The prisoners finally disembarked in a city called Tomsk. From there, they walked two days through the Siberian taiga (forest) in the dead of winter to a set of barracks with small, barren rooms built specifically for Poles. This was part of the Soviet gulag system, a chain of forced-labor camps and settlements where tens of millions of prisoners were punished and “reeducated” by the state through grueling physical labor in harsh conditions.
This account of life under Soviet rule is not an extreme outlier, but indicative of how the communist regime treated its own people. This week marks 100 years since the revolution that gave rise to communism in Russia and, subsequently, Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Avowedly Marxist regimes killed anywhere from 65 to 100 million people, a total so high that it is impossible for the human mind to conceptualize.
So goes the apocryphal Joseph Stalin quote, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” A good way to grasp the breadth of communism’s evils is to understand the depth of the suffering in the lives of its individual victims. That’s why the stories of the Rybickis and others are apropos. . . .
From the psychologically poignant nighttime arrest without explanation, to the inhumane transport by cattle car, to hard labor under-clothed in the bitter cold, to the starvation, to the omnipresent stench of death, to the totalizing oppression even outside of the gulags, the parallels between Witold’s story and other victims’ are striking.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and partitioned the country in two. The USSR deported to Siberia about one and a half million of the 13 to 14 million Poles in the eastern half of the country. Hundreds of thousands of them died or were executed in the process. Over decades, millions of kulaks, Cossacks, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Soviet veterans, and Orthodox Christians, among others, suffered similar fates. The USSR killed 20 to 30 million of its own people in total. . . .
In the Rybickis’ settlement, able-bodied prisoners above the age of 12 worked felling trees, preparing lumber, and collecting sap in weather that would sometimes fall to 50 below zero degrees Celsius. The laboring prisoners were given a ration of 400g of bread daily, roughly 1,200 calories, while non-working prisoners were given 200g, a measly 600 calories. Sometimes food shipments would get delayed to the camps, and prisoners like the Rybickis would go days without eating.
“We were practically starving to death,” Witold recalls. Some prisoners had “swollen, huge bellies” from hunger. Prisoners were “dying like flies all around” from hunger, disease, or being worked to death. There was a makeshift cemetery by the settlement where “hundreds and hundreds were buried.”
Witold’s sister, Irena, who was 14 when the Soviets deported their family, eventually refused to work because she didn’t even have shoes to wear. She was sentenced to three months in a prison in Novosibirsk where she survived by the graces of a better-situated, older male prisoner.
Upon Irena’s return, she was badly shaken, exclaiming she “had enough of Russia, communism, and Siberia, and was running away,” which she did. A year later, her father discovered that authorities had captured her trying to cross into Iran and sentenced her to seven years in prison. Because the USSR was in the throes of a brutal war with Nazi Germany, it gave prisoners like her a choice to risk likely death on the front lines of the eastern front or in a harsh, small, cold prison cell. By great fortune, she survived the war, fled to the West at the end, and got documentation to emigrate to the United States.