In Moscow, camp survivors recall suffering under Nazis and under countrymen

May 21, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Veterans of Nazi prison camps are meeting veterans of Communist prison camps here this week.

Many are white-haired, bent, aged. Others are not so old, and haven't been out so very long. All had suffered at the hands of the century's two great totalitarian systems.

A few -- like 69-year-old Yevgenia Wrubletskaia -- had known both.

"I was in both hells. There was no difference between them," she said.

These were regimes built on cruelty, humiliation and death.

But a theme that was voiced strongly at the conference's opening session was that the German totalitarian past is safely buried while Russia's is not.

"There was a trial at Nuremberg. But the fact that the Communist Party is banned here doesn't mean we're finished with Bolshevism," warned Semyon Vilyensky, chairman of the Vozvrashchenye -- or, Return -- Society, which organized the conference.

"If the Germans had enough courage to blame fascism, we've had no courage to blame communism," said Ms. Wrubletskaia. "It seems there's a sort of renaissance of communism now, and I worry about it very much. For us, it will be a bad end."

Ms. Wrubletskaia knows about bad ends. She was 17 and living in her native Poland when World War II broke out in 1939. The Germans sent her to Berlin as a laborer. She fell in with some anti-Nazis, was arrested, then placed in a camp at Ravensbrueck where she worked making aviation parts.

Those who lost their health died. She was young and strong, and survived.

On April 30, 1945, Ravensbrueck was liberated by the Red Army. For 24 days Ms. Wrubletskaia was a free woman. Then she was seized by Soviet security agents and sent to Moscow.

She was interrogated for 16 months, kept for most of the time in a stone "box" that was too small for her to lie down in. "They tortured me," she said. "They raped me."

Finally, she was tricked into signing Soviet citizenship papers, was formally arrested and charged with being a spy -- for whom was never made clear -- and then was shipped off to the gulag.

She was sent to a camp north of the Arctic Circle. "We were forced to construct cities, roads, dams, mines and houses, all with our bare hands," she said.

Many died from malnutrition; at one point in 1947, she said, 20 women a day were dropping dead at work. Others were simply shot, for such infractions as stepping out of the line of march. A Polish friend of hers was shot that way. The guard who killed her was rewarded with a vacation home, she says.

Ms. Wrubletskaia emerged from camp in 1955 and settled down in the nearby village of Inta, because she lacked permission to live anywhere else.

Today she has neatly curled white hair, poor eyesight, an appearance of some inner strength. For her, Stalin's camps were worse than Hitler's.

"In the fascist camps," she said, "they destroyed mainly citizens of conquered countries. But under this regime, they destroyed their own countrymen. This was monstrous."

Igor Pinchukov was dispatched from the streets of Kiev in 1941 to work on Rudolf Vopel's farm in Goersbach, Germany. He was 15. "My Germans -- they treated me very well," he said. "It was like a fairy tale."

In 1945 the Americans came. The young Mr. Pinchukov was befriended by a sergeant, Thomas Macocatic of Weirton, W.Va., a steel town near Pittsburgh. Mr. Pinchukov was put to work as a laborer for the U.S. Army. He said Sergeant Macocatic (who died in 1982) had talked about sponsoring him as an immigrant to the United States.

But Goersbach was in what became the Soviet zone -- later East Germany -- and after three months U.S. forces withdrew to a line about 10 miles away. Mr. Pinchukov was told to wait at the farm. The Soviets promptly arrested him.

He spent 10 years in and out of the gulag. He was released once in 1949. He immediately went to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to see what he might be entitled to as a former employee of the U.S. Army. He arrived after the offices had closed. As he left, he was arrested by the KGB. He was released again in 1956.

He worked in the mines in Kazakhstan, where he still lives. "They treated us like animals," he said. "I don't feel this country is my motherland. This country just punished me. I was affronted here. I want to get out."

The prison-camp conference, which opened Tuesday, was held in an ornate hall that used to be the setting for funerals of Politburo members. The infamous show trials of the 1930s, when Stalin established the gulag, were also held here.

Andrei Vorobil, the Russian minister of health, is the son of two Bolsheviks who were purged by Stalin. Both were imprisoned in December 1936. Imagine the grief of the children, he said, as he struggled to speak through tears. Every night for 10 years, they waited for their parents, waited to smell again the aroma of their father's tobacco.

They were told their father had been denied permission to write letters. Later, they learned that meant he was dead.

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