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  • (Un)Returned from the GulagLife Trajectories and Integration of Postwar Special Settlers
  • Emilia Koustova (bio)
    Translated by Erina Megowan

Working in the kolkhoz, studying in school, not knowing exactly where my father was and for what [he had been arrested], I arrived from Siberia raised as a Soviet person. … Raised on Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered, Korchagin, Timur and His Squad, Meres´ev’s Story about a Real Man—as one would say now, I was “red” or “left.” I remember this with a smile, because with time I have discovered a very simple thing: whoever was not a leftist in youth will never become a true right winger.1

This brief excerpt from an interview with Antanas Kybartas, who was exiled from Lithuania in 1947 and spent ten years in a special settlement in Tiumen´ oblast, reveals a number of issues important for understanding the experience of Soviet postwar victims of deportation. First, we see the contradictory combination of the violence that came with deportation and aspects of special settlement life that facilitated not only adaptation but also the integration [End Page 589] and even “Sovietization” of some special settlers, first and foremost young people. This excerpt, moreover, shows the key mechanisms of such an integration—collective work and education. These factors eased adaptation, at times opening the doors to social mobility within the special settlement and especially after emancipation. Note that these two seemingly separate periods frequently turn out to be connected in the tales of former deportees—both in terms of continuity in social, professional, or family trajectories and in light of the fact that the sword of Damocles of potential stigmatization did not disappear with the end of exile. Last, the excerpt alludes to the long process by which some former deportees reconsidered their convictions and (re)conceptualized the individual and collective experience of deportation.

Kybartas is, in fact, entirely unexceptional. His and many other interviews with former deportees, collected as part of the collective project “Sound Archives: European Memory of the Gulag,”2 reveal the necessity of revisiting a number of widespread ideas in the historiography and examining life in special settlements as something more than an exclusively traumatic experience that doomed an individual to marginalization and served as a sort of school for Homo antisovieticus.3 Among more than 200 interviews with victims of Soviet deportations from Eastern Europe, we focus here on those with natives of the Baltic states (above all, Lithuania) and western Ukraine who were deported to special settlements in Siberia immediately after the war, many of whom remained in Siberia after their emancipation. The majority of cases involve people born in the 1930s, who wound up in special settlements as children or adolescents. Despite considerable deprivations, their experience of deportation included efforts to build a life for themselves; these were people who made plans and attempted to realize them by availing themselves of opportunities that arose.4 [End Page 590]

To understand the full spectrum of these opportunities, this article uses archival materials at different levels: holdings from the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF), which illustrate the administration of deportations at a macrolevel;5 regional archives, which enable us to view the special settlers through the eyes of local party leaders and administrative organs;6 and the archives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) and the Committee of State Security (KGB) of Lithuania, where some deportees’ personal files allow us to capture their life trajectories as seen through the eyes of the police.7

This article analyzes both the adaptation of special settlers to the conditions of their exile and their incorporation into post-Stalinist society. It considers first the role of work in the life of special settlers. In contrast to the situation in camps and probably “peasant exile” in the 1930s,8 even involuntary work could feature positive motivation and facilitate deportees’ physical survival while helping them overcome stigmatization, attain social mobility, and integrate them more broadly, even to the point of Sovietization. By the last term, we have in mind not only the assimilation of officially sanctioned practices and values but also the inclusion of the individual in informal networks and...


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pp. 589-620
Launched on MUSE
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