Siberia, an open prison
Northern Russia is known as Siberia. You wouldn’t think many people would choose to live there. I did not choose; I was born in Siberia. I grew up there. I learnt to appreciate the ice and snow, the long dark winters and the warm wet summers when the day stretched into night, so that people did not know when to go to bed or when to rise.
I lived with my parents in a concrete block building we called our home. My father used to track and record the movement of animals up in the Arctic Circle for the government. He loved to see the reindeer herds moving across the plains with the seasons. Mother looked after us three children and worked in the library in our town. It was not much of a place really. There was a central meeting hall, several general stores and a few specialist shops. Many of the people had been sent as a punishment for their free thinking to live and work in our town. They were carefully watched by the police who would imprison them if they transgressed the rules. There were not many rules, only two in fact. No anti- communist talk and no leaving the town. It would have been difficult to leave other than on the train as our town was completely isolated. We were surrounded on all sides by hundreds of miles of freezing wastes or the sea. The train arrived once or twice a week bringing supplies and a small number of visitors. The departing trains were always very carefully searched for stowaways before they were allowed to leave.
So our town was like an open prison for many of the population. Amongst the so called criminals who had been banished were many intellectuals. The communist party could not tolerate their questioning presence in Moscow or Leningrad so they were arrested on fake charges and transported up north.
My mother as a librarian got to know many of the prisoners, for such they were. Many of them had wives and families at home. Some had to leave nice houses and good jobs in colleges and universities; in fact many of those who visited the library were professors, doctors and lawyers.
Of course the library books were carefully scrutinised for anti communist ideology before they were accepted for general use. Any suspect material was either used to fuel the central boiler or placed under lock and key, and lent only to a select few who were considered to be incorruptible.
When I was about fourteen years of age my parents decided they would like to take a journey to the south to visit some of my mother’s relatives. Mother said she needed a change from the dampness and the midges which plagued us in the summer months. My parents had to plan this holiday a long time in advance. They had to save as much money as possible, and my brother and I took jobs after school to help to raise the money. I had spoken about different parts of the USSR with some of the prisoners. I was very excited. I loved the sound of the mountains and the lakes. I wanted to taste the fresh fruit and vegetables which they told me were incomparable to the salted pickled, bottled and jammed products that we ate every day. My brother was fascinated by television – We had never seen one, only films in the meeting hall about once a month. Usually they were very boring political films about how well things were going in our ‘wonderful country’, but occasionally we would be shown adventure stories, cowboy films, or even romance. These films had subtitles as they were inevitably foreign. My brother adored them. He loved to act and he saw himself on a stage, his name in lights, or better still on the television, a great Russian actor of the new generation.
My job after school involved sweeping the meeting hall and putting all the chairs back in position for the next day’s events. It took me one and a half hours to do or two if I did not concentrate on my work. Sometimes I would stand on the dais, a good meter above the level of the floor, and I would make political speeches, waving my arms around. I would talk at length about what I thought Russia could be like if everyone was free to say and think what they pleased. I would make sure everyone had left before I started on these little personal expressions of my ideological views. The old janitor didn’t care what I said; in fact I think he was a sympathiser. He used to sit at the back waiting to lock up, as it was warmer in the hall than in either of our houses, neither of us would be in a hurry to get home and my oratory would amuse him. He told me one day that I had great potential as a political leader, but that I must be extremely careful to whom I expressed my views. He was convinced that communism such as it was in the USSR could not last and that young people with new ideas had to supersede the old guard. He warned me that if I was not careful I could become a prisoner in my own town too, but since I was only fourteen I had several years of comparative freedom before my opinions mattered to any one.
My brother would earn his money by cleaning the bar at the other end of the same street as the meeting hall. There would be chairs to move and cigarette ends to sweep, spilled vodka and usually a broken glass or two to clear. He said that his clientele were more artistic than mine and his conversations with the barmen were never about politics, but about the latest film or magazine he had seen. So both my brother and I had great ambitions to succeed in our different fields of interest, and this trip was going to give us a taste of the world that we wished to enter, many miles away from the cold dark influence of Siberia.
Neither of our parents had any useful connections or power. I did wonder how I was going to make my breakthrough into the world of politics. My brother and I spent many a long hour discussing how we thought we could meet the right people who would help us achieve our goals. One day my mother invited one of the dissident professors home to share a meal with us. This was an infrequent occurrence in our house, but when it did happen my brother and I made sure we did not miss a moment of it. Some of these people were well worth listening to.
When he arrived the professor looked around at us and said,
“Ah, I have two sons just about your age, how I miss them. I keep thinking of things they need to know to succeed in life, and I can only write to them. I can’t be sure that my letters are not censored.
May I give you the benefit of my experiences? You may think that since I am here I have not succeeded very well in my life, but I can tell you that in my heart I am at peace. I have chosen to be honest and open about my views. I have taught many of the younger generation who will shortly change Russia forever.’
Looking back, I see that what the old man told us turned out to be prophetic; much has changed in the intervening years, much for the better, but some for the worse. I can only hope that my grand children have a more comfortable and secure life than my family had in the ‘50s.