Silingas in Exile
These excerpts are from letters that Silingas wrote while still imprisoned in 1956 in the Ukraine. His letters were censored, of course, and he could not freely write of what was in his heart and mind, or even of his physical condition. We later learned he was suffering from sclerosis but was denied medication or treatment. The first was written years after the events -- any correspondence was forbidden while he was imprisoned in the harsh Altai Mountain region just north of Mongolia:
"We chop, dig, pull, and drag the stumps through swampy woods -- walking to work in the morning and returning in the evening -- loaded with heavy tools --sometimes as far as 6 to 10 km (4-6 miles) on mountain roads. We’d cook our own supper, slurping and chewing it on the spot, and we relished it. I dug and heaped potatoes, vegetables. We cleared fields. We excavated ground for construction. I made and hauled bricks. With my bare feet, I kneaded the mortar for plastering, even when the weather was quite cold; after hammering up laths, I plastered the walls. I put shingles on roofs when it was as cold as 5 degrees. I loaded and unloaded wagons.
"As if I could remember everything -- I’ve already forgotten so much. I think in 1949, while cutting roof shingles, I collapsed from my kidney ailment. After that, I worked at easier housekeeping chores. And you see, I endured it all. I would even say, the work dispersed depression, made me stronger, toughened me.
"Right before Easter, 1952, I found myself at a place where I could use a library -- with good books -- nearly 10,000 volumes. I could get my hands on the treasures of the ages, epochs, and souls of nations. Having longed for books, newspapers, I spent entire days -- stopping only for the most pressing reasons -- reading, taking copious notes. I didn't have to work then. I had compiled a good bit of material, enough for several years' work, wanting to write this and that on various themes. Alas, all was lost."
Apart from forced labor, Silingas also endured confinement in a psychiatric ward. He describes the conditions in a letter to a colleague:
"The atmosphere is dreadful -- caused by the invalids themselves. There are three main groups. The rest are their shadows. First. Those who are deprived of sky and the natural world. Solitary confinement, mentally abnormal.
"Second. The strong ones. Shameless -- impudent hooligans, drunks, thugs, cowards, moral degenerates, for whom everything is possible (capable of doing anything). [emphasis is Silingas’.) They are in charge. They are of course a minority, but they terrorize....
"Third. The weak ones. Quiet, decent, to whom anything may be done. [emphasis is Silingas']. Mutual envy rules among them -- misanthropes, grinding intolerance. The most zealous keep an eye on each other, what they get, do, eat they know better than the person himself. You could say that's how they survive. They just look for a chance to quarrel, to torment one another, as if deliberately pushing - chasing each other toward the grave, waiting for one another to die. They identify a candidate, vying with each other, lurking until they can grab the dead one's rags..."
A Gulag Boom Town during World War II. Raminta and Emilija Silingas died
here among hundreds of thousands of others who were worked and starved
Altai Mountains: Silingas was a political prisoner and slave laborer here for 13 years until he was 68. While in the Altai camps, he was incommunicado. His family did not even know if he was dead or alive.
The Plight of Political Prisoners
“In the Gulag...actual criminals were more leniently treated, indeed became lords of the camps; they were the elite, and as a rule, enjoyed privileged positions as orderlies or trusties. Among them, most politicals were like lambs thrown to the wolves.” --(Benson Brobrick, East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia, "The Devil's Workshop")
Colin Thubron writes in a book titled In Siberia: “Inside the camps the swarm of guiltless politicals was tyrannised by the tight-knit criminal fraternity imprisoned with them....At first the convicts were peasant kulaks and criminals, then -- as Stalin’s paranoia heightened -- imagined saboteurs and counter-revolutionaries from every class: Party officials, soldiers, scientists, doctors, teachers, artists.” In other words, innocents -- like Silingas.