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Monday, 21 April 2008

Historical Background

The film focuses on a specific period in the past – 1939-1946 – and a second period, from 1991-2006, when Garri and his film-maker son Stuart, retraced his footsteps.

Both periods saw momentous upheaval and change in the areas visited by Garri and Stuart when they travelled from their home in the UK to states of the former Soviet Union which had witnessed the ravages of Nazism and/or Communism.

1939-1945 were the years of World War Two, when Garri’s homeland (which had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1916 when he was born) changed sovereignty three times under the boots of invading armies: Eastern Galicia had been part Poland from 1918 until 1939, when the Soviets occupied Eastern Poland as the Nazis tore into Western Poland. The area was swallowed by the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, but was retaken by the Red Army towards the end of the War and is now part of modern Ukraine. The volatile ethnic and political mix of the region meant that the Nazis were able to recruit the infamous SS Galitzianer Division to fight the Soviets, and found many ready collaborators to bring about the Holocaust.

It was not only the Jews of this territory who suffered in that first period. While most of the Galician Jewish population (including Garri’s family) was liquidated in the Holocaust, vast numbers of Ukrainians were rounded up by the Soviets and deported to the Gulag. Many did not return. Among those who survived was the local man featured in the film when Garri returned to Bratkovitze, his parents’ home village, in 1992.

The Soviet terror and its system of concentration camps, known as the Gulag, consumed an unknown number of lives, certainly in the millions (the film’s historical advisor, Anne Applebaum, devotes a whole appendix to this question in her book, Gulag). While they were ostensibly labour camps rather than death camps like the Nazi's, the death rates among the 18-19 million prisoners from 1929-1953 demonstrated that many of those doing hard labour did not survive more than a few years, especially from 1941-1944.

The Gulag system, which stretched across the whole of the Soviet Union, was at its height from the late 1930s to Stalin’s death in 1953.

August, 1991, when Garri first returned to the Russia from which he had daringly escaped in 1946, was a time at which the Communists had still not given up the fight. Garri, whose life demonstrated his ability to locate himself in the midst of drama, found tanks on the streets of Moscow and gunfire at parliament as Soviet diehards attempted to force their way back into power (in an unsuccessful coup) .

This period sealed the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the resulting tensions that were still present in those lands in 1992 and long beyond (for example, in Chechnya). Ukraine was gripped by nationalist fervour, Uzbekistan had segued into a hardline Soviet-style regime under Islam Karimov, and so on. As Garri and Stuart travelled across these states, they encountered strikes, blatant lawlessness and the aggressive or sly tactics of secret police mechanisms that had not been dismantled – as the film shows.


Faraway said...

'One question I never thought of posing in my life was, if my father was, as he was rearrested three years after escaping from the gulag, ...why was he not charged with escaping from the gulag when he was re-arrested?'(from an interview with S.Urban)
I keep wondering, too, how could my grandfather survive - why wasn't he shot then and there, when he turned up at the recruitment centre in the Far North after escaping from a Gulag mine in the Arctic circle with a group of camp mates (they were being transported on a barge - or perhaps were about to be drowned, as often happened in similar circumstances; according to his account, the inmates killed the guards, took over the barge and
reached mainland and then reported to the nearest military officials asking to send them to the frontline). They were sent to the 'shtrafbat' - 'penalty batallion (?)' - and he was incredibly lucky to be picked as a driver by a general...As the warm family legend goes, the former 'zek''s commanding
officer whispered, petrified, in the general's ear: "But this is the enemy of the nation!" "Good enough to defend his motherland - and not good enough to drive a general?" - well, that's my granddad's survival story...

Bay Martin said...

Very interesting and informative entry. I ready something about the Siberian gulag and how the prisoners were being treated there. Man's inhumanity, greed for power...

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