A tale of gulags, hunger and the only way out for a 5-year-old13 june 2011, 12:32
Alina Antonova was so hungry as a 5-year-old in the Karaganda area that she remembers crying and asking her mother when she’d be able to get her fill of bread.
It was 1943. Her parents were among millions whom Soviet leaders had banished to Kazakhstan in the 1930s.
Antonova’s family’s crime: Having a little bit more than others in their village of Yuzyfovka in the Ukraine.
Jealous villagers told Soviet authorities that Antonova’s family was rich. That was far from the truth, the now-73-year-old Antonova told me when I visited the Karaganda area recently.
They owned their own home and had a few more furnishings than their neighbors – but that was it.
But in those days, Soviet authorities were looking to punish anyone whom they believed were better off than others. Their justification: Those with more must have obtained it by exploiting the working class.
Antonova’s parents were among hundreds of thousands whom the secret police, or NKVD, sent to labor camps in Kazakhstan, particularly the huge Karlag camp near Karaganda.
Antonova was born in 1938. Presumably her parents had been “rehabilitated” and released from labor-camp service before 1941, when she was 3.
If they had not been rehabilitated, Antonova would have been taken from them at 3 and sent to an orphanage. That was the practice when a child was born in a gulag.
Release didn’t mean that former camp residents’ lives would be much better, however. With a gulag stain on their records, most had difficulty finding decent jobs.
That was apparently the situation when Antonova, at age 5, asked her parents when she would stop being hungry.
She’ll never forget their answer. “One day you will stop being hungry,” they told her, “but we will be long gone from this earth when that day comes.”
The story conveyed a hopelessness about life under a cruel system that ripped at my heart and chilled me at the same time.
Antonova told me the story when I attended the dedication last month of a refurbished museum in the village of Dolinka, near Karaganda, that honors those who spent years in Kazakhstan’s labor camps.
A major reason that President Nursultan Nazarbayev and other officials wanted the museum revitalized is so that Kazakhs will never forget the dark gulag chapter of their past. Only by remembering it can the younger generation ensure it never happens again, the museum-revitalization backers have contended.
I asked Antonova how her life is today in an independent Kazakhstan that is making rapid economic progress.
“At least 80 times better,” she replied.
The government pension she receives is enough to cover her needs, she smiled.
“In fact,” she said with a look of deep contentment, “I want to tell you that I’m now the happiest and richest person in the world.”
What helped her through the decades of difficult times, she said, was her faith in God.
“My parents taught me when I was young to pray, and I’ve been praying ever since,” said Antonova, a Roman Catholic.
Suddenly an image popped into my mind: A little girl kneeling before her bed, using prayer to try to ease the pain of a stomach rumbling from lack of food.
Then another image: grief etched on the faces of a mother and father whose hearts were breaking from putting a child to bed hungry.
And, finally, an image of a smug ideologue uttering the words “religion is the opium of the masses.”