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In Russia’s assault on Ukraine, an echo of my grandparents’ ordeal at Stalin’s hands

Their exile to the gulag foreshadowed the deportations of more than a million people taken by Russia since its invasion of Ukraine almost a year ago.

The author's family poses in their Siberian exile settlement, circa 1956. Alongside a great-grandmother and grandparents are two aunts, seen here as children. The author's mother is in the arms of the author's grandmother in the back row.Megan Buskey

Amid Russia’s war of torture, rape, and pillage, the forcible deportation of at least 900,000 Ukrainians to Russian territory has attracted relatively little attention. Yet deportation is an important part of Russia’s attempt to subjugate Ukraine — and one that has a long, telling history.

This is a fact I know intimately. In 1947, the Soviet Union exiled my Ukrainian grandparents from their village west of Lviv to a gulag special settlement in Siberia. Their crime was their blood — they were related to a “bandit,” my grandmother’s elder brother, who was killed while fighting against the Soviets as part of a movement to establish an ethnic Ukrainian state.


My grandmother spent almost 20 years in Siberia before she managed to emigrate with her two younger daughters to the United States. (By then, my grandparents had divorced, and my grandfather remained in the Soviet Union.) They settled in Cleveland. Growing up there in the ’80s and ’90s, I heard often from my grandmother about the hardships she endured in exile — how she labored in a coal mine six days a week; how she waited in line for hours after her shift for the chance to buy bread, often only to be turned away; how the family’s barracks got so cold that standing water inside would freeze at night. At one point, Soviet officials encouraged her to relinquish custody of her eldest daughter to the state. “We were told, ‘Ah, your child will be at the day care. It’s better there.’ Who knew where that day care was? We could not even freely go to the market!” she recounted in an oral history interview before her death in 2013 at the age of 88. The family resisted, and the child who would grow up to become my aunt stayed with her through childhood.

The author's mother, left, and aunt as children in Siberia, circa 1956.Megan Buskey

Under Stalin, deportation loomed over most residents of Soviet territories, particularly members of ethnic minorities who bridled against rule by Moscow. Exile had long been a feature of life on the steppe (Dostoyevsky, for example, spent four infamous years in Omsk), but under Stalin’s rule it expanded substantially. Six million people are estimated to have endured internal exile in the Soviet Union. While these deportations often had an economic objective, populating parts of the Soviet empire in need of workers, they were also a means to bring the population to heel — and dilute the identities that could undermine the Soviet project. Germans, Chechens, Crimean Tartars, and Jews were just a few of the ethnic groups that the Soviets subjected to mass deportation, destroying familial connections to places that in some cases went back hundreds of years.


My grandparents’ experience was a case in point. The villages they hailed from, nestled in the rustic quiet of the Carpathian foothills, had been founded in the 14th century, and it is reasonable to think, given the circumscribed character of rural life, that our family lineage there went back that far, too. When they arrived in Siberia after two weeks aboard an unfinished cattle car, they were forced to sign a document acknowledging that their exile was permanent. “Forget about Ukraine,” a Soviet official told my grandmother. “Forget about where you were born. You will be here forever.”

The cost of disobeying that edict (or even being perceived as disobeying it) was severe. The family learned this firsthand when my grandmother’s younger brother was arrested for allegedly singing anti-Soviet Ukrainian songs at a party and sent further into the gulag, to a labor camp near Lake Baikal where he would spend the next five years.


The official’s prediction about my family’s banishment did not hold — the gulag system was phased out after Stalin’s death, and my family’s exile sentence was eventually canceled. Apart from the cohort that emigrated to the United States, every one of my family members in Siberia had returned to Ukraine by the end of the 1960s.

Still, the experience left deep scars. While my grandmother treasured the camaraderie she found with fellow Ukrainians in Siberia, she was haunted until the end of her life by the profound uncertainty and deprivation of her time there. “Often, when someone asks me about it, I say that it is better not to say anything because when I talk about it, I think I will forget it, but then I think about it all night long,” she said. “It’s difficult. You can think, your family is here [in the United States], your kids are here, but when mine were growing up, there was no bread. Milk cost 10 rubles per liter. One liter was not enough. In the mine, we made 25 rubles a day as women. How is that a life?”

Russia’s deportation practices today are not nearly as draconian as they were under Stalin. For one, even Ukrainians who have been sent to parts of Russia as far-flung as Murmansk and Vladivostok, have choices upon arrival. They can attempt a new start with uneven assistance from the Russian government or try to make their way out of the country, sometimes with the help of Russian individuals or organizations.


The process, however, is still trying: Ukrainians often must pass through “filtration” points where they are subjected to intrusive interrogations from Russian officials. Some are detained and tortured, if their loyalties are considered suspect. And in a horrifying echo of the pressure my grandmother was under to give up her daughter, Ukrainian children, both with and without living parents, are being forcibly put up for adoption when they arrive on Russian territory.

“History does not repeat,” the old saying goes, “but it does rhyme.” These rhymes tell us something — that the roots of Russia’s current aggression do not rest shallowly in the present but extend much further back; that if we want to contend with these historic patterns of violence, we must look carefully at the array of conditions that enabled them, whether they’re political, social, cultural, or psychological.

The consequences of refusing to do so are stark. One of the many difficulties of the current moment for Ukrainians is the way in which Russia’s invasion inflames the pain of memories of past injustices, even if the memories are merely inherited.

Nearly 1 million Ukrainians have been forcibly deported to Russia since the beginning of the war. For them, the pain of deportation is not yet a memory.


Megan Buskey is the author of “Ukraine Is Not Dead Yet: A Family Story of Exile and Return,” which she will read from and discuss at Harvard Book Store on Monday, Feb. 20. Follow her on Twitter @megan_buskey.