NEWS

Surviving refugees relate horrors of Stalin’s gulags

The persecution and death of thousands of Soviet Union Greeks in the horrendous gulags of Siberia during the time of Stalin is a story that is not widely known in all its detail. Now the relatives of those who died in the camps and historians researching the events have shed light on the what happened in interviews with Kathimerini. At least 38,000 Soviet citizens of Greek origin were sent to the gulags in Siberia, where few survived the inhuman conditions of forced labor. There were three phases in the persecution of the Greeks in the former USSR in Stalin’s time. The wealthy who were arrested and deported or executed in the 1930s as Kulak, or rich landowners, were deemed to be enemies of the people (some tens of thousands were deported in 1937 in the infamous Operation 13) on charges of spying for Greece, while others were exiled during the war and in 1949 as collaborators with the Germans or as «saboteurs» of the Soviet state. In late 1937, the Soviet Union was going through the period of the «great terror.» Liquidation of supposed opponents of Stalin’s regime had assumed epidemic proportions. The murder of Communist Party rising star Sergei Kirov on December 1, 1934 (later revealed to have been planned by Stalin’s secret service) triggered the annihilation of the dictator’s opponents that developed into a vicious pogrom. Faithful comrades of Lenin and leaders of the Bolshevik revolution, such as Kamenev, Zinoviev and Bukharin, were accused of murder and executed, while Leon Trotsky fled to Norway and was later murdered in Mexico by a KGB agent. After show trials, thousands of alleged conspirators against the Soviet state were executed or sent to the notorious gulags of Siberia, branded as traitors and criminals. ‘Cleansing’ operations Apart from his internal opponents and opponents of the regime, Stalin also had in his sights the minority ethnic groups who lived in the vast Soviet territory. According to subsequent scholars of the period, he probably thought that in a clash with Germany or the other imperial powers that Poles, Koreans, Japanese, Germans, Greeks, Finns and Romanians could be mobilized by the enemy to act as a fifth column. Therefore, he saw his deliverance from potential saboteurs as a question of national security. Soviet archives that were opened after the collapse of the regime show that NKVD secret service head Nikolai Yezov, a close colleague of Stalin, had planned separate cleansing operations against 14 ethnic minorities. The operation against the Greeks, which bore NKVD directive number 50215, started on the night of December 15, 1937, and took place in Georgia, Crimea, Stavropol and anywhere else that the 300,000 Greeks had settled in what had become the USSR. Labor camps Ivan Tzouhas, a Greek from Russia who has been studying the persecution of the Soviet Union Greeks, says the evidence shows that 38,000 Soviet citizens of Greek origin disappeared into the black hole of the gulags. The operation against the Greeks was the 13th, and 50 percent of the Greeks were arrested in the first three days on charges of spying for Greece. Many of those arrested were executed immediately. In the area of Donetsk in the Crimea alone, 3,140 Greeks were executed without trial between January 20 and February 5. The others were transported to forced labor camps, mainly in the area of Kolima near the Kamchatka peninsula, where 2.5 million Soviet citizens were sent during Stalin’s time, most of whom did not survive. «They made them work 15-16 hours a day in the infamous gold mines, Nobody could stand it for more than 3-4 months. In winter, the temperature fell far below freezing. The bodies of the dead were piled up like animals until they accumulated and were burnt. Those who survived did so by a miracle,» comments Tzouhas. The secret police of the regime would seize men at night without giving them or their relatives any explanation. Of course, nobody dared to ask the fate of their kin but many guessed what was in store for them. The only thing they whispered when anyone asked was: «They took him.» «That phrase aroused horror in the Soviet Union then, because it meant terrible things,» he explains, adding that it was only after the 20th congress of the Communist Party in 1956 when de-Stalinization began that evidence of what had happened to the Greeks started to emerge. When war broke out and the Germans invaded Soviet territory, new persecutions of ethnic minorities began. In 1942, the regime exiled 6,000 Greeks to Siberia and Kazakhstan under suspicion of helping the enemy, and when the German troops were repelled in 1944, another 15,040 citizens of Greek origin were exiled to the Siberian steppes on charges of having collaborated with the occupation forces. «Of course all that was fabrication. Not only did the Greeks not collaborate with the Germans, but there is evidence of their partisan activity and participation in the Red Army,» says Tzouhas. The third and final operation against the Greeks was in 1949 on the shores of the Azofki and the Black Sea. In one night, they «took» 37,000 Greeks from the Crimea and Batum and sent them to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. «The regime wanted the shores free of people from other ethnic minorities,» explains Tzouhas, who travels Russia collecting evidence for an account he is compiling on the Greek victims of Stalin’s persecutions. Sealed archives His task is not easy, as most of the archives of the KGB and other secret services are still sealed. The persecutors were rehabilitated along with millions of the persecuted, though that was not the case for the Greeks who were exiled and murdered during the third phase of the operation. Attempts made by some people in the Greek community in Russia to get information have not managed to persuade the Kremlin, which refuses to open the files on various pretexts. When Boris Yeltsin was president, Duma members of Greek origin managed to get him files about operations against Greeks, along with files about Poles, but Yeltsin threw them out.