Unfortunately, many Americans’ opinions of Russians are shaped by incomplete media portrayals and one-dimensional action movies from the 1980s. I hope that experiencing life behind the Iron Curtain through the stories of real people will elicit a new level of understanding and compassion among Americans, as well as inspire the next generation of Russians to never forget the struggles their ancestors faced and the sacrifices they made.
In the heart of Russia, not far from the city of Kazan, a small village was nestled on the Volga. Its inhabitants, like most Russian villagers in the early 1900s, made a living by farming. And, like most Russian villages after the Revolution, its farms – now called collective farms – were owned by the government.
The village stood on two hills separated by a stream. On one hill lived the Chuvash people – a people group native to central Russia. The Tatar people – another ethnic group with roots that trace back to the Mongolian Golden Horde – lived on the other hill. Although they had different backgrounds and customs, these two ancient peoples were united by their simple, peaceful lives.
In the mid-1930s, a young Chuvash man named Ishmulla was chosen by popular vote to be chairman of the collective farm. It was a dangerous honor, testifying to the villagers’ respect, yet fraught with the possibility of grave consequences for both the chairman and his loved ones.
His job was to answer for both the workers in the collective farm and the amount of grain the farm delivered to the government for redistribution. If a problem surfaced and an informer notified the government, the chairman would be punished. If the collective farm couldn’t meet its required quota, the chairman could be shot. If a worker became jealous or felt he was being treated unfairly, one rumor whispered in the ear of a government bureaucrat could lead to imprisonment without trial.
One evening in 1937, a car drove up to the small cottage Ishmulla shared with his wife, Anna, their sons Ilya, age six, and Nikolai, age four, and little Ulyana, who was still an infant. The drivers said they were taking him to the city. He was never seen again.
Although the details are unknown, it is likely that his story resembles many others of that era. After being questioned, the accused were brought before a board of three officials who would decide their fate without trial. The sentence – either execution or hard labor at a prison camp in Siberia – was carried out immediately. Although the government didn’t inform relatives of the decision, families waited for word from the men themselves. While they were being transported east, the prisoners scribbled notes and final destinations on scraps of paper, addressed them, and threw them from the moving train. Anyone who found such a letter was honor-bound to deliver it to the family. If relatives never received a letter, they understood that their husband, father, or brother had been executed.
For the next year, as hope for Ishmulla slowly died, Anna focused her energy on one thing: protecting her children from starvation. But in spite of her best efforts, she knew she was failing. In desperation, Anna decided to take a terrible risk. She gathered her little ones under the cover of darkness and slipped out to the collective farm. Harvest was over, and the fields were nearly bare, with only a few undersized heads of grain left to rot under the coming winter snows. There was just enough for Anna to gather a few scraps – about 1/3 of a bag – to provide a little longer for her children.
But the night didn’t protect her. A well-to-do villager reported her to the authorities, possibly hoping to gain favor or earn a reward. Anna was arrested and sent to prison.
It was 1939, and the children were alone. With eight-year-old Ilya as head of the family, they warded off starvation by boiling soup made of grass, gathering berries and mushrooms in season, and collecting and planting potato peels to grow new root.
Sometimes they would find a basket of food left near their door by a neighbor who pitied them but feared the repercussions of openly helping.
With no money and little food, Ilya and his younger brother, Nikolai, went to work in the fields with the village men. Barely more than a toddler, little Ulyana tried to follow until her older brothers hit her. There was no time for pity; although they weren’t yet ten years old, the boys had adult responsibilities. Ulyana needed to stay behind so she wouldn’t distract them from their work or get hurt, so they locked her, alone and terrified, in the log cabin.
Ilya, Nikolai, and Ulyana didn’t see their mother for two years. But after the war started, Anna became sick in prison, and, lacking staff due to the number of men being drafted to the front, the authorities sent her home to die in her children’s care.
Now, instead of being locked in the house alone, Ulyana was locked in the house with her bed-ridden mother. The smell of disease and death clung to her mother, and, as Ulyana curled up in her resting place on top of the Russian brick oven, she covered her nose. Weeks passed. While the children grew older and stronger, their mother grew weaker, until they were left alone again.
By this time, the villagers’ resentment had grown into fury. They discovered the secret informant and burned his house. Labeled as a traitor and warned that any new house would also be burned, he left the village to start a new life elsewhere.
At the age of 16, Ilya also left the village, hoping to find work in the city. He was drafted into the navy, where he served as a sailor for two or three years before moving to Moscow to work in a factory. He lived a long life – almost 80 years – but, having had his heart broken as a young man, he never married or had children.
Nikolai, the middle brother, remained in the village for the rest of his life. He married a local Tatar girl and became the patriarch of a large family.
Ulyana left the village as a teenager and moved to the region of Karelia, north of St. Petersburg and bordering Finland. As a volunteer for a youth program designed to advance the Communist dream of building new cities and factories, Ulyana chose a location that allowed her to live near Baba Masha, her father’s sister and her only living relative aside from her brothers. She never blamed the government for her family’s fate; she simply accepted it as their lot in life.
In Karelia, Ulyana met and married Viktor, a young Russian man who was also part of the youth program. They remained in a small town in Karelia and had two daughters; he worked as a driver, while she had a job in a local factory. Having spoken only Chuvash until she left the village, Ulyana kept to herself, ashamed of her broken Russian. She didn’t learn to write until her oldest daughter, Nina, then 12 or 13, taught her.
Although she found great joy in her family, Ulyana often seemed sad. When Nina encouraged her mother to smile instead of frowning all the time, Ulyana replied, “Жизнь-та не весёлая, доченька.” (Life is not cheerful, dear daughter.)
Ulyana died in Karelia at age 72. She never learned what happened to her father.