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Heartrending letters from within the Soviet-era Siberian GULAGs

By Anna Liesowska
04 December 2014

Examples of letters and drawings secretly passed to relatives from prisoners in Soviet labour camps gone on display in Moscow.

A letter from prisoner with censor obliterating some lines with black ink. Picture: Memorial society

An exhibition opened this week gives an insight into how those incarcerated in repressive GULAGs managed to keep in touch with the outside world. Banned from writing to loved ones, and only allowed letters from family members twice a year, prisoners came up with many ways to squirrel out messages.

With no pencils, papers or envelopes, they were forced to write on cigarette boxes, scratch out words on tree bark or embroider messages with fish bone on tissues.

Others also hid tiny notes in the folds of clothes or put messages inside children’s toys, with some even disguising them in pills for prisoners being released to pass on to their relatives. The 'Right of Correspondence' exhibition, opened in Moscow by the Memorial charitable society on December 1, features hundreds of items dating between 1919 and the 1980s.

Examples of heartrending letters and drawings secretly passed to relatives from prisoners in Soviet labour camps in Siberia have gone on display


Examples of heartrending letters and drawings secretly passed to relatives from prisoners in Soviet labour camps in Siberia have gone on display
Inmates were banned from mentioning the location of the camp, the number of prisoners, the conditions they faced, any deaths or any complaints or anti-Soviet statements. Pictures: Memorial society


'We have letters from different GULAG camps located in Siberia, including from Omsk, Krasnoyarsk, Norilsk, and Kolyma', says Alyona Kozlova, director of archives at Memorial. 'Among them are the beautiful letters of Vladimir Levitsky to his son, with ethnographic essays and hand-drawn postage stamps'.

Born in the Ukrainian village of Russkaya in 1873, Levitsky fought for the Red Army in the civil war and served as an education officer teaching calligraphy and gymnastics. But he was imprisoned in 1932 for the supposed crime of collecting stamps at a time when stamp collectors were suspected of passing on secret signs and codes. He collected many items including postcards, coins and matchbox labels but his greatest passion was postal stamps.

After his imprisonment in a GULAG called Olhovka, in what is now the Novosibirsk region, he carried on his hobby by drawing his own stamps on letters he sent to his son, Oleg. 

Examples of heartrending letters and drawings secretly passed to relatives from prisoners in Soviet labour camps in Siberia have gone on display
Levitsky fought for the Red Army and later served as an education officer teaching calligraphy. Picture: Memorial society


Among the other correspondence on display is a letter by a detainee from Minsk called Kozlov, who used an ingenious method to contact his family.

Irina Ostrovskaya, the curator of the exhibition, says: 'He pulled out the thread of his socks and embroidered the letter with a fish bone on a piece of cloth. Then his cellmate was released and managed to hide the letter in the collar of his shirt'.

To his wife, Beti, he writes: 'You are the only one in my dreams and thoughts. How much I love you and how hard it is to lose you. Don’t cry. I am forever with you. Remember me with a kind word'.

Then, to his children, he adds another message that reads: 'Nina, Enya! I am not your enemy. I was in 29 battles, I was in a Warsaw fight - for our motherland and your happiness. Never doubt my honesty before the Party, the Motherland and you'.

'I was wounded twice. I am with you in eternity. Keep the memory of me, take care of Mama. Love you more than I love life. Papa'

Examples of heartrending letters and drawings secretly passed to relatives from prisoners in Soviet labour camps in Siberia have gone on display
A letter to wife and daughters embroidered with fish bones. Picture: Memorial society


GULAGs were infamous during the Soviet era, with millions of political prisoners and enemies of the state toiling and dying there, particularly under Stalin.

The Memorial exhibition gives an insight into life within the repressive and inhumane compounds through the secretive correspondence. For the prisoners, sending letters or drawings to the outside world helped them keep some semblance of normal life at a time when they were being manipulated by the regime.

Communication with family was prohibited although some prisoners could receive a letter once every six months – and even then it was usually heavily edited by officials. The oldest letters from the archives of Memorial – an international historical, educational, human rights and charitable society – date to 1919.

As time went on those incarcerated in the GULAGs across Siberia became more inventive in their attempts to elude the snooping eyes of the authorities.

Examples from the 1970s were made on water resistant paper and hidden in a type of pill swallowed by prisoners due for release.

The wives of alleged enemies of the state passed letters in self-made toys from behind bars to their children.

'I was wounded twice. I am with you in eternity. Keep the memory of me, take care of Mama. Love you more than I love life. Papa'.


'I was wounded twice. I am with you in eternity. Keep the memory of me, take care of Mama. Love you more than I love life. Papa'.
Forced to write on cigarette boxes, scratch out words on tree bark or embroider messages. Pictures: Memorial society


Others scrawled notes and threw them from train carriages on their way to the exile of the camps, hoping they would be picked up and passed on to their families.

'They managed to throw tiny letters through small holes', explains Ms Ostrovskaya. 'And just imagine, these letters reached their destination. Just imagine, given the distances, to throw the letter on the railway and hope that some kind man will pick it. And people did pick these letters and sent them. We need to understand that when a person picked such a letter, he understood very well what kind of letter it was, as well as he knew what he was doing by getting this letter to the mailbox'. 

A number of sketches also feature in the exhibition, which will surprise many since prisoners were banned from drawing and usually did not have any means of being able to draw. Among those who drew was professional artist Mikhail Sokolov, a prolific painter and head of the Proletkult art studio in Moscow who was arrested in 1938.

While imprisoned in the Taiga GULAG in Siberian Kemerovo he produced miniature landscapes in secret in the privacy of his bunk, using toothpaste, bricks, soot and burnt matches. Another drawing on show, by Irina Borkhman, was painted with pig blood.

The exhibition features a number of documents highlighting the scale of the censorship imposed by the strict camp regime, with letters almost entirely obliterated with black ink. In any official communication allowed by the authorities, inmates were banned from mentioning the location of the camp, the number of prisoners, the conditions they faced, any deaths or any complaints or anti-Soviet statements. 

Comments (1)

The Siberian people are still blessed with the skill of making something out of nothing .
Innovativeness is how they have survived for past numerous decades. Many examples of this siberian phenomena are written in this article .
Couldn't help feeling moved yet full of admiration for these prisoners when reading these past letters which were sent to their sorely missed families and loved ones
Russian history tells us about so many "indestructible" individuals .Bitter cold and long periods of islolation seem only to make some of them superhuman,yet their love for life and their faith in hope was all of which sustained them.
Russia has had too many wars ,Too many russians have died, Whether it was right or wrong it's not for me to judge;however, dialogue ,dialogue and dialogue is the way to go.
One loss of a russian life is precious and must always be justified by the nation a true russian asset that can never be replaced . Patrick

patrick travers,
06/12/2014 21:03
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