Friday 25 April 2014

A corner of Hell - the Alzhir Gulag camp for Women

This week's blog is very different in nature to the topics I usually write about. It reflects a very moving personal experience and I've drawn some lessons which are of relevance to us all. I hope you'll read it to the end.

A wall of names, thousands - wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts ...
I’m just back from a visit to Astana, capital of Kazakhstan. It’s an amazing place – a new city dropped down into the middle of an empty steppe - and is memorable for its large number of stunning modern buildings. The discovery and development of vast hydrocarbon reserves have provided the revenues for transformation of this former vassal-state of the old Soviet Union and it is now a very self-consciously independent modern state. I had visited previously and what made the greatest – and most moving – impression on me then was not of the city itself but of the Alzhir women’s Gulag memorial about 30 kms outside. I returned on my latest visit and what follows here is an account of what one finds there.  
Enemies - by family relationship - of the Soviet system
Kazakhstan is a vast country, the ninth largest in the world in terms of area, and much of it, including where Astana is located, consists of thinly-populated steppe terrain, roughly comparable with prairies in the United States and Canada. The Kazakh steppe is a harsh and difficult place to live – freezing in winter, with temperatures below minus 30 deg C. for long periods, with howling winds and driving snow,  but hot and dusty in summer.
More enemies of the Soviet system - some as old as three
These climatic conditions made Kazakhstan an ideal location for the Gulag labour camps of the Soviet era since the geography and climate were efficient barriers to escape. In the Stalinist period,  especially in the period of the purges from 1936/37 to the death of Stalin in 1953 there were large numbers of such camps, not only for “political prisoners “ – many if not most of whom were convicted on the grounds of suspicion of disloyalty –but for their family members, for returned WW2 prisoners of war (capture by the enemy was regarded as a punishable crime) and for large numbers of Poles deported after the joint Nazi-Soviet invasion of 1939.

The Alzhir memorial site - conical structure is the museum, dark strip behind is the wall of names

The Alzhir memorial is established at a camp for female relations of political prisoners and though the visitor is shocked at what they see it is important to remember that this camp was only one of dozens of such manmade hells in Kazakhstan. Alzhir was however the largest women’s camp in the Soviet Union while it operated from 1937 to 1953 and thousands of women – and their children – passed through it. These people were themselves accused of nothing other than being the wives, mothers, sisters or daughters – even cousins – of people who had been convicted of “betrayal of the Motherland.”  The standard sentence was eight years but for many climatic conditions alone could kill them in less than one.  Even very young children were transported to the camp – those under about the age of three staying with their mothers before being taken to separate state orphanages. Pregnancy at time of arrest was no protection and many babies were born in the camp.  

Fear of “guilt by association” must have been the most powerful single deterrent to internal opposition to Soviet rule. A man or woman alone might be prepared to risk the consequences of punishment for themselves personally, but most would hesitate when knowing that any action of theirs would draw the full might of repression and imprisonment on other family members, direct and indirect.
A "Stalin Wagon" - transport for up to 70 women prisoners
As one enters the site – beautiful with planted flower beds when I visited last August, but much more bare now before the spring growth kicks in – one is confronted with a preserved “Stalin Wagon”, the type of railway box car used to transport the women in groups of up to 70 across the vast distances of the Soviet Union, regardless of weather or season.  Bare wooden shelving represented accommodation and heating was by a single iron stove in the centre. Sanitary provision consisted of buckets.

The approach to the museum is flanked by the ‘Arch of Sorrow’, designed in the shape of a traditional Kazakh wedding head dress, and beyond it memorial plaques for victims of from individual Soviet nationalities and from Soviet-ruled countries in Eastern Europe. Two statues, one male, one female, symbolise the two extremes of the Gulag experience. A man looks down, broken in despair but a woman, stares into the future, seeing life beyond current suffering. 

 Beyond lies the circular museum building, and behind it, most terrible of all, are black marble walls inscribed with the names of thousands of prisoners, some of whom died there, some of whom survived.The tour of the museum starts with an emotionally-wrenching video in which ex-prisoners, and their children, tell their stories. They came from every background. Some regarded themselves as loyal Communist Party members – the opening testimony is from the surviving sister of Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the young military genius who had been so successful in the Russian Civil War, and whom Stalin purged as a potential rival. She also lists relations of other “Old Bolshevik” stalwarts. Most prisoners however were of humbler backgrounds and since every citizen was subject to arbitrary arrest, were their loyalty to Comrade Stalin to be suspect, age, occupation or political views – or absence of them – were no protection. The saddest testimonies of all are from surviving children who ended up either in state-run orphanages or were looked after by relatives, and who, like their mothers, made desperate attempts to remain in contact. They remembered the mother they had seen at time of arrest and often failed to recognise the human wreck who, if she was lucky, survived to be released after serving her sentence.
Door to Interrogation Room

The exhibition about life in the camp starts with a sculpture set around the original door to an interrogation room.  I found the photographs on display to be poignant beyond belief – they show prisoners, a few only , but representing the thousands who suffered there. Most show the women before their arrest – some young, some old, some Russian, others from various Soviet nationalities, some stunningly beautiful, others careworn, but each with her own personality, her own family, her hopes and fears and ambitions, her own right to a decent life. They could be your or my grandmother,  mother, wife, sister, daughter, cousin, aunt. When arrested many were told they were to meet their arrested family members so they wore their best clothes to the prison and some managed to bring a few personal belongings – a cruel joke to mark their descent into hell.

The women came from all walks of life – famous actresses, accomplished doctors and intellectuals, ordinary women from every part of the Soviet Union.  They were “rehabilitated” after serving  their five to eight-year sentences and.  Some never found their way back to their families however - their relatives and children had died either in the Gulag system or in the war and many of them built new lives for themselves in Kazakhstan.  The last remaining Alzhir survivor still lives in Astana. 

Barrack hut - adobe walls, sod roof, one stove, home for several women for eight years
The camp was, and the memorial is, surrounded by a vast open plain, much of it flooded at this time of year, April, after the snows have melted. In 1937 the  first prisoners arrived at an open expanse and had to build their camp from scratch, working up to their waists in water to curt reeds for binding the mud of the adobe bricks used to construct their huts. One such barrack hut has been recreated and inside it is a crude but emotionally powerful diorama showing a 3-year old child being taken from its mother to be sent to an orphanage. The roof consisted of rafters covered by grass sods and there was a single stove. The prisoners slept on rough wooden bunks and during the day many of them worked making uniforms – so much so that the camp received a commendation for its contribution to the Soviet victory in 1945.
Sign at reconstructed barrack hut
A child's letter to its mother
The most heart-breaking display showed letters that the women received from their children and the small items they in turn made for them from scraps and managed to get sent to them. It is impossible to see these without choking with emotion – children’s letters and drawings reassuring their mothers that they were thinking of them, working hard at school, looking forward to their return. One prisoner made a little story book, illustrated by herself.

Several factors helped to make the life of the women more bearable.  The commandant was, by most accounts, if not a gentle man then not a sadist.  The camp was located close to a Kazakh village and the villagers did all they could to help the women – giving them extra food to supplement their meagre camp rations.  The first time this happened the women thought the villagers were throwing stones at them – closer inspection showed the ‘stones’ to be kurt – small hard balls of traditional dried cheese. Helping prisoners in this way was itself a crime that could result in similar incarceration. Despite this however a combination of inadequate food and clothing, cold, despair and overwork killed large numbers.
A letter to a prisoner from her son and daughter
The most terrible feature do the memorial is however the three black marble walls that bear the names of the victims. The number of names run to thousands, each a clearly identified individual – for the Gulag was nothing it not meticulous as regards its records. Each name represents a life ruined – not indeed only a single life, but the lives of so many other family members. The impression of evil having been let loose on earth and to its prevailing for a long period is very strong.
A few names from thousands - each one valuable to so many loved ones
The camp was closed after Stalin’s death.  The memorial complex was opened in 2007 and as a newly-independent nation Kazakhstan has worked hard to acknowledge what happened on its soil in the name of the Soviet Union and to keep the memory alive so that it cannot happen again.  May 31st each year is dedicated to the memory of the victims of political repression.
This lady - first name Fatima - seems to have been a Kazakh. I hope she survived
At the memorial I experienced the same emotions as when I visited the yet more dreadful site of Auschwitz some years ago. I felt extreme sadness, but also limitless reassurance that, no matter what oppression can be inflicted by the forces of evil, all that is good and admirable in humanity will somehow survive. I brought away with me three lessons that should never be forgotten;

·         Freedom is precious and is worth any sacrifice to preserve it

·         There’s nothing more beautiful than a human life, any human life

·         We don’t recognise the infinite value of our happiness in normal times

A child's letter to her mother - no photograph, just her self-portrait
A book made for her children by a prisoner
The three walls of names - thousands of them - are unforgettable
P.S. Many thanks to the very knowledgeable and fluent-Russian speaking “Ersatz Expat” of Astana who accompanied me on this visit to the Alzhir memorial. A link to her own highly-entertaining blog can be found on my blog list in the column to the right.

Friday 11 April 2014

Blog Hop: Meet My Main Character

In this blog-hop authors are required to answer seven questions about the main character they write about. My submission is below and at the end I’ll be handing over the baton to three other authors, “tagging them” to answer the same questions on their own blogs on April 15th.

I suspect that I myself have been “tagged” by Madame Catherine Gilflurt for today in retaliation for me tagging her for another such hop a fortnight back! Madame is not a lady to be underestimated and is responsible for a splendid 18th century blog entitled “A Covent Garden Gilflurt Guide to Life”

So here goes with the Seven Questions about my own writing:

1) What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?

A brutal initiation - storming
the Taku Forts in 1859
Nicholas Dawlish (1845-1918) is an officer of the Royal Navy who joined the service as a boy in 1859 and who sees varied and challenging action thereafter. For me he’s a real person and I regard preparation for my books as representing research into his life, even if he is strangely absent from official records. This may reflect the fact that some of his assignments involved activities which the government of the day preferred not to be generally known.  I know the exact dates of Dawlish’s birth and death, and much of what happened in between, some of already in detail, other parts in outline only and needing more research. Dawlish’s life parallels the careers of well-known naval officers of similar age such as Lord “Jacky” Fisher (1841-1920) and Lord Charles Beresford (1846-1919). Dawlish’s adventures bring him in to contact with real-life characters such as Sultan Abdul-Hamid II of Turkey and Hobart Pasha, the swashbuckling British head of the Ottoman Turkish navy.

2) When and where is the story set?

The first and second “Dawlish Chronicle” novels, Britannia’s Wolf and Britannia’s Reach, dealt with Dawlish ‘s service in Turkey 1877/78 and in Paraguay 1879/80. He had attained the rank of Commander by this time – his promotion to this rank was early for his age and rewarded services which will be the subject of a “prequel” to be published later – but now, as the 1880s dawn, he’s now hungry for promotion to the rank of captain. The novel due for publication at the end of this year is set in 1881 and Dawlish’s getting his next step in rank will be conditional on completion of a very challenging assignment – one which will demand the support of Florence, his indomitable wife. The setting for the novel’s opening is the Adriatic but the action moves on very quickly from there – but to where will be a surprise.

3) What should we know about him/her?

HMS Warrior 1860 -
the navy Dawlish joins
Dawlish wants to get to the top in the Navy - but he knows he'll have to fight hard to get there since he doesn't have family or influence on his side. He knows that the only things going for him will be energy, professionalism and a mastery of technology that other officers still scorn as beneath their dignity as gentlemen. He is a fundamentally decent man, but one of his own time, not ours. He has many of the Victorian virtues – earnestness, dedication, confidence, pride in his Britishness – but he has many of the shortcomings also, most notably a somewhat unquestioning acceptance of the status quo and a painful
HMS Iron Duke 1912 -
the navy Dawlish helps create
awareness of class differences. He places high value on honour, courage and humanity but can find himself at somewhat of a loss when confronted by less principled players who “play dirty”. His strong sense of right and wrong causes him considerable mental pain when confronted with moral ambiguity. He regrets that entry to the Navy at so young an age has denied him a broader education, which he tries to remedy by private study.

4) What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

Pau in the 1850s 
A happy time for the young Dawlish
His family background is not happy. His mother died when he was a child and his father, a small-town solicitor, comforted himself with a string of working-class women, much to the embarrassment of Nicholas, his brother and his sister. His brother was later killed in a hunting accident and his sister made a loveless marriage that left her worn out by childbearing.  A bright spot was his spending time in the spa town of Pau, in the French Pyrenees, with his mother’s brother, a naval paymaster whom tuberculosis had forced to retire early. Dawlish learned fluent French at this time and received affection he had previously missed from his uncle’s mistress, a respectable widow. The Pau interval was the only really happy part of a childhood cut off by entry to the Royal Navy and his poor experience of family life left him very cautious about personal commitments. There appears to have been a disastrous romantic involvement in Dawlish’s early 20s, one which almost led to an ignominious end to his career.  Research on what actually happened is still in progress.  A happier period in his life commenced – unexpectedly – in 1877, when he met Miss Florence Morton in Turkey. Even then however, concerns about class difference made it difficult for him to admit his true feelings.  

5) What is the personal goal of the character?

The Royal Navy was Britain's
greatest pride in this period
Dawlish hopes to rise to the highest levels in the Royal Navy at a time when the British Empire is reaching its apogee. He recognises that he's living at a time of vast and rapid technological change and that the Navy is changing more quickly than the majority of officers can keep pace with. Steam, enhanced gunnery, electricity, torpedoes, all offer chances that he must grasp. Given his character, he welcomes the opportunities the Navy gives for honourable advancement, for personal achievement, and for adventure. The path proves more difficult than he has anticipated, not only because of physical danger but because of hard ethical dilemmas.

 6) Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

The Dawlish Chronicle novels will all be called “Britannia’s X”. In the first two novels “X” has stood for “Wolf” and “Reach” but in line with good algebraic precedent “X” will remain the unknown until the third novel is published. Perhaps I’ll run a competition nearer the time – with a signed copy as prize - to see if anybody can identify “X”

7) When can we expect the book to be published?

I’m aiming for December 2014.

And whom am I tagging to answer the same questions on their blogs on Tuesday April 15th?

Linda Collison: To call Linda a “Renaissance Woman” would be an understatement by a big margin. She says “I  spent more than 13 years as a registered nurse, mostly in Emergency and Critical Care (with a stint in psychiatric nursing and oncology), teaching skydiving on the weekends, pursuing a second degree in History, studying French, traveling whenever possible, and writing for magazines as a sideline.  I’ve also worked as a waitress, shoemaker, film processor, gas station attendant, volunteer firefighter — and I spent two weeks skinning tomatoes with migrant workers in Carroll County Maryland.  Time travel I learned on my own!” Linda’s writing includes naval fiction set in the 18th Century as well as entertaining tongue-in-cheek SF and fiction for young adults. Linda’s “Sea of Words” blog can be found on blog

Seymour Hamilton: Seymour builds his fantasy fiction on a very firm foundation of experience sailing in the unforgiving waters off Canada’s East Coast. I love his statement thatin“The Astreya Trilogy is science fiction, I guess, although it’s pretty damn real to me” – which I think is the best starting point for writing fiction in any genre. Seymour’s blog is not only unique but one of the most entertaining I know – he describes it as “a ragbag of thoughts, borrowings, discoveries, essays, assays, evaluations, rants, whatever” and it’s well worth following on:

Alison Morton: Alison writes a series of alternative history “what if” thrillers set in Roma Nova, a survival of the Roman Republic which is located in Central Europe and which by the 21st Century women have not just achieved true equality but something approaching dominance. The first two books, INCEPTIO and PERFIDITAS have already been published and the third, SUCCESSIO, is due in mid-2014. Alison’s fiction is fast-moving and well-plotted. The alternative universe she creates is so “just a little different” to our own in a few key aspects, that it is wholly credible. Her blog is:

Friday 4 April 2014

A naval battle you've never heard of - Elli 1912

The era between the end of the American Civil War and the outbreak of World War 1 saw only a few fleet actions between naval powers, though three of these – the Battles of Manila Bay, Santiago and Tsu-Shima – were to have major consequences for the history of the 2oth Century and beyond. At a smaller scale however two engagements between the fleets of Greece and Turkey were to have major local significance and it is with the first of these, the Battle of Elli in December 1912, with which this article is concerned. One notable aspect of the battle is that it mixed outdated relics of the ironclad age with ultra-modern vessels, some of which were to go on to play active roles in both World Wars.

Bulgarian artillery, 1912 - the shape of things to come two years later

Outside the countries in involved few today remember the First and Second Balkan Wars fought in 1912 and 1913 against the background of the Ottoman Turkish Empire still holding extensive territory – including Albania – in South East Europe. Both conflicts were vicious affairs and to a significant extent they set the scene for much that was to happen in the area during World War 1. 
The Ottoman Empire (in pink) still controlled much European territory in 1912
The first of these conflicts was fought between October 1912 and May 1913 and in it the “Balkan League”, consisting of Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria, was matched against the Ottoman Empire. Still in turmoil in the years after the “Young Turk Revolution” of 1908, which had aimed at political, economic and social reform, but which was to descent in due course to genocide and defeat, the poorly led Ottoman forces were soundly defeated. The result was that almost all remaining European territories of the Ottoman Empire were captured and either partitioned among the allies, or made part of a new an independent Albanian state. In the Second Balkan War the victors fell out over the division of the spoils. It allowed Turkey to regain some territory and left Bulgaria embittered by loss of territory at the end of it. The latter was an important factor in Bulgaria’s stance – a strategically important one – in the First World War.
Bulgarian auxiliary troops attacking Turkish Kirklareli, First Balkan War

Of the nations involved only Greece and Turkey possessed significant naval forces and in the immediately preceding years both had invested in modernisation and in acquirement of new or second-and units. The Ottoman Navy purchased two obsolescent pre-dreadnought battleships from Germany and – somewhat unwisely, as the money could have been better spent on new vessels – modernised two ironclad survivors from the 1860 and 70s. It purchased in addition several large torpedo boats (essentially small destroyers) from Germany.

Obsolete Greek Battleship Hydra, built in France 1889
The Greeks already possessed three obsolete French-built battleships of late 1880s vintage but in 1911 acquired a modern – and new – armoured cruiser from Italy which was to prove the deciding factor in the war ahead. In addition they purchased four powerful new destroyers in Britain.

When the war opened the Greek Navy was better organised and trained then its opponent and its primary objective was to control the Aegean Sea, thereby allowing capture of many Ottoman-controlled islands, the majority with ethnic Greek populations. To do so demanded bottling up Turkish naval forces in the Sea of Marmara by preventing them exiting through the Dardanelles.
The Dardanelles Straits (at Canakkale) control transit from the Marmara to the Aegean 

Greek armoured cruiser Averof
In December 1912 a Greek force of one modern armoured cruiser, the Averof, three old battleships, Hydra, Spetsai and Psara, and four new destroyers, Aetos, Ierax, Panthir and Leon lay just outside the Dardanelles.  (Basic specifications of these craft are shown at the end of this article). It was through this force that the Ottoman Navy must break if it was to gain access to the Aegean.
Greek destroyer Aetos
On December 16th an Ottoman force emerged in line ahead. It consisted of the two ex-German pre-dreadnoughts Barbaros Hayreddin and Turgut Reis and two semi-modernised ironclads, the Mesudiye and the Âsâr-ı Tevfik, as well as the large torpedo boats Muavenet-i Milliye, Yadigâr-i Millet, Taşoz and Basra. (Basic specifications of these craft are shown at the end of this article).

Given the lack of sea room the Ottoman freedom to deploy was limited and the Greek Admiral Kountouriotis, flying his flag in the fast and powerful Averof, saw his opportunity. Frustrated by the slow speed of his three old battleships, and recognising his ship’s advantages of speed, guns and armour, he hoisted the Flag Signal “Z”, which stood for "Independent Action".  The Averof  tore forward alone at over 20 knots, and succeeded in crossing the Ottoman fleet's "T", thereby beng able to concentrate her fire on the leading the Ottoman vessel, the flagship Barbaros Hayreddin.
Barbaros Hayreddin in her previous incarnation as Germany's Kurfürst Friedrich Wilhelm
The Ottomans turned away and retreated, the Averof still raining shells on the Barbaros Hayreddin, hitting also the Turgut Reis and the Mesudiye. Pursued by the Greek destroyers the Ottoman ships headed for the Dardanelles, where the shore batteries on either side of the narrow waterway precluded pursuit. Ottoman losses had been small numerically  - 7 killed and 14 wounded on the Barbaros Hayreddin,  8 killed and 20 wounded on the Turgut Reis, and 3 dead and 7 wounded on the Mesudiye, but the action was nevertheless a major strategic defeat. Greek forces were now free to realise a long-held Greek ambition, the seizure of the islands of Lesbos, Lemnos, Samos and Chios. The Ottoman Navy was to make one more – and equally unsuccessful foray from the Dardanelles – but that’s different story, perhaps for a later blog.
The climax of the battle - Averof breaks out Flag Z and races ahead of her consorts
The Greek victory of Elli had been made possible by determined leadership, good training and one amazing warship – the Averos – which was virtually a “one ship navy” in terms of effectivness. Her career was long from over – it extended into the Second World War - and it’s gratifying to know that she still exists today, preserved as a museum ship at Palaio Faliro.

Other ships involved were to meet more unpleasant fates in the next few years.  The Mesudiye was torpedoed in the Sea of Marmara by the Royal Navy submarine HMS B11, which had managed to pass up the Dardanelles. The Mesudiye capsized in 10 minutes, trapping most of the crew. She sunk however in shallow water, leaving much of her hull exposed so that most of her crew could be rescued by cutting through the plating. Losses were 37 killed. The Barbaros Hayreddin was also to be torpedoed in the same area in August 1915 by the British submarine HMS E11, this time with heavy loss of life. The Ottoman Navy had its revenge when the torpedo boat Muavenet-i Milliye, a veteran of Elli, sank the Royal Navy pre-dreadnought HMS Goliath off Gallipoli in May 1915, again with heavy casualties. This action was to have major historical consequences as it triggered the resignations on Lard Fisher as First Sea Lord and of Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty.

In the aftermath of the war both countries hastened to buy more modern capital ships abroad – but that’s yet another story!

Details of the ships involved in the Battle of Elli were as follow:

Greek Fleet
Year Completed
Power & Speed

Armoured Cruiser
10200 tons
460 ft
19000 shp
23.5 knots max.
4 X 9.2”
8 X 7.5”
16 X 3”

4808 tons
335 ft
6700 shp
17 knots max.
3 X 10.8”
5 X 5.9”
4 X 3.4”

880 tons
293 ft
19750 shp
31 knots max.
4 X 4”
6 X 21” TT

Ottoman Fleet
Year Completed
Power & Speed

Barbaros Hayreddin (1)
Turgut Reis (2)

10670 tons

380 ft
10000 shp
16.9 knots
(max. new)
6 X 11”
8 X 4.1”
8 X 3.5”
3 X 18” TT
Coast Defence
Reconstructed fully in 1903
9250 tons
331 ft
16 knots
2 X 10” (3)
12 X 6”
14 X 3”

Reconstructed fully in 1905
4687 tons
272 ft
3560 shp
13 knots
3 X 5.9”
7 X 4.7”

Muavenet-i Milliye,
Yadigâr-i Millet, Taşoz,
Torpedo Boat (4)
765 tons
233 ft
35 knots
 (max new)
2 X 3”
2 X 2”
3 X 18” TT

(1) ex-Kurfürst Friedrich Wilhelm and (2) ex-Weissenburg of Imperial German Navy, both purchased by Turkey in 1910
(3) Possibly not fitted at time of battle of Elli – wooden dummies might have been in place!

(4) Details for Muavenet-i Milliye, generally similar for other craft.

Averof as she is today as a museum ship
(photograph from Wikipedia)