In Mikhail Gorbachev’s era of glasnost, the Soviets have increasingly examined—and criticized—the excesses of their past. On a recent trip to Siberia, Maclean’s Moscow Bureau Chief Anthony Wilson-Smith visited one victim of Josef Stalin’s labor camps. His report:
Often, when Asir Sandler talks about his life and the things he wanted to do, his voice quavers and his hands tremble. He is 72 now and he spent more than a decade in a Soviet labor camp. But Sandler, a short, slight and perpetually restless figure, usually functions without much difficulty. On the most bone-chilling winter days in his home city of Magadan in Siberia, where the temperature often drops to -50°C, Sandler walks the streets with the energy and stamina of a man 30 years younger. It is only when he talks about his labor camp years, his late second wife, and the bitter, wasted life of his lost and only son, that Sandler’s composure breaks. “I am a man with two lives,” he says in his thin, high voice. “The life I lived and the life I planned.”
The life Sandler had expected ended abruptly on Dec .12, 1941,with a knock on the door of his apartment in Baku, in the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. Sandler, then a 24-year-old soldier who wrote for army newspapers and magazines, opened the door to find two officers from the secret police. “They told me they were searching for evidence that I was a German spy,” he recalls. Instead, they found two poems, given to Sandler by a friend, which made several references to Stalin. Authorities declared the poems “sarcastic and therefore anti-Stalinist,” although Sandler insists that they were “innocuous.” Like most Soviets of that period, he says, he “believed Stalin to be perfect.” Sandler was arrested; his eight-months-pregnant wife was left alone. Says Sandler: “I had no idea why I was chosen.”
For the next three months, Sandler was alternately accused of spying for the Nazis, the United States and Britain. While he subsisted on a daily diet of bread and water, his weight dropped to 92 lb. from 154. He was sentenced to death. Then, he was told that if he wrote a plea for mercy, his sentence would be commuted to 10 years in a labor camp. Says Sandler: “One officer told me I was extremely fortunate to be receiving such treatment."
That began the period that Sandler describes as “the lost years.” From 1942 until 1952, he was shuffled tens of thousands of kilometres by train among prison camps in Azerbaijan, the Ural Mountains, the Soviet Far East and Siberia. The conditions seldom varied. “Bad and little food,” Sandler remembers, “many people and little space, and permanent fear over saying the wrong thing.” In 1952, he was released from the camp in Magadan and given an apartment in the town. But he was not allowed to travel anywhere beyond the city limits and he could not work.
Long before that, he had lost his family. After four years in camp, his wife wrote for the first time, saying that she had given birth to a boy, Valeri—and that she was divorcing Sandler because he was “a criminal.” Years later, Sandler received two brief and coldly written letters from Valeri, but never saw a photograph or spoke to him. In 1981, he was told by a former fellow prisoner that Valeri had been killed by police during a robbery in which he shot a bystander. Says Sandler: “What might his life have been with a father?”
Sandler recalls two highlights of his years in exile. In 1952, he met and married Nina Vasilyevna, who had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for an overheard joke that was declared anti-Stalinist by the authorities. They remained married until her death 30 years later. In 1953 Stalin died, and the exiles quietly celebrated the passing of the man they called “The Butcher.” Says Sandler: “I remember the newspapers called him ‘Our God.’ I did not know whether to laugh or cry.”
Sandler’s exile ended in 1956 when then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev—who criticized the excesses of the Stalin era—pardoned and released thousands of prisoners. But the rest of the world had changed greatly in Sandler’s time away, and he and Nina did not adapt easily. They moved briefly to Moscow, but found little in common with people who did not understand their experiences. They moved back to Magadan in 1958 and seldom left.
Sandler’s life since his release has been shaped by his imprisonment. He took a job in the late 1950s as a correspondent with a Siberian newspaper and began writing about his prison experiences in his spare time. After Khrushchev was overthrown in 1964, a cautious Sandler decided to keep his writing secret. But after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, Sandler submitted a collection of poems based on his experiences, entitled The Small Knots, for publication. The book has become a modest success, selling 40,000 copies. “Only those who suffered under Stalin,” says Sandler, “can fully understand what Gorbachev’s openness has meant.”
But now that he has the freedom to do what he wants, Sandler fears that he does not have the time. Last month, he made his first visit to Baku since his arrest and he travelled to Moscow to discuss plans to publish his autobiography, which he is now writing. But Sandler worries that his writing—like Gorbachev’s glasnost—may not survive a leadership change. “The book,” he says, “is my only contribution to the next generation, for I leave nothing else behind.” That frustration is what he says he hates and remembers most about the Stalin era. With evident despair and anger, he says, “It was possible that someone, perhaps for a whim or a bad joke, reported my name and destroyed my life.” Forty-seven years after his arrest, he adds softly, “It is a terrible, terrible thing to end life wondering about all that one might have been.”
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