odesa port were "greeted" by agents of the NKVD, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s secret police. Many of the wealthier passengers were singled out, transferred to train box cars, and sent to Siberia.

The NKVD agents studied Grintsevic’s documents, telling him that because neither he nor his family owed any “debt” to the Soviet authorities, they would be let go.

The family first lived with Ivan’s sister in the town of Supranenty in the Astravetski raion. They moved out after they built a house and lived as farmers until they were forced to join the local collective farm.

“Nobody wanted to join the collective farm, but they were forced to," says Yanina. "We had grain, we had bread. Life was hard. But it was like that for everyone after the war.”

Yanina says her father got himself into trouble while speaking up at one of the collective-farm meetings attended by top local party members and an NKVD officer. He upbraided them for wasting time talking nonsense rather than working.

For “undermining collectivization and the collective farm system” Ivan got a one-year prison term and served 10 months of the sentence.

After that, Ivan kept his mouth shut, understanding that the Soviet Union was not France.

Yanina struggled in the U.S.S.R.

The fact that she spoke Polish and French and little or no Russian or Belarusian, meant she couldn’t continue her studies. Plus, she was lonely, with all of her friends in France. The local kids, meanwhile, often teased her and her brother.

“They were Russians since they had arrived from the former Russian Empire and they called us French,” explains Cheslav.Yanna married Mikhail Stasya, who worked as an electrician at the local kolkhoz collective farm and had two children, Cheslav and Anna.

In her modest home in Belarus, Yanina has carefully stored pictures from her childhood in France as well as books and magazines from that time. Her early efforts to maintain contact with old friends, if only by post, never amounted to anything. Her ties with France were cut.

The French Embassy in Belarus recently tracked down Yanina and other "children of France" that are living in Belarus, offering to send them back to their former homeland for a visit.

But given her age and frail health, Yanina says she is unlikely to go, although she would love to.

Yanina Grintsevic Stashko (center) with her son Cheslav (left) and other family members in Belarus.
Yanina Grintsevic Stashko (center) with her son Cheslav (left) and other family members in Belarus.

Cheslav says it’s too late to talk about any return to a homeland his mother hasn't seen in seven decades.

And her kids do not feel any connection, through their mother, to France.

“I like Belarus. For me it’s my homeland. I wouldn’t change that for economic or other reasons," says Cheslav. "We will hope that someday Belarusians will live as well as the French. I might live to see that or maybe not.”

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on material from RFE/RL's Belarus Service

Original article in Belarusian

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