Thankful for the First Amendment

I did two DNA tests—the first several years ago via Ancestry.com and the second more recently through 23andMe. It was the second test that proved more exciting since it resulted in a connection to a cousin in Russia with the same last name—albeit one of the other spellings I have unearthed.

Cousin Yury and I have corresponded several times. He told me that the area of Russia where he is from is the home of many members of my family and is just 2.5 kilometers from where my grandfather was born.

He provided me with links to a site, “Victims of Political Terror in the USSR,” which has information on several relatives, the first being my great Uncle Ivan. In order to understand what was written on the site, I contacted an old friend from my schooldays, who is now a Russian history professor.

His arrest record states that Ivan was an illiterate peasant who worked on a collective farm (Kolkhoz).  He was arrested on December 30, 1932.  Some secret informant overhead him making politically incorrect statements (e.g., criticizing the Soviet state or administration in the collective farm).  He was sentenced to three years of exile in the “Northern Krai,” which was a large territorial administrative district in far northwestern Russia around Archangel.  He was (luckily) released in 1937. 

The arrest occurred during the early stage of the massive famine of 1932-33, which claimed some 7-8 million lives in the USSR.  The famine resulted from the failures of collectivization, especially from the fact that far too much food was being taken from the farms by the Soviet state.  My guess is that someone overheard Ivan criticizing collectivization. 

The biggest construction project taking place in the “Northern Krai” in 1932 was construction of the Baltic-White Sea Canal.  Tens of thousands worked on the project, and an estimated 25,000 died in the process.  Once completed in 1933, however, the canal proved to be too shallow for large ships to go between the White Sea and Baltic Sea.  It amounted to a huge waste of lives and resources.  Although Ivan was sentenced only to exile and not hard labor, he may have ended up working on the canal.  He was subsequently “rehabilitated” (exonerated) in 1989.

I wonder if my grandfather knew what happened to his brother Ivan. He had been arrested one year before my grandfather moved the family from New Jersey to the USSR and was not released until four years after their arrival.

My father’s family was certainly a lot more complex than my mother’s, who led a much more simple life in New Jersey, free from arrests and exile.

Thankfully, we still live in a nation where we do not get arrested for making politically incorrect statements or speaking out against our government. I hope to never live to see that day.

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About kjw616

I am a genealogy detective. I have already written one book about my Irish family's journey from 19th century Ireland to the United States- a family history sprinkled with personal anecdotes. My second book was intended to be a similar story about my Russian ancestors. Instead, it turned into a tale of just my father's immediate family. It is the tale of what happens when 6 children from New Jersey are moved to the Soviet Union by their Russian-born parents during the Great Depression. It details who lives, who dies, and who is able to return to NJ during a time when leaving the USSR was not an easy endeavor, particularly during World War II and the Cold War. It is my hope that those interested in history during this time period will find this story fascinating as well as those fellow amateur family historians who will learn some of the tools such as ancestry.com, visits to the National Archives, and local libraries I used to uncover this story.
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