Today, a significant portion of our population is nostalgic for “the paradise lost" and idealizes the Soviet way of life. This is not strange, for human memory has a physiological capacity to forget everything bad and exaggerate all that was good in the past. And only by taking a close look at the lives of various individuals can we feel the truthful breath of the past and better see its already dim, blurred image.
Nina Terentiyivna Rudyk grew up in a family of teachers in a large village in Kherson oblast. Her parents belonged to a special group of educators common in the early twentieth century Ukraine: in addition to their regular teaching duties at school, they also created a unique cultural center consisting of a good library, a folk theater and a big choir. Terentiy Rudyk not only taught at school but also assisted the peasants in implementing new methods of agriculture and propagated silkworm breeding and apiculture, which he himself had to master first. The entire Rudyk family also took an active part in the social life of the village. All of them were fond of classical music and songs; the father played the violin, and the mother played the harmonica. Such was the atmosphere of public service, hard work, and interaction with the peasants, in which the Rudyk children, including the beautiful, intelligent Nina, were raised.
In the twenties, the children left the village to attend university. Already in 1927 there was the first tremor of a still remote earthquake: during the purges of educational institutions "unreliable" students were either expelled or deprived of their stipend. The Dean of Kyiv University, in which Nina was enrolled at the time, benevolently suggested to her that she take a leave of absence and disappear for a year. Why? Because she was an active member of a Ukrainian language and culture society.
When Nina came back home, she saw a changed village – the mowed wheat and hay were rotting in the fields. Terentiy Rudyk's best students were vanishing from the village one by one. In 1931, the teacher's turn came as well – he was arrested, but this time only for a short while. Three months later he was released with the facetious explanation that he was "too noticeable a figure in the village." Since then the children always remained in the shadow of their father's arrest.
But life went on. Nina married Petro Kolesnyk, a well-known literary critic of the time, and they had a son and daughter. After graduation from the university, Nina began work on her dissertation. A few years later the family got an apartment in the building where most Ukrainian writers lived (commonly referred to as the Writers' House), on the same floor with Oleksandr Korniychuk. Everything was all right.
In 1937, Nina's husband was arrested for alleged counterrevolutionary activities. Nina, shaken to the core, sent her son to stay with her parents, and, with her baby daughter in her arms, from early morning to late night stood in endless lines around the former Noble Women’s Institute, where the NKVD office was then located. When the woman was finally able to reach the tiny window in the wall, she heard the same phrase coming from it, "Investigation is underway. Next!" The same thing happened on the next day, and the next, a sorrowful line, desperate hopeless waiting, and the word, Next!
What was Kolesnyk arrested for? There was no answer. Nina Rudyk recalls that rumor had it that the reason was supposedly his open criticism of Korniychuk's latest play. Others thought the real reason was that they all spoke Ukrainian at home. Only later Nina realized that there was no point in trying to find out. Petro became one of the numerous victims of a well-organized campaign to exterminate the Ukrainian intelligentsia. "But I was not aware of it at the time. I thought, just like many did back then and still do, that these were only accidental mistakes or crackdowns in certain regions. I was naive enough even to go to Moscow with a letter addressed to Comrade Stalin."
After Petro's arrest Nina's friends and neighbors, pretending nothing had happened, deliberately avoided having even brief conversations with her. She could no longer live in the Writer's House-she was immediately evicted to a semi-basement hovel. She left her home with her daughter in one hand and suitcase in the other. For Nina, the indifference of her acquaintances, the caution of her friends, and the eviction are still like a nightmare. She also remembers that after her husband's arrest she did not find work once: she knew that there, at the university, she would be subjected to a humiliating public procedure of renouncing her husband. Otherwise she would be fired immediately.
Soon Nina sensed a fatal noose closing in around her. She wrote to her sister, who came immediately and took her little Yuliya away from danger. (The girl soon died, and Nina learned about it only ten years later. The mother's memory has forever retained the sound of her daughter's weeping when she was passing Yuliya into her sister's hands.) Then there was a notice to report to the NKVD office, which was followed by imprisonment in the Lukianivka prison. The prison was packed: at least 75 people in a cell built for only 15. The women had to take turns standing, sitting, and sleeping on the floor. Among them were many of Nina's acquaintances-linguists, actresses of the recently-closed Polish and Jewish theaters, opera singers, writers' wives. All of them had been arrested as family members of an enemy of the people. The verdict was announced without any unnecessary delays, investigations, or court hearings. An invisible, almost mythical tribunal sentenced Nina to eight years of imprisonment, which in fact turned out to be ten long years.
After long weeks of deprivation in a freight train carriage, Nina Rudyk found herself in the Akmolinsk Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland, known as Algiers (Alzhiri) for short. Nina started a new life, life in a different dimension, life removed from normal circumstances, family members, and the important things that mattered so much.
There were only women in the camp, mainly young women. Most of them had higher education, many came from the upper crust-wives of diplomats, academics, and scientists. There were also a number of refugees from abroad who, fleeing from the Nazis, took the great risk of getting into the USSR only to wind up in the camp.
For a long time Nina heard nothing about her family. She had no idea that her husband had been sentenced to ten years in a strict regime prison and her 58 year-old village teacher father was arrested in 1938 and "sentenced to death by firing squad by an NKVD tribunal on a groundless charge of organizing and leading a rebel counterrevolutionary organization," as the Ukrainian Security Service responded to her inquiry in 1993. Terentiy Rudyk was shot just one month after his arrest in 1938, and his family learned about it only 55 years later.
Once Nina's family got an almost miraculous chance to learn something about her fate. On her way to Kazakhstan, she was able to write down on a dirty scrap of paper her parents' address and her final destination. Then she pushed the little paper ball out through a tiny hole in the freight carriage. A while later her mother received an envelope in the mail with Nina's piece of paper and a note saying, "This was found by railroad workers." Thank God, such things also happened.
Nina Rudyk recalls, "In the camp, I realized how well I was brought up and educated by my parents. My habit to work hard, my readiness to learn new things and master new skills literally saved me. There, I acquired many new skills: I learned to build walls, make adobe, and embroider (the camp had an artistic embroidery shop). During the rare moments of rest I wrote songs, both music and lyrics, and at night recited masterpieces of world literature to my campmates. For those stories they were ready to relieve me of my work duties, which, of course, I did not let them do. Eventually, agriculture in the zone became my main specialization in the camp. You see, I liked working the land since childhood, when I learned it from my parents. This is why in the camp I was even promoted to the position of brigade leader and even 'the comrade director himself' listened to me and even enrolled me in the 'special agronomy course for prisoners'. What an absurd system we lived in!"
According to Nina Rudyk, it was the educated who best coped with the difficulties of the camp life, since they could always find something to occupy their minds and hands with. "There, the only and the main imperative was to work tirelessly, and this did guarantee survival." She recalls the pain and the suffering of the Chechens, who started arriving at the camp close to the end of the war. Pulled out of their natural environment, they simply sat in the cold, hostile steppe waiting for the death that indeed came to them.
Nina and Petro were released almost simultaneously in 1947. Without a residence permit, a place to live, and a job, they were in for a long period of deprivation in a hostile society. The only document they had, with "Article 58" written on it, drove everyone away from them. Soon enough they got the feeling that perhaps even camp life was better. With no luck in Kyiv, they decided to go to Chernivtsi, where Petro was offered a teaching job at the university. Nina also went back to teaching, which became her favorite profession for long years to come. Her husband resumed work on his dissertation exactly where he had stopped ten years earlier, but it turned out to be premature: a year later he was arrested again and exiled for life to Siberia. This was the end of Nina's married life: for the sake of her son, who needed a good upbringing and education, she did not follow her husband to Siberia. Ever since she has lived on her own for almost 50 years.
In 1957, Nina, her father, and her husband were rehabilitated for the "absence of criminal activity by the accused. And even though after the rehabilitation, according to law, Nina had a right to return to the city and the apartment where she lived before the unlawful arrest, it took her many years to obtain a residence permit for Kyiv and a small room in a communal apartment. She lived there for 31 years.
She taught Ukrainian language and literature at school until she was 84. To this day she assists young teachers, students, and especially university applicants, since she is still considered one of the best experts on Ukrainian literature in Kyiv. Now she and her sister, Tetiana Terentiyivna, a war veteran who left her signature on the Reichstag wall, live in a cozy separate apartment given them by the young state.
Despite her age of 92, it is impossible to consider or call Nina Terentiyivna an old lady. She has beautiful, expressive eyes, tidy hair, and a becoming blouse. And, most importantly, she has a clear mind, a youthful memory, and impeccable logic. A few times during the conversation this reporter lost its thread, but Nina Terentiyivna never did. What strikes one most about this woman is her dignity and composure-she did not say a word about her ailments, financial hardships, or other problems. How many people like her do you think are out there?
Throughout my long and extraordinarily interesting visit, I had one bitter thought. Where would our country be now if people like the Rudyks had occupied in our society the position they were really entitled to, if they had stayed with us throughout instead of suffering in prison and exile? I am confident we would have a completely different society now, and we, too, would be quite different.
Photo by Oleksiy Stasenko, The Day:
Nina Terentiyivna Rudyk