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Immigrants, the gulag, and the Holocaust

November 4, 2018

 

I just finished reading The Raven's Children by Yulia Yakovleva and I found many reasons to recommend this book to both young people and adults. Set in Soviet Leningrad, the main character’s parents and little brother get taken away to a gulag and he is confused by this and goes searching for them.  Despite being a terrible and scary situation from the viewpoint of an eight-year old, there is a lightness to his adventures and perceptions, which makes the book easier to read. It is definitely appropriate for a young reader. The book has brought up many connections for me related to what is going on in the world today.

 

These days when the U.S. government is imprisoning immigrant children, it is eerily possible to relate this situation to the days of the Soviet gulag. What could a child feel being separated from his parents and experiencing the cold rigidness and strictness of one of those awful camps? What else might the immigrant children be feeling? The character of Shura, in a similar mess, gives us clues. 

 

In addition, it is a book that can demystify Russia for children and adults. Russians have been traumatized by years of cruel totalitarian rule. The gulag was a terrible moment in recent history and, like the Holocaust, should never be forgotten. Between 15 million and 18 million people were imprisoned in Siberian camps by Josef Stalin from the mid 1920s to the beginning of the 1950s, when he died. Nine prisoners out of ten perished in the gulag and many prisoners were killed for various reasons.

 

These people, as is shown in the book, often never did anything. They were accused of "being spies" or traitors for the smallest slips, like telling a joke about Stalin or doing something wrong at work. Children were separated from parents and sent to camps where they lived in prison-like conditions, yet some went to Siberia with their mothers. Families did not stay together because men and women were separated in the gulag as a rule. 

 

Stalin, ever paranoid, believed there should be a purge of everyone who did not believe in the Soviet system and who, in any way, seemed to support his arch enemy, Leon Trotsky. People, under the smallest suspicion, far and near, became victims of this persecution. When the gulag system was set up, Stalin and others in the leadership believed good use could be put to these prisoners--slave labor! And that is exactly what the prisoners were until they died or were killed. Different from the Holocaust, Stalin's gulag lasted thirty years. An enormous trauma inflicted on an entire people! Every Soviet citizen knew or was related to someone who suffered in the gulag.

 

The Russians are a strange people to U.S.ers. First they were our enemies because of communism and the U.S. hatred of communism. This animosity had little to do with totalitarianism because there was little awareness of the magnitude of what was going on until Solzhenitsyn wrote The Gulag Archipelago in the mid 1970s. Recent anti-Russian sentiments have centered around the friendship of Putin and Trump and U.S. feelings have ranged from suspicion to betrayal and even hatred. However, the Russian people are not the Russian government or even the handful of crafty hackers who may have disrupted voting. Russians have a history that is little known in the U.S.

 

How many people realize that it was the Russians who defeated the Nazis in World War II? Hitler was after the Slavs, in addition to the Jews, of course, and there were many Jews all over the Soviet Union. Imagine that on top of the purges and deaths in the gulag, the Russian people had to fight the mighty Nazi army on their own territory. After the fighting began in 1941, an estimated 26 million Soviet citizens were killed, including 11 million soldiers. Despite this, the Soviet Red Army was able to defeat Hitler's army. In fact, the Nazis experienced their greatest losses in men and equipment during their battles against the Soviet Union.

 

The Russians have suffered tremendously in the past century and they also lost many many lives in World War II and under their dictator, Stalin. We cannot underestimate the toll this has taken. The Raven's Children helped me see a connection between the Russians and the immigrants who are being victimized today.

 

The plight of U.S. immigrants recalls the gulag and the Holocaust. The Trump Administration has deported about 50,000 people so far, mostly people of color. At this time, immigrant detention centers hold about 400,000 people a year. The number of children in detention centers is 12,800 and about 3,000 children (unclear figures) have been separated from parents. These large numbers of people have a huge effect, whether in the thousands or the millions. Lives have been damaged, families have been split up, homes and possessions have been taken away. What must we do?

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