On a hot, dusty summer day in 1998, I drove with friends from Smolensk to the village of Zagor’e to meet Ivan Tvardovsky, a survivor of Stalin’s forced-labor camps and the brother of the renowned Soviet poet Alexander Tvardovsky. Ivan and his wife, Maria, both 85, were waiting for us behind the wooden gate to their home.
We sat with the Tvardovskys at their kitchen table for the entire afternoon, listening to their stories. Both were children of families that had been designated “kulak” households and subjected to expropriation and deportation to the frozen hinterlands of the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, during the violent campaign to collectivize agriculture. Along with more than 2 million other peasants classified as kulaks, their families constituted the first echelons of forced labor in Stalin’s Soviet Union, the first inhabitants of what would soon become the gulag. They were put to work in remote areas to fell trees, mine the country’s mineral wealth and open up the vast and empty land tracts of the far north and east. The conditions they faced were merciless and death rates high. Maria’s parents died of starvation in 1932, leaving her and an older sister to fend for themselves. Ivan’s family survived a typhus epidemic and then, in 1932, fled their place of exile.
Ivan ended up in Nizhnyi Tagil in the Urals, where he met and married Maria. Just as a new chapter in their lives was beginning, Ivan was conscripted into the army. He fought in the Russo-Finnish War (1939-40), was captured and landed in a POW camp. He escaped from the camp and spent the years of World War II in Finland and Sweden. At the end of 1946, Ivan decided to return home. He was arrested in Vyborg the moment he stepped on Soviet soil. Following four months at the infamous Lubyanka prison in Moscow, he left for the gulag, remaining in the camps until his release on May 27, 1952.
Ivan’s life history was vastly different from that of his older brother, Alexander Tvardovsky (1910-71). A member of the Komsomol (Communist Youth League) from the age of 15, Alexander left his family home in Zagor’e when he was 18 for the city of Smolensk. His rise to fame as a poet began in the 1930s, and by 1936 he had published his epic poem “The Land of Muravia.” This poem won him the first of three Stalin prizes and would be followed by his vastly popular wartime epic “Vasily Tyorkin,” which made him a household name in the Soviet Union.
When Alexander was 21, he learned that his family had been forcibly deported as kulaks. The family sought contact with Alexander, pleading with him for help from their distant place of exile in the Urals. Alexander replied, “Dear Family! I am neither a barbarian nor a brute. I ask you to stay strong, be patient, and work. The liquidation of the kulak as a class is not the liquidation of people, still less of children.” He asked his family not to write to him again. He renounced his family as “enemies of the people,” and had no more contact with them until 1936. He would remain permanently estranged from Ivan, all the more so once Ivan landed in the gulag after the war.