One Woman’s Story of Stalin’s Deportation of Thousands of Moldovans to Siberia

She is an old woman now, but she remembers the day her father was taken.

They had come back from working in the fields, and she was inside doing housework while he was out in the yard.

Someone from the mayor’s office appeared and told her father to come with him, and Lydia never saw her father again.

“I think he knew he was in danger,” she says, “because he was trying to teach me everything about the farm, as if he was in a hurry for me to know.”

To speed up the “russification” of the Soviet Union states–in this case, the small country of Moldova–Stalin turned force labor into an industry, one which played a central role in the Soviet economy. Whether it be the gulag (a vast network of nearly 500 camps throughout the USSR, each containing thousands of prisons) or deportation to Siberia–every non-Communist was at risk.

Stalin required quotas to be met, so blacklists were compiled at local levels, and Lydia’s father fell victim.

That fall, Lydia stepped outside during a break in classes. A flatbed truck filled with workers rumbled past, and someone shouted at her from the back of the truck. “Your father ‘s in here! Your father’s in here!” shouted the man. “He’s in here, but he’s too sick to stand up!”

As the truck trundled on, and as Lydia stood shocked on the sidewalk, she only then recognized the man screaming at her about her father as a neighbor who had disappeared on the same day her father did.

She learned her father was in a prison in Chisinau and each Saturday she’d go there. Thousands of prisoners would shuffle past in a thick line, shoulders crouched, heads down, forbidden to look up, click clacking in their handmade, wooden shoes. Lydia is startled by her memory of the click-clacking wooden shoes. Says she can’t believe she remembers the sound.

She and the others stood quietly as the parade of prisoners passed by, making their way from the canteen back to their cells. “If we shouted their names,” says Lydia, “guards pointed guns at us to shut us up.”

Word got out that winter that her father had died.

In a few years she would also be taken away.

It was a late night in early July, and a ruckus was unfolding on the street below. Her Russian roommates moved to the window to see what was happening, while Lydia stayed put, but strained to hear what the other girls were whispering about in their native tongue. She got up to see, and from their second floor window the girls watched as a Russian soldier entered the house next door.

The night of July 5, 1949, was the largest Siberian deportation conducted in Moldova, carrying away nearly 36,000 people overnight–12,000 of them children. The only other one occurred June 12, 1941. Both happened without warning and under cover of night.

But Lydia only saw a single Russian soldier enter a single house. It was not history yet, and she could not yet see her own fate reflected in it.

Still unsuspecting, she went to see her uncle during a break at work the following day. No one at first appeared to be home, but the front door was ajar. Unusual. A small dog was in the yard. In the house she noted other things–her cousin’s handbag on the table. Inconsequential snapshot memories of small dogs and handbags have inserted themselves like props into Lydia’s recall of her life’s drama.

Lydia slipped past two women who were in the kitchen taking inventory, and into a bedroom, where she was discovered and unceremoniously kicked out by the two women.

They found her at the market where she worked. Four people pulled up in a truck–two Russian soldiers, a driver and her sister’s husband, a Communist who led the soldiers to her.

“I don’t know why he did it,” said Lydia. “Maybe because he was frightened of what [his fellow] Communists would do to him if he didn’t.”

Her boss, also a Communist, began taking bits of salami and cheese from the store shelves and putting them into a bag for her.

You’ll need the food for your journey, said her boss. You’re going to Siberia.

At the train station she met her mother and younger brother, and together they were shoved into cattle cars. Her memory is fussy. She doesn’t remember the number of people, or if there were children–only that it was overcrowded, and that she had a watch, and that the train left the station at exactly 1 a.m.

“My family was lucky because we had a spot near the little window, so it was easier to breathe.” said Lydia.

She tilts her head slightly to the left, to demonstrate how she slept, that she slept standing up and rested her head against something, or someone.

“[My friend} Anna still teases me about the sash I had that I’d take and put over my eyes to try to sleep.” says Lydia, closing her eyes and miming with a make-believe sash.

After two weeks they were allowed to take a bath. After two more weeks they arrived at their destination, an uninhabitable forest near a river.

Much can be recorded about Lydia’s life in Siberia: chigger bites and mosquito bites so bad faces were swollen beyond recognition; the -60C weather; under constant surveillance by guards; four weeks standing up in an overcrowded cattle car with no toilet facilities.

Nearly every Moldovan knows someone who was sent to the gulag or to Siberia; or had fathers and grandfathers put on the front lines without weapons during wartime, an easy and cost-efficient way for Stalin to rid the USSR of dissidents.

Molly Lamphear, a Peace Corps volunteer, is compiling an oral history, so when this younger generation is ready to hear, they will have something to listen to. Lydia’s sash, the click-clacking wooden shoes, her uncle’s house, her roommate’s hushed tones, her betraying brother-in-law, will not be forgotten.

Lydia spent nearly seven years in Siberia, returning home after Stalin died in 1953.

“We heard the news of Stalin’s death on the radio. A Russian worker [at the Siberian camp] was crying. She said ‘Look at them! Stalin has died and they are laughing!’ ” says Lydia.

When she returned, her old boss asked her why she didn’t stay. Didn’t you like it there, asked the boss.

Her brother-in-law is still alive, and she shrugs before she stops to talk about him.

“When I came back from Siberia I saw him. The only thing he said to me was ‘I’m sure you’re upset with me.’ “

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