Sat, 18 May 2024

My mum, the Red Army and Putin

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by Alain Catzeflis, The Constant Reporter

My mum loved the BBC. As a child of World War II Poland it was her faithful link to reality. If she were here today she’d have been glued to the news.

She’d have recognised the stories of fear and courage as people in Kyiv and Lviv – where she was born- hunkered down to defend their freedom or flee to the Polish border.

She would not, I think, be surprised to learn that they were fleeing – as she did in September 1939- the Russian army. She loved what she called the Russian soul but not the Russian state.

Refugees are the pawns of tyrants, the first to suffer

There is a desperately sad predictability about Putin’s mad enterprise: Poland 1939; Hungary 1956; Czechoslovakia 1968; Crimea 2014.

Under cover of darkness she, her brother Zynio and half brother Roman left what was called Lwow in what was then Poland, and headed for the Romanian border with a small band of friends.

They intended to join Polish forces mustering in Europe. Their country had been wiped off the map first by Hitler, then 17 days later by Stalin and the Red Army.

She would have felt a kinship with the men (and women) turning back from the Polish border to join the resistance against Putin’s war machine.

They were caught. Mum and her brothers were convicted by Lavrenty Beria’s NKVD of the kind of make-believe crimes which Vladimir Putin conjures up with the practiced ease of a spiteful sorcerer. Where Beria saw ‘enemies of the people Putin sees ‘Nazis.’

Mum spent two years in a Soviet Gulag in Kazakhstan.

That was the start of her long journey as a refugee from the icy steppe to the drizzly suburbs of west London.

Like many of those we hear on the news today, these were bright young things, not soldiers or partisans, intelektualny, aesthetes with lily-white hands and comfortable middle-class lives.

The future they imagined lay in pieces much like those other refugees, doctors, lawyers, students fleeing the ruins of Aleppo or Kabul today only to find themselves greeted by hostility on jet skis and prejudice orchestrated by Priti Patel and those who voted to take us out of Europe.

They were loaded into sealed, lice-infested box cars with assorted other ‘enemies of the people’: old men, Jews, businessmen, pregnant women, nursing mothers, children and the widows of ‘traitors’, who had been shot.

There was a primitive stove with a small heap of coal that ran out very quickly. A hole in the floor or a foul-smelling slop bucket served as a toilet.

Rations were little more than 200g of bread a day and a thin, watery potato gruel. A finger-sized piece of raw fish was a rare treat, sometimes bartered for bread or favours.

Mum and her brothers coped with the optimism of the privileged and a healthy dose of sardonic humour. Polish humour, like its Jewish counterpart, the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal once said, is the humour of a wounded people.

She was eventually sentenced to five years hard labour and sent to the labour camps of Kazakhstan: the Gulag. Solzhenitsyn called this Stalin’s “sewage disposal system”.

There a vast, brutalised army of forced labour was growing food, digging coal, and bashing metal to supply the Red Army then fighting for its life against Hitler’s troops knocking at the gates of Moscow.

Over a million people perished in the gulags, some murdered, but most died from cold, starvation or sickness.  

We live in the age of the refugee, now more than ever. For the first time in recorded history, says the UNHCR, the number of refugees worldwide exceeds 25m people.

Tens of thousands more are now likely to be added to these long columns of sorrow (and hope) fleeing broken, war-torn states like Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia.

Each year they carve new pathways across deserts, seas and mountains in search of a place they can call home. Thousands die in the attempt.

Let this story encourage our leaders to treat them with humanity.

I was driving back to the Chilterns on the morning of the Russian invasion glued to the news, mesmerised by the stories coming out of Kyiv and Lviv. My mood alternated between anger and deep sadness.

I cannot stop thinking of my mum. She lived a life filled in equal measure with joy and pain. She was beautiful. She could break a man’s heart with a smile.

The war took a great toll. Her free spirit was shattered like the shards of a broken mirror. There will be those in Ukraine, especially children, who will be equally blighted by Putin’s inhumanity.

One other thought: Russia has never been a democracy with the exception of a few years – the perestroika years – after the fall of the Soviet empire. It was founded as a princely state and later as a monarchy. Reborn as a communist state it now exists as an imperial presidency.

Catherine the Great answered to her nobles even though she occasionally beheaded them. Putin answers to no one.

There is a sickening familiarity about what Putin is doing. The West is weakened by single-issue identity politics such as Brexit and the madness of Trump. Putin has a virtually free hand to redraw the map of Europe.

Russia, is (still) not a democracy. It is not liberal. And it is not stable. And it may never be. Yet again the Russian people are ruled by a tyrant who buys their loyalty with plunder which he and his henchmen launder in London.

Russian money has had a toxic influence on Britain. When Boris Johnson weighs up how many of his oligarch buddies should be sanctioned he should think about this.

Alain Catzeflis is Financial Times News Editor, Asia and Middle East (retired). A handful of awards. Bags of experience.

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