Baptists and repression – one oral history account

In my first blog about the oral history interviews conducted as part of my study of Protestant life in the USSR I wrote about the life of Z. who was born in 1925 on the outskirts of Moscow. She came from a poor background but as a young woman managed to establish a stable life for herself: a good job in a factory, marriage to a foreman. Her religious beliefs – as a young woman in the late 1940s, she was baptised  – represented a threat to this steady Soviet life, and were the source of conflict with her husband. The protagonist of this second blog is rather different. In the late 1940s, O. was still a child but she had already been separated from her parents and sent, alone, into exile. The religious beliefs of her family marked her out for repression from an early age. Her interview, conducted by my colleague Nadezhda Beliakova,  is full of emotion: there are five references to fear, seven to crying. It is not difficult to see why.

O. was born in 1936, in Chernivtsi region, at that time part of Rоmania. Her mother was a Baptist. When the Soviet forces came in 1940 her father was arrested as a kulak and never returned. In 1947, her mother was arrested during the process of forced collectivization. O. attributed her arrest to the fact that her mother was a believer (and had, to boot, refused the advances of a local official who wanted her to marry his brother.) Alone in the world, O. was sent into exile in Perm oblast. In the interview she describes the experience of transportation, three times using animal metaphors to bring home her feelings of degradation: she was sent away from her home ‘like a dog’; they were loaded into a wagon ‘like cattle’; she followed orders ‘like a sheep’. Her account of exile is harrowing as she often came close to starvation. She was eventually taken as a domestic for a family which saved her from hunger, but which meant gruelling work. In several of the stories from her adolescence, she describes being in tears (repeating, ‘I cried, I cried’.) At one point she says that it is terrible to remember it all, that it as it happened not to her, but as if in a film or in a book.

O. returned from this ‘other’ life after Stalin’s death and waited for her mother, at times in despair. Eventually her mother also returned. O.’s account of life after liberation details her confrontations with the KGB; the discrimination she encountered at work; the repeated comrades’ courts. On numerous occasions she refers to an indeterminate ‘they’ [oni], suggesting an oppressive ‘them’ , a kind of dark presence looming throughout her life. In her description of religious life she is at times defiant, but it is a life marked by her early suffering. This comes through particularly when the interviewer asked her to reflect on the change brought by 1991. In comparison with other interviews, including Z.’s, she identifies 1991 as a distinctive break. For her, it was a moment of freedom.

Interviewer: In your opinion how is Christian life different from how it was in the Soviet Union? What’s the most important difference?
O: Freedom. For example, when I came back from the Urals, I always had the feeling that someone was walking behind me. [Pauses] Following me. And now we’re kind of breathing freely, Thank the Lord. And at services there was a kind of oppression [gnet] then. You came, someone’s there writing, writing. They come in, they follow you. Now there’s none of that, Thank God. That’s what I think anyway.
Her husband agreed, but his attitude to freedom was more ambivalent. He said: ‘But the other side of it is that then we knew where the enemy was, and now we don’t. There’s this freedom, everything is possible, but where will Satan tempt the believer? That’s the most terrifying thing. Now there’s this freedom, everything, everything, everything is possible, but then we knew this is not allowed, this is not allowed. Many things have changed and there is this freedom, but in this freedom, in this permissiveness, you feel a greater responsibility before God, and Satan tempts the believer more.’

O.’s husband went on to talk about changes affecting family life, and his sense of sadness when he walked quiet streets once vibrant with children playing. As we shall see in the next blog, other interviewees also express a kind of nostalgia for both a moral order and a sense of community which has disappeared with the Soviet Union. But for O., child of ‘kulak’, survivor of exile, it is freedom which trumps everything; 1991, for her, simply brought a sense of liberation.

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