Found: a mother’s story for her son from a Stalin camp

A rare document, which was not supposed to ever leave the walls of Stalin’s labor camps, has suddenly surfaced after decades.

A journalist has found a notebook packed with stories and pictures a mother created for her son, from whom she'd been separated.

Almost seven decades ago, amid the harsh realities of life in a Soviet labor camp, lived a woman. The only trace of her existence today is her name and a small notebook of her drawings. A glimpse into a brutal period in history, but one that shows there was still optimism and love.

A unique historic artifact – dated February 1941 and dedicated to “my son Sasha, who is not with me.”

The woman, Olga Ranitskaya, lived in the so-called Karlag – one of the largest GULAG camps, located in central Kazakhstan. She created a magnificent story of a hobgoblin. It starts as entertainment, but ends up being more and more somber – a certain material evidence of those terrible times.

When a journalist from Russia’s Novaya Gazeta came across the notebook, she felt the need to find the woman’s son to finally unite this unique message with the person it was always intended for.

She launched an appeal in her paper, and was contacted by two brothers who had lived at the camp when they were just fourteen.

“I remember her – a tall slender woman, beautiful in her own way. She worked in a weather station, fifty meters away from where we lived. We weren’t too close, as meteorologists led a bit of a secluded life – a better one than your ordinary inmates probably. But they did show us around the station and our paths would cross occasionally,” recalls Eduard Aitakov.

“February 19, 1941. Dedicated to my son Sasha, who is not with me.”

Sadly, there’d be no happy ending to this story. The book would never make it to the woman's son, after it was discovered he'd taken his own life in 1942. She went on to live into the 1980s, despite the horrors of what she'd been through.

“A lot of people died from elementary dystrophy and vitamin deficiency. And one would think that it’s hot in Kazakhstan, but in fact, winters there are extremely cold and long. So people were pretty much buried on the surface, and wolves would dig them up and eat their bodies overnight. A horrible place. What else to say?” Zeilili Aitakov, Eduard’s brother, says.

It is believed a total of around one million inmates served in Karlag during its history from 1930 to 1959. In 1941, a daily portion of bread was just 450 grams, and with no normal water supplies, inmates had to resort to eating snow. Not exactly the kind of conditions that encouraged creativity.

The archive of the “Memorial”, a research centre and museum devoted to the victims of repression, includes thousands of letters from mothers to their children. But this is something different, says historian Arseny Roginsky:

“The diary that has emerged is truly unique. Millions of people went through the camps, but you wouldn’t find more than a dozen preserved notebooks written during detention and not taken away and destroyed. Let alone something of the kind. It’s a miracle it has survived.”

There are millions of other victims of political repression whose life story will never be told. That’s why historians believe this recent discovery is so important to remember and carry through history.