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Belarusian Centenarian Recounts Repression Under Stalin

Yauheniya Arlouskaya spent more than 16 years of her life in a Stalin-era penal colony. To this day, she still doesn't know exactly why she was targeted by the Soviet authorities.
Yauheniya Arlouskaya spent more than 16 years of her life in a Stalin-era penal colony. To this day, she still doesn't know exactly why she was targeted by the Soviet authorities.

A year after her father was found shot dead along with his two brothers, the Soviet authorities came for Yauheniya Arlouskaya.

Arlouskaya was charged with espionage, a charge -- and word -- she didn't understand as a 21-year-old living in Soviet Belarus in 1938. She was sentenced to 10 years in a penal colony, a fate shared by literally millions of others in the U.S.S.R. as Stalin's Great Purge was grinding down any real or imagined resistance to the totalitarian system.

She was released 10 years later, only to be sent back again for another six years.

Eventually, she would have her name cleared, or "rehabilitated," as they called it during the Soviet era.

This year, Arlouskaya celebrated her 100th birthday, and was feted by local officials and former bosses at the Kirov auto plant in Mohilev where she worked upon her release until she was 70.

She is unable to walk and has lost her sight. And to this day, she doesn't know exactly why she was charged, although she's nearly sure of the motive.

In 1938, two soldiers accused her of "foreign ties."

Arlouskaya knew them from local dances in her village of Palavinny Loh, some 5 kilometers from Mohilev in today's eastern Belarus. She had spurned their advances, opting instead to dance with their captain. They got their revenge, Arlouskaya believes, by concocting the charges against her.

She had had run-ins with local Soviet authorities a year earlier, when she inquired about the circumstances of her father's and his brothers' mysterious deaths.

"They told me that I'd end up like him if I kept asking questions," Arlouskaya recalls of the encounter in late 1937.

Hard Labor

Months later, Arlouskaya was arrested and interrogated.

She was beaten badly, her nose bleeding at one point.

"The interrogator reached into a trash bin, pulled out a piece of garbage and told me to wipe the blood with it," Arlouskaya recounts to RFE/RL's Belarus Service in the modest apartment in Mohilev that she shares with her son.

"He told me he would get 5,000 rubles if I confessed everything. When I told him I didn't know what he was talking about, he struck me hard on the head," Arlouskaya continues, wiping away tears as the memories flood back.

Arlouskaya's interrogator eventually shoved a piece of paper into her hand. It spelled out the charges against her. She didn't read it. Not that it would matter. Without any trial or legal pretense, Arlouskaya was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor at a penal colony in Russia's Krasnoyarsk Krai region.

Yauheniya Arlouskaya (center) with friends in happier times.
Yauheniya Arlouskaya (center) with friends in happier times.

Soon, she was hauling heavy rock blasted out of a quarry in Krasnoyarsk and loading it onto railroad cars.

Work was abundant; food wasn't.

"We were all very hungry. Thin as rope," Arlouskaya explains.

She and her fellow prisoners always kept an eye on the bakery inside the penal colony.

"If there was smoke from the chimney, we knew there would be bread that day."

Dragging Out The Dead

The end of World War II in May 1945 did bring a bit of a dietary reprieve.

Arlouskaya feasted on a heaping bowl of buckwheat porridge as the camp 'celebrated' the surrender of Nazi Germany.

Hungry and cold, Arlouskaya slept in barracks, she and her fellow prisoners stacked tightly on wooden bunk beds.

"In the mornings, dead bodies would be dragged out. We never knew where they were taken. There were no graves," Arlouskaya says.

On February 10, 1948, Arlouskaya was released, 10 years after arriving at the camp.

She returned to Mohilev, but just over a year later she was back in Krasnoyarsk because, she says, she was never "rehabilitated" for the first offense.

This time, she was granted freer movement, and eventually met another prisoner, Mikalay Milanovic, who would become her husband and father to two children, a boy and a girl.

Yauheniya with her son Yury
Yauheniya with her son Yury

When Stalin died on March 5, 1953, Arlouskaya says, nearly all her fellow prisoners felt genuine grief, even though the Soviet dictator had overseen the system that treated them so cruelly.

"I was scared because I didn't know what would come next. I was happy Stalin had died because I knew he was responsible for everything that had happened to me," Arlouskaya explains.

Nikita Khrushchev came next, and he undid some of the cruel excesses of Stalinism. Millions of prisoners were released in late 1950s and 1960s in what became known as the Thaw.

'Enemy Of The People'

Arlouskaya was freed on October 18, 1955, following a ruling by a local military tribunal to rehabilitate her.

She returned to Mohilev with her family and soon found work at the Kirov auto plant.

At first, she felt ostracized, as co-workers steered clear of her.

"One woman told me she had heard I had been arrested as an "enemy of the people," recounts Arlouskaya.

Once she had an official document rehabilitating her in hand, things changed. Her colleagues warmed to her, in large part to her work ethic.

"When I got that document I was so happy. Suddenly all my enemies were silent. I was in seventh heaven," she says. "No longer was anyone speaking badly about me."

Her work until the age of 70 at the warehouse at the Mohilev Automobile Plant, or MoAZ, was exemplary, winning her frequent yearly bonuses, including trips to spas.

Something of a local celebrity, Arlouskaya's life was celebrated in style when she turned 100 earlier this year, with local officials and bosses from MoAZ wishing her a happy birthday and presenting her with gifts, including a new passport.

She lives off a 420 ruble ($209) per month pension, and doesn't complain.

"I'm not poor. I have enough," she smiles. "What can [President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka do? He could raise pensions, but where would he get the money for that?"

Yauheniya still receives regular visits from her sister Branislava (right).
Yauheniya still receives regular visits from her sister Branislava (right).

Restricted to her apartment, Arlouskaya is thankful to have a younger sister, Bronislava.

"My sister visits me every day, opening the window to let the fresh air in. God gave me a sister who now protects me," Arlouskaya continues.

Her religious faith, she also says, is the reason she has managed to live so long.

"The priest comes to me every month for confession. I look forward to and love the priest. He brings light and warmth into my home," the Belarusian centenarian says.

Arlouskaya, who has four great-grandchildren and two grandchildren, laments having spent so much of her younger years in Krasnoyarsk, knowing little else besides cold and hunger.

She finished the interview expressing her greatest wish and fear.

"I would love if God opened my eyes again so I could see the sun and blue sky once more."

And her greatest fear?

"That a government comes to power and begins to kill again."

Written by RFE/RL correspondent Tony Wesolowsky based on material from RFE/RL's Belarus Service and with the assistance of Bohdan Andrusyshyn.
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.