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Books: A Visual Tale of Love Amid the Gulags

By David Schonauer   Tuesday April 28, 2020


Kolyma, a region in northeastern Siberia, is known for two things:

Its gold mining and its Soviet-era labor camps.

The two were inextricably related: Spurred by the need for resources to finance his five-year plan, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin began transporting prisoners to the region in the early 1930s to extract the gold, as well as timber and coal.

Xenia Nikolskaya, a Russian-Swedish photographer and PPD reader, grew up fascinated by the stories her mother told of her childhood in Kolyma, and in 2012 the two of them journeyed there. The trip was the spark for Nikolskaya’s new book The House My Grandfather Built, a visual history of her family focused on “the ferocious bond” between her grandfather, who spent almost 20 years in a Kolyma Gulag, and her grandmother, who left her own life behind to be with him.

“Nothing shapes us quite as much as our relationships with our parents. These relationships or the absence thereof, determine much of what defines and either equips us with strength or leaves us weak,” Nikolskaya notes in the book. “I grew up without a father, so my grandparents played an important role in my upbringing. Maybe it is more correct to say that their images or rather their joint image was always an absolute ideal for me. Theirs was a story of great love and devotion.”

Nikolskaya’s grandfather died when she was just two, and she doesn’t remember him, but working on her book became a way for her to know him, she says. He was arrested in 1935, following the assassination of Sergei Kirov, the mayor of Leningrad and a Stalin rival. Stalin, who is widely suspected of being behind the killing, used it as a pretext for the Great Purge, a campaign of atrocities lasting from from 1936 to 1938.

“In 1937, my grandmother, Olga Gracheva, a geologist, went to Kolyma with her young son (my late uncle) to join her husband,” writes Nikolsaya. “She got a job in Dalstroy [also known as the Far Northern Construction Trust] — a structure within the NKVD notoriously known for using prisoners labor.  Unhappy with her decision to go to leave them for her husband in a Siberian prisoner camp, her parents didn't even see her off.”

In the 1930s the NKVD served as a Soviet secret police agency and was known for its role in political repression and for carrying out Stalin’s Great Purge.

And in Kolyma, the two made a life. “The years went by. Grandfather was in the Gulag, but sometimes he could leave depending on who was in charge. He felled timber while his wife searched for minerals and fossil fuels,” write Nikolskaya.

“Grandmother,” she notes, “received an award from the state for her work and was considered a national heroine. After my grandfather completed his sentence, they, together with my mother, who was born there, returned to St. Petersburg to build the house where I spent my childhood.”

As a girl, Nikolskaya was not told about the past. “In the Soviet Union it wasn’t customary to share family lore, especially if it departed from the norm,” she writes. “My grandmother’s aggressive reaction to any mention of Stalin, even hearing his name on the television, and my mother’s immediate rush to turn the conversation to another topic was completely incomprehensible to me at the time. It was only when I found my grandfather’s memoirs and learned the details of his life story that things began falling into place.”

Among the memoirs she found was this passage written by her grandfather, a testament to the human spirit: “I was often surprised by a smell of lilac in Kolyma during the harsh -60F° cold. Kolyma would disappear for a time and it seemed as if I were in a small house in the Northern Ponds, on a sunny morning, with open windows, lilac blooming in all the windows and waves of lilac aroma!”

Today, in Putin’s Russia, there has been an attempt to rehabilitate the legacy of Stalin. Nikolskay sees her family history as a response. “The current Russian situation sometimes feels like deja vu with a constant history correction,” she says. “This makes me believe it is important to share this now.”

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