Kommunella “Ella” Markman was born in 1924 in Tbilisi. In 1943–1944, Ella Markman and her friends were members of the underground youth organization Death to Beria. In 1948, all members of the organization were arrested and sentenced to twenty-five years forced labor. Markman served seven years in the Inta camps (Komi Republic), working on logging and construction sites. In 1957, she married an ex-inmate she had met in the camps and returned to Tbilisi. She was rehabilitated in 1968. She lives in Moscow and writes poems.
My dad was a very committed communist and made me the same way. From early childhood, Dad taught me this principle: “What do you think your enemies want? They want you to feel bitter, be in a bad mood, and get you to throw up your paws. If you don’t want to make your enemies happy, always keep your chin up!”
Ella’s father, Moisei Markman, was a senior official in the Transcaucasian Soviet government. In 1937, he was arrested and shot. In 1938, Ella’s mother was sentenced to five years in the camps as a “family member of a traitor.” She served her sentence in a camp in Kazakhstan.
Dad was arrested. They left Mom alone then. She went around looking for work. She would go somewhere and say, “My husband has been arrested. I have two kids and I’m looking for work.” They would tell her they would think it over and to come back in five days or so. She would come back in five days, but there wouldn’t be a single person left there: everyone would have been arrested. Stalin did not like Georgia, and he particularly disliked Tbilisi.
I was at a very good school. Six of us were tried for organizing [Death to Beria], and then two more friends of mine were tacked onto the case just like that because it was convenient. Of those young folks, three of us, Tema Tazishvili, our leader, Yura Lipinsky, and I, were in the same class. Shura Baluashvili was in the class above us. Meaning that four of the six, and I was the fifth, were from the same school.
We were very good friends. What was really valued in those days was the willingness to do something heroic. Everyone just wanted to end up in a situation where they could do something heroic. For example, my friends brought this doggerel back with them from the Literary Institute [in Moscow]:
I’m talking like I’m crazed.
For this I am to blame.
I’d like to set your house ablaze
To save you from the flames.
In 1943, I was in Tbilisi. I met up with my classmates from school, and we decided we could not go on living in fright, our tails tucked between our legs, that something horrible was going on in Georgia. We hated Stalin and Beria furiously. No one believes that at the age of nineteen [we could do these things]. But I am surprised that at the age of nineteen—how should I put it? It was strange not to have seen what was going in. And we decided to fight. We posted leaflets and agitated where we could.
In the late 1930s, clandestine anti-Stalinist youth organizations emerged in the Soviet Union. Their members, high school upper classmen and university students, set themselves the ambitious goal of changing the existing regime. However, in practice they only managed to produce and distribute leaflets before they were arrested, sent to the camps or executed, and their organizations were shut down.
We just made plans. There could be no question of murder, of course. The only thing we could have done was kill Beria, since he was fond of pretty young women, and I was young and had a very good figure. I’ll show you the photographs. I said I would be ready to do that [i.e., seduce him] just to kill him. Beria could have been killed. But my dream was to kill Stalin, too. We all knew it was only a dream, so we called our organization Death to Beria.
Our organization existed only in 1943 and 1944. In 1949, I was arrested, arrested in Batumi and brought to Tbilisi. What was the reason for my arrest? They told me to tell them about my “anti-Soviet activities.” Now I thought, what anti-Soviet activities of mine are they talking about? Since we had not been caught either for passing out leaflets or agitating, I was certain this was not the reason. So much time had passed—1945, 1946, 1947. It was only in April 1948 that we were arrested.
So we could not figure out how they had found us out. We learned this much later, during the trial itself, when Dormishkhan Alshibayev stood up and said, literally, “I ask the esteemed Special Council [of the KGB] to take into account that on April 7”—we were arrested in late April—“that I myself went to the KGB and told them everything.” I was simply stunned!
Yes, we made quite dramatic speeches during the trial. One of us said, “We hope that our blood will show people how those who stand for the truth are punished!” It was something like that. And then suddenly the judge said, “There won’t be any shedding of your blood.”
The judge said, “Although your acts wholly fit the death penalty, it has now been abolished, so [you are sentenced to] twenty-five years in the camps.”
So I ended up in a camp. And it was great, I mean that seriously! I would have never learned so many valuable things otherwise.
I said to myself I wouldn’t do any easy work in the camp. That is not how Dad taught me, I said to myself. And from the first day to the last I always did the work everyone else did.
At first, I worked quite poorly. The first time I swung a pick I nearly hit someone in the head. I was incredibly tired at first: I couldn’t even go to the mess hall. Lyuda busted her guts for me and brought me lunch. This (taking food out of the mess hall) was also forbidden.
All the girls would get tired. Our main job was building roads.
Then one day, I came back [from work] and felt I was tired, but no more tired than the others. And from that day everything became easier and easier. I started doing other people’s work for them.
In 1952, Minlag [Mineralny Camp Directorate, Komi Republic] tightened the rules for prisoners. The books they kept now had to undergo mandatory inspection. Books that passed inspection were marked with a stamp from the camp’s cultural and education unit.
I had this big book by Lermontov. Two female prison wardens came in, one of them normal and decent, the other, a disgusting warden we called the Rat. The Rat took a look at my books, grabbed the Lermontov, and said, “Confiscate this!” The other one said, “But that’s Lermontov!” And the Rat said to her, “Just look at his tsarist epaulettes! Confiscate it: we cannot leave it.” So they confiscated my Lermontov book.
In the evening, I had to go upstairs to the mess hall on some business. We were not allowed to go to the mess hall for no reason. I think I had forgotten something—either gloves (although I don’t think it was cold yet) or a handkerchief—and went looking for it. After a while, I saw the Rat sitting there and reading. She was moving her lips, because she was semiliterate. I glanced at what it was: she was reading [Lermontov’s poem] “The Novice” line by line. And she was crying! That is when I realized what poetry was.
You cannot imagine what a source of support it has been to this day.
We would be building a road in winter. I would recite, for example, four lines of some light verse, Blok, say:
The girls would be carrying their handbarrows thirty meters, all the while repeating [the lines]. Then they would come back, and I would test them to see if they knew it. And so the whole camp was learning poems all the time. Wasn’t that clever of me?
And then, after Stalin’s death. . . Just you try with all your imagination to picture what was going on with the KGB leadership, KGB officers, and our wardens after Khrushchev’s speech [at the 20th Party Congress in 1956]. Stalin’s death was a very, very convenient time for freedom.
Beria was shot. The whole camp knew about my hatred of Beria. I heard something about “enemies of the people,” “Beria,” etc., on the radio. I could have put two and two together, but I didn’t. At first, I thought that 1937 had begun all over again, and Beria had strengthened his power.
Our work team, which had been out cleaning, was coming back [to the camp], and I saw a crowd standing around the doors, by the guard post. I walked in, and there was applause and joy!
But most important is that it’s not so easy even for a force like the KGB to eradicate humanity in human beings. What was the camp meant to do? In Stalin’s time, it was supposed to reform us, to make us tremble before power. They needed to make us submissive. Oh, how they failed!
I have been lucky in life. I had support from poems and from the fact that my parents had taught persistence and told me there could be no greater happiness than overcoming difficulties. So we need difficulties to be happy.
Editor’s Note. This is one in a series of short films made by Petersburg filmmaker Alexander Slobodsky, based on material from the Virtual Museum of the Gulag and video interviews recorded by the Memorial Research and Information Centre, Saint Petersburg.
My thanks to Evgeniya Kulakova for providing me with the Russian transcript to this film.