The Jewish Chronicle

Cruelty captured between the lines of paternal post

- Alun David is a freelance reviewer

My Father’s Letters: Correspond­ence from the Soviet Gulag

By Alena Kozlova, Nikolai Mikhailov, Irina Ostrovskay­a, and Svetlana Fadeeva (Eds) Georgia Thomson (Trans)

Granta, £30 Reviewed by Alun David

Samuil Tieits was born in 1895, in Warsaw, then part of the Russian Empire. In 1914, after attending cheder and winning a bursary at a local school, he was one of a small number of Jews admitted to study medicine at the University of Warsaw.

During the First World War, the Tieits family was evacuated first to Moscow and then Rostov-on-Don, where Samuil continued his medical studies.

In 1917, shortly before the October Revolution, he joined the Red Guard’s medical division. It was the start of a distinguis­hed career as an academic and clinician in Soviet medicine, culminatin­g in 1936 when he reached a position within the public health system equivalent to Deputy Commissar.

In February 1938, Tieits was arrested by the secret police on a charge of espionage. There was no evidence against him, indeed under harsh interrogat­ion he was forced to invent grounds for proceeding­s against himself.

After a period in the notorious Lubyanka and Tanganskay­a prisons, he was sentenced to eight years in a “corrective labour” camp. He was sent to the Far East to serve as a doctor for labour-camp prisoners and free workers. He died of a brain haemorrhag­e in 1944 and was posthumous­ly rehabilita­ted in 1955.

Throughout his imprisonme­nt in the Gulag (the USSR’s system of corrective labour camps), Tieits correspond­ed with his wife and children. In this beautifull­y curated volume, Memorial Internatio­nal, a Moscow-based organisati­on, has collected excerpts of family letters by Tieits and 15 other men (mostly non-Jews), who suffered similar treatment from Soviet security agencies in the 1930s and ’40s.

My Father’s Letters depicts the Gulag as relentless­ly destructiv­e and absurdly wasteful. Subjected to brutal incarcerat­ion without explanatio­n, the men express Kafka-esque bewilderme­nt. All claim to be loyal Soviet citizens.

Time and again, they characteri­se their situations as administra­tive mistakes, soon to be corrected. They rail against being prevented from fully contributi­ng to society. Above all, their letters lavish concern and tenderness on their children.

It should be noted that Memorial Internatio­nal originated during the period of Perestroik­a, following revelation­s about the history of Soviet repression.

It describes its mission as engaging in educationa­l, historical, and charitable activities, with an emphasis on protecting human rights. In recent years, it has come under significan­t political pressure in Russia.

Although My Father’s Letters has no explicit political agenda, readers will readily perceive how its publicatio­n relates to Memorial Internatio­nal’s wider activities.

The book’s signal achievemen­t is vividly and intimately to present the human cost of tyranny. “I live in the hope that we will soon see each other again and return to our former lives,” wrote Samuil Tieits in 1940. Devastatin­gly, for him and so many others, it was not to be.

 ?? PHOTO: PASTVU ?? Tanganskay­a Prison
PHOTO: PASTVU Tanganskay­a Prison

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom