Solidarité Ukraine
INED Éditions. Sound Archives, European Memories of the Gulag

The deported prisoners’ journeys

From arrest to relegation, the deported prisoners’ journeys took a surprisingly similar shape. They would be arrested in a village and often taken by cart to the nearest railway halt, where others would be waiting; nearly all the stories begin like that. The long train was made up of cattle trucks, not always with bedframes; sometimes people had to sit or lie on the floor. All ages and sexes were crammed together. And then the journey was long, very long with no place of the destination given at the start.
Arrival was sudden, unexpected. The railway halt was usually small, in the middle of nowhere, but that was not the end of the journey. Either they continued immediately by car or lorry to their final destination. Or the deportees waited for a time in huts until they were fetched.


Forty or fifty kilometres more before they arrived in the place that would be the first stage of their resettlement. During the train journey, because the line was single-track, they would wait for ages at a station to let another train through in the other direction. The train would stop at some forsaken station in Siberia and then reverse along a route that never seemed to be direct.

The men and women organised themselves, set aside a corner of the wagon as a lavatory, with a hole in the floor and a bucket. They tried to preserve some sort of privacy. Although the children were not embarrassed, they could tell the women were. The doors were kept shut; there might be a small window that let in a glimpse of the countryside. Some had brought food; others tried to get some when the train stopped. Hot water was essential, and this was given out in stations, when one of the passengers would go and fetch it, without moving too far from the train, under the watch of the escort.

The escort soldiers only appeared when the train stopped and the wagon doors opened a little. They were not particularly violent in their behaviour, but the children could hear them shoot if anyone tried to escape. Sometimes the escapees managed to disappear into the forest. No one, of course, would ever know what became of them.

During this journey into the unknown and the uncertain, landmarks like the crossing of a large river, the passage through the Ural mountains and the first sight of the taiga took on great importance. Everyone had their own idea about where they were and what the changing landscape meant. Among these similar stories, some differences do emerge. The journeys in 1941 and 1944 were clearly more painful, with ever-present hunger and exhaustion, than those in 1949, years after the war.

These stories may also be compared with the first massive deportations during the collectivisation of 1929-1930, which were often improvised. A “deportation-abandonment” (Nicolas Werth) when the resettlers were sometimes simply dumped in the countryside. What these witnesses relate was generally not so bad. The organisation was better; they were received, even in poor conditions. The instructions published by the interior ministry departments in charge of resettlement do actually correspond fairly well to what the witnesses relate now.

Alain Blum