Siberia is one of the most sparsely populated places on earth. During the winter, average temperatures range from -10°F (-23°C) to below -50°F (-45°C). It was to this vast wilderness that approximately 1.7 million Poles were deported in 1940, to be used as forced labour in lumber camps, excavating canals, laying railway lines, mining, working in factories and on collective farms.
The civilian deportees were sent to posiolki; they were never tried or sentenced they just suffered “restriction of liberty”.
Soldiers captured during the September campaign, as well as convicted criminals or political prisoner (on mostly false charges), were sent to gulags. These were part of the existing prison system, and here they suffered “loss of liberty”.
Location was vital in determining a person’s chances of survival. Those transported to the isolated areas of north-eastern Russia, and those sent to the Siberian steppe or the deserts of Kazakhstan had a low survival rate, succumbing to major ailments, such as tuberculosis and other diseases. Those deported to Western Siberian Russian-speaking communities often fared a little better. There would possibly be a ’felczer’ (unqualified medical student or nurse) in the community and maybe some basic medicines available. However, they all suffered the same long hours of hard labour, lack of food, malnutrition, vitamin deficiency and crowded accommodation. This had immediate impact on children and old people, where death rates were particularly high.
Each person’s story of their time in Siberia is unique, but all are united by the common themes of isolation, fear, hunger, insufficient clothing and shelter, lack of medicines, illness and death. As well as coping with the trauma of being forcibly removed from their homes so suddenly, the horrendous journey into exile, and the day-to-day problems of survival, these poor individuals lived with constant anxiety about their future and the torment of not knowing if they would ever see their homes and loved ones again.
Hania Kaczanowska: Mamusia and the Red Scarf
Hania Kaczanowska: The Archangel in a Soldiers Boot
Those who were sent to Corrective Labour Camps (Gulags), were expected to carry out hard physical work for up to 14 hours a day, working in mines, forests or building roads and railways.
Due to brutal treatment, harsh working conditions and starvation due to the famine caused by the German invasion, not many survived much longer than three months. Prisoners were literally worked to death in these camps.
Civilian deportees were usually housed in ‘Posiolki’, special settlements of wooden barracks or huts, often surrounded by high fences. Many of the osadnicy deported in February ended up in isolated lumber camps in Archangelsk in north-western Russia. The accommodation was very basic and overcrowded. In the winter, the barracks would be heated by a wood-burning stove which kept the inhabitants from freezing. There was no running water. Others were housed in Russian villages, often lodging with local families. Freezing temperatures, hard labour, lack of food, warm clothing and medicines also contributed to a very high death rate. To the Soviet authorities, these families represented a resource to be exploited, a disposable workforce.
Men were frequently separated from their families on the day of deportation and sent to other camps. Sometimes the men and boys lived in the family camps but were sent to work deep in the forests for weeks or months at a time. This was also crucial, as a woman left alone with several children to support had little chance of survival. The conditions in a posiolek depended very much on the attitude of the Kommendant and this of course varied greatly from camp to camp. Here men, women and children over 15 years carried out heavy, and often dangerous, manual labour of all kinds and for as long as ten to 15 hours a day, six days a week.
Some men, but predominantly women and children, were often sent to work on huge collective or state farms in areas of Central Asia, such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. They were placed in local communities where they were treated with hostility. Their living conditions were dire, often filthy, vermin-infested huts or barracks. Here life was not as organised as in the posiolki; life was much tougher and food sometimes non-existent. The death rate was high due to extreme changes of temperature, exhaustion, malnutrition, and disease. The despair of their situation drove some mothers to pray for the deaths of their ill and starving children and others to commit suicide. There were no medical facilities or medicines available to them and the authorities made no move to help them.
laying tracks in Workuta
For this they would receive a daily ration of a few hundred grams of bread and a bowl of watery soup, but only if the work quota was fulfilled. The Soviet mantra was, “If you do not work, you do not eat”, and this was no idle threat. Only those who worked were entitled to vouchers. Some camps paid in cash, to enable them to buy their meagre rations. The Polish families supplemented their rations by bartering their belongings for a few tomatoes or potatoes grown in the gardens of their Russian neighbours.
Those who were paid in cash were in a bettter position because they could buy food and other scarce necessities and could save up for the future. Some lucky families received parcels from Poland with seeds so they could grow vegetables in the short intensive summers. The osadnicy, with their farming backgrounds, fared better than townspeople and knew which foods could be collected in the forests. In some camps the younger children were sent to Russian schools – to learn about the advantages of the communist system!
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