The Jewish Chronicle
Cruelty captured between the lines of paternal post
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.