Tovarisch, I Am Not Dead.
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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.

Sunday, 20 April 2008


In the 16 years or so that I have known this singular woman, my father’s former lover who served 8 years in Soviet jails and camps through her association with him, every fact that I continue to discover about her only inspires me.

When my 17 year-old son David went to Moscow in March 2008, on a school trip, he took some money from my mother who selflessly supports Noka.. She lives in dire circumstances in a decrepit little dacha (the word means something like a “shack”, rather than the grand homes of the rich and nouveau-riche that dwarf Noka’s crumbling abode in the rural outskirts).

Elena, who collected the money from my son and helps look after Noka, got to know this unique lady through her godmother, who was imprisoned in the Gulag alongside Noka. From Elena I have now learned for the first time two anecdotes that illustrate the extraordinary qualities of Noka.

When Elena’s godmother arrived in the Gulag it was after a year of sleepless nights of interrogation just like Noka. Elena continues the story in a recent email to me:

“When my godmother's group of new convicts arrived at the camp in the late 1940-s, they were taken to the baths - whatever those looked like - to wash. She was in a horrible state of mind, having spent a year in prison during interrogation, and expecting worse to come. (She came from a well-to-do Moscow family, close-knit and loving, and although her mother and herself had had their fare share of suffering it was not until her arrest that she lost her friends, her church, and the whole of her Moscow world.) As they came in, she saw some young women inmates, who had just washed and were going to dress. She says she was stunned by Noka's beauty - and thought -"Well, if such perfection can survive here - all hope is not lost!'

And another bit - did you know, that while Noka was in the camp, she looked after abandoned dogs and cats, and had such a reputation for it, that people from outside the camp (from the 'free' world) would smuggle puppies across the barbed wire so she could look after them...(A mysterious feature of the Gulag life - however cruel and dreary its existence was, the people who ran Gulag could never make it completely soulless...and while the inmates themselves were starving, they still managed to spare a bit for a hungry dog...unbelievable!)

And she would call her friends and give away the parcel her sister sent her, and would look after an old lady who got no help from home, and would share whatever she had with those who had nothing.”

This explains to me the mystery why even today, disabled and without running water or sanitary facilities at 93 and no family to care for her, Noka continues to look after a menagerie of cats and dogs ….
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