On April 19, 1984 I was convicted as a political prisoner for the third time by the supreme court of Soviet occupied Estonia. They sentenced me to 10 years of incarceration and five years of exile for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda”. In addition, because I was declared by the occupiers to be a “seriously dangerous criminal” for the state and a “very dangerous recidivist”, my sentence had to served in “rehabilitative hard labour” at a special prison camp.
I was sent to the Kutsino death camp VS-389/36-1 in the Perm oblast (region). We were clothed in prisoner stripes. We lived and worked in tiny prison wards. My chamber mates were Ukrainian poet and national hero Vassili Stuss, Armenian Azat Arsakjan and a clergyman from Ukraine named Semjon Skalits (nicknamed Ded Pokutnik).
In general the prison guards did not hinder the observance of a subdued Christmas. Prisoners always managed to find some pieces of fir and candles. This time all had been confiscated by several thorough body searches. But we were still able to find a finger-length bit of an evergreen branch in our walking compound. Into some tin foil we put a dab of margarine and into that a wick twisted from some thread cut from a tent. We were allowed matches and so our Christmas candle was lit! We prayed and our clergyman Ded Pokutnik sang sacred songs.
Suddenly the door to our chamber was shoved open and the watch officer with two guards burst in. They swept the small candle to the floor, tramped on it with their jackboots and all this was accompanied with the requisite threats, invective and vulgarities.
Semjon Skalits started making the sign of the cross towards the guards while quietly mumbling something. The communist guards backed off slightly, stopped yelling obscenities, brought a broom and shovel, and took away what remained of our candle and piece of fir.
They exited from our chamber and when the door was shut behind them the watch officer opened the small shutter to tell us that home made candles were strictly forbidden, that everything was forbidden, even singing, that we should sit in silence and be with our God in spirit and thought, and that God doesn’t really exist anyway. Thus we sat silently, spoke quietly, listened to Ded Pokutnik read religious verse, prayed and held our Christmas.
Today all my ward mates are dead. Ukrainian poet and national hero Vassili Stuss (b.1938) died in the same Kutsino death camp on September 4, 1985.
Clergyman Semjon Skalits (b. about 1925-28) was a priest in the Uniate church. In a search, authorities confiscated over 700 nationalistic/religious poems. He was released from prison in 1987 due to illness and died immediately thereafter.
Azat Arsakjan (b. 1950) was released in 1987. He was elected twice to the Armenian parliament. Today he is dead.
Time passes but memories of that Christmas and my heroic ward mates remain.
(Enn Tarto served his sentences on three separate occasions, in the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1980s in various Soviet prison camps for “anti-Soviet activity” and freedom-fighting. Tarto was released in 1988 due to pressure from public demonstrations and a petition by 45 US congressmen. He was elected three times to Estonia’s parliament.)
Translated by Laas Leivat
Christmas in the Gulag, as told by Enn Tarto