It was the time of whispers. The 1930’s. The rest of the world was focused on a stock market crash, the Depression, and a young Bing Crosby who was taking the US musical scene by storm with his dreamy, “Pennies from Heaven”.
But in the largest country in the world, the Soviet Union, only two generations ago, Stalin was waging an invisible, secret war against his own people, that would endure long after his death in 1953. Until the late eighties, there were literally hundreds of thousands of forced labour camps from one end of the Communist empire to the other. They were called, Gulags. People knew about them, but no one spoke of them. It was the time of whispers.
There is only one gulag left today in all of Russia. It stands a half hour drive from my Aunt Nela’s apartment, although she has never visited “Perm 36″ which has been preserved as a museum, attracting the curious from all over the world, including Brazil and Australia, but few Russians.
No family in Russia escaped from long shadow of Stalin’s campaign against the “Enemies of the People”. Even today, you could stop anyone on the busy streets of modern Moscow, and every single individual will have a story of a relative in their past who was imprisoned for being ‘an enemy of the people’. Nowadays, it’s not fashionable to speak of such things. “We’re so sick of it all,” a friend commented to me. “We’d rather hear more about your crack smokin’ mayor!” But, even the glitziest, most commercial facades of today’s Moscow cannot disguise the darkest history of the Communist days.
In the middle of the night, a knock on the door, and, without explanation, someone disappeared. A teacher, grandfather, aunt, neighbour, or factory worker. They would be transported as far away from their families as possible, to discourage escape attempts and increase the extreme isolation that would become part of their ‘rehabilitation’ into Soviet society.
The dreaded state secret police, the NKVD picked up 20 million ordinary Soviet citizens “for nothing”, who were sent to the gulags, imprisoned for up up to 25 years of forced labour. Such was the fate of my own grandmother, Clavdia. She died at the age of 47, never knowing the fate of her daughter, Rosa: my mother who had already been captured by the Nazis. Mother and daughter, unknownst to each other, were behind barbed wire at the same time, being held by two different countries.
The story of Mom’s own mother was destined to remain yet another family secret: a searing psychic wound, untouched and untended, until my film shoot in the Ural Mountains this July. I tried to broach the subject with my 89-year old Aunt Nela, the last eye witness to this chapter of my mother’s story.
“Why?” I asked. “Why was she (Grandmother Clavdia) arrested?”
And the sum total of that life experience, a mother who simply disappearing from the lives of her children one day from work, without explanation, seventy years later, is reduced to a single word:
“Circumstance!” She waves me off.
There will be no further questions.
Once again, I am paralyzed. It is a familiar feeling for me, the daughter who asked too many questions. And now, the journalist who chocked during the key interview. I can not go on. The body language of my trembling Aunt, her head shaking while she grasps the nearby shelving for support, and the single stacato response brings me psychologically to my knees. I feel a little ashamed. In that instant, once again, I have breached yet another family taboo.