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For Your Freedom, and Ours

part 1, 2, 3

You've probably heard about the Gulag Archipelago. The vast, bleak, brutal, dehumanizing network of labor camps that spread across the width and length of the USSR like the spindly ribs and spine of some massive dinosaur skeleton. Lenin began the gulag. Stalin perfected it. By the time Stalin died, 18 million people had visited the place. Nearly a quarter of them never came back. After the secret speech, Khrushchev released millions. He downsized the gulag. But he didn't shut its gates.

Yuri Fedorov was in the Gulag Archipelago prison for more than 18 years.
photo by Eriko Hibi

Yuri Fedorov spent more than 18 years in the gulag. He now lives in the silent tuck of a road in a ramshackle house in the Catskill mountains in New York state. "It's a very safe, peaceful quiet place," he says.

Fedorov says there's a connection between living in the gulag and his desire to live where he does now. "A straight connection. It wasn't peaceful. But it was quiet."

It was Nikita Khrushchev, at least his KGB, who first put Yuri Fedorov into the gulag. It was 1962. He was convicted of distributing anti-Soviet pamphlets. Fedorov says his activism started after Khrushchev's secret speech. The speech, he said, made people feel less afraid. When Khrushchev spoke out, Fedorov and others felt emboldened.

"Many human rights movement started from this speech," says Fedorov. "People felt they could talk and discovered many things they didn't know."

Yuri Fedorov is in his early 60s, a hearty looking man, considering what he has been through, considering, after his last offense, that he spent more than a decade of his life in a strict regime labor camp. He's bald, with a long, scraggly white beard. He is a man of few words. I asked him to describe a typical day in the gulag. He really didn't want to.

"Typical day? Wake up six o'clock. Breakfast. Go to work. At five go back. That's it. Then dinner," he says.

Yuri Fedorov, when pressed, would say little more. But we know that for 18 years and 5 months, as he meticulously recalled, Yuri Fedorov lived in what has been described as a meat-grinder, a place where, even decades after Stalin's death, inmates were known to ingest nails, to swallow barbed wire, to cut off their fingers. Desperate acts, just to get into a hospital, where the food was better, where they weren't forced to work.

In 1970, Yuri Fedorov was sentenced to 15 years in the gulag for attempting to hijack a Soviet airplane to Sweden. He was tried with a group of ten other would-be hijackers, all but two of them Soviet Jews. The group had tried unsuccessfully to emigrate from the Soviet Union by legal means. The KGB arrested them on the tarmac of a small Leningrad airport before they reached the target of their plot, a small commuter airplane. The trial and severe penalties (two of the defendants were sentenced to death) garnered concern in the West and squarely placed Soviet Jewish emigration on the agenda of U.S.-Soviet relations.

Musician and poet Yuli Kim was part of the underground music scene that rose in the wake of Khrushchev's speech.
photo by Charles Maynes

"A lot of time has passed since those events in 1970," I said to Fedorov. "We've had 9/11 since then. It's hard to imagine, from the perspective of 2006, that any attempt to hijack an airliner now would generate any degree of sympathy in the way that it did back in 1970. Have you thought about that?"

"It was different time. Different country. It wasn't United States." Fedorov says it was as if somebody would have hijacked a plane from Nazi Germany.

Yuri Fedorov's hijacking scheme was a desperate act, an aberration in the Soviet human rights movement. Russian dissidents overwhelmingly were a peaceful group. Their movement grew up in the relaxed years after Khrushchev's secret speech, a time known as the thaw. They talked and drank around kitchen tables. An alternative, typewritten press, called "samizdat," emerged from those gatherings. So did an underground music scene. Poets who played guitars penned satirical songs critical of the regime, and enterprising fans with tape recorders disseminated the music to millions. We met with one of the surviving guitar poets recently in Moscow. His name is Yuli Kim.

Kim wrote a song in 1966 called, "The Social Studies Teacher". It tells the tongue-in-cheek story of a bunch of smart-aleck Soviet students who know their teacher is feeding them party propaganda. The teacher, basically a good guy, knows he is being watched by the state, so he's constrained from telling the truth. He decides the only honorable way out is to commit suicide by lying underneath an over-weighted bookshelf which is sure to collapse and crush him to death. Why? Because he has stuffed the bookshelf with all four hefty volumes of Karl Marx's Das Kapital.

For Yuli Kim, it was Khrushchev's secret speech which made a song like that possible.

"Khrushchev's secret speech had a huge significance for us," says Kim. "It was like the reforms of Peter the Great, maybe even greater. Khrushchev's speech began to move Russia away from totalitarianism."


Continue to part 2