Ep. 37 Freedom, with complications

Gerhard was free to go home. The train home took most of a week, all the while he wondered – what was next? Who would be left? Would he be permitted to stay? Not all exiled kulaks could return to their homes after completing their sentences. One purpose of the gulag was to populate the distant regions of the Soviet Union, many releasees were required to remain in exile, but outside of the wire. Many others could return but could not live within 100 kilometres of any major city. In 1935 Yagoda had complained to Stalin that too many freed prisoners were leaving the areas of their deportation, frustrating “our efforts to settle uninhabited areas. The return of rehabilitated forced labour deportees to areas from which they were deported would also be politically undesirable.”[1]

Gerhard’s first concern was for his family. Where was his brother Abram, and his sisters Sonja, Mariechen and Katja?

GERHARD Now I imagined the NKVD behind me at every turn, I was so intimidated. I already knew my father and my brother Nikolai were exiled in 1935, but I had another brother, Abram, who was just 15 years old when I saw him last. Abram did not want to work on the collective so at age 15 he went into the city to work as an apprentice locksmith.

 After a great deal of searching and questioning, I found him working in a foundry named “Andreeva.”[2] It was early in the morning and he had worked the night shift. I woke him up. I could hardly believe how big and strong he had become; he was now a 19-year-old man.

 As we got to know each other and love each other, I decided to look for work and live with him. I also found work in the foundry. My job was to load iron with various men on various shifts. There was a poor woman named Ratzlaff who let us stay in a room that was scarcely big enough for a bed. So we both used the same bed – Abram worked the night shift and slept during the day and I worked the day shift and slept at night. It was necessary and uncomfortable.

Abram told Gerhard how he had lost his father and brother.

GERHARD In 1935 my father was torn from the children. When they came for my father, he was not at home, so the house was under guard day and night. In between, my brother Nikolai had to look after the oxen, so he said to his friends: “I have to run, run so that no one ever sees me again.” And he took off running. He hadn’t gone far when a truck with its lights on came along. “Where is Nikolai Wall?” “There he runs,” was the answer. So they caught him and threw him in the truck and took him to jail. The next day he was led around the market for the purpose of pointing out which one was our father, but they had already arrested father at home and brought him to the jail. The authorities wanted to release Nikolai, but he refused: “I go with my father,” he said.

 They were taken to the far North and released to fend for themselves. They had only two options: starvation or running. They ran and made it quite far before they were caught and sent to Alapayevsk [57˚50’ N 61˚41’E], a city in the Ural Mountains. I received a letter from Alapayevsk in 1941, it was the last I ever heard from either of them. My father worked with horses in a metallurgy factory and Nikolai was working in the blacksmith shop.

Nikolai was 18 years old when he was taken. Gerhard learned that his sisters were living with strangers in abject poverty. As the children of kulaks, they were not exactly welcome house guests.

A secret police orphanage for children of kulaks and enemies of the people, western Siberia in the 1930s The Unquiet Ghost Russians Remember Stalin by Adam Hochschild

A secret police orphanage for children of kulaks and enemies of the state in western Siberia in the 1930s in The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin by Adam Hochschild

GERHARD When I was teaching in Johannesfeld in 1934 my sister Katja had lived with me because there was no food at home but for the teacher there was always enough. In this way I helped my father, who was considered an outlaw beyond any rights or redemption. We cannot know what it must feel like to have everything taken away from you and then be left with small children to care for. Thank God there are, and there were, people with compassion and so our family found accommodation with various other people.

After visiting Abram I went to the Collective to see my sisters. I saw they were homeless and destitute. They had to live with other people but the famine was great everywhere, no one could afford to keep them. I went back to the city where from time to time material for clothing was available for purchase. We had to line up all night long: since there were two of us we took turns. Whichever one of us was not working stood in the line and then traded off with the other. Usually you had to stand in line through the night with your number, and if someone wasn’t there when their number was called, then you got that much closer to the store. In this way we could gradually dress our sisters in better clothes.

Gerhard remained in the city with Abram working at the Adreeva foundry. He knew he was skating on thin ice with his freedom and survival and he tried to cooperate and work within the Soviet system, but his experiences had given him a deep insight into the perverse realities of life in the new Russia. All was a pretense. One day flower pots, the next day grim reality. Even so Gerhard was not beyond making some risky choices.

GERHARD In 1940 I went back to the Collective. Why? Because I was fired from my job at the foundry. The mill operated three shifts. Our job was to load the old iron into large containers by hand. When possible a large magnet was used. We were paid based on the amount of iron we loaded. Our crew was always given the most difficult places to load the iron. Since we were paid by piece work, we earned less money. So everyone on the night shift decided not to go to work unless we were given a better place to earn money. There were 12 of us and we sat for two hours before the foreman came and told us to get to work. He hadn’t given us a better place to work. I thought we were united in our plan not to work until we received a better spot, but one by one the boys went back to work. I decided I would not go back, so I was fired.

Gerhard’s outlook was bleak. With no job and no prospects, he was fodder for the gulag machine, especially since he had already survived one sentence there. Clearly he had not learned his lesson. Who would accept him into a collective?

One of first Soviet collective farms 1920-30s. Vinkivtsi. Ukraine

Vinkivtsi, Ukraine – one of the first collective farms. Note the brass band.

GERHARD I went back to Matveyev Kurgan and was walking to Nikolaipol. It was morning and it was raining. The roads were churned up with mud and everything was dirty. Some people drove up and recognized me. “That’s Gerhard Wall,” they said, and they picked me up and I went with them to the collective.




[1] Memorandum from Yagoda to Stalin, January 17, 1935, on permanent exile of released prisoners, quoted in Revelations from the Russian Archives: documents in English translation,  edited by Diane P. Koenker and Ronald D. Bachman, Library of Congress – Washington, 1997, pg. 161.

[2] This foundry is still in operation on the shores of Taganrog Bay in the Sea of Azov. The foundry, named in honour of Andrei Andreyevich Andreyev, a leading Bolshevik, operates today as Taganrog Metallurgical Plant, a subsidiary of TMK Group produces steel pipes in Russia, Middle East, Europe, United States and Edmonton.

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