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Home > About Kotlas > History > Gulag > One Family

The History Of One Family

In Kotlas there lives a family by the name of Selivanov. The couple has been together already for more than 50 years. There are five children, 10 grandchildren, 7 great grandchildren. Fyodor and Anna have worked all their lives, they have tried to make life better for their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. And how did they start out in life? Their youth came at a very difficult time.

In 1930, Fyodor's family was subjected to the policy of dispossessing the kulaks [relatively prosperous peasants] in the Orenburg area [760 mi. east southeast of Moscow], the same happened to Anna's family in the Saratov district [440 mi. southeast of Moscow]. He came to Kotlas in one of the special trains of "cattle" cars in February; she came the same way in March. He worked, under guard, on the construction of the first barracks in the village of Makarikha; she lived in them. The walls were of thin logs, the roof of spruce branches, in place of a floor there was trampled snow. In March in Kotlas there are strong frosts. On the double wooden bunks were families with children and old people.

Fyodor (he was then 19 years old) managed to slip out after 17 days. A guard who was from his native area helped, . . . He fled to Veliky Ustyug, [35 miles south of Kotlas, up the Northern Dvina]. There he learned to be a blacksmith's striker. But in June, all the "special transferees" [exiles] were taken by barge to the Vychegda [which flows into the Northern Dvina at Kotlas], then up the river Vym. In Ust-Vym [about 160 mi. northeast of Kotlas] they labored, rolling logs out of the water. Two weeks later they loaded their instruments into boats and pulled them with a tow rope 20 kilometers up the Vym. They unloaded in a meadow at a hunting cabin. In it sat the commandant, making lists. They started to make shelters for themselves out of branches.

Fyodor Andreyevich recollects: "We [the men] were ordered to cut down the trees, and the women had to strip off the bark. We didn't know how to fell the trees. They would fall in the wrong place. An old man was sent to teach us how. We began to cut wood for houses; in a week's time we were old hands. By fall there were already houses standing. All winter long we labored, felling timber. There was no guard, only a foreman. We slept on bunks. We got our provisions in the neighboring little village, where Komi people lived. [The places mentioned here and in the next paragraph are in the Komi Autonomous Republic, a Montana-sized region just east of Kotlas.] In the summer we built a settlement; in the winter we cut timber. They named the settlement Ust-Koin. My parents died of hunger there in the winter of 1933.

"As for me, from the fall of 1932, I worked in the Aginsky timber station as a stable hand. I went to Aginsky secretly, following the river downstream. Several times along the way I met people with rifles. They shot [at me]. Hungry, I walked. I spent nights in heated bathhouses near villages. Then I worked in Knyapo-Pogost, where I carted produce on the road to Gibya (now Ukhta). Along the road there were constantly convoys of prisoners. In the fall, my friends suggested that we escape. We had a boat at our disposal and could lay in supplies. We made a shelter on the boat. We got some hunter's clothing from the local people.

"On October 18, 1933 the three of us set out on the boat down the river. We already knew how to understand and to speak a little Komi [the native language, which is more closely related to Finnish than to Russian]. As we were passing by Ust-Vym they noticed us, they shouted, "Where are you going?" We answered in Komi. At one point there was a cutter [a type of boat] working at bringing the logs together. [The crew] spotted us. The cutter turned around, but we turned our boat into the bushes and froze. The cutter went up and down, but didn't find us and decided that we had gotten away. And after waiting it out, we drifted on."

Let's leave Fyodor for the moment and listen to his wife Anna:

"They brought us to Kotlas on March 8, 1930. There were already a lot of barracks there. On the third day they herded us on foot and under guard along the Vychegda. I was 15 years old, but, on the advice of my father, I said that I was 17, so that we could all go together. They didn't take minors; they separated them from their parents. My father, mother and I all walked together. They transported our things on carts. In Solvychegodsk [a few miles across the Vychegda from Kotlas] we spent the night in a church on the shore. There were triple bunks there. There were so many people in the convoy that you couldn't see one end from the other. Carts that we met on the way turned off the road into the snow, waiting for us to pass by. I don't remember how long we walked. At last we got as far as Yarensk [more than 110 mi. northeast of Kotlas]. There we spent the night in the church and in houses. The hosts didn't treat us badly; we bought milk from them. But we weren't allowed to converse with them. A soldier guard spent the night in the same house at the door. Sometimes the local people asked who we were and what we knew how to do. [The soldiers] answered that we were peasants. . .

"When we arrived in Yagvel there wasn't yet a settlement there, so we started to make a barrack We spent the night in it, and then they sent us to the Yagorsk road to cut timber. That's in the direction of Komi. They gave us 30 pounds of rye biscuits and 30 pounds of flour for the three of us. My father had 130 rubles. Then we received provisions: groats, bread, and herring. The food ration was small, and we worked from dawn to dusk. We started starving right away. We lived in lean-tos. We cooked our food on an open fire, and dried our clothes in front of the fire. There was no housing close by.

"In the spring my father sent me to find a village. I went with a neighbor girl. We walked 75 kilometers [45 mi.] to the village of Mezhog. There we met a woman who was tending a cow. We asked if we could spend the night with her. She cooked a pot of potatoes for us, gave us some bread, and let us sleep in the hayloft. The woman's name was Marina. She was Komi, but she spoke Russian too. We knit mittens for her son, a soldier. Marina let us live with her. And other women began to bring us work to do. We knit socks and mittens.

"At Easter, on the advice of Marina, we went through the village asking for hand-outs. We collected and dried a sack of biscuits each and we set out to walk to Ugorsk to our families. Again 75 kilometers on foot. My father said, 'It means that people there are good, that one can live there.' My father, mother, and I walked back to Mezhog. There weren't any kolkhozes [collective farms] there yet. We started to do all kinds of peasant work for the farmers.

"We lived that way until winter. Then my father decided to try to escape home. They stopped us in the village of Irta. My father succeeded in slipping away, but they caught us women. They imprisoned us in the bathhouse, then they sent us to Yarensk. There we again sat imprisoned in the bathhouse, but they didn't post a guard. And we escaped again and went to Mezhog to Marina. We took care of kids, did laundry, and knitted wherever we could. They paid us only with food. My father sent a letter to Marina's address saying that he was in Kotlas. In the spring Marina took me to the steamboat dressed as a Komi, with a red kerchief, a wide skirt, and a close fitting jacket. When I arrived in Kotlas, all the money I had with me was 15 kopecks."

And we left Fyodor when he was in a boat rowing toward Kotlas, with only 60 kilometers to go. Here's what happened next:

"On the shore near the village we saw a man. 'Nobody,' he said, 'will bother you. Let's go into the house.' His wife greeted us warmly and put on the samovar. We spent the night there. The man gave us this advice: 'Leave the boat, and go to the Almesh station. It's about 100 kilometers from here. They won't stop you there.'

"We set off. We slept at night in hay stacks. One night we spent in a bathhouse. In the morning we went to the river to wash up. All of a sudden a man on horseback came up. He asked us whether we had been out long and whether we had seen any exiles. We assured him that we had just left home, he galloped off and we walked on. It was too cold to sleep under the spruce, so decided to set a fire in the woods. A convoy surrounded us. Hands in the air! We had our pay books, [so we could prove that] we were exiles, not camp prisoners. Nevertheless they seized us and took us with them. At a rest stop the guard left. The three of us sat a while, and then we took off. We went across the tracks and into the bushes. Toward morning we arrived at a big station. This was already Almesh. We bought tickets and set off by train.

"In the train car there was a check of documents. My two comrades managed to hide in another compartment and escaped the check, but they [soldiers] asked me for my documents. I gave them my pay book. They seized me and one other administrative exile. In Murashi they put us in prison, and then sent us off again under armed guard. They turned us over in Luza to a prison gang . . . They put us in a barn with the pigs. The woman who fed them took pity on us. She brought us food. We sat there one full day, then two, on the third day the commander came. 'Come out', he said. He gave us an assignment: to saw and chop firewood for the dining hall. At dinner they fed us. After that the commander said: 'You are good kids, but you're not mine. Go wherever you need to.' My comrade was from Kotlas; he had worked there before. He said that they would take us to work there as carters. We bought tickets and went to Kotlas.

"There, where the TV tower now stands, near the village of Ovechkino there was a farm. There they placed us in the barrack and gave us work as carters. They gave us 1 kilogram of bread each and dinner in the cafeteria, with even a meat patty. As for the rest, one had to provide for oneself. Both local people and exiles worked there.

"My comrade proposed that we take on extra work sawing firewood for a restaurant. He had a friend who worked there whose name was Ivan. They paid and fed us: the cook gave us the leftover soup. We quit our former work and made an agreement with a woman who let us sleep on a bench in her hut. There were also other exiles in her hut. And both the roomers and the woman were fed by these leftovers from the kitchen which we brought in. The term of exile of both my friend and of Ivan soon came to an end. They both left and I started to work in place of Ivan.

"On May 1, 1934 we had a dinner dance there, . . . I invited a girl to dance. I already had a suit and shoes. They began to entrust the storeroom [to me], to weigh and to give out products. I knew how to handle the horses. The stallion Andryusha at first didn't obey, and I had to deal with him. Then he got to know me and worked. I remember, there were carters with such surnames as Vesna [Spring], and Nevod [Net]. They were also exiles.

"In the spring of 1935 they again seized me. They sent me under guard on a steamship down the Vychegda. But they already weren't guarding us carefully. In Kharimonov I got off disguised as a passenger. I went to the timber market and asked for work. They sent me to the timber center. I worked a month. One day I went to the office and suddenly I met up with a friend from the village Ust-Koin. He also had escaped, . . . but had a Komi name and a Komi passport. He worked in Kotlas in ORS (Department of Workers' Ordinance) and he urged me to go there. I settled my accounts and headed for Kotlas. They wanted me to go back to my former work, but I understood that I could again be taken from there. I only helped them with the haying, and again met up with my stallion Andryusha.

"The manager of the timber base at Boltinskaya was Ivan Yegorovich Govorov. He offered me work with Sorokin's brigade cutting railroad ties. One workstation there was standing idle. The foreman there, by the name of Volkodav, was a camp prisoner. He taught me how to cut out ties on a frame. Sorokin made a test of my work. He went to the director and said that I was already ready to be a master tie cutter. We began to work at two stations; they put together a brigade. We put our shoulders to the work, . . . [and] competed to be the best. We sawed 500 and then later 700 pieces per shift. They paid us a wage, but there weren't any bonuses then. Starting from 1936 there were bonuses and letters of recognition.

"I met Anna Panteleyevna in 1936. Our marriage wasn't registered for 15 years because I still didn't have documents. And by the time I got my passport we already had four children."

You remember that Anna in the dress of a Komi woman with 15 kopecks in her pocket arrived by steamship in Kotlas?

She saw some candies in a kiosk and she bought 15 kopecks worth of them, she spent all her "capital". She turned, and there was her father, standing behind her. It was lucky that they ran into each other. Where would she have searched for him? He had changed his name.

Anna relates: "My father said that his last name was now not Mykalnikov and that his first name was not Pantelei, but he was Ivan Zemlynsky. And I would be, therefore, Anna Ivanovna Zemlynskaya. He took me to the barracks. He was working as a stevedore at Zagotzerno [a grain processing facility]. He was carrying grain and bear lard in his pocket.

"Mother came to us around fall with the same woman with whom we escaped. They came by foot along the Vychegda. They fed themselves solely on berries. I was cooking on a camp fire at the shore. All of a sudden two old ladies approached, they had moss on their faces I recognized my mother. My father came said that we shouldn't give them a lot to eat right away, that they would die from it. For three days we kept them half-starving.

"I worked as a carter at the timber market in Zhernakovo. Then they transferred me to Golovka. My horse was Iva ["Willow"], a pretty one, such a long one, but stubborn. She didn't like the boss and she would stop whenever she saw him.

"We all lived together in the barracks: Tatars, Moldavians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Kazaks, Russians, Volga Germans. They didn't separate us by nationality or religion, and we got along well together."

I listen to the stories of the Selivanovs and I think: all of this reminds me of something from my distant but happy childhood. I suddenly remember. I drowned in tears then reading Uncle Tom's Cabin of the American author [Harriet] Beecher Stowe about the life of Negro slaves in America in the last century. In the book are described the misfortunes of Negro families: forced separation from loved ones, escapes, disguises and pseudonyms, pursuit and search for the escapees, exhausting forced labor, "illegal" marriages, good and bad Whites.

This all was a lot closer in place and completely close [to me] in time when I read this book.

I. Dubrovina, Kotlas, 1991-1992.